Stories Through the Lens

Stories are the fabric of our lives. We tell these stories in a variety of different ways. Some of the most powerful stories involve images or videos because seeing someone allows the viewer connect with the subject.

Look no further than National Geographic for images and videos that move us.

We often ask students to create a movie or capture images for a project. But we rarely give them guidance and instruction on how to capture great videos or photos. As a result, the message that the students are trying to convey can get lost in the most important aspect of the process – the actual media we capture.

There are a number of things that we can do to create effective visuals and organise them to help tell a story. These stories can be captured in a very short time. The skills that your students will learn are transferable across so many different subject areas.

To start, we have to help students to compose strong images and videos. Composition is the key ingredient to any well told story.

We also must be aware that there are a variety of parts to a well told story. To tell a story we should work to capture a variety of visuals that help to set the scene, introduce the characters, see some of the specific parts of the story and sum up the experience.

Although there are a great variety of tools that one can use to capture and edit images and videos, I have used tools that are already often available in schools. We use iPads and iPods to tell the stories around our school. These are the tools we have but in no way the only tools that one can use. I will share how I have used these tools to create stories.

The following is a resource for you to help you and your students create great images and videos for their own stories.

1. Holding your device and capturing images

This is an often overlooked aspect of capturing an image but when you see poorly captured visuals like shaky video or fingers in the foreground of images to know how important it is to do this properly.

photo 1-7

Many people don’t know that the “plus volume” button on their iPad, iPod or iPhone can actually be used to capture an image or start a video recording. Because of this, my preferred method for capturing visual media involves treating my device like a point and shoot camera and holding it in two hands while using one finger to capture the media.

When capturing video you must make sure that you keep your device very still. To do this, brace it against a wall, table, the ground – anything stable that will prevent you from shaking.

Your device will naturally try to autofocus itself but sometimes the autofocus is focusing on the wrong thing. To focus your device, simply touch the screen where you would like the camera to focus. You will see a small box that appears and that is where device will try to focus. If you wish to lock the focus on that point, simply touch the screen and hold it until the square pulsates and you see “AF/AE Lock” on the bottom of the screen.

When capturing video you should follow Steve Stockman‘s advice and treat your video camera like a still camera. What that means is you should keep your camera still and not pan and move around at all. When you look at most movies this is how they are shot. When a video is captured that moves around it can make the viewer feel uncomfortable or even sick. They often want the camera to move a different way because they want to explore the scene. You may see people who watch a film that has been captured while moving leaning one way or another trying to will the camera to go where they want to go. IMAX films on extremely large screens are famous for this.

So when capturing video, keep your camera still and try to brace it on something stable so the video doesn’t shake.

2. Composition 

Composition is the most important factor in creating a strong image. There are so many compositional tips out there but these are my top four.


Perspective – Most images and video are captured from the same perspective – from around shoulder height of a person. This is because most people stand and capture their images.

One of the easiest things someone can do to capture a visual that looks unique is to change one’s perspective. If you can adopt a higher than normal perspective this is called a bird’s eye view; like a bird would fly over the scene and look down.Whenever I find a place that I can look down on a scene, I take advantage and capture images from that perspective.
IMG_4098If you can capture a perspective that is closer to the ground this is called a worm’s eye view; like a worm looking at the world from ground level. Capturing an image from ground level is much easier than bird’s eye view because you can always get low to the ground.

Getting closer/Details


Photographers are often renowned for seeing things that other people miss. One of the best things you can do to learn to capture images and video that other people might not see is to look for the details. The details are that image within an image and can often tell a story of their own.

The easiest way to capture the details of a subject is to capture your first image and then move closer and look for part of the scene that catches your eye and get closer and focus in on that. Then get closer and capture another image. Keep getting closer and closer until your device wont focus any more.

Put Your Subject Off Centre

Rule thirds bad sample.002People can get the bullseye mentality when it comes to photography and always put their subject right in the middle of the frame. The problem with this is the eye will be attracted to the subject but then want to go and explore the rest of the image. If the subject is in the centre of the image, they will often start there and then look into one corner of the frame and then back to the middle and then out to another corner of the frame and then back to the middle. This will continue until the viewer has looked in all 4 corners of the image.

rule thirds image.001In contrast to this, if the photographer composes the image so that the subject is off to one side, the viewer can look at the subject and then in one swooping motion look around at the photo before returning back to the subject. When an image is composed this way, the viewer doesn’t have to work so hard to see all parts of the photo and will (often subconsciously) like this image better than if the subject were in the middle of the frame.

To take this a step further, we can divide the viewfinder into thirds both horizontally and vertically and with lines. The points where these lines intersect is a great region to place your subject. This is often referred to as the rule of thirds.

rule thirds.001rule thirds image.003


When talking about photography, National Geographic Photographer Joel Sartore once said, you can tell the difference between someone who know what they are doing and someone who doesn’t simply by looking at the background of their images; that is how important this crucial part of your image is.

