How do you tell a story in a split second?

Five world-renowned photographers discuss how to build a narrative and convey emotion in just one striking image and share their favoured techniques for capturing a moment in time.
A top-down image showing groups of people standing in a square. A long exposure has blurred the figures who cast long shadows on the ground.

"I believe that every photograph tells a story," explains documentary photographer Laura El-Tantawy. "It tells a story to the creator, that pertains to their own lived experience, their own history, but also their experience in a particular moment. And then it tells another story to the viewer." This image, The Square I Remember, is taken from Laura's 2005-2014 project, In the Shadow of the Pyramids. Taken on a Canon EOS 400D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 55mm, 1.3 sec, f/7.1 and ISO800. © Laura El-Tantawy

Photographers hold in their hands a powerful tool that enables them to capture a moment in time. The concept of telling a story in mere milliseconds is nothing new, but the ability to layer narratives within a single frame, express emotion and document history is a skill that photographers can spend years perfecting.

So how do the professionals do it? Ahead of the 2022 Redline Challenge, on the theme of A Split Second Story, we spoke to five Canon Ambassadors working in different photographic genres, to understand how they interpret storytelling and capture meaning in a single image.

Born in the UK to Egyptian parents, the work of documentary photographer Laura El-Tantawy is underpinned by a narrative of identity and belonging. Helen Bartlett is one of the UK's most respected family photographers, choosing to shoot in black and white in natural surroundings to allow her subjects space to tell their story. Kenyan wildlife photographer Clement Kiragu is known for his striking images and believes he can give animals a voice and use photography to tell their stories. Poland's Marcin Kin has travelled the globe, capturing the intricacies of extreme sports. The final Ambassador to share their take on storytelling with photography is South African photojournalist Gulshan Khan, who aims to bring attention to the issues she sees around her, such as plastic pollution, access to water, safe housing and gender.

Laura El-Tantawy

Laura is no stranger to telling a story within a single frame. Her experience of growing up between two cultures led to her exploring ideas of community and identity, often through abstract and impressionist images. With such powerful themes in her work, Laura views storytelling as more of an emotional concept.

The photo of crowds in Tahrir Square, above, was taken as Laura looked down on the streets of Cairo during a time of political unrest and saw strangers congregating in pairs or small groups. "I just wanted to express what I was seeing in front of me, the sense of euphoria, feeling like you're in a dream state of some sort. It was really about feeling what was happening at that moment and being guided by what was happening around me," she says.

Laura enjoys telling single-image stories by experimenting with slow shutter speeds. "It's a way that I instinctively react to things – it visually articulates the moments in between; it slows down time, it brings things out in a way that your eyes don't see in reality but gives you an impression of what your eyes would have seen."

Laura's advice to photographers looking to tell a story with a slow shutter speed is to plant your feet and then let the process guide you. "When you're deliberate about it, this is when you start to enjoy a slow shutter speed and see the potential it has for capturing the world," she adds.

When asked what helped guide her storytelling she explains: "What intrigues me in photography is not particularly answering a question, perhaps because when I'm navigating the world with my camera, I'm often asking questions rather than receiving answers."

The Canon Redline Challenge logo.

The Redline Challenge

Find out more about this year's theme – A Split Second Story – and how to enter your photos.
A dirt bike rider doing a wheelie through a muddy puddle on a forest trail, spraying water behind them.

Extreme sports photographer Marcin Kin recalls working with this rider to tell the story of hard enduro, using the water to indicate the speed the bike was travelling at. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/8000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Marcin Kin

Marcin Kin

Marcin is recognisable for his distinctive extreme sports photography. When trying to tell a story he searches for unique ways to show the speed of a sport, for example water, mud or dust in the air. For him, the perfect image is "when you don't need to talk about it. When you just look at the picture and know all the answers – that's a good photo."

He loves the image, above, because it reveals so much about the sport. "Hard enduro is so technical. It's hard to do, and it's risky with the speed. You need to know your bike and your body," he says.

Marcin's advice for photographers who want to capture the story behind a sport is to find out as much as you can about it, so you know what to expect. He says it also helps when you use a camera and lens with image stabilisation. Marcin suggests practising how to capture motion by photographing on the side of a road. He sets the shutter speed as high as possible and his aperture as wide as the lens will allow, then sets the ISO to 6400 or higher.

A black and white image of a child jumping in water, raising their arms so the water splashes create a wing-like effect.

