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Tip of the Week – Five Photo Story Telling

For years, magazines and newspapers have used photo galleries to tell stories. Photos can build emotion, provide information, encourage a specific action and create great questions.

We can have our kids do the same thing by asking them to create Five Photo Stories. It seems like a great way for kids to activate prior knowledge, review information, learn new content or practice summarizing. It’s basically an all-purpose graphic organizer! The rules are pretty simple.

  • Submit a sequence of at least five photographs that create a story.
  • The sequence of photos should visually tell the story.
  • A title is the only words that can be used as part of the photo essay. Rely on the photographs to bring the story to life.
  • The photos can be found online or taken by the student.

I might ask kids to include a separate short essay describing the reasons why they selected the photographs they used and to attach a bibliography. You may also need to limit or expand the number of photos depending on the age of your students – it’s sometimes actually harder to tell a good story with more photos.

Guidelines for Telling a Story

Guidelines are not rules but they can act as a formula that can be used to structure your story. Several methods exist for telling the story: journalistic reporting, sequential photos, photographic poetry and narrative. The following suggestions work best when creating a narrative.

A strong story has characters in action with a clear beginning, middle and end.  A good history story will have a clear location, time and atmosphere to help the  viewer of your story “see” what you want them to see. So pack as many story telling elements in one photograph as possible to develop the action.

A good story will incorporate the following types of images:

  • Cover shot: establish characters and location.
  • Establishing shot: create a situation with possibilities of what might happen.
  • Detail shot: involve the characters in the situation.
  • Filler shot: build to probable outcomes
  • Closing shot: have a logical and satisfying end.

Cover Shot

The strongest photo in your story should be your cover shot. This photo will summarize the point of the entire story. It might include a photo that is newsworthy, emotional, intimate or unusual.

So  . . . if we use the Japanese earthquake as our example, what is the one photo that provides a quick overview of what we will be saying? People, aerial view, earthquake damage, tsunami damage, nuclear power plant?

I choose to go with tsunami damage because to me most of the damage was created by this massive wave.

Establishing Shot

When a new scene begins in a movie, there is always an establishing shot telling us where we are and what time of day it is. We need to see the same sorts of things when telling a story with photos.

These are usually wider shots that include a lot of information. I decided to not use a wide shot but instead use a photo that still includes a lot of basic info.

Detail Shot

Detail shots are photos that focus on a very specific detail that help to tell the story. An example might be a photo of steelworkers’ worn hands as part of a story that describes how hard they work. These images are usually tightly composed.

I choose this image to show a more human side to the event.


Fillers are any other images that help to tell the story. Depending on the type of story that you’re telling, filler shots can be candid shots of people, more wide angle shots, photos that share additional information or create specific questions.

I picked this photo because of the questions that it caused in my own head – how far away is the ocean, how high did the water have to be to get that ship there, how will they ever get that ship back into the water.

Closing Shot

Your closing shot is the photo that ends your story and should give it a sense of closure. I struggled with finding a good closing shot for the Japanese earthquake – mostly because the story is not over. But I did find the image below that shows survivors in a shelter, waiting for the next chapter.

I used a current event as my example but I think you could use this format in a variety of ways in your social studies classroom. What’s the story of the battle of Gettysburg in pictures? How about the Dust Bowl? Civil Rights? Could they tell the story of individuals or groups of people with images?

You might also think about having kids use paintings, images of artifacts or wood cuts to tell stories of older events.

Have fun!

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great idea! Very creative. One of the things I like about digital storytelling is that there are dozens of ways you can accomplish this.

    March 16, 2011
    • glennw #

      The idea came from a contest at Flickr that asks people to tella story with only 5 photos. I really like the concept!

      Let us know if any of your teachers give it a try.


      March 16, 2011
  2. dlaufenberg #

    Thanks so much for this… used it in classes this week and had a lovely run at teaching and learning!

    March 20, 2011
    • glennw #

      Glad you found a use for it!


      March 21, 2011
  3. Powerful! Will share this with my teachers. Thanks again!

    April 4, 2011
    • glennw #


      Glad it came in handy!


      April 5, 2011

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