Once I have decided on my subject, the next thing that I ask myself is what do I want in the background?

A distracting background can take away focus from your subject and lessen the impact of your visual. There are many things that can create a distracting background. Once of the most common is bright colours. Because bright colours attract our eyes, our attention is often drawn to them. The problem is that when composing an image, if one forgets to look at the background these distractions are difficult to hide.







The first image has very distracting red colours in the background. I repositioned myself to try to hide the appearance of the red in the second image.

IMG_7540A good background can do one of two things. Firstly, if a background doesn’t have any distracting elements, if will naturally draw attention to your subject in the foreground. A ‘clean’ background will allow your viewer to focus in on what is important in your scene. The second thing a background can do is give context to your subject or compliment your subject. If your subject is a swimmer, it makes much more sense to have the background of a pool rather than in front of a circus. This may seem obvious but because people rarely think about backgrounds, this can sometimes hurt their final image.

In the sample image of the marshmallow with chocolate inside, I decided to put the fire in the background of my image because it relates to how the marshmallow was cooked.

3. Exploring a subject

This is one of the best exercises anyone can do to start to see something in a more creative way. Start by picking a subject. Don’t pick a tiny subject that is very difficult to see and explore. Choose a larger subject that you can move around and see from all sorts of different angles.

Your objective is to capture as many photos or 3 second video clips of the subject as possible in 5-6 minutes. You should use all of the compositional techniques that you have just learned and try to capture your subject in as many different ways as possible. Try to capture visuals from far away and from close up. Try bird’s eye view and worm’s eye view. Be aware of what is in the background of your image. Try to put your subject off centre. There are no wrong ways to do this exercise. Just don’t slow down and try to capture as many images as you can.

This is an exercise that you can do again and again. It only takes 5-6 minutes and it will do an excellent job helping you to develop your creative eye for seeing something differently.

4. The Elements of a Story

When telling a story we want to make sure that the viewer has a clear understanding of the different aspects of the story. Much like when a writer or a storyteller uses words to convey a story to someone, as visual artists we must use images and videos to help our audience understand our stories.

There are a variety of types of different shots that we can use to tell a story. The order and organization of these different shots can vary, but we want to try to make sure that we use the shots to set the scene and introduce the characters much like a writer would do in their book.

IMG_5051Establishing Shot– An establishing shot is a wide shot that shows the audience where the story is taking place. Sometimes when a filmmaker is in a scene and they can see all of the elements they forget to share these elements with their audience.

The purpose of the establishing shot is to introduce the audience to the place where the story is taking place and set the scene. The establishing shot doesn’t have to have any characters in it but it can.

IMG_5078Medium Shot – The medium shot focuses in on one part of the scene and goes in closer than the establishing shot. If the establishing shot is a scene in an outdoor market the medium shot will take a closer look at one aspect of that market like an artist creating a drawing.

The purpose of the medium shot is to focus in on a part of the scene and draw the viewer’s attention to that particular part of the scene. This is also where we can introduce some of the characters of the story.

IMG_5129Portrait – A portrait focuses in on one of the characters in your visual story. In shorter movies, it will probably be the main character. In longer stories, you may have multiple portrait shots of different characters.

The purpose of the portrait shot is to get a closer look at one of the characters in your story. The image of the old woman on the right was captured and then the background was blurred in an app called After Focus.


Details – Details focus in close on a part of the story. They can be a key part of the story like a foot resting on a soccer ball or fingers touching the piano keys. In this example, the details were objects that were for sale in the market.

We have already looked at how getting closer and finding the picture within a picture allows us to show that unseen part of the story that so many people miss. This is the purpose of capturing the details.

IMG_5006The Moment – The moment is not a specifically composed image from a distance or close to your subject like the establishing shot, medium shot, portrait or details shot. The moment can be any one of the first four shots.

The moment sums up the story in one shot. It can often stand on its own as the shot that represents the whole story. Some people think that the moment shot has to be an action shot but this is not true. It just should epitomize the story and the experience.

I used to have a subscription to Sports Illustrated magazine and in the first few pages they would have some double page images of some of the best shots from the week. These were often shots that I would think of as “the moment” – a representation of a particular sporting event.

Instead of looking in the magazine, you can view these images online and see some of the best shots taken from particular events. Some events like the Olympics will have the top images from each day of competition. These images can be any of the different types of shots but are more often medium or portrait shots. There are sometimes establishing shots and details shots.

Bonus Shot – Over the shoulder – This shot is close enough that it is like a mixture between a medium shot and a portrait but it is distinguishable from both of these types of shot. Basically, you are placing your camera around (or even on) a subject’s shoulder so the viewer will be seeing what the subject sees. This type of shot is a great because the perspective brings the viewer into the subject’s world.

