Creating Your First Photo Essay

by Chuck Place

Have you ever driven through an unfamiliar town thinking, this would be a fun place to explore with ny camera? Maybe it’s a small coastal town with commercial fishing boats and an old wharf or a picturesque mountain town with a mining history and a classic saloon. One of my favorite aspects of photography is how it gives me an excuse to explore things.

Whether a location, event or a particular subject, a camera provides the excuse I need to poke around in something new, like the images in this post which were created during a day exploring Ojai, California

A day in Ojai, California
All images in this post were produced during a day exploring Ojai, California

I have come to realize, however, that if I take random images as I explore a new area, the work has little impact. It doesn’t speak to me. They are just random pics. I’m sure many of us have come to the same realization.

Earth Island Medicinal Herb Garden, Ojai, California

My editorial clients kindly supplied a solution to this problem—The Photo Essay.

Years of shooting for editorial clients has taught me that thinking in terms of a photo essay provides the visual framework on which to base my image production. So simple! It shouldn’t have taken me so long to realize how this works. 

ale tasting flight, Topa Topa Brewerey, Ojai, California

Photo essays have a long, illustrious history and were actually standardized by magazines like the old, venerable Life Magazine. In addition to giving their photographers a specific shoot list of subjects, Life photographers were asked to produce a certain variety of images, from establishing shots and portraits to action, details and the signature image. The variety was critical to Life Magazine’s success, as it is now for National Geographic and many others.

I try to do the same when creating my own photo essays. You can put together a short shoot list in your head if it’s just a quick photo shoot or actually write it out if you are lucky enough to be able to spend some time on the project. This list will keep you from getting “tunnel vision”, shooting too much of one thing and not enough of another. It’s very much like a story outline for a writer.

Barts Books, Ojai, California

If it’s a bigger project—I consider a photo book a long photo essay—online research will give you information on such things as the most important building in a location and whether it is a sunrise or sunset shoot. Should you bring your big telephoto for events or your new drone for aerials? 

Canyon Supply, Ojai, California

And like a writer’s outline, your photo essay shoot list will probably morph over time as you dig deeper into your subject.

Meeting new people, learning new facts and seeing new subjects will constantly change your shoot list. Adding notes as you go along can help you envision different visual approaches to a location.

Is there a particular subject or area you love to photograph? Do you go back to capture the same area at different times of the year? Does your shoot list keep growing? This is an affliction common among many photographers. 

Porch Gallery, Ojai, California

Be careful with this particular obsession. I have had three photo essays evolve into books and one of them took three years to complete. If you are curious, adventurous and love creating images, you are at special risk and no vaccine has been developed to protect you. If you are a photographer, however, you are almost obligated to try this experience at least once. Be warned, shooting photo essays is a hard habit to break. 

See the previous blog posts on “Giving Yourself an Assignment”, a similar look at structuring your photo projects.

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