Ah, the photo essay. It is to photographers what the portfolio is to painters or the chapbook to poets. It is, for most of us, one of the first and most fundamental ways in which we expose our work to the public eye. This can make choosing the right photo essay topics incredibly stressful.
But don’t worry!
This guide was created with just that in mind. I’ve been exactly where you might be now – frustrated, confused, and feeling like you can’t make it. These are all normal emotions to have when you just can’t figure out how to make the right photo essay.
To get those creative juices flowing, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite photo essay topics to try. Consider these the equivalent of writing prompts. Start with one of them, and see where your muse takes you next.
Who knows, you might end up with something I couldn’t have imagined when I wrote this guide!
- Day At The Market
- Social Issues
- Religious Celebrations
- Triptychs Experimentation
- Working Artisans
- Visual Motifs
- Behinds The Scenes
- Before And After
1. Vignettes From Across The Street
This is a favorite technique of mine, suitable for any occasion and time of day.
The idea is simple. Turn up to a street nearby, and set yourself up someplace where you can get a nice perspective from. This can really be any place of your choosing – five minutes or an hour away, at a corner, or in the middle of the sidewalk. You can bring a medium format camera on a tripod or a tiny point-and-shoot, it all depends on what mood you’re going for.
Now, what you’re going to do is stay in this general area and shoot a photo series of any interesting interactions, people, or events that pass you by here.
This might sound tricky. How can you get interesting material out of everyday passersby?
The truth is, by limiting yourself to this one spot and carefully observing, you will actually be able to witness some of those little wonderful details that most of us miss as we go about our days.
Think, for example, of a mother playing with her child. A couple loudly arguing and gesturing about. A teenager handing out newspapers. An old man begging for money. A construction crew renovating an apartment building.
All of these scenes are two things: incredibly easy to find, and yet incredibly evocative. When framed correctly, each of them can tell a story or part of one. By restricting all of these scenes to one particular place, you can contextualize them and present them as links in one overarching narrative. And there you have your photo essay.
2. A Day At The Market
Public marketplaces are always great places to land some great shots. They unite two elements that are incredibly convenient for eye-catching photography: lots of details, and lots of people moving about.
Whether it’s a fresh vegetable market, a flea market, a bazaar, or something else entirely, open-air markets like these offer plenty of ways to tell engrossing stories.
You can follow the day of one particular merchant, or wander about the whole place looking for interesting interactions. Again, the creative possibilities are wide-ranging and completely up to you.
Because you’ll be working at very short distances and within confined spaces, I’d suggest bringing a wide-angle lens. However, for portraiture, a small telephoto prime might also be useful.
3. Revisit Familiar Sights
Showing one or a few scenes through changes in time is a very effective way of not just lending variety to the same location, but also showcasing to the viewer your creativity and sense of variety.
For example, landscape shots showing the passage of seasons are an all-time classic that will probably never get old.
The photographic term for this is rephotography. Rephotography has always been a popular genre, and if your choice of location is in any way well-known, even if only locally, then probably there are already past photographs of it out there that you can use as references.
As before, there are many ways to go about this. For instance, you can use your digital camera’s intervalometer to fire off a series of shots with precise gaps in between. This can last anywhere from a few minutes up to hours or even days – as long as the power supply will allow.
However, you don’t have to take time off from work and spend a night outside camping beside your tripod in order to achieve nice rephotography. You could also just photograph the same scene at completely different times by revisiting it, whether through the day or after a week, a month, a year…
Of course, doing it this way you’ll need to pay special attention to framing. I’d print out my first, initial shot and take it with me as a reference for the subsequent ones.
Of course, you don’t have to make it look like you stood in one spot the whole time, photographing the same exact subject over and over. Maybe you’d like to use one particular angle at noon, and then a completely different one at nighttime!
Again, you choose – as long as you stay creative, there’s no right or wrong.
4. Document A Social Issue
Not all photographers are comfortable with making their work political, but for those who are, this can be an excellent option.
Many photo essay topics revolve around the specific choice of subject, place, or time.
However, you don’t have to give your work context through these means only. You can also focus on an overarching theme or message. In this case, by commenting on an important social topic.
Depending on where you’re based, choices for this theme might differ. But from women’s rights to corruption, from tax evasion to drug abuse, from domestic violence to racism, there is always something worth covering.
While many photographers try to “focus on reality” and remain impartial in their coverage, I think much more interesting work can result when you try to take a stance of your own.
There is an assumption that photography can be neutral because, unlike literature, it doesn’t feature explicit commentary.
I believe that this is mistaken, and trying to be uncontroversial will only make your work look bland. Who wants to see an exposé on some of the most important causes and issues of our time that tries to distance itself from what it’s discussing?
Instead, I recommend sticking with a particular line of commentary. Do you want to expose injustice? Draw eyes to the plight of a minority group? Or completely move against the grain, presenting a contrarian view to some hotly-debated narrative?
Pick your angle first, and then get to work on the streets. Remember that you don’t need to visit big national events to get your point across. Small scenes from just around the block can serve equally well!
