the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Photo is the Story


I’d like to say a “thank you” to those who said nice things about my Instagram photos from my trip to New Zealand, especially those that I took of Juli.

I’ve been taking these Instagram photos for a while now, and I have a few online friends who know me more about me from Instagram than my blog. I would never have expected this plot twist!

Instagram has given me the opportunity to connect with new people and to see the world in new ways. I now even look at trees.

Yesterday, my friend Miss Britt asked me if I could give her any iphonography tips, which prompted me to write this —

I do wish a few of my photography friends weren’t so snotty about Instagram, fearful of the dirty Instagram mob with their scary hipster filters. But in some ways, they deserve to be wary — “real” photography is hard work. I’m comfortable with my status as an amateur. That doesn’t mean I can’t share with you some things I learned; I see my limitations as a lowly iphone Instagram photographer as my greatest tool.

First of all, I can’t teach you anything about F-stops or lighting techniques. I’m not completely ignorant about these things. I did attend USC film school, but at the time, during graduate school, the technical aspects of movie-making were less interesting to me than the “story” of a movie — the script. Even today, I hate movies over-stuffed with special effects or 3D. I like compelling stories about life.

My main photography tip is — “look for the story.” I know it sounds like a cliche, but is what I do. Don’t get too hung up on the technical. Yes, there is some artistry involved. I use filters and think about composition, but the best photos have a story. Sometimes the viewer will get the story. Other times, the story only makes sense to you. It doesn’t matter. The story will create the energy. I always look for the story.

Editing the photo, especially the cropping, is essential because it is part of storytelling. I see it like editing a manuscript. It is common to only discover the story during cropping! I might take a photo of a beautiful woman walking down the street, and then, during editing, notice the homeless guy sitting on the street near her. Forget the hot woman, and go for the STORY. Cropping to me is a second chance at finding the story.

EXPERIMENT: Go right now and take three quick photos of your child. Or your husband. Or even your couch. Now look at the three shots. They will seem almost identical, but I bet one of the shots tells the story better than the others. This is why professionals take a hundred shots of the same subject. They pick out the photo which tells the best story. I’ll admit that for every “beautiful” photo of Juli that I put on Instagram, there were four others that sucked, or caught her eating a sandwich with the mustard dripping on her shirt.

Story trumps all. An umbrella could be blocking half of the woman’s face and the photo blurry, but if it has a better story than the same photo done perfectly, I would pick the inferior photo technically.

When you take your photos, don’t think of it as a photo. Think of what you are doing as storytelling.

How to find — and capture that story — is more complex, and I’m not ready to discuss that yet. We’ve all seen an Instagram photo of a hamburger on a plate, and we make fun of it as a waste of space. And then we see another person’s photo — a hamburger on a plate — that makes us stop in our tracks. We ask ourselves, “Where is she eating this hamburger? Who is she with right now? Are they having sex later?” The photo tells the story.


  1. Ruth

    Neil, I really enjoyed this. It’s an example of a great blog post in its brevity, fresh language, message, value. Thank you for writing it. I’m happy to consider myself one of your newer “online friends who know more about [you] from Instagram than [your] blog.”

    “We ask ourselves, “Where is she eating this hamburger? Who is she with right now? Are they having sex later?”” YES. yes we do ask ourselves. 🙂

  2. pauline (aspiringmama)

    I love you, Neil. I love your thought process and how you see the world. I love how you bring us in and show us what YOU see and how you see it.
    I’m a former newspaper reporter and once worked as a city editor for a community paper which is just a fancy way of saying I was a one-woman operation with a crappy paycheck. The stories, the photos, the layout: all me. It taught me to find the story in the image to compliment the words.
    I tell people I take pictures with words every time I sit down to write. Sometimes I take actual pictures, too. And I hope that those tell the story of the moment to those who see it.
    Your instragram journey was beautiful for all of us to see. With each one, especially those of Julie, I saw you standing on stage at BlogHer reading your words about the poem you were trying to write for your ladylove.
    Thank you for sharing yourself and showing us all that the world can be a pretty spectacular place when looked at the right way.

  3. Lisa Golden

    You are a natural teacher, Neil. This a great explanation of what you do and why it stands out.

  4. Amiyrah

    Even after taking your iPhoneograpy class at NonCon, you are still teaching me things. This was a wonderful follow up to what I learned with you and now I know a better way to look for the story. As usual, you completely rock.

  5. Miss Britt

    This is what you and Karen Walrond both do so well, and what I KNOW is missing from my photos. I just can’t figure out how to fix that!

  6. Elizabeth Aquino

    Those were indeed gorgeous photos and I’d wager there’s love in the eye of the photographer, too, that is imparted —

    As for snobby anti-instagrammers, who needs them? Even my eleven year old son is finding that he has an “eye” as he uses his iPod Touch camera and Instagram, and that’s exciting for a boy with dyslexia who finds nearly everything else in school so incredibly difficult. I just received a very fancy camera for Christmas, but I have to say that the shooting I do with my Android is far more illuminating of my life and thoughts than any studied stuff with the more sophisticated camera.

  7. Sarah

    I agree with everything you said. Photography IS storytelling as much, if not more than, any other art form.
    P.S. Your Instagram shots are some of the best I’ve seen, and great photography.

  8. Twenty Four At Heart

    Did you just call me snotty?
    Hmmmph – and I was going to bring whisky shots to lunch next week!

  9. Megan

    I love Instagram, but I’m not a fan of the rights grab. Don’t care what they say their terms say, I know how to read. If anyone is going to sell my photos, it’s me.


    The story. Yes. It’s all about story, no matter which way you tell it. Always good to remember.

  10. Stasha

    you are a wonderful story teller. No doubt.

  11. Marinka

    I can’t be the only one who wants to see the photo of Juli with the mustard.

  12. Quadelle

    You’re a great story teller – in words and pictures.

  13. Alexandra

    “Look for the story.”

    In everything.

    Loved this, Neil.

  14. Jamie@SouthMainMuse

    All great advice. Made me think of what a photographer friend told me once. “As a photographer you have to be patient. Sit and wait for the story to come to you.” For her that might be as simple as sitting on a street corner in the area or the even she was photographing.

  15. Chrisor (ynotkissme)

    Neil, if you’re an amateur photographer, I’d hate to think where that puts me. I guess I’m just toying with it. I’ve always loved pictures and getting a glimpse inside others’ lives and seeing their viewpoints. “Look for the story” is great advice and I’m going to consciously make an effort to do that from now on. Now what can you teach me about composition? 😉

  16. alejna

    Neil, this is really great. Thank you for sharing some of your process here, and for making it fun to read as well.

  17. Diana Mahmoud

    Your photos on Instagram are excellent, and I appreciate your tips. As a longtime follower here, I still love your writing best of all!

  18. Otir

    Reading here on how Instagram has opened you to new connections that you would not have thought of reminds me of the times (old times!) when I was trying to drag you into seesmic videoing, which had done exactly that you are describing for me at the time!

    I am happy for you, because I believe that only good can come from the unexpected, unplanned, and just opening a little crack in the windows of who we are. Do you know the ? I find it an interest model, and I always try to open the scare – and the square!

  19. Otir

    Link is missing… and not editing allowed? grrrr…

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