What is a photo-essay?

A photo-essay is a series of photographs that tells a story or evokes a series of emotions in the viewer.
A series of images allows far more to be told than with a single shot.

Essays can range from being purely photographic projects, to those with short captions and even those accompanying long written essays.


Think of it in terms of a traditional three act play:

  1. The first image is the advertising poster, it draws in the paying public.
  2. The first act is where the plot is established.
  3. The second act closely focuses on the developing situation.
  4. The third act brings resolution, the plot is resolved and the audience, having been on an emotional roller-coaster, goes home satisfied.

Almost every Hollywood film uses this very same structure.


The essay should be able to stand by itself and make sense to the viewer, therefore the order of the images is important to effectively tell a story.

A simplified structure would be: the lead shot, establishing shots, detail shots, the final photo.

  1. The lead photo is the most important and difficult image to choose, it should be either an emotional or action shot, it should provoke the viewer’s curiosity.
  2. Establishing shots set the scene and describe the background of your story.
  3. Detail shots focus in on just one element, they are usually close-up photos and are quite simple, focusing in on some element of detail.
  4. The final shot should evoke the emotion you wish the viewer to walk away with, be it a feeling of hope, love, happiness or even sadness.

Visual Unity

It’s important to create visual coherence within the essay, so that the photos are perceived as a whole rather than a series of individual images, therefore style, colour, use of lighting and composition are important in optically bringing the photos together.

In other words be extremely careful when mixing black and white with colour photographs, as the clashing styles can be disharmonious.


A photo-essay about 2017’s Notting Hill carnival from the Guardian, a British newspaper.

I’ve chosen it, because theoretically everyone should be to capable of capturing images to this same relaxed standard.


Obviously a good photo essay takes time, and these Meetup events limit that down to at most 2 hours to capture the necessary images, which isn’t very long.

So try not to forget that this is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, so just go out and experiment around with the theme and if all else fails just try something really abstract.

The theme is just an opportunity to be creative, how you deal with it is your own personal choice, this is just a guide, there’s actually no right or wrong way to go about it – rules can sometimes quite happily be broken.

© Andrew James Kirkwood – 2017

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