Unit 5: Telling Stories in Photos

Not technically a course this is another experiment in offering a full ds106 experience to open participants based on previous syllabi taught at the University of Mary Washington (UMW). The first was August-December 2013 as a “Headless ds106”. This Open ds106 is a re-organization of that experience, but without references to date or time- this could be something individuals or groups could do at any time, at any pace. See the full index to learn more.
Photo by Jennifer, UMW ds106 student, Spring 2013, see http://ds106.livingwithouta.net/2013/02/17/no-rules-for-good-photographs/

Photo by Jennifer, UMW ds106 student, Spring 2013, see http://ds106.livingwithouta.net/2013/02/17/no-rules-for-good-photographs/

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
-Ansel Adams

The photo, quote, and lead for this unit’s ds106 comes from a previous ds106 student’s perspective on photography.

In doing ds106 Daily Creates you’ve already been using photography and drawing skills, plus you’ve had some practice doing visual stories from our Introduction to Storytelling. This unit we go a bit deeper and give you the opportunity to practice telling stories in visual form. We also hope to have us thinking more about story when we use our cameras.

You may go from someone who takes a lot of snapshots or quick mobile photos to one who thinks more about composition, framing, and being more intentional with your photography. Even if you are an accomplished photographer, you can always get better by honing skills or trying new approaches. And we find that people doing this unit’s work come away noticing the world around them in new ways, in more detail.

This uniy most of our work comes from the ds106 Assignment Bank – we strongly urge you to write up your assignments to meet the criteria of being a Blogging Champ— this means not only blogging the visual media you create, but writing about the idea/inspiration behind it and information on how you made it.

Inspiration: How Photography Connects Us – David Griffin (National Geographic)

The Story Behind a Photo

Migrant Mother, 1936, by Dorthea Lange

Migrant Mother, 1936, by Dorthea Lange

Look closely of the most iconic photos, especially to usher an era of photojournalism, and consider what story an image alone might tell. Who is this woman? Where is she? How dod she get here? What does this photo say about the era?

And there is so much to the story behind the photo, and the photographer’s own story. See The Story Behind Dorothea Lange’s Iconic “Migrant Mother” Photograph and How She Almost Didn’t Take It (Brain Pickings).

Consider Lange’s method of note taking; what might she have done given a place to blog and publish her own photos? Is there more to a photo than the photo?

Becoming Better Photographers

Anyone can take snapshots, the question is do you want to elevate your photography skills to produce perhaps more artful, more story full photos?

The suggestions below are borrowed from Twenty Ways to Make Better Photographs. None of Them Involve Buying Gear a free ebook by David duChemin. You don’t need to buy the book, we’ve lifted some key points.

  • Get Pickier: Instead of using your camera like a rapid fire machine gun, spend more time pre-composing in your mind. As you get more practice, you can be more selective, and more deliberate. See if perhaps you can decide before taking a shot if it will be good.
  • Better Contrast Makes Better Stories Contrast can be in terms of colors and lighting, but also elements and subjects in your photos- look for things that maybe do not belong together (juxtaposition). Look for near and far perspective.
  • Change My Perspective By Changing Yours: Find different and unique points of view. Look down, up, lay down on the ground, anything different from your normal view of the world at head height. Seek perspectives of lines.
  • Create Depth: Look for ways to add dimension of visual depth in your 2 dimensional images- play with foreground, lines, use of wide angle lenses, use of dark backgrounds
  • Get Balanced. The rule of thirds is not only about placement on a grid; duChemin describes visual mass, elements that draw more attention in a photo and how to balance that effectively. “Becoming more intentional about creating and playing with balance in your images will help you create images that more intentionally express what you have to say.”
  • Pay Attention to the Moment: Sometimes it means slowing down, but also being more aware of the action in a scene, trying to anticipate the moment of something interesting before it happens e.g. watching a family at the table preparing for when baby might spill the glass of milk? at sporting events trying to be ready for the kick that scores the goal?
  • Look to the light. Probably the most key lesson- be aware of light that works and what does not. Knowing about shadows, directions, aiming for directions where light is strong (or not). Good light makes every photo. Learn how to sense when light is good (and when not, and you can skip lousy shots).
  • Use the Best Lens If your camera uses different lenses, understand better what a wide angle does versus a telephoto not only in terms of what it can fit in a photo, but what effect it has one photos (squashing or expanding space). If your lens is fixed, understand what its limits are (how close you can get, what happens at severe angles).
  • Expose for Aesthetics Learn how to use aperture, shutter speed, iso to control the image- what the effects of these all play on depth of field, motion freeze vs blurring. For fixed lens camera/mobile, at least understand what the level of light means for your photos (why are those low light photos are blurry?)
  • Put a Great Foreground in Front of a Great Background Pay attention to the near and far. A landscape scene is dull without something in foreground to give depth and scale. Learn to avoid clutter and distracting elements.

