Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Storytelling With Instagrams: Adding Text

Lalalalalalala! It's time for my final installment in this series on using Instagrams to tell stories about our lives. Here are the four steps I've covered so far:

To wrap up this conversation, today's topic is adding text.

Right off the bat, I have to say that I am generally against flooding Instagram images with words. The whole point of the Instagramming experience, as I see it, is to let the photos do the talking. Taking photos of book pages, creating graphic designs that feature quotations, or layering big blocks of text over the top of photographs are all well and good, but in my mind, those kinds of shots don't make an interesting Instagram.

On the other hand, there are times when a few carefully chosen and well-placed words can add interest and meaning to a photo. The guiding line, once again, comes down to this:

Get your story straight.

If a bit of text will help your photo convey the story you are trying to tell, then go for it.

But if the words are an unnecessary detail, or worse yet, a distraction from the main point of your story, then by all means, do without.

My favorite way to incorporate text is to capture words, labels and signs as a part of the original image.  I find it to be the most natural and subtly impactful way to invite words into my story.

I saw these bright and cheerful carnations in a run-of-the-mill suburban grocery store. I love their farmers' market vibe, and wanted to capture that easygoing charm in my photo. The cute handwritten-ish tag helps to convey that upbeat, spunky spirit. Interestingly, I took a number of shots composed of just the bunches of flowers, and they were not nearly so interesting as this one. The sign, the buckets and the rubber mat underneath add subtle details that complement, rather than detract from, the main story about the playful bunches of fresh flowers.

I took a bunch of shots of this table full of popcorn, mostly close-ups of the popcorn bags that did not include the surrounding signs or the table. But those images lacked interest - the simple shapes, color and composition of the close-ups did not capture the fun and excitement of a trip through the food stalls on the way to a baseball game. By widening the composition to include the big red sign across the front of the table, this image has much more variety and interest, and more clearly conveys the energy of my story.

These fresh peppers spilling out of the round wooden baskets make a beautiful story about shapes and textures, but I like the way the 'HOT" sign adds contrast to this compostion. The translucent plastic material, the bursts of bright red, the straight lines, and the shiny texture of the garland kick up the drama factor of the scene in a very pleasing way. At the same time, the radically different colors and materials in the image create almost a jarring sense of discord, approximate to what my mouth feels when I take a bite of some warm and cheesy deliciousness only to be hit by a punch of pepper.

At first glance, this could be a shot of any major league baseball stadium in the country; the low dark stands, intricately mowed field and clear blue sky lend no hints about where this scene is unfolding. I like that uniformity; I feel united with baseball fans everywhere when I take in this sight. But those four little white words, almost indistinguishable at first, bring me right back down to my little patch of earth. Welcome to Safeco Field, everybody..this is a specific story about baseball in Seattle, which makes that perfect blue sky not just a background but a little miracle all its own.

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What about adding text over the top of an existing photo? Among the photographers I follow on Instagram, that has become an increasingly popular experiment lately, and I have dabbled with it a bit.

I use Phonto for my text-editing needs and it gets the job done. Definitely recommend it.

I'm very hesitant to add text to a photo that seems to be working well on its own. If the image has a strong sense of story, I don't want to mess that up, or be heavy-handed by stamping it with a label. I prefer to let my viewers sort out the story themselves.

Yet I've been surprised and delighted to find that a simple layer of text can save an otherwise unsuccessful image. Here are a few attempts at labeling that have worked out well.

This was my first ever edited photo caption. I shot the pic of California's beautiful Mount Shasta out the window of my speeding car, and while it wasn't a great photo, I was determined to make something out of it. So I cropped it down, opened it in Phonto, and typed the first silly sentence that popped into my head. Then I took the image back over to Instagram, to play with filters, and before I knew it, I had inadvertently posted it to my feed. That is what's called a happy accident, because now I think this image captures my expressway encounters with this gentle giant quite perfectly. 