5. Public Protests
Parallel to the previous point, a street protest or demonstration can be a treasure trove of great potential shots. These kinds of settings work whether you’re trying to make a political statement or not.
The dense crowds and powerful uses of expression, gesture, and movement are easy to combine into a great photo essay.
If you play your cards right in terms of composition, you can really allow the viewer to “dive in” and feel the atmosphere of the event.
You can emphasize any element you see as most striking. Whether it’s the general commotion of the participants, their various messages, thoughts, and feelings, those of bystanders nearby, the local police response (if any), or something else – you have a lot of options.
6. Religious Celebrations
No matter where you live, there are probably some prominent religious festivities that are held every year. Consider covering some of these and using them as a backdrop for your photo essay topics. It doesn’t matter what your faith is, or your viewer’s for that matter – and that’s the lovely thing about it!
Religion, when described in the form of a visual display of ritualistic clothing, architecture, song, food, and dance, has a universal appeal. It is one of humanity’s oldest cultural artifacts. Suffice it to say, it’s not going to grow stale anytime soon.
Because of that, it always lends itself to representation in the form of art, and that includes a photo essay!
Sure, covering some kind of sports event might seem like an easy and obvious choice. After all, sports photography has held a certain cachet as one of the most popular photo essay topics for many years.
However, too many approach this subject with a narrow view of the matter. Sports photography isn’t just nailing the focus on that shot of the perfect baseball pitch from five hundred feet away using an 800mm super-telephoto that’s over half your net worth.
That stuff might be the most prestigious example of sports photography (and the most technically challenging), but you don’t have to limit yourself to that.
Instead, think outside the box. Ask yourself, “what can I cover (in a way that will look eye-catching) with the gear I have?”
An interesting idea would be to show up early and document the various preparations that are part and parcel of every big game. Show players warming up, practicing, testing their gear, getting into their uniforms, et cetera.
Maybe you can even catch some banter between coaches or backstage personnel!
Round it off with some shots of the game in action, and bookend it with its logical conclusion: the drawdown, cleanup, and going back home after the match is over.
While of course the content I just laid out is purely an example, this threefold structure allows you to construct a simple yet engaging story that makes for an excellent photo essay.
8. Experiment With Triptychs
Speaking of a threefold structure – ever thought about triptychs? If you have a background in painting or have ever studied art history or the like, then you might already be familiar with the idea, as triptychs have a long and successful history as an art form.
At its core, a triptych is a panel of three images. You shoot three separate photographs and present them together, side by side. Or, alternatively, you take one photograph and cut it up into three individual pieces.
Traditionally, the arrangement is done during printing. That way, you can also fool around with the precise framing between each picture. Of course, with the tools available today, making triptychs is still pretty easy even when publishing digitally.
A triptych can tell three episodes of the same story, or three stories that intersect or relate to each other in some way.
It doesn’t have to be three images either: Diptychs follow the same concept with just two frames stitched together. Quadriptychs are based on fours, and so on and so forth.
While I would say that trying to fill out your whole photo essay specifically with triptychs is quite a challenge, weaving some kind of story through a series of pictures is in itself an extremely useful trick.
Take a look at your existing work – it probably isn’t gonna be so hard to find pairs of photos that fit together in some way, whether thematically, aesthetically, or otherwise. There you go!
You’re already on your way to creating some stunning diptychs (or triptychs, or quadriptychs, or what have you).
9. Consider Urbex Photography
Urbex, short for urban exploration, has seen a quick surge in popularity in the past couple of years.
If you’re not familiar, urbex is all about venturing off the beaten path and discovering left-behind places from bygone times.
Many kinds of structures can be candidates for urbex targets. This includes abandoned factories, small ghost towns from the industrial age, power plants that are no longer in use, and many more.
As you can probably imagine, the dilapidated aesthetics of these relics makes for some compelling photography. Particularly if you enjoy working with architectural motifs, you’re going to love playing with urbex for your photo essay topics.
However, do note that urbex can be far from safe. If you’ve never tried it before, you should rely on the guidance and help of someone with more experience.
Always be careful, and don’t go anywhere where you might end up inadvertently breaking the law – or a bone!
10. Artisans At Work
If you have the opportunity to do so, consider watching an artisan – such as a cobbler, a carpenter, a builder, or someone similar – going about their workday, and documenting it in photos.
Many people do not really know the kind of skill and fine detail that goes into these kinds of craftsmanship, so not only can they be visually stunning – but such photo essay topics can also be educational.
11. A Day In The Life
A similar approach is the classic “a day in the life” photo essay. A bit looser and less structured, the principle is basic and offers plenty of creative room to play with.
First, you are going to pick a person, whether that be someone you know, a blind stranger you just met, or someone with an interesting hobby, skill, or trade that you seek out specifically for this task.
Next, you will compose a photo series of that person, following them throughout their day without staging or influencing things too much. The idea is to present a genuine, realistic portrayal of what this person goes through on an average day.
You can be humorous, introspective, or use this sneak peek as an opportunity for social commentary.
