Monday, August 27, 2012

Storytelling With Instagrams: Style Your Scene

If the first step of storytelling with Instagrams is to get your story straight, the second step is this:

Style your scene. 

Before I pick up my camera, I do everything in my power to present the subject of the photo in a way that will enhance my story.

Alright, I'll be honest. In my reckless enthusiasm for taking pics, I usually grab my phone and have the camera open as a reflexive action. This means that I usually have to force myself to lay my camera back down, take a deep breath, and get my brain to think for a moment. This part of the process demands the most patience and self-control from me.

But it has also come to be the most interesting, creative and personal step of my storytelling with  Instagrams, and probably my favorite part. 

Here are a few recent photos from my Instagram feed (@dianeagain) that will help to illustrate my thinking process as I style my scenes:

These chocolate chip cookies were made by a college-age friend whom I visited on my recent road trip to Arizona. Before I left, she tucked some into an old yogurt container and sent them with me. It was such a sweet treat to have homemade cookies for a mid-trip snack, and I wanted to capture a feeling of fresh-baked goodness in this story. However, because I was on the road, I had very few props on hand to help me set this scene. I had to rely on my first and most important rule of styling: Improvise.

At a rest stop, I opening the car door all the way and balanced the container on the seat, in the shadows just beyond the harsh sunlight. Lighting is an important part of staging any scene, and natural indirect sunlight is almost always the best. I don't have any legit lighting equipment, so I do a lot of improvising. I've been known to hold a white canvas or curtain just out of camera range, to bounce light back onto my subject. I try to take all my photos during the daylight hours, but sometimes stories need telling at night and so I drag my IKEA desk lights all over the house. Once I boosted my night-time kitchen lighting by shining a flashlight on a piece of lasagna. I have to say, the result was surprisingly good. 

Back to my cookies. By shooting straight down into the container, I was able to minimize the impact of the not-so-attractive printing on the outside of the yogurt package. Still, I was lacking an interesting background - my fuzzy grey car seat was not adding much to this story. Suddenly, I noticed my pink polka dot purse on the passenger seat, and knew it would add the perfect touch of styling for my cozy cookie story.

During my road trip through Central California, I wanted to tell the story of the orchards, set in precise geometric rows and laden with yummy, semi-exotic crops, such as almonds and oranges. One evening, I realized I was in apricot country just as the setting sun was coloring the air a highly appropriate pinky peach color. And when I saw these rows of new trees, with their white protective containers sharply delineating their straight rows against the black soil, I knew the scenic conditions were perfect for telling my orchard story. 

Interestingly, as I pulled off my sunglasses to take the photo, I was disappointed to discover that a lot of the pink color in the sky was due to my rose-colored lenses. While I could easily have added pink tints during the digital editing process, since this was a story about my road trip, I wanted to capture the apricot-y sky as I had seen it while driving. So I simply held the sunglasses up to my camera lens, and shot the photo through them. This illustrates another of my golden rules of styling: Capture Your Experience.

I'm a little bit camera-shy, yet I recognize the value of the self-portrait and I force myself to take some every now and then. I feel least self-conscious when I use the strategy of Reflected Reality. I search out reflective surfaces that capture but slightly distort my image: bodies of water, glass, old mirrors, and metallic surfaces.

One day, when out for my daily adventure with Ranger, I noticed the interesting circle-patterned reflection in the electronic sign board at the local high school where we often walk. This turned out to be not only a reasonable self-portrait but also a story of my travels with Ranger, since he managed to style himself into my scene.

My youngest daughter is an origami wizard. She not only folds an amazing variety of patterns from memory, but she can make some TINY stuff. As an homage to her skill and a celebration of her new life in a college apartment, I wanted to capture this microscopic little crane of hers. Of course, the challenge of this scene was to convey just how minute her creation actually is. 

I considered using a coin, a paperclip, or some other tiny prop, until I remembered one of my favorite rules of Instagram scene styling: Show Some Skin. It's just a fact of life that we humans are naturally drawn to other humans. But Instagrammed photos of people are not always particularly effective; the Instagram canvas is so small that even a single human face and torso can easily steal the scene from the object that I want my viewers to focus upon. My solution is to style my scenes to include a finger or a foot or the side of a face - any element of the human body. Even a little bit of skin draws viewers into my images and makes them more interesting. 

The wooden laminate background underneath my hand may not be aesthetically stunning. But because it is the dresser top in her new room, it helps to tell the story of my accomplished and self-sufficient daughter.

On a day when I had devoted myself to fasting, I somehow found myself in a a closed car at very close range to a giant, warm, and extremely delicious-smelling cheeseburger. Since I couldn't eat it, I was dying to at least take a photo of this outrageously beautiful creation, and I forced my hungry brain to search for a way to style the scene that might help to reveal my agony.

So I asked my daughter, the owner of this beauty, to unwrap the foil a bit and tip it towards me. I encouraged her to wrap her fingers securely around the burger, not only to keep me from grabbing it and running with it, but also to visually demonstrate her ownership. This is also another good example of my 'Show Some Skin' rule - even though her face is not present, her fingers clearly establish a human connection.

I also wanted to my scene to reveal that we were in the closed space of my car, in order to help tell the story of the tantalizing aromas that accompanied the cheesy beauty. So I angled the burger in my shot to allow for the door handle, in its bright orange 'unlocked' position, to be visible. It's an obvious but ever important rule to 'Check For Clutter.' Despite my impatience to start snapping, I force myself to to carefully check my scenes for unwanted objects, such as stacks of papers, unnecessary items, random shadows, or anything else that will distract the viewer's eye. And as a special reward for thoroughness, I often spot a tiny detail like this car lock that improves the my scene and helps me tell my story.

* * * * *

See what I mean? Styling the scenes of my photos is much more than just arranging components to make a pretty picture. This part of the process challenges me to think carefully about how to position and display the elements of my future Instagram in order to best tell my story.

Before I pick up my camera, I style a scene that helps to tell my story. The story always comes first.

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