8 Ways Storytelling Can Improve Your Photos and Videos

Photography and filmmaking wasn’t always a part of Kane Andrade’s career path. The San Francisco Bay Area native and Adobe Lightroom Ambassador originally was interested in animation before joining the military. That military experience would wound up changing the course of his life and ignited the flame that inspired him to tell the seldom heard stories of those within his community.

Full disclosure: This article was brought to you by Adobe

Kane Andrade was born in the United States to parents that had immigrated from South America. He discovered his passion for art at an early age through drawing and taking photos with a small Kodak camera. Andrade thought having a career as an artist was never an option, however. His father continuously reinforced that sentiment, saying that unlike being a doctor or a lawyer, being an artist wasn’t an occupation that would pay a decent living.

After graduating from high school, Andrade joined the military as a way to help pay for college. As his five-year military experience came to an end, Andrade enrolled in animation classes, feeling that the field may pay enough to make his parents proud while also fueling his passion for art.

“The deeper I got into animation in school, the more I felt compelled to pick up the camera instead,” Andrade says. “I can’t explain why. I guess my creativity was being ignited through the animation, but my heart was calling me to animate with a camera instead of a pencil. I noticed other photographers on Instagram seemed to be making a living through photography and traveling, so I decided to try to see what I could make happen. I figured I was young enough that if I failed, I had plenty of time to fall back on Plan B. After dabbling in it for five years, I finally was able to shed my father’s voice in my head telling me that artists couldn’t make good money and I jumped in full time.”

Andrade’s journey as a trans man to where he is today was never easy and being an active duty member of the United States military often made that journey even more challenging. Finding it difficult to locate and connect with peers who were in the same boat, Andrade began to connect with himself through the art of self-storytelling.

“During my transition, I often felt alone,” Andrade says. “I knew this time was going to be one of the most important I would ever experience in my life, so I began to document the physical and emotional changes I was going through with photography. I wanted to tell the story of the journey I was on, even if the only viewer of that story would wind up being me. I thought to myself, ‘No one can tell your story better than you, so you may as well tell it.’ And I did.”

Throughout the course of Andrade’s short career, the artist has gravitated toward storytelling as opposed to the one-off Instagram photo.

“Storytelling is not only therapeutic,” he says, “but also a great way to educate viewers on a life that they may not know.”

Andrade shares with PetaPixel the lessons that have helped him become a better storyteller, which in turn have not only helped his self-growth, but also the community that he cherishes.

Think About the Story That You Want to Tell and How You Want to Tell It

Andrade firmly believes that the best way to improve your storytelling is to connect with yourself. Whether it is your own story or ones that have meaning to you, he says that the best stories you can tell are the ones that you are truly passionate about.

“The story I knew how to tell the best was my own,” Andrade says. “And the stories I know how to tell almost as well are the ones that I can relate to the most. When I am telling my own story, I know how to set the mood that I am feeling. This can involve different lighting types, settings, and angles that can convey different emotions. I will use more shadow-filled frames to convey sadness or confusion, or bright and colorful frames to convey an empowering and upbeat mood.”

Andrade details how his love of using colors in his stories originated.

“I am colorblind, so a lot of the world looks like a RAW photo to me. Desaturated is the best way to put it. I studied color theory, which really helped me understand how colors can affect how someone is feeling. This led me to realize adding certain colors into my photography, even though I may see them differently than most people, can not only affect my mood when I am capturing and editing the photos, but also the viewer’s mood when I post them.”

The use of color in Andrade’s storytelling doesn’t always come on site. Often, the hard work of trying to convey the mood he wishes to express comes when he edits his photos in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

“I do like to play with colors when editing my photos in Lightroom, since I can’t see colors like most people,” Andrade explains. “I will often incorporate what I do see, so I will make a lot of greens have a more yellow or brownish hue. Editing might be my favorite part of the storytelling process, as I feel like the way I see isn’t very exciting. So when I edit my photos, I get inspired because the final product is how I would like to see real life, but it just doesn’t come out that way.”

