Q & A with Fred Zwicky: Telling stories with photography

As part of a new blog post series we're starting, where members of the Strategic Marketing and Branding team ask experts across campus to share their insights, I asked Senior Photographer Fred Zwicky some questions about his impressive skills in capturing stories with still photography. He's packed lots of practical tips into his answers, so read on!

Husni: There’s a lot of talk about storytelling these days. How does storytelling apply to photography?  

Fred: Storytelling is definitely a hot topic. If you peruse professional social media pages, “storyteller” is a very popular moniker. However, storytelling is much more than just a trendy handle. 

Storytelling is a powerful tool. Story is a direct way to trigger an emotional response in your audience. It’s also incredibly effective at helping people remember a message. As human beings, our brains are hardwired this way. 

If you can add more storytelling elements to your photography, your pictures will be more memorable and likely will elicit a great emotional response. That’s so much better than eliciting a swipe or a click to another page.

Husni: You do a fantastic job taking photos that convey layers of meaning and information. Do you have certain tricks you use to capture moments that tell stories?

Fred: If you’re taking pictures, it’s a big challenge just to get a decent image, let alone create anything “storytelling.” But there are a few approaches I use as senior photographer on campus to turn a pretty visual into something more. These tips are built from years of being a photojournalist, covering real life as it happens, as well as being a long-time adjunct who’s taught classes on visual storytelling for photographers and videographers. 

A story is built like a house out of many elements. With a single image, we aren’t going to build a complex narrative story arc, but we can establish our main character, set the scene, and convey a sense of challenge or resolution. That’s a lot to pack into one frame. 

Husni: So how do you find the heart of a story you’re photographing?

Fred: The most important thing about storytelling is having something to say. What have you observed and what message are you trying to share? This will give you a path toward filling the visual space in your image. 

However, photography sometimes is strictly an intuitive process that defies explanation in the moment. But, if you can pause and think about what you are trying to say, you’ll likely capture more than just the obvious.

Perhaps you don’t know the big thematic answer yet. That’s OK. Try weaving the basic story building blocks of character, setting and action into your image, and you will find they provide all the story you need.

Husni: Can you say a bit more about those story building blocks?

Fred: Sure. Here are some basic questions to ask as you are taking pictures.

CHARACTER: If we want people to connect with an image, we have to give them someone to care about. We need a central focal point – our character. 

ASK YOURSELF: Who is the focal point for this picture? 

Your main subject can change, but always look to make one person a central focal point.

ASK YOURSELF:  Am I close enough to see into their eyes? 

If you can’t see into their eyes, then you’re not close enough.

ASK YOURSELF:  How do I best capture a sense of who this person is? 

This is all about reading people, getting a sense of their personality/identity and figuring out how to capture/represent that visually.

ASK YOURSELF:  Are they comfortable with me?

Showing up early and introducing yourself is super helpful. Beyond that, a smile does wonders. Masked up? A friendly wave or a smize (smile with your eyes) really helps.

SETTING: Sometimes the setting is the story, giving a sense of time or place. Other times, the setting is so drab, you’re just trying to make the best of what is there (or not there).

ASK YOURSELF: What visual elements in the scene add to the story?

As soon as I walk into a space, I survey the individual visual elements to figure out which might add to the story.

ASK YOURSELF: Where should I MOVE to line up those main visual elements in the frame?

Once you know which visual elements add to the story, MOVE to a spot that helps you line them up in your frame to wrap/weave around your subject. Lens choice helps in this process.

Husni: Do you ever find yourself in a situation where there really aren’t any interesting visual elements?

Fred: Sure, not every assignment has all the elements you wish it would. What to do? Think symbolically. Make use of negative space. Shoot tighter. Or, just maybe, that is the story.

Husni: As a cinematographer, my understanding of what action looks like is probably different than it does for still photography. 

Fred: Oh, definitely. In video, the action is often dissected into different shots, all with different framings that can be sequenced together later in the edit. For a still photo, you really have to nail the perfect moment while composing all of the important visuals into the same frame. So, for video, the moment is expanded into multiple shots. For stills, the moment is compressed into one frame. Different challenges for sure.

Husni: So how do you go about finding good moments?

Fred: Photography is a present tense vocation. You can symbolize the past, but it is much easier to show the now. A documentary approach means the story unfolds in real time. You're capturing "Real Life" as it happens.

ACTION: When action happens, change occurs. Change can illuminate a challenge the person is facing or give a sense of resolution. So action is important because it can add the story elements of change, conflict, or resolution.

ASK YOURSELF: When will the most meaningful moments happen?

Call ahead. Find out what their typical day is like. Find out what is happening that matters to them. Be there at the right time.

ASK YOURSELF: Where is the action likely to end up?

Once we are there at the right time, we need to capture those elusive moments. Asking someone to recreate a moment is a hollow and empty exercise. We need to capture real life as it happens. Our goal is to try and predict what might happen and put yourself in the right spot for peak moments.

That’s it! Conceptually, it’s simple. But, it takes practice and learning to think in the moment. 

To boil it down, here are four takeaways for improving your storytelling in photography.

• Make someone the focal point of your image.

• Move to line up the best visual elements in your frame.

• Capture real moments by being there at the right time.

• Have something to say.

Husni: This is great stuff. Do you have any closing thoughts?

Fred: Life, like photography is a funny thing. It never goes quite to plan. That’s OK. That likely makes for a better story. Adapt and embrace the challenge. Good luck!

Workout challenge: This picture was part of a package for Storied on the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams as they prepared for the national championship last spring. I (Fred) tagged along for a workout in their gym, just capturing little moments here and there. Then, in a spontaneous throw-down, Stella McMillan challenged Gabe DenBraber to a push-up contest. It was great moment of camaraderie. You can’t plan for these moments. You just have to be ready.

Altgeld Ringer: In advance of the 100th anniversary concert for the Altgeld Chimes, I (Fred) photographed this student ringer playing up in the tower at Altgeld Hall. I originally chose this angle to line up the storytelling layers of the keyboard in the foreground, the face of the ringer, as well as lining up the portraits of the past chimesmasters in the background. As I was shooting, I suddenly realized my my focal point shouldn’t be on the student, but the approving gaze of the former chimemasters. I shifted my focus to their faces and all of a sudden, the idea of a tradition carrying on through the generations made visual sense.