How To Build The Perfect Photo Essay

A photo of the gateway to the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.

Written by ian robert knight

Travel Photographer, Bangkok

Many people believe the notion that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Or at least, many people repeat the idiom without much thought. The phrase is meant to suggest that one good photograph can explain a story much easier than a thousand words can. This may work out in some cases, but in reality, very few people are able to take just one photograph that’s perfect each time. As photographers, we need to know how to build the perfect photo essay.
When we read a book, we somehow absorb the building blocks of the story, slowly over the course of the narrative. We eventually understand the characters, their behaviors and actions, the location, the environmental influences, the additional characters that affect the story, and so on. And a good book does this effortlessly, without having to call out the elements directly like “this is the main character, and he lives in this place”. But we get it, just by reading. And as photographers, we can achieve the same results, using our photographs (and sometimes captions).
Whenever I travel to a new place, or even to a place I’ve been to many times, I try to consciously create a series of images that I can group together in an essay later. This isn’t as difficult as it may sound. It just takes a little bit of practice. If you think of yourself as a storyteller, you will have taken the first step forward in the journey to make a good photo essay. Every step after that will get easier – you just need to know what those steps are.
If you think of yourself as a storyteller, you will have taken the first step forward in the journey to make a good photo essay.

What You Need To Know

It’s important to understand that there is no specific pathway you must walk down to create your photo essay. There isn’t a first photo, second photo, third photo type of routine. You can shoot your story in any order you see fit. The order of the photos can be determined later. You just need to make sure you capture all of the proper types of photographs while you’re there in the field.

The Scene

You’ll always need to have a photograph that sets the scene. It will be something that will help the viewer get a sense of what the story is about. For me, this is usually a wide vista photograph that shows the scale of the area I am photographing. But it can also be a bit closer too, especially if you don’t have the space to shoot a wide vista. And it can be more than just one photograph, as long as it helps identify where the story is happening, and a hint of what it’s about.


A photo of the gateway to the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.

The wide shot of the Forbidden City

Mid-range shots

This image would be closer than the Scene Shot, but still a respectable distance. If there are people in the story, then they would be completely visible from head to toe – that’s how far back you’d be. The point of this image is to provide some more context about the story, and the people included. If there were specific types of clothing they wore, like ethnical costumes, this shot would help establish that characteristic.


A photo showing a very long bench with people on it, at the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.

A mid-range shot at the Forbidden City


Assuming you’re not shooting landscapes, there are almost always people in the photographs. As viewers, we connect the strongest to the people in the images, more so than the background or environment. This is your chance to capture one or two characters’ portraits to really get close to the story. Ideally, the subject would participate in the portrait and look at the camera in order to really connect with the viewer. But if that were not possible, even a candid portrait would be good to have. And if there are no people in your story, it helps to think of your actual subject matter as an individual and create its ‘portrait’.

A photo of a young girl wearing a traditional costume in the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.
A photo of a young girl twirling a ribbon inside the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.


As the photographer, we have the privilege of being close to the subject matter. We get to see the small details that are important. We can see the beadwork on the jacket, or the wrinkles on the skin. So photograph that for your viewer too. Show the details that caught your attention.

A photo of the closeup detail of a door in the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.
A photo showing the closeup detail of a cauldron in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Action Shots

Very often there is some activity that we witness when we’re at the scene. It’s probably what brought us there in the first place. So that should be photographed too. You don’t need to be a sports photographer to capture a good action shot. It can even be blurry and still provide the right idea.

A photo of a man taking a selfie with a golden lion statue inside the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.
A photo of a crowd of tourists holding their cameras over the crowds, to a get a picture inside the Forbidden City, Beijing, China.

Different viewpoints

If you’re able to, it’s also a good idea to try to see things from different angles. Most often, we are going places that have been photographed millions of times by other photographers, so it helps to find a fresh viewpoint. Get low to the ground, or high up, or shoot through screens or windows. And don’t forget to look behind you as you walk away. Very often the view is completely different from the opposite direction.

A photo of a man touching a cauldron in the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.
A photo showing the tall red walls inside the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.

Final shot

Try to end your photo essay on a strong note. Leave your viewer with a memorable image that makes them want to know more, or wants them to ask questions. Maybe those “thousand words” aren’t meant to be what the photograph says. Maybe those thousand words are the questions your viewer will ask you, after your photo essay has moved their emotions.

A photo of a soldier standing guard in front of a Mao portrait, at the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.

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