Some of Andrade’s most engaging posts on Instagram are short videos that show how he edits his photos in Lightroom.

“My viewers really love to get a look inside my editing process. I really love making those before and after posts because it can really show how I perceive colors and how, through hours of work, I can hit just the right note of vibrant emotion.”

For Andrade, the use of bright colors is not only derived from his current feelings, but also his wishes for the future.

“The reason I make my work so colorful and portray life in such a bright way is actually because there has been a lot of pain in my life. From my time in the military, being a trans man, and being a person of color, I have faced a lot of challenges. And with my photography, I like to also express my wishes and desires for my future. I want my future to always be bright and full of color, so I like to convey that hope in my artwork.”

Andrade likes to focus on the positive aspects of his stories, even when the story subject has faced difficulties.

“There was a shoot I did with a group of queer people for a Pride campaign. Usually when I shoot my community, I try to make these stories feel joyous, even though there might be pain in our past. I like to tell stories using props too, so we had balloons and bubbles. For me, this helps me show how proud we are as a community, despite the challenges that we have faced.

“I think trying to convey a ‘feeling’ when you are telling your stories is critical,” he continues. “Even if that feeling might be sad or challenging. There is no formula to determine which angle you should take in your storytelling. It should all come from your heart and how you perceive the story. For me, I just perceive the stories in my community through the lens of celebration, so I try to convey that feeling to my audience using vibrant colors, bright lighting, and fun props.”

Observe How Others Tell Stories and Study the Ways They Capture Your Attention

Andrade feels the best way to learn about storytelling is by carefully de-crafting other storytellers’ styles. Even though there is an enormous amount of educational content available on the internet, he says that Instagram is still the place where he learns how to improve his storytelling.

“I just love seeing how these masters tell their stories in this little vertical box on a device that fits in your pocket,” Andrade describes. “A big inspiration to me has been Garret King, the man known as Shortstache on Instagram. I just love watching what he does. He doesn’t even need to say much. His photos and videos, for me, tell such a dynamic story. I take what I learn by watching how he tells stories on Instagram, and I twist it just slightly to make it my own. I learned how to use color more effectively to tell a story through Jordan Taylor Wright. He was just doing such beautiful things with color, and I really gravitated towards the way color could help tell a story. Likewise, I used lessons I interpreted from watching him and I made that into my own colorful style.”

“Much like art is subjective, so is storytelling. So one style might not resonate with you, but it might resonate with me,” he continues. “It is important to develop your own style from the storytellers that you are inspired by. Why try to develop your own style off of someone you don’t necessarily find inspiring to you? If you aren’t overly inspired by them or their style and you try to recreate it, in turn, how can your own stories inspire you?”

Learn how to Use a Variety of Images

Since Instagram is Andrade’s go-to storytelling location, he is often thinking about the way he will tell the story on the social media platform before he actually captures it. This entails shooting photos that will look more dynamic in Instagram’s preferred vertical and square orientation, identifying split image opportunities, and envisioning the editing style as he looks over the scene in front of him.

“Often the story lies in places outside of the main subject,” Andrade states. “Sometimes the surrounding pixels are just as important to the broader story than the subject itself. And details are becoming more a part of my storytelling. I learned this when I did some campaign work that involved someone sitting in a car. I was so hyper focused on photographing the person in the car, I was missing out on the secondary things that really added to the overall story we were trying to tell in the photos. When I looked through my photos, I realized that I could have told a better overall story with some really dynamic detail shots. And that lesson has stuck with me to this day.”

Andrade says that just as important as the details are, setting the stage at the opening, and evoking emotion at the end is just as important.

“Initially, you want to have an image that really draws the viewer in. From there, you have a lot of latitude to get down into the hypothetical weeds and play around with the details and portraits that guide the viewer through the story. When it is all said and done, the last image should leave the viewer either wanting more, or staring at that photo for an extended period of time, letting their imagination run wild.”

