This shot, taken during a prescribed fire training exchange, is both visually engaging, and tells a story.

Topic: Communications / Outreach Other Type: Best Practices

Telling our FAC Stories through Photos: Tips for Practitioners

Authors: Michelle Medley-Daniel

This post is part one of a series on enhancing visual communications.

Persuasive communication is a cornerstone of a fire adapted community practice. Motivating people to action, showing them what they can achieve and empowering their partnerships helps to make real changes in resilience. Quality photographs can support your communications by helping to tell your story and creating emotionally compelling connections with your audience. At the same time, poor quality pictures, or those that don’t resonate with your audience, can hamper your message. For example, in a recent conversation someone shared with me their struggles with some of the FAC materials they’d been using. The materials said all the right things, but featured only pictures of Southern California chaparral. The pictures didn’t depict a landscape like theirs and sent visual cues to their audience that “this doesn’t apply to you.” Customizing the materials by using local pictures would better connect that particular audience to the message and reinforce the local relevance.

It’s one thing to understand that good pictures could help your cause, but most people don’t just pick up a camera and automatically take great pictures. It takes a concerted effort and commitment to visual storytelling to make the most of your potential. As photography equipment has become more accessible, more and more people are exploring it as an outlet for personal expression and communication. Along with the rise of photography enthusiasts there are many online resources dedicated to improving photography techniques. In this series we will focus first on some basic concepts, and then on some specific challenges and opportunities for FAC practitioners who want to improve their use of photographs for visual storytelling.

Three Basic Practices to Improve Your Photographs

  1. Learn to use your equipment

The explosion of access to smart phones has also meant that most people have high quality cameras in their back pockets. Take some time to learn about your equipment (whether that’s your built in cell phone camera, a simple point and shoot or a DSLR). A quick Google search will yield specific tips for your camera and can help trouble-shoot any problems you run into.

Understanding the settings and features of your camera will help you get the most out of your photos. Many cell phone cameras have settings that help take panoramas, and have special settings for portraits, low-light, or action situations. There are also many apps that can add to your pictures. (Note the emphasis on can. While there are lots of great apps out there it is important to consider what that filter or effect really adds to your picture. Oftentimes, less is more.)

This view of Hayfork Valley was taken with my i-phone's panorama feature. Rather than take several pictures and fit them together with software later, I just chose the pano setting and followed the skyline.

This view of Hayfork Valley was taken with my i-phone’s panorama feature. Rather than take several pictures and fit them together with software later, I just chose the pano setting and followed the skyline.

  1. Practice, Critique, Practice

Applying some rigor to your photography doesn’t need to take the fun out of it, and can dramatically improve your results. I’d suggest challenging yourself with an assignment. Decide on a subject and spend the time to take a lot of pictures. Then take the time to sort and critique them. Our eyes are incredibly astute—spending some time reviewing your own photos will help you decipher what works and what doesn’t. And if you want to up the ante, you can ask a colleague or friend to provide some critiques as well. With all of that insight you can begin the process again, incorporating what you learned into your next effort. Remember, in order to improve your photography practice you need to get out there and take pictures. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

  1. For every photo have an answer to this question: what’s the point?

While you shouldn’t hesitate to take a ton of photos, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some thought into your shots. It’s easy to be hosting an event or meeting and think—“I need to grab a group photo for my report.” The resultant picture can help document who was there (and the inside of your meeting room…) but it doesn’t tell more of the story. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t take that group photo. It does have a use (as documentation of who was there), but its utility is limited.

I’d challenge us to take our practice a step further and not only document our events, but tell their stories. In order to do that, you’ll need to think about what that story is, and then work on capturing it in in visual form. Just like narrative stories, visual stories contain components like tone, characters, conflict, action, etc. Some pre-planning, and keeping your camera handy, will help you get the shots that capture the essence of the event.

FAC Coordinating team member Wendy Fulks (right) talks with Gloria Erickson from Ely, MN during a work planning session at the FAC Network annual meeting in Colorado Springs.

This photo from the FAC Network’s annual workshop captures a humorous moment and tells the viewer more about the tone of our meeting then a posed group shot would. Photo credit: Liz Rank.

Visit the blog on Thursday for part two of this series where we’ll explore photo challenges specific to FAC practitioners.

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