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Storytelling through photography


Douglas Kirkland on Photography: Storytelling through Photography

with Douglas Kirkland

Video: Storytelling through photography

(MUSIC). Douglas: Telling stories whether it's with your camera or with your words is a great form of expression. I think we all like to do that. (MUSIC). Ultimately, for me it's the camera. (MUSIC). I was hired at Look Magazine in 1960. And from that point on I learned how my camera could, strange thing to say, but could literally talk. I think everybody's camera can if they allow themselves to see what's there and make choices. You really communicate with your camera.
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Watch the Online Video Course Douglas Kirkland on Photography: Storytelling through Photography
55m 36s Appropriate for all May 03, 2013

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"Everyone's camera can tell a story," says world-renowned photographer Douglas Kirkland. Follow along as he explores the process of shooting a series of photos that connect to tell a story.

The course begins with a sampling of some of Douglas's photojournalism work for magazines such as LOOK. Next, accompany Douglas as he and his camera tell the story of a restaurant and its team at work. The photo story begins at a farmers' market at dawn, as the chef chooses his ingredients, continues through the day's menu preparations, and concludes with dinner and dessert. Along the way, Douglas describes his creative process and shares insights gained from decades as a photojournalist.

Douglas Kirkland

Storytelling through photography

(MUSIC). Douglas: Telling stories whether it's with your camera or with your words is a great form of expression. I think we all like to do that. (MUSIC). Ultimately, for me it's the camera. (MUSIC). I was hired at Look Magazine in 1960. And from that point on I learned how my camera could, strange thing to say, but could literally talk. I think everybody's camera can if they allow themselves to see what's there and make choices. You really communicate with your camera.

(MUSIC). Photo journalism in the 60s was glorious. I was called by the director of photography at Look. I was hired in July of 1960 and it was a very energetic time for photography and it was a great place to be. And frankly I grew up there. I traveled with writers. I, my life changed a great deal and I was exposed to all sorts of opportunities.

For example, Coco Chanel, she had a great influence on me because I was given an assignment to go to Paris and she didn't trust me. Who was Douglas Kirkland from New York, from this magazine, Look? Look was important but Douglas Kirkland? so what she made me or, asked me to do and insisted that I do, was to photograph some of her fashion. So, I went out with her models and photographed them. Some of them right at the place where she worked in on the Rue Cambon in Paris, and then I well, also went over near the Louvre and used that as a background.

She not only asked me, she insisted that I have that developed and come show her what I could do. She carefully looked through them. And I, I was like hat in hand there. And she, she liked what she saw, and she gave me a green light to do whatever I would like. She opened her life to me with, with a great deal of intimacy. And I used my camera to record this. Now, I was starting to really understand what my camera could do. And for example, one picture that's used a great deal is where she's working with her hands.

And that was the power. And I came in close-up on that. This was part of telling the story. I want to tell you about working on a special issue on Japan that I did. I was given approximately a month to do an entire issue of the magazine. We went to Hiroshima and we spent time with a family that had survived the atom bomb. A young man who was a protester, and I went with him to demonstrations where we were tear gassed and everything, and wore helmets.

But I still had to have a cover. And one day we were on the bullet train going back to Tokyo from where we'd, we'd been. And I, I saw some, some great graphics on a wall. So, I got my interpreter to find a place where we could get this symbol painted that meant Japan or home. And so, then we got two, two kids, which we, we got from a model agency, believe it or not. And got the little kids to sit on the curbside and put that behind them.

There was our cover. So, there is resolving a problem, an entire issue, and you need something that is going to be graphically strong. But also tells what is in this issue. (MUSIC) Where good storytelling begins is really thinking about the subject you're, you're with. That's really the difference between taking pictures and really telling a story. And of course, it should be telling information.

It's not just about making a pretty picture. Each picture should have a meaning to it. Because the individual out in front of you and what you're doing, that's what's important and that's where your story is really going to come from. (MUSIC) What I'd like to do now is tell you about a story I've wanted to do and I've just completed. My wife and I, Fran├žoise and I, don't go out to restaurants very much. But when we do go out there's always one place we go to. It's where a couple of friends of hers have created a restaurant, Nicolas and Frederic.

And they are two brothers, who have a wonderful restaurant called, The Little Door. We thought about this very carefully before launching into this project. Because what you have to have is a clear idea of what you're trying to say. And what is that? It's the story of why this place works. It works very well. And what are the elements that make it work? And who are the people that make it work? It's not just one individual. It's the team they have. For example, the chef is a wonderful man who's also Nicolas, another Nicolas there, and where does he get the produce that he works with? Because that's obviously critical.

That, that's the beginning. So, I thought, if we can go with him to the market and see the relationship he has with the people who supply him with the food. Because it all starts with the Farmers Market, a very special one in Santa Monica. (MUSIC) The lens I'm using on the camera is a 16 to 35, I want to be able to move quickly. You want to see that you're in a market and you've got to have details on the produce, but then I pull back and I want to see what is around it.