Embrace the Use of Video in Your Storytelling

While the creative world is divided over Instagram’s pivot to video, Andrade says that it can help photography storytellers learn how to make even more descriptive stories that sometimes aren’t possible with just photographs.

“I used to only take photographs, and I never really thought about storytelling through motion pictures. During my transition, I was taking photos of myself as my body changed. I didn’t really post them. I did it more to document the story of my transition for me to look back on. When I really started to notice the difference through the photographs I was taking, I also noticed that my voice was changing as well. This lit off the lightbulb in my head, and I realized that I was missing a very important part of my transition story. I was also keeping written diaries, which went into more detail around my thoughts and feelings during my transition. I decided to talk about those feelings through personal video diaries, as the photos weren’t fully conveying what I was going through at that moment. The more I did it, the more I started finding my love for video, and how powerful the format could be for the story of myself that I was trying to tell. The video diaries perfectly captured how I was feeling in that moment, which could have been forgotten if it was only documented in photographs.”

Andrade explains how the use of video started to add a layer of emotion that was absent in his photographs.

“It’s amazing how effective video is at making people really understand what the subject is going through. I think it’s easier for people to relate to when they can feel this emotion through the art of video.”

Video is easier to skew the viewers to see the stories as you want them to be seen, Andrade says.

“Photographs are really left up to the interpretation of the viewers, which is a great way to make their imaginations run wild. But with video, you can steer the narrative, which really lets you make sure the story you are trying to tell comes through the way you want it to.”

And for those who are still skeptical about using Instagram Reels, Andrade recommends to start slow. Simply posting a photo story as a reel can have a stronger impact on your viewers than posting the still photographs, as the movement between story frames can add a dynamic layer to the overall story. In addition, Instagram’s video heavy algorithm will draw many more eyes to your story than just the photos alone.

Use Your Emotions and Find Connections to Your Art

Andrade is an emotional person, as he proudly boasts himself. Over the years, he has learned to be comfortable sharing his emotional side with his viewers, which he describes was frightening at first. After time, however, he not only noticed a stronger connection with his viewers, but he also felt more inspired to share the stories that compelled him. This helped Andrade focus his time and attention on the stories that moved him personally.

“I began to notice that I wasn’t feeling the emotion through my landscape work, so my creativity began to shift to portraits and the stories of people, especially those in my community,” he explains. “I think it’s really important to be connected to your emotions and not try to force creativity. If I tried to force a constant connection with landscape photography right now, it would just discourage me, and make me lose my inspiration in all forms of storytelling. So instead of trying to force it, I just listen to my emotions and feelings as they guide me to the connection that will keep me inspired and creative. I think that is so essential for everyone in our field. If your heart isn’t in the form of art you are sharing, I think your audience will always pick up on that.”

Andrade describes how he doesn’t often have much in common with the typical travel and landscape photographer, which makes it hard for him to find those personal connections that might reignite his passion for landscape photography.

“I really love people, so experiencing those rare creative moments with the people I connect with would make my photography special and inspiring to me, feelings I wasn’t getting by photographing landscapes by myself. This progression helped me to realize that my storytelling might actually be more beneficial within my community at the moment. Of course, as I evolve that might change, but it’s important to just follow your heart as it guides your creativity. I want to tell the stories because I feel them. Our time is limited, so it’s vital to focus it on what makes you truly happy.”

Captions Can Play an Important Role

In today’s visuals-focused world, it’s often easy to overlook the compelling nature of storytelling through words. However, words are often the most effective way of connecting with your audience and spurring engagement on your story posts. While typing is easy, Andrade says that finding the stories that inspire you to write about your experiences is more difficult.

“Back to my wavering connections with landscapes, I could never really find the words to say when I would post my landscape photos,” he explains. “I love the outdoors, the fresh air, and the beauty, but because of the broken connection, it was hard for me to formulate the written words that I think can be so helpful to accompany your visual stories.”

“But as I started finding the stories I was more passionate about, my captions became like a diary,” Andrade continues. “I noticed how helpful that was to my inspiration and creativity, and it seemed that people responded more to the stories I was trying to tell. Being able to focus on the stories I was passionate about really opened the floodgates and the words started coming out, which I felt made me a more compelling storyteller.”