One way to remember the different types of shots is to start with the establishing wide shot. Then get closer and capture a shot of some of the characters in the story. Then get closer and capture an image of one of the characters of the story. And get even closer and capture a detail that represents part of your story. The moment shot is often a medium or a portrait shot and captures something that represents the experience.

This video displays all of the different types of shots. They don’t have to be in order from establishing to medium to portrait to details to moment. You can always mix up the order. See if you can name the different types of shots. The video was filmed on an iPhone and edited in iMovie on the iphone.

This video is a longer video which includes an interview with a member of the school community who was leaving the job after 41 years. The actual interview lasted less than 5 minutes. The work to get the other shots of the vignettes took about 30 minutes. I transferred the files to my computer and used Final Cut Pro (but you can use iMovie just as easily) to create the final movie.

5. To Storyboard or Not to Storyboard

If you have taught students to create a movie before chances are that you have talked to them about creating a storyboard. A storyboard is basically a list of shots that the students preplan and then go out and capture. They might include a sketch, a description of the scene, dialogue and any sound effects.


Don’t get me wrong, storyboards are great for planning out a movie of set shots where you have a very clear idea of what you want to happen. And of course you can plan to have all the different types of shots from establishing to the moment. However, when it comes to telling a more spontaneous story, it is much harder to use a storyboard.

If I want my students to tell the story of their experience of their excursion out to school to a place they may never have been before like Chinatown, it is very difficult for them to create a storyboard. Because they have never seen the place they are going to, they can’t effectively imagine the different shot types and possibilities until they can see them. If they have a storyboard with specific shots to capture they often don’t look for other possible shots.

What I prefer to do is have the students imagine the story they are trying to tell and come up with a possible list of shots. I was working with a group of students who was going on a trip that included snorkelling. We brainstormed what the possible shots they could capture for all of the different 5 shot types. They had some great ideas but, not knowing what the little island where they were going to snorkel at looked like, prevented them from thinking about possible perspectives and possibilities. But knowing what snorkelling is they came up with some great ideas for details shots like a close up of pulling on the fins, a close up of just the snorkel in the mouth and many others. I find that this preplanning works way better than storyboarding because with a storyboard, students often fix their focus around getting those exact shots and not seeing the other possibilities.

So instead of storyboarding, I prefer to preplan and imagine possibilities. Then when the students get to the place where they are going to create their stories, they concentrate on capturing 2-5 images or videos of each type of the five shots.

6. Putting the Elements of a Story together

Now that we have captured our photos and/or video, how do we use these elements to tell our story? First of all we have to think of the purpose of our story. We can use the same elements we have captured to tell different stories depending how we arrange them.

Another important factor is the medium that we would like to use to share our story. If we have captured video, we will obviously have to create a movie. If we have captured photographs we can either create a video or use the still images for other purposes. Because we can create a movie with both still images and video footage, let’s look at some easy ways to create an effective movie.

photo 2Creating your movie – One of the easiest ways to create a movie when you have captured your video on an iPad, iPod or iPhone is to use an app called iMovie. Those people who use Apple computers will  be familiar with iMovie on your computer. The app version for your device is extremely easy to use yet creates great movies. Most of the videos captured on my devices are edited in iMovie right on the device. There are not a lot of bells and whistles but it gets the job done quickly. A short time with the app is all you need to find your way around.

Music – one of the important aspects of creating a movie and setting the mood for your movie is the music you select. Think about the music that is associated with scary parts of movies or television shows. Then think about the music that accompanies an exciting chase scene. Or a quiet moment between two characters in a story. The music can really set the tone and get the viewer to start feeling the emotions we want them to feel. The video further up in the post about the member of school that was leaving after 41 years would have a very different feel if it had heavy metal music in the background!

Here is an example of how someone has used music to change the feeling of the movie trailer. They used clips from the actual Mary Poppins movie to create something very different.

iMovie has some music called theme music that you can use for your movies but I have found that these can get old pretty soon because there are only 8 different soundtracks. You can always add music that is in the device’s iTunes library if you have any.

One thing you could do is go to a music site that allows you to get creative commons music and put that into your iTunes library on the computer(s) that you use to sync your devices to. There are many sites that allow you to access creative commons music including Jamendo, Incompetch, Purple Planet, dig.ccmixter, danosongs and jewelbeat. Remember to always attribute where you got the music from in your video. Please check the terms and conditions for the specific sites as they may differ.

Alternatively, and I would argue best of all, you could get the students to create their own music. This could be done in collaboration with your music teacher. You could record the sound right into your movie on the device.

Downloading your movie – When the movie has been created, I usually export the movie to the device’s camera roll and connect the device to a computer to download the movie. There are other options for sharing, but when it comes to working with students, this options is fast and easy. Most Apple computers will use iPhoto as the default program to open and download your movies and pictures but I like to use a program called Image Capture. In fact, I like to set it as the default program to open when I connect a device or camera. It quickly is able to access the images on the camera roll and download them.

