by John Paul Caponigro

January 01, 2011 — You don’t shoot a feature film without first storyboarding it, so why not consider storyboarding your photo essays? A storyboard is a hand-drawn map that identifies the various types of images needed to advance a story and the transitions between them. They identify the beginning, middle and end of a story, and the shots needed to move from one to the other. Storyboards create a guiding structure or framework that can help focus and strengthen your work.

You can use storyboards to structure your thinking when you’re developing a photo essay.

Storyboards can help you do many different things, like find out what your story is, generate lots of ideas, identify the shots you need, create stronger relationships between separate images and tell your story in more compelling ways.

Creating a storyboard doesn’t take long. You can create a simple storyboard in as few as two sketches and continue adding to it as you develop a story. (See my “Photo Essay” for details on seven classic shots, and also see “Continuity” for details on classic image transitions.)

You don’t have to be Michelangelo to draw, sketch or doodle. Every child can draw—and so can you. It’s a mistake to think that finished drawings are the only useful ones. Throughout history, many more sketches have been made than finished drawings. Sketches have produced greater changes in our world than finished drawings. People who don’t consider themselves artists sketch for a variety of reasons everyday—engineers, inventors, scientists, businessmen, industrial designers and architects. So go ahead, dare to draw as you once did when you were much younger.

When you draw, don’t try to produce finished works of art; instead, try to produce ideas and find connections between them.

Keep your drawings simple. Too much detail can make it hard to see the essential underlying structure of compositions and the relationships between separate elements. Avoid rendering anything with too much specificity. Use texture sparingly. You can add clarity to your sketches by using varying line weights—a very thick line for the frame, a thick line for contours, a thin line for details. You can add a sense of light and shadow by expanding your palette to two, three or four shades of gray. Often, though, the simplest line drawings are the most practical and effective. With them you can quickly catch the essence of an idea. And you can generate many more ideas in the same amount of time.

Because the sketches you make during storyboarding are often so abstract, it may be helpful to add words next to some sketches. Words can make the ideas contained in a sketch more specific. Words can add in details or qualities that are hard to sketch—such as color, texture, personal interpretation, emotional responses, identifying shared qualities or connections to other things or other images. It’s helpful to keep the words you use as simple as the sketches you produce. Put down just enough to capture an idea and not more.

Sketches can be made from imagination, from direct observation or from existing photographs. Don’t limit yourself. Get as many ideas as you can, in as many ways as you can imagine.

You can use sketches to test ideas. Instead of settling on the first composition and moving on, redraw a composition in as many ways as you can think of. Vary the position, angle and scale of different elements within the frame. Add new elements. Remove elements. Compare and contrast the results. Identify the compositions you think are strongest. If you take a few minutes to refine a single idea you’ll not only make that idea stronger, you’ll also find new ideas. You can learn more by engaging a process fully. In turn the final images you make will become stronger.

Having multiple possible compositions to draw from will add flexibility to the framework you create and versatility to the way you shoot. When you’re on location making photographs don’t feel that you need to duplicate your sketches. Remember these sketches are only blueprints that will sensitize you to and help you identify types of images/compositions you can use. It’s likely that you’ll need to update your storyboard multiple times—either on or off site. Your storyboard/story should evolve as it develops. This is a sure sign that your ideas/stories are evolving.

As a result of drawing specific patterns you’ll be better able to recognize them when you encounter them. You’ll even be able to remember more patterns. It’s quite likely that you’ll generate so many ideas during storyboarding that you’ll have a hard time remembering them all. Use your storyboard while photographing to help you remember all the great ideas you’ve collected. Highlight or rank the very best or most important ones to help you set priorities.

You may want to sketch existing images. It may even reveal connections to other images and patterns in your thinking. What’s more, the abstract sketches you make integrate better with other ideas in your storyboard you haven’t yet photographed. Your framework should remain flexible. It’s meant to guide you, not restrict you.

One of the differences between using storyboards for motion pictures and stills is that a storyboard can be modified much more quickly. Elements can be rearranged significantly without disrupting continuity. In part this is because stories told with still images typically use much larger and many more dramatic transitions between separate frames. Similarly, the variety of formal devices used between separate images is often much greater with photo essays. For instance, images used in developing photo essays can vary in format dramatically—horizontal, vertical, square and panorama can be mixed.
Storyboards for motion pictures are created after a story has been scripted and before shooting. Changes midstream can cause cascading disruptions in continuity that can be costly. In contrast, storyboards for photo essays can be created in parallel with shooting as a story is found, explored and developed. This offers unparalleled flexibility and many creative opportunities. You won’t be aware of how many creative possibilities lie before you until you create a storyboard of your own.

Try storyboarding for yourself. It may not come naturally at first. But with just a little practice you’ll find it will quickly become easier. With practice this valuable skill will become second nature to you. The benefits of storyboarding will become apparent to you almost instantly and continue to grow rapidly as you incorporate it into your creative process.    

John Paul Caponigro, is an internationally respected environmental artist, author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution, and a member of the Photoshop Hall of Fame, Canon Explorers of Light and Epson Stylus Pros. A highly sought after lecturer, he offers an array of workshops throughout the year. Get over 200 free lessons with his free enews Insights at

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