“It can be hard to start opening up in this way, but I think starting small can help you slowly get more comfortable with really ‘talking’ to your audience, as opposed to just letting the visuals talk for you. You don’t need to write novels, but write captions that convey your intentions, emotions, and meaning. I think this is the formula that will allow people to really connect with you and your stories.”

Practice, Even Though It Won’t Make You Perfect

Repetitive actions, such as going out to photograph sunrise day after day, has obvious benefits. Photographers can learn the ins and outs of their camera, train their eye to see more intriguing compositions, and master how to adapt to different lighting situations. Practice is critical for all skill-based hobbies, and photography is no different.

Andrade stresses the importance of not only practicing the technical aspects of photography, but also the emotion-driven aspects of storytelling.

“The act of storytelling through photos and video can be frustrating at times,” he concedes. “In the first couple of years of my visual storytelling, there were many times that I didn’t think I would ever get any better. But all those times I went out and forced myself to create something trained me in the long run, even if I didn’t see immediate results. I think it’s so critical to not only practice storytelling, but also practice patience. Everything you do, every lesson you teach yourself, will have an effect on your future storytelling, even if it’s hard to see at the time.”

“Practicing your storytelling will also help you identify which stories you connect with. If I didn’t continuously shoot all those sunrise and sunset photos over the years, my mind might still be stuck in that cycle of how to ‘master’ landscapes. Instead, all that practice showed me that I really love telling more intimate stories of people. The countless hours of practice got me to where I needed to be. I not only learned how to take better photos, but also, I trained my creative mind to identify what really inspired me.”

Remember the Stories You Are Proud Of

Finally, Andrade says that always keeping the stories that meant the most to you in the forefront of your mind can guide you on your storytelling journey.

“The two stories I am most proud of are very different in the emotion that they invoke,” he says. “The first is my own story of my transition. It’s something that I am so proud of and happy that I did. For me, it’s very therapeutic that I can remind myself of where I was at and where I am at now. But I think it can also be a great way to educate people on the journey that myself and others in my community have taken.”

“However, the second story I am most proud of is much more heartbreaking. In college, I was given a vague assignment to ‘tell a story.’ I immediately thought back to my experience in the military and a friend who I had made. I decided to tell the story of military families and the tragedy that they often live through. My friend had lost her husband, and she was having a very hard time accepting it. Often, to the point of staring at the front door, still truly believing he was on his way home. I tried to capture the raw moments. The pain that she was going through. She thought it would be therapeutic for her, and I really hope it was. It was very empowering for her, but it was a very sad story to tell.”

Remembering the lessons he learned from those stories led Andrade to develop a plan in partnership with Adobe to document the lives and experiences of fellow trans veterans, something that he connects deeply with.

“As I began to work on this project, I was surprised at how every trans vet had a very different story to tell,” he describes. “Even though we are all going through the same thing, the way it affects us and those around us is very different from subject to subject, especially while we were on active duty in the military. Some of it is sad, some of it is exciting. But the one thing I really learned from this project is that my storytelling can be a powerful tool. Telling these stories has helped me personally, as they have helped me process my emotions around my own experience as a trans vet, while also connecting me deeper within this small community.”

“Even though this is an ongoing project, I feel it’s already been helpful to the community,” Andrade concludes. “I believe these stories have opened the eyes of many who may not be familiar with the hardships that trans vets go through. Most importantly, telling these stories has empowered my subjects. It often isn’t easy for trans veterans to open up about their own journeys, especially to a wider audience. Helping them find their voice and comfort in this has had a profound impact on many parts of their lives. They feel more empowered to openly discuss what their experiences are, which is therapeutic to many of them. For me, this is what storytelling is really all about. Helping people learn, heal and empower themselves. And it all begins with you.”

More from Kane Andrade can be found on his website and Instagram.

Full disclosure: This article was brought to you by Adobe

Image credits: All photos by Kane Andrade