These are of course, very general guides. You get better as you look at your own and others photos. You get better when you think more before you press the shutter. You get better when you try new approaches. You get better when you break the rules.

We’ve assembled many more resources into a web based collection once housed on storify.

Pick at least three tips from these resources and try them as you do your Daily Creates and other assignments this unit. Write a blog post that summarizes the tips you tried. Include:

  • Link and credit for the tip.
  • Embed an example of a photo where you tried the technique
  • Describe how you thought about this, or what approach (or variation) you tried.
  • Take your photo that you are most proud of in terms of learning a new photo technique, and write a summary in our shared Google doc How We Are Becoming better Photographers. With your contribution, ds106 will have a guide for others to benefit from.

More on Photography from Previous ds106 Classes

Jim Groom on “The Creative Habit” (Feb 2011)

D’Arcy Norman on “Photography as Digital Storytelling” (Feb 2011) see also the extensive list of resources D’Arcy shared


Here is an exercise that is a fun way to exercise your visual interpretation skills. Below are a list of subjects we ask you to convey in photos that you must try and capture within a 15 minute window of time. It is less about capturing highly artistic images, but just being inventive and trying to interpret the list of subjects. Before you do this, pick a place that is likely to have a lot of variety of subjects (middle of town or campus, your basement, whatever).

This is not a test! You do not have to get them all, just try to think in interesting ways about how to interpret and capture the list. Here is what to seek in your own blitz!

  1. Your first photo is of something that shows the current time! Document when you started the blitz.
  2. In the next 15 minutes, try to capture as many of the following photos as you can
    • Make an ordinary object look more interesting, almost supernatural.
    • Take a photo that makes use of converging lines.
    • Take a photo dominated by a single color
    • Take a photo of something at an unusual angle
    • Take a photo of two things that do not belong together.
    • Take a photo that represents the idea of “openness”
    • Take a photo that expresses a human emotion
    • Take a photo that emphasizes mostly dark tones or mostly light ones.
    • Make a photo that is abstract, that would make someone ask, “Is that a photograph?”
    • Take a photo of an interesting shadow.
    • Take a photo that represents a metaphor for complexity.
    • Take a photo of someone else’s hand (or paw)
  3. Take another photo of a timepiece that shows the time you stopped. It should be fifteen minutes since step 1, right?
  4. Upload your five best photos to flickr, and tag them “ds106photoblitz”
  5. Write a blog post about your experience. Describe the place you chose to do this, and why you chose it. What was the experience like? What photos worked for you best? What do you think was the most inventive? Give feedback/suggestions via comments for at least 3 other persons photos (you can find all the ones with this tag at http://flickr.com/photos/tags/ds106photoblitz. What were the best ones you saw in the pool of photos? Why?

See also this mobile web app developed by John Johnston that can generate a photoblitz assignment whenever you want to do one.

Daily Creates and Flickr

Keep doing them! Aim to complete at least three this unit.

Pimp Up Your Flickr

You have been using Flickr for a while, but these tips will help you to use it even more effectively. See also Flickr fun tutorial by Norm Wright (and a followup tutorial for even more tips)

That last one, making a Best of Set is required suggested. Write a blog post and see if you can figure out how to embed a Flickr set into your blog post (hint, view it is a slideshow). Write about the reason why you selected those photos. Write about the story you are trying to say with any of them. Or make a summary statement about why this demonstrates your best work.

Visual Assignments

Here you will get your first in depth experience with the ds106 Assignment bank where most of your subsequent work in ds106 will happen. This is a collection of assignments that have been contributed by ds106 participants. Each one has a star rating indicating how difficult/complex it is (rated from 1=easy to 5=hard).

Note that you can add your own votes to existing assignments. As you review them, if you think they deserve a different rating, just click on the stars you think it deserves.

