Lighting & Composition Outdoor

Adventure Photography – Telling a Story

When I critique student images in my photo workshops, I often see pictures that have great potential, but that don’t quite knock it out of the park. There are usually two main reasons why a photo falls short.

The tendency for many novice photographers is to either focus too much on a singular piece of subject matter without giving it compelling narrative, or else they bog the image down with an overabundance of information. Either the photo fails because it doesn’t say enough or because it tries to say too much.


You create narrative in your images by adding additional subject elements to your composition. These secondary elements build context and define the relationship between your subjects and the rest of the world outside the frame. Without these relationships, you just have a picture of a thing, and that’s not a photograph, that’s just a snapshot.

The elements you include in your composition reflect your own creativity and how you see the world. Sometimes these secondary elements might be highly conceptual or symbolic, oftentimes they’re the things that make up your background. It could just be the way the light, shadow, or fog accentuates or highlights your main subject.

These relationships tell the story of the greater scene and answer questions such as where, why, and how. They give the photo a sense of place and build the elements of mystery and forceful impact that a powerful photograph carries. They give your photo flavor. Without flavor, you have bland, and when it comes to photography, no one wants to look at bland.

A compelling photograph is like a hit song. They both tell a story in a very simple yet effective way. They both get you in the door quickly, build interest and intrigue by exploring contrasting tempos, lyrical content, instrumentation, foreground elements, backgrounds, focus, color, tone, etc . . . and then get you out before things get old.

The trick is packing just enough information into the piece to engage the imagination of your audience and then leave them wanting more when it’s over. With a song, you want them humming or singing the chorus long after the song is over. With an image, you want them to remember and think about the visual story that they’ve just seen.

Simplicity & Perfection

The strongest images not only capture our attention in the moment, they embed themselves in our minds and are remembered long after the initial viewing. They don’t distract or overwhelm the viewer with too much information and they don’t try to say too much. They’re simple. They follow that time-tested rule of less is more.

As a photographer, you have complete power over what goes into your frame. Think of the viewfinder as your canvas. You have final say about what goes into it and what stays out of it, and this is usually the more important decision. Compose your shot so it contains only the most important subject matter, and then include one or two other elements that help flesh out the story of the main subject.

Although these photos were taken less than one second apart, the second shot has the right amount of relationship and moment to make it stand out as a more powerful image.

After you’ve established what the picture is about, think about what it’s NOT about and remove any distracting or unnecessary elements from the frame by zooming in, waiting for few seconds, minutes, or hours, or by simply moving to a new vantage point. You should aim for a scene where every single element in the frame is related in some way. Each element should either complement or contrast the others. If it doesn’t do either, get rid of it. Be ruthless. Edit before you take the shot. I guarantee, it will save you lots of time later.

After you’ve narrowed down your scene into one important visual element and one or two relating elements, ask yourself the following question:

“What’s the picture about?”

More than any single piece of gear or technique, this simple question is your most effective tool in the image creation process. If the answer isn’t immediately apparent, you run the risk of making boring, cluttered, distracting pictures where nothing interesting stands out in the frame. If your viewer can’t immediately determine what they’re supposed to be looking at, they’ll quickly move on and will remember very little about your photo as soon as it passes their eyes.

What’s the picture about? This question helps dictate the story or the narrative on which your image is built. It provides essential information about what’s going on within your frame and defines the relationships between all the elements that make up your photo. It doesn’t need to reveal the entire story, and in fact, it should leave enough room for the viewer’s imagination to run amok. Remember, your goal is to evoke an emotional response from your photo, not to give them everything.

What’s the picture about? ensures that your photo has legs to stand on and room to breathe. It makes the images strong enough to throw a punch and nimble enough to dodge the unnecessary clutter that over-whelms lesser pictures.

If you’re unsure about what should or should not go into the frame, you should ask yourself this all-important question, because if you don’t know what the picture is about, then your viewer won’t know either and that’s a very bad thing.

Be deliberate

The best adventure imagery combines explosive action with bare-bones simplicity. When composing your shots, you should strive for the perfect balance of mood, relationship, and moment. You should be deliberate about the entire process and, above all, remember that good photographs do not simply happen. They’re crafted with a solid infusion of technique, creative vision, and the ability to anticipate and react to everything that’s going on around you, all while being actively engaged in the adventure yourself.

By keeping alert, I recognized the much more powerful moment when it unfolded.

Show the rest of the story

Don’t forget to show elements that illustrate the environment, mood, location, details, and people surrounding your adventures. It doesn’t always have to be about the hardcore action, sometimes it’s about the downtime.

Excerpt from Outdoor Action and Adventure Photography by Dan Bailey © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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1 Comment
   Arun said on June 9, 2015 at 8:27 am

The example images really spoke to me. Especially the biker image that puts the context perfectly…

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