Write Like a Photographer

Whether you read this newsletter for the first time or have been reading it since it was launched, you have every reason to think of me as a person of words. This is the medium I use, and the challenges and solutions I write about revolve mostly around written communication. But the truth is that before I began to play with words, I considered myself a person of images. I was thinking in visuals; visuals moved me, and for the most part, I’ve expressed my innermost thoughts with photographs. I love photography and even turned it into a small business for a short period. Often, I stop in the middle of the street because something catches my attention; I take a photo, and from there, my imagination takes the lead, and I weave ideas and stories around the scene I captured. 

I used to think these two worlds had nothing in common. I enjoyed both, but I used to believe each had different dynamics. Photographs and texts can complement one another, but I considered photography and writing two distinct activities. With time I learned that they have more in common than meets the eye. A compelling photograph — an image that resonates with your audience and triggers something in their minds — is much like effective textual content. And the way to capture a meaningful photo is not much different from writing a piece of text that makes your audience think and maybe even act. 

I took this picture at a pro-democracy protest march in Tel Aviv. I love this image and the story it tells. In retrospect, the way this photo was taken and what makes it an effective visual is very similar to what I do when I write, so here are five things that helped me capture this photo and be proud of the result. All of them could be applied to any non-fiction text you write. 

Go Sideways 

So, this photo was taken during a protest march. Thousands of people were shouting, singing, drumming, and carrying signs. Most people who wanted to take a picture of that event were walking in the middle of this river of people, as was I for some time. This was the center of attention and where things were happening. At the same time, it was so crowded with people participating in the march and with photographers that finding something meaningful and unique to capture was almost impossible. When everyone is exploring the same space, it is not trivial to have a fresh perspective on it. 

So I went to the side. There, on the sidewalk, a few people were preparing for the next part of the march. The sun was setting, and it was time to light up the torches. Nobody seemed to pay attention to what was happening because, in some sense, not much was happening there on the sidewalk. But it was this small moment that captured my attention. It was certainly not the main event, but it was at least as meaningful in my eyes. Maybe even more so. And since I was probably the only one there with a camera, the result is unique. None of the thousands of photos taken during the event is similar to this one. 

Writing about over-saturated topics can be a challenge. While any idea is built on top of previous ones, you don’t want to write things indistinguishable from what others say and write. Often, the key is going sideways and finding a nuance others are not paying attention to. When you find some aspect that is not at the center of attention, it is often easier to come up with new insights, even in the context of a popular subject. Apart from having less competition, your ideas can create a more significant impact — your audience will remember them as your ideas because they will shine above the flood of material written on that topic. 

Be Proactive 

When I first noticed this group of people preparing to light up their torches, I was too far from them to take a picture. There was only one thing to do: I had to run. And so I did, and I crashed to the ground to capture the scene from this particular angle (more on that soon). 

Anyone who was ever in a photography class knows that there’s no replacement for some legwork. You might have a variety of lenses, a fancy flash, and a huge sensor that enables you to crop your photos on your workstation, but nothing can beat physically getting closer to or farther from your subject and twisting your body in unnatural positions to get just the right angle. Taking this scene from afar would have resulted in a poor photo where you could barely understand what I was trying to capture. Taking this photo standing would have created a much less powerful image. To bring unique value, I had to sweat. And it was worth it. 

Having a good idea for content is as important as catching a glimpse of that scene. But a great idea is barely enough. You have to work before you can write something that provides value. Non-fiction writing involves research, processing information, refining your ideas, talking to people, and thinking about different perspectives. It is an investment you must make if you want to write something meaningful, and no innovative idea can replace it. 

Doing this legwork before writing even a single word will make your text richer and more profound. Even if it isn’t explicitly written in the text, it will be felt and appreciated. At a minimum, don’t rush into the actual writing when you have an idea. Take note of it and let it sink in. Allow yourself to generate new insights and follow their lead. When the time comes to write, you will have more raw material to play with and craft your content. 

Pick an Angle

So, was crashing to the ground worth it? Definitely yes! 

I love the angle of this scene for several reasons. First, it makes the people a bit taller, not in an exaggerated way, but just enough to stand out from the crowd. They are, after all, the carriers of the torch! No less important is the fact that this angle allows us to see the urban scenery in the background. Yes, it is blurred (and we’ll get to that soon), but you can definitely see that this scene is taking place in the middle of the city. It provides context to what’s happening but also creates a nice tension: you don’t expect to see fire and torches in the middle of the city. This angle also creates movement. Our eyes are first drawn to what is in focus — the eyes of the young woman — and then to what she is looking at — the fire. 

None of that would have been possible from any other angle. Had I taken this photo standing with my camera at the same level as the people (or even higher than some), the effect would have been dramatically different, and not for the best. The people at the center of this scene would have been barely distinguishable from the other people in the background. The formation created by the torches would have been less powerful, and the fire would have probably blended with the people instead of creating a clash with the building in the background. 

