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Photo essay

Writing tips and more to get you started.

A portion of a larger travel photo essay sent via email to family and friends.
A portion of a larger travel photo essay sent via email to family and friends.

Photography and writing skills come together in a successful photo essay, which is typically a written work that relies on accompanying photographs to help tell a story. However, photo essays range from purely photographic works to full text essays illustrated with images that may or may not have captions, notational comments or very lengthy text.

A photo essay can appear in print or electronic format such as in an email, on a blog or website.

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The photographs in an essay are generally in the form of a collection of images arranged in a specific order, typically portraying a series of related items, events or subjects.

The quantity of photographs can be as few as two, perhaps even one in an unusual case, and as many as your final document can hold and needs to tell the tale.

In some photo essays, the pictures may just about tell the entire story with few words needed, whereas others may need detailed or lengthy written descriptions to go along with the photos.

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The written portions of a photo essay typically provide:

- a title or label describing the essay's topic;

- a descriptive opening statement that may explain to its viewers what they can expect to encounter;

- an explanation of the transitions that occur in the main body of the essay when moving through it from one paragraph to the next;

- individual descriptions for photographs or the elements of a given photo;

- cutlines to accompany each photograph, and

- a summation, preferably one with a conclusion to the story.

There are no hard and fast rules

Although you may think that you must do things in a specific manner when assembling a photo essay - for example, writing a thesis and an introduction before any photos are shown, or that you must end a photo essay with words, not pictures - there are no rules governing the creation of most photo essays. Exceptions occur when the essay is destined for a particular publication that has its own specs you must adhere to, or as a university class's format for its photo essay submissions. In these cases, you would observe the publication's submission requirements or the professor's submission criteria. Otherwise, use your common sense to organize and place written and picture elements to best tell your story.

Putting together a photo essay

Photo essays take many forms and are based on a huge variety of topics. A magazine article, for example, is typically presented as a photo essay. An instruction manual that employs words and related images to explain how to use a particular device (such as a camera) is another example of a photo essay. This very article that you are reading and almost all other articles found on are excellent examples. When you send an email that contains a series of your new baby photos or your travel photographs like thoses shown in the example above to friends and other family members, you are sending out a photo essay.

Here below are some helpful writing tips for photographers.

Good photos make for good photo essays.
Good photos make for good photo essays.

Your photo essay's title can appear in a photo collage or in the written portion of the essay.
Your photo essay's title can appear in a photo collage or in the written portion of the essay.


1. Choose a topic and a title

Once you have determined your essay's topic, the title, ideally short and to the point, can be whatever you decide, but typically provides an overview of your essay's contents - for example, "Our summer at the lake."

2. Know your audience

Ask yourself, “Who will want to see this photo essay?” or "Who should I appeal to when I create this photo essay?" Audience is obviously important when it comes to deciding what to write and photograph. If you have an idea of who will view the essay, you can choose a subject and images that will appeal specifically to them. If you don’t have an audience or place of publication in mind, it’s still important to consider what subjects will appeal to its viewers.

3. Get permission to use names and photographs of people.

If you plan to publish in print or electronically online, you will need written, signed authorization from all of your subjects to use their photographs. A properly-composed Model Release Form is ideal.

Even if you don't intend to see the essay published on a commercial website, but intend to use it on your personal blog or website, it is not just courteous but also a legal requirement in most jurisdictions to obtain a subject's written permission in advance. If the subjects are children, a parent's or guardian's permission is needed.

4. Writing your photo essay's main body copy.

Your writing style can be loose and humorous, formal and serious, informative and fact-filled or light-hearted and uplifting. It depends largely upon the topic. So, for example, if your topic is a photojournalistic article on a natural disaster and your photo essay shows property damage and injuries, you would be advised to display little humor and stick to facts. If it's an email to Grandma showing your kids opening or using their Christmas presents, it can be light-hearted and very informal.

Be sure to check your essay's text using a spelling and grammar checker. There is really no excuse for language errors.

It's a good idea to make notes during a photo shoot to kickstart your photo essay writing.
It's a good idea to make notes during a photo shoot to kickstart your photo essay writing.

This is an example of a cutline.
This is an example of a cutline.

5. Carefully select and edit your photos

Editing begins with deleting unnecessary photos, those that you don’t need or that don't make the grade because they are improperly exposed, blurry or badly composed. Select those images that best tell your story and edit them using software such as Adobe Photoshop for clarity, brightness, color, proper cropping and orientation and so on so they will look their best in your photo essay.

6. Cutlines

A cutline, which appears beneath or next to an image and comments on that specific image, is usually very well-received by viewers. It is worthwhile to give some thought to writing good cutlines, since most viewers will read them. But, remember that you don't need to use a cutline to describe what viewers can already clearly see for themselves.

Let's say, for example, that you use a photograph of a circus. The photo's cutline could describe the bright colors, the names of characters involved and other details not evident in the image itself such as background information about the picture. Background information can include where and when the photo was taken, what techniques were used in capturing the photo, a photo credit if another photographer took the picture and other such details that help the viewer to understand and appreciate the photo.

7. Last words

Not only does a photo essay's ending summation tell the viewer that he or she has reached the end, but it also permits you to insert your perspective regarding what you have written, to sign your name to it and to insert contact information.

As with most good writing, the length of a photo essay summary should be no longer than necessary.