Using your images – When you have captured still images, you can put them into a movie or use them for a number of other either teacher or student purposes. We live in a media rich world where students are always searching for photos to use for various projects. In my ideal world, I would love to see students create as many of these images themselves to use in those projects.

Some people might say that there aren’t the subjects for the images around the school. I would say that you can capture images that represent your subject. So if a student is needing images for their report on the Netherlands because that is a country they visited over the summer, they can’t go and photograph the Netherlands because they are not there. But, they could get some photographs of their trip that they took when they were there. Or maybe they have some souvenirs from their trip that they could bring to school to photograph or photograph them at home.

Posters.001When you have your images you can use them in a variety of ways: teacher and student presentations, teacher and student posters, images for traditional books, images for ebooks (like Book Creator or iBooks Author created books), to go into teacher and student websites, for student projects, as prompts for student writing or many other applications

When you decide to use images, try to maximize the size of the image, use very little text and keep your font types and colours simple. The app Haiku Deck is an excellent example of how to create strong visual presentations and posters. If you are on an Apple computer you can use the templates with pages as a starting point. Another great app you can use to create visuals is Set for iWork which is not cheap but very good.

7. Taking it Further

Once you have experience with composing and capturing images you can start to take your skills and your students’ skills even further. We are constantly learning more and when it is something like capturing strong visuals to tell a story, it is exciting and motivating to build on our successes.

An advanced technique you might like to explore is not just focusing on the action in a story but also looking at people’s responses to the action. An excellent example of this is the following clip from a 2009 episode of Britain’s Got Talent featuring Susan Boyle. Watch carefully because when Susan does something, the camera goes to show the reaction from either the judges or the crowd. We are being shared in with the emotions of the viewers.

The directing genius of Alfred Hitchcock shows us how we can use the same footage, with one little change to manipulate how we make our audience feel about a character in our movie.


iPad Apps – There are a number of apps that I like to use when capturing images or video on an iOS device. By far the easiest photo and video app to use is the camera app that comes with every device. It is easy to switch between camera and video and does a good job for most situations.

photo1When I have a situation that has more difficult lighting, I like to use an app called Camera+ to capture still images. It allows you place two fingers on the screen and a square and a circle appear. They can be moved independently and where you put the square is where the camera focuses while where you put the circle is where the camera exposes for the scene.

There is a similar app that I like to use when capturing videos on a device called FiLMiC Pro which allows you to separately chose your focus and exposure points. Again, I would normally use the camera app on my device but when the lighting is difficult and I’m not getting the exposure the way I want it, I will use FiLMiC Pro.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 10.47.57 AMiTunes U coursePhotography Guidebook for iPods, iPads and iPhones. A free course which includes an multitouch book which helps students to learn compositional techniques and useful apps to use in photography.

Haiku Deck – An excellent app that uses creative commons images or allows the user to add their own images into a slide presentation. The layouts are deliberately restricted to some simple options that focus the attention of the viewer on the image.

Instagram-logoInstagram – Originally a photo sharing site that was only available on iOS devices, this site has grown and now includes videos. You can shoot the video right in Instagram or upload videos. The videos can be up to 15 seconds long. This is a great opportunity to tell digital video stories. With 15 seconds, you have 3 seconds for each type of shot (establishing, medium, portrait, details, moment). You can also tell stories with just still images. Tim Lauer, a principal of a school in Portland, Oregon, does an amazing job of telling the stories of the everyday life of what is happening at his school.

The Big Picture – An excellent resource that demonstrates a variety of types of shots around a story. Gorgeous.

How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck – an excellent book that goes into depth of how to create great videos. A resource for those who want to push their videography skills even further.

If you want some excellent examples of incredible videos shot by photographer and film maker check out Bill Frakes work on StrawHat Visuals.

Triptico – A great general classroom resource with quizzes, timers, selectors and other tools.

cover Photo toolkit.001If you are interested in Photography with a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera, please check out my book, The Photographer’s Toolkit.

Pinterest – Is a great place for looking for ideas. If students are creating graphic posters, you can find samples and collate them in one place. You may also find people who have already created a pin board of what you are looking for.

Olloclip and Gizmon Lenses – These are great accessories when you are trying to capture wide angle shots or macro shots. I especially love the macro lenses as they allow you to focus your iOS device closer than a DSLR camera.

4 thoughts on “Stories Through the Lens

  1. Pingback: Step 9: Creating and Using Video | Edublogs Teacher Challenges

  2. Pingback: Step 8: Creating and using video | Edublogs Teacher Challenges

  3. Pingback: Read the entire Dave Caleb article here: | Ms. Morgan

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