For this unit, we suggest you complete 10 stars worth of Visual Assignments — this could be doing 5 assignments rated 2 stars, etc. It is your choice which visual assignments to do- there are currently over 140 of them listed, and if you need to spin the dial, try a randomly selected one. It is less important that you get some amount of stars, and more that you take on challenges, try things you have not done before, and make interesting interpretations of the assignments.

If you are having trouble picking visual assignments, below is are ones that have been more popular with previous ds106ers:

For each assignment you do write an individual blog post that includes:

  • The visual you produced for the assignment embedded into your blog post.
  • Write some text that shares your thinking behind the assignment, your inspiration, what it means to you. Think of this as similar to the extras on a DVD, the “making of” material.
  • Share your process. What tools did you use? What techniques? Think of this as information that would help someone else doing the same assignment.
  • To have your work connected back to the assignment, your blog post must include the two tags for the assignment, one will be Visual Assignments and the other will have a name like Visual Assignments324
    If you do this correctly, your own example will be added to the entry within an hour of your publishing your blog post.

Bookmark and model the criteria for blogging like a champ.

Also note that part of participating in this course is writing up how-to tutorials. The visual assignments will likely be easier to document as tutorials than the later audio and video ones, so it might be worth your while to try a few of these now. If you write a very complete post, it could include your assignment work and count as a tutorial. Note that there is a tutorial tag that goes along with each assignment.

And here is the nifty part- if you do not like the assignments on the site, then step up and add one yourself!

Rally Your Radio Show Groups

It might be hard in a wide open course, but if you really want the full ds106 experience, you should do the group audio project. Now is the time ti find collaborators for your radio show group. By the end of the unit, you should have gotten in touch with each other, and chosen a team name. Someone from your group should tweet the team name and include the #ds106 hash tag.

If you are curious about the kind of projects you might do, scan the archive of previous student projects.

Your group will need to create and produce a recorded audio story that exemplifies the techniques you studied in Unit 4. In your groups you may want to start brainstorming about what kind of topics might be interesting or type of show (drama, documentary, comedy, etc). The more progress you can make on this Unit, the better off you will be. You will have unit 7 to focus on the production of the show.

As a bit of audio practice, try to coordinate a way between your group to share files (e.g. dropbox, shared Google Drive), and see if you can produce a thirty second intro announcing your team. Tweet this link out to #ds106.

Summary Checklist for this unit

Here’s what’s on your check list. Don’t forget to include active participation in the ds106 community via commenting on blog posts, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, and communicating via the #ds106 tag in Twitter and/or our ds106 Google+ Community.

  • Join a radio show group and come up with a team name that should be tweeted to #ds106 — see if your team can create a team announcement audio track.
  • Give at least 5 blog comments to someone else in ds106
  • Review the suggestions for photography. Pick at least 3 to try in the context of doing other visual assignments this unit or just for practice, and write a blog post showing the results. Add the one that you think helped you the most, and summarize in our shared Google doc How We Are Becoming better Photographers
  • Complete the photoblitz activity, stick to the 15 minute window. There are no prizes or extra credit for how many you can do, just try and share the experience. Tag your photos ds106photoblitz in Flickr, and write a blog post talking about the ones you felt were your best and ones from others you saw in the mix that were commendable.
  • Review the suggestions for spiffing up your Flickr page. Create a set for your best photos and add a few in there. Write up a blog post announcing it, and see if you can figure out how to embed a Flickr set in your post.
  • Do at least 3 daily creates, and write a one blog summary for all your creations. Narrate about them too, what it meant, what the inspiration was etc. Tell a story about your photos.
  • Try to complete a minimum of 10 stars worth of Visual Assignments. For each include everything in the requirements .
  • Again write up a summary of your activity this unit- there is no need to repeat what you have written elsewhere on your blog, it is fine to link to your work for the unit. We are looking for the personal reflection on what you have learned this unit, what are your challenges, how you are seeing the world differently, what you learn about photography, what it means to tell a story visually.

Just For More Inspiration

Check out Curious Wanderings of Batman in the American Southwest for a visual treat of putting one character into a different setting.


In this delightful series of black and white photographs by French artist Rémi Noël, Batman is imagined in a number of tongue-in-cheek scenarios. These photos are almost like a glimpse into the life of a retired Batman living out the rest of his days in the desert landscapes of the Southwest.

Whether he is sunbathing by the pool, waiting for his cape to finish washing at the laundromat or learning a new recipe, Batman still appears stoic and majestic in his surprising surroundings.


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