I took this picture of Ranger enjoying a crunchy treat, but at first, the image looked off-putting. Because the treat is so small and neutrally colored, it's hard for the casual observer to figure out what is in my puppy's mouth. Yet unless you know he's eating a delicious tidbit, his splayed legs, opened mouth and closed eyes look odd. By adding the sound effects through text, it's easier to understand that he is in the blissed-out state of eating something yummy.

This was a very simple photo taken in a parking lot. I took advantage of the big expanse of neutral background to play with some bright and sunny filtering effects, but the photo still looked a little empty to me. As this was meant to be a story about the deepening shadows of late summer, I chose a phrase that reinforced that idea. I tried placing it at several different spots on the image before I noticed the tilt feature and decided to give it a try. Once I aligned the words with my long dark shadow legs, I knew it was money. 

Taking photos of a black cat is an exercise in frustration. It's so hard to get the lighting right. After snapping a few photos of Luna napping under these twinkle lights, I definitely got it all wrong.  As you can see by this very lightly edited shot, he shows up as a dear fuzzy blur. Determined to make something of this image, with his sweet little ears outlined against the warm glow of the lights, I knew that my story should have a dreamy quality. And that led me to the perfect caption. I really like how the text is positioned between the lights and Luna's ears, drawing attention to my favorite bits of the photo.

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There is a third element of adding words to an Instagram image, albeit an indirect and often overlooked strategy. By posting a caption in the comments under the photo, and by selecting relevant hash tags, the story of the image can be refined and enhanced. Examples:

This bird's eye view of an open-air courtyard at University of Arizona was designed to tell a story about geometry and lines.  But as I was posting the photo, I realized that at first glance, it's a bit difficult to tell what you are looking at. The only element of the composition that can be used to make sense of the scene is the group of three people sitting on the bench, so I captioned this photo "The three amigos." For hash tags, I used #lines, #curves, #squares, #geometric, and #fountain, which helps my viewers understand that this is not a story not so much about those three amigos, but about the space around them.

I love abstracted geometric photos. Although I think the neat, orderly rows of negative space circles, with their red context and shadowy outlines make a fantastic shot that stands on its own merit, there is a little part of me looks at an image like this and asks, But what is it? Without any sort of reference point to share with the viewers, as in the last example with the three human beings, I used the caption to straightforwardly describe my subject: "This is the best garbage can ever." I used the hash tags to play up the interesting aspects of the photo: #red, #geometry, #circles, #shadow, #lines. Between the two sets of information, I hope to convey the story that beauty can be found even in the most ordinary places.

Here is Ranger. It is not his most adorable photo ever..his tongue is hanging out of his foamy mouth, his eyes are droopy, he's lying in a patch of dry grass. Even the horizon is tipped, as if protesting against this composition. But what I like about this shot is that it perfectly captures Ranger's post-walk ritual of lying down in the grassy shadows of my front yard to cool off before going in the house to eat his dinner. In order to explain, very succinctly, the back story to this photo, I captioned it, "Hot dog."  

In my normal life, I am not what you would call a morning person. Ha. But when I'm on a road trip, I'm all about rising with the sun and getting on the road bright and early. Surprisingly, I'm quite energetic about it..almost giddy. This photo was taken one morning just after I leaped on to the interstate, surrounded by beauty and fascinated by the early morning light. Hoping to capture my enthusiasm as well as the specific time and place of this scene, I captioned my photo, "Good morning, Sacramento." Think Robin Williams.

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By now you surely know that I have a passion for Instagrams, and put a lot of thought and effort into the photos that I create. That is true, but I don't consider myself a photographer in the least. While I love the artistry of composing and crafting beautiful images, in my heart, I am a storyteller, and Instagrams make a perfect medium for the telling the little stories of my life. 


  1. I love your examples of adding text to pictures. Phonto is awesome!

    1. Thanks...Phonto is super fun and easy to use, too. Totally adds another fun dimension to my favorite past time. ;)


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