Again, you’re the creative director here. Let your imagination run wild!
12. Visual Motifs
Even if you don’t really want to use one overarching theme for your photo essay, you can still make it visually more distinctive and impressive by playing with motifs.
Different and completely unrelated shots separated by space and time can look like elements of one larger work if they share some kind of visual kink, twist, or detail.
Motifs can be many things, from shapes and elements of composition to colors, objects, and even people.
For example, think of a motif like “bicycles”. You can have a series of shots of different subjects, different photographic genres, and so on, all sharing the element of bicycles. The cool part about motifs is that they can be full of variety!
Bikes, for instance, can appear in many ways. You can have a mystery rider whizzing past the viewer in your frame. You can have a row of them standing on a rack in the corner. In some shots, the bike can even be the central piece or subject.
Again, this kind of loose framework is an excellent way to get the ball rolling mentally and generate some really creative ideas for photo essay topics.
Play around with motifs, and feel free to combine them with other topics and subjects from this list!
13. Personal Growth And Changes
One particularly creative photo essay idea is to document the growth and change of a particular person over time. This doesn’t have to be a child, mind you!
Frequently used examples are expecting mothers, those heading into retirement, and young professionals starting out in a new career.
You can follow these subjects over the course of weeks, months, even years – it all depends on your level of dedication and your creative vision.
Try to accentuate what kind of change the person is experiencing the most. Is it a physical change? A change of environment? A change in their social or professional life?
Consider these details and try to incorporate them into your photo essay. This will help your work stand out for sure!
14. Get Behind The Scenes
Common sights viewed from unusual angles are one sure way to help your photo essay topics get recognition.
For example, many people are familiar with the traditional “pro” photoshoot. But how many of them have seen what that shoot looks like from the photographer’s (or the model’s) perspective? If you have someone to ask who can let you watch from backstage, follow them around and document the hidden aspects of their work.
Other interesting opportunities include the inner workings of a hospital, school, police station, or bank, or the creation of artworks such as paintings or murals.
Most of us would like to think of ourselves as authentic beings who show our true identities openly and who are always honest in our self-expression.
Of course, the truth is often far from that ideal. Many go to great lengths to present idealized versions of who they are, especially in public.
You can make use of this to create a stunning photo essay that has a genuinely moving message at heart. Try to document how different people use their self-expression and how it affects the way they are perceived.
From makeup to clothing and even physical changes, there are plenty of interesting examples to include in this kind of photo essay.
Aim for representation, and try to include as many people as you can from unconventional backgrounds – subcultures, repressed or disadvantaged groups, and so forth. Their stories are often some of the most evocative and interesting to the viewer.
16. Before And After
Especially in the case of dramatic events such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, wars, or economic crises, the same location can very suddenly change appearances.
If you’re lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, you can incorporate these changes into your work and create an emotionally impactful photo essay.
A “before and after”, showing the dramatic development and changes that can befall a place and the people that live there, is one of the most ambitious photo essay topics. As with many others on this list, there are many focal points to choose from.
You can concentrate on how the events you’re covering change people’s lives. Think, for example, of how people coped with losing their homes after Hurricane Katrina. These devastating events do not just change lives forever.
They are also visually extremely powerful – making for some of the most compelling photography out there.
This is usually chosen as a means of paying tribute to someone special or close to you. Putting a whole life in pictures can be challenging, but the challenge is where the spice of this photo essay idea lies!
It will be up to you to bring out and show the parts of the person’s personality that you deem most striking, important, or distinctive. Is it the way they dress? Is it their facial expressions? Some hobby, job, or routine that they practice every day?
Think about the things that make these individuals who they truly are.
Now, try to explain these things without words – only in photos. Up for the challenge?
18. Traditions Throughout The World
No matter where you are from, you are probably familiar with some common traditions like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ramadan, or what have you.
However, very few people have a good understanding of the kinds of traditions that are practiced elsewhere around the world.
If you travel a lot and are willing to incorporate this into your photography, you can use this to your advantage.
How about a photo essay that sheds light on the diversity of cultural traditions worldwide?
Even if you aren’t a globe-hopper per se, you can still express this idea in different ways. For example, many global cities like New York or Berlin are home to an incredible number of international residents.
Their subcultures and customs often affect the city in a big way. In places like this, all you might need to do to show the diversity in cultural traditions is to take a walk through a few different neighborhoods!
The Bottom Line In Photo Essay Topics
With these photo essay example topics, I’m sure you will have no trouble coming up with great ideas of your own!
Remember that a photo essay works best when it is well-focused – not just literally, but also in the abstract sense. Don’t overload your essay with too many elements, themes, or crazy compositions. You don’t want to scare off your viewer!
You also don’t want to risk showing too much. Especially if you are still gaining experience as a photographer, you want your photo essay to lead to someone saying, “This is good, can I see more?” It’s not a good look to have to end up replying, “That’s all I got.”
So, put your best work into your photo essay, but not all of your best work. Try to make it look professional (post-processing can work wonders), and when in doubt, err on the side of teasing rather than being explicit and overt.