"Look for an action, look for reaction, look for a real moment, and then photograph it to the best of your ability," explains family photographer Helen Bartlett. Helen used a fast shutter speed here to give the water a wing-like appearance as it dripped from the child's arms. The dark background gives a sense of separation. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/8000 sec, f/3.5 and ISO2000. © Helen Bartlett

Helen Bartlett

Helen takes inspiration from her belief that each family has their own unique energy. She shoots on location, freezing fleeting moments and harnessing emotion and takes a wide approach to storytelling, explaining, "A story can be an action, an interaction, it can be a relationship between people. A story can be a big moment, or it can be a very small moment. It can be a child kicking a ball, jumping in the air, or it can be a glance between two people."

Referring to the image of the boy in the pool, Helen says: "I love this image because it captures the essence of youth. He's bursting out of the pool; he's bursting into his future – he's growing up."

Helen shoots in black and white because she believes it gives her images an enduring quality. "I feel it gives me the best chance to take a picture that will last for a long time," she adds. "I want to tell a story about people, and I find that black and white really cuts to the essentials of an image – it takes out distractions."

Before taking an image, Helen recommends building a relationship with your subject. "It's about creating a connection. Then they'll open up and you'll be able to tell their story. By bringing those stories out that way, we get a sense of who they are as a person."

Two people salsa on a rooftop dance floor watched by seated groups of onlookers behind and to the side of them.

"You can tell stories through shadows, through light," explains photojournalist Gulshan Khan. "That is really the magic of being an image maker and of photography: to use a less obvious approach." Gulshan photographed these dancers mid-routine at the Rooftop Salsa in Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/2.8 and ISO50. © Gulshan Khan for The Washington Post

Gulshan Khan

Gulshan is celebrated for using her photographic work to bring attention to social justice and human rights issues. She finds stories that have not been given a voice and uses her work to highlight these issues. "Storytelling is everything in photography. I believe that every image has a story behind it. The image doesn't exist in isolation," she says.

The same logic applies to Gulshan's image of the salsa dancers in Johannesburg, above. "It's such a vibrant, beautiful community," she explains. "I predicted that this was going to be the moment and I waited for it. That comes from being immersed in the scene, enjoying yourself, enjoying the music, enjoying the movements and the dancing."

When asked for advice on storytelling through photography, Gulshan explains that making a split-second image doesn't always mean you're only there for a split second. "It seems counterintuitive, but often I believe that to be able to make those images in a split second, you have to have patience. Understand the scene, introduce yourself and speak to people. Become part of the scene so you're ready when the time comes." She also suggests photographers challenge themselves by creating an image with layers of detail, incorporating balance and perspective that encourages the audience to find something new each time it's viewed.

A black and white image of a lion hiding in the long grass.

Wildlife photographer Clement Kiragu used the Canon EOS R5's animal Eye Detection AF to capture this unique perspective of the lion as seen through the grass. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 40mm, 1/400 sec, f/7.1 and ISO200. © Clement Kiragu

Clement Kiragu

Clement is known for captivating images of wildlife, with animals often basking in the soft haze of a sunset, and he regularly photographs in black and white.

Clement believes that storytelling with photography is a form of communication. "If you go out in a national park and you find a pride of lions, capture their interactions because there are family dynamics in every species."

While photographing the lion in the photo above, Clement had a determined mindset. "This image evokes the mysterious side of cats because they are very secretive – it gives you that feeling of this predator. You can see in the eye connection that this is a very curious creature." The Canon EOS R5, Clement says, was integral to his process. "I wanted to find a way of getting a low angle and using the vari-angle touchscreen helped me to compose the image properly."

When creating a split-second story, Clement believes that understanding your equipment is vital and that fast shutter speeds, which are often used in wildlife photography, offer the ability to freeze even the most instantaneous movement. He also adds that photographers shouldn't be afraid to miss the shot. "Sometimes freezing the moment before or just after it happens creates a very interesting story."

Nature photography from a different perspective

Photographers Clement Kiragu, Dafna Tal and Michel d'Oultremont on forging a distinctive identity in the crowded wildlife and nature genre.

Storytelling through photography is a form of art, and it takes skill, practice and perseverance to perfect. As our five pros have shown, there is no one way to tell a story; everyone has a different approach. Gulshan has one final piece of advice: "If there is one thing to take home, it would be to know yourself, to trust your gut, to do the work, to heal. Know the people around you, work with empathy and work with mindfulness. I believe that with this authenticity you can create beautiful images."

Becky Ward

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