Same scene, same location, different angle, and… a plain photo nobody would remember. With the angle I eventually used, the photograph becomes unique and memorable, but not in any gimmicky way. This angle contributes to the atmosphere I was trying to capture and what I wished to say. It serves the picture and doesn’t take the focus away from its essence. 

Like going sideways, finding the right angle in your writing enables you to provide unique value, even when writing about a common topic. Choosing the right angle can create an entirely different story — a story no one told before. In non-fiction writing, a fresh angle often triggers new insights and ideas. Finding your angle can help the text be memorable and associated with you. Your angle can become your signature. 

There are infinite angles to choose from, but not all are equal. If your angle is nothing more than a gimmick, it will create the opposite reaction. Pick an angle that serves the idea and helps you make a point — an angle you will be proud of. 

Decide What to Focus On

When cameras were brainless devices, you had to consciously decide what part of the frame you wanted in focus. Then came auto-focus, and most of us relied on it most of the time, delegating this artistic decision to some chip in our camera. Then came smartphones with their tiny lenses and fixed apertures, and we kind of got used to photos in which more or less everything is in focus. 

But what is in focus is an essential aspect of photography. Deciding which subject should be in focus and what parts of the scene would be blurred (and to what extent) dramatically impacts the photo’s narrative and sometimes its artistic quality. Like the angle from which you take the picture, deciding what to focus on must be a conscious, intentful decision. 

I have a few versions of this scene, each of them with a different element in focus. When I observed them side-by-side, I had no doubt which one I should choose: the one that brings the young woman to the front of the stage as she lights up her torch. Her expression and how she looks at the flame are priceless; they tell the entire story of that moment and probably the entire event. It is an expression of hope and fearless determination. She is the story, much more than the torches. Don’t get me wrong: the torches and the fire make this photo powerful; they make this woman powerful. This is why they are part of this frame. But their details are not very interesting. You see them, but you don’t have to focus on them. They are merely a prop, and that’s why they are blurred. 

It’s a tough decision, but it is one worth making. The alternative is to have more things in focus. This might sound like a way to create a richer image, and sometimes it is. But in this case, adding more details would have distracted the viewers, and they would have paid less attention to what I found to be the heart of the scene. By reducing the depth of field, I didn’t just create a visual aesthetic — I emphasized what I found most important in this event: the people. 

In writing, we have to make a similar decision. We cannot add infinite details even when they seem inherently related to the subject. We must make numerous choices that, when combined, create depth of field: some things will be in focus, while others will remain intentionally blurred. And there are several ways to achieve that. We can leave some stuff out of the text, even though they relate to the subject. We can decide to mention them without going into details. We can use abstractions to introduce concepts without describing their bits and bytes. Or we can play with the length in which we explore certain things. All these must be conscious decisions, and we must understand (or at least try to anticipate) their impact on the reader. There is no one right decision. Only when we know what we wish to achieve can we decide what should be in focus and how to play with the rest of the scene. 


So, I walked, ran, and crashed; I picked an angle, decided what to focus on, and eventually got that perfect frame. But that wasn’t the end: The creative process continued when I was back home. As crucial as capturing a meaningful picture is, there are still plenty of creative decisions to make when processing the photograph. In this case, I decided the image works best in black-and-white, giving it a historical and journalistic atmosphere. I also chose to highlight the woman a bit more, emphasizing that she is at the center of this scene. 

Post-processing got a bad rap, but for me, it is an inseparable part of photography. Even the most subtle manipulations can alter the story captured in a photo or be used as a creative tool to make the story more powerful. That is not different than choosing a lens or, a few decades ago, using a particular type of film. But, of course, with our digital tools, we now have infinite choices and can create numerous variants of the same image. 

Post-processing is much like editing a draft. Editing a poor draft will never result in a good text. I have to write the best draft I can. But, by definition, no draft is perfect, and editing the text is the way to refine and hopefully perfect it. Finding and fixing errors or style violations is, of course, part of the editing process. But I find even more value in verifying the text works and has the desired impact. It is almost impossible to do that while writing the text. You have to read the complete draft to decide what works best and how to tweak the words, the sentences, and the paragraphs to make them even more impactful. 

A common mistake we make is getting attached to the first draft. Effective editing might require significant changes and sometimes even the omission of extensive parts of the text. This doesn’t mean writing the first draft is a waste of time; without it, there would be no second draft. In that sense, the draft — any draft — is nothing more than raw material. When we acknowledge that, we can realize its potential. 

Photography and writing are not that different. Any creative activity can benefit from going sideways, being proactive, picking an angle, deciding what to focus on, and post-processing. It is a fusion of many conscious decisions and numerous unconscious twists and turns. It won’t create an amazing result 100% of the time, but when it does, the result is magical.

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