And I will make that second picture. (MUSIC) So, the strobe we're using is a very simple strobe with a, a radio on it. I have a radio on the top of my camera and he has a receiver on the top of the strobe. And we make it very weak. Because it should just be a fill light. It's not intended to overpower. And we check with the meter once or twice. And after that, just watch that distance. Keep the distance, and move it. And if you need to change it, okay. Acknowledge it, and you maybe have to increase or decrease the power of the strobe.

But generally, we can work quickly like this and effectively. Occasionally, we'll put a warm gel on it. We put that on to give it a natural look. We don't want it to look like a flash. The purpose is just to open up the shadows a little. Female Speaker A favor? Can you do a, that handshake once more? Douglas: Sometimes I actually ask people to repeat something. If I saw an instant that was perfect that was just as they were turning and then they went away and all the elements were in that picture. I mean it's stamped in my head but I didn't, I knew I didn't get it. Douglas: Do it one more time if you don't mind.

Thank you. Thank you very much. Douglas: I will occasionally say, could you just try that again. Just lean a little more forward. We, the light was beautiful there. The, the sun was coming in. Could you just do this a little more? Douglas: Okay great, thank you. Douglas: I don't do it too often. I want it all to occur in its natural form. And never say to somebody, just act natural. No one knows what natural is. You might say, just please forget I'm here as much as possible. That's really what you want, and I don't want to interfere or involve myself in taking my subject away from what he or she's doing. I want them to live it, and I will only occasionally, when necessary, ask for a repeat of something.

When you're doing this, you'll see me swinging around like this. Why? Because you want to always see the faces. Don't get the backs of heads unless you have a very distinct good reason. You'll want to be able to watch the expressions on people. And frankly, that is something that so frequently is overlooked. And so that's where the strength in your pictures come from. (FOREIGN) (MUSIC) Then we came back to the restaurant, and I wanted to see Nicolas in the kitchen. But I watched him just as he prepared some soup. He was doing that and I just asked him if I could stay there with him a little. All I did was put my camera on auto-white balance.

And once I had that, I had great freedom. I found I could just concentrate on what I was seeing happen. (NOISE) And I saw him pulled in different directions. He was doing one thing once and he turned the other way and, this is a picture. You feel at the time it is happening, you become a different photographer at each place. I'm a different photographer out in the marketplace than I am in Nicolas' kitchen.

I will be quite different, because you become different people to help yourself interpret. Douglas: Thank you. Douglas: The most important part of any restaurant is, of course, ultimately, the food. Basically, what I decided I should do, was really move our studio to the restaurant. A studio's in the photographer's head, to a large degree, especially if you really are resourceful and can make things happen. Douglas: One of the things I was thinking about is the white just floating on. Female Speaker 1: mm-hm. Douglas: white.

Female Speaker 1: yeah. Douglas: And that might be where we begin. So. Douglas: One of the ideas I had was using a sheet of plastic. We used to call it milk glass. What I wanted to do is be able to light underneath it. I wanted it to be able to glow, and I wanted to have control over the amount of light coming up. Douglas: Move it a little camera-right again, the whole light. Yep, thank you. But tip it down so it's not hitting the glass itself if you can, please. Douglas: We put a second light on the background against the wall.

So, we could shoot down or on an angle and still get this clean, what would appear to make the pieces float. Douglas: Well, that's pretty nice. Douglas: And then the remaining light, the third light, is simply a soft box on top. Now, the next element here is you have to balance all of this. Douglas: Take the meter and see how much light you have. Douglas: We wanted enough light out coming through from the bottom that it bleached it. And that was about half a stop to a stop brighter than the light from the soft box on top.

If you had it stronger than that, you would start to get flare, or halation, back into the lens. Douglas: (LAUGH) Food today. It's about food. Douglas: Working with Nicolas here was very important, because he cared, and he did it beautifully. He wanted one picture directly above of the plate, the circular plate, and so I did that. And it's, graphically it's interesting, but I felt that I didn't see the food rise up enough. It was flattened. I preferred coming down on a slight angle to see it more as we see it at the table. The food is the star.

So, that was our first setup. (MUSIC) The next piece I, I wanted to photograph, I was trying to get variation in the food photography. I didn't want it to all be the same. Actually what happened when we were putting the white down, I looked at this beautiful wood on the wall. What a shame to be covering that. It's so beautiful, magnificent. And then I saw a table that looked like it was part of the same structure. I thought, let's try something where we see a light plate against a dark background.

Douglas: I'm just experimenting, that's all. Douglas: What I had the idea of is what we call a north light look. Creating, a very natural-looking light is coming in this one softbox. And frankly, I had another idea. I used a tilt shift lens. It's part of my arsenal of equipment I've had a long time. But in this case, with a wide angle lens, when you start to look down, the two parallel lines are no longer parallel, they tend to look like that.

I wanted to avoid that, and how do you do that? It's the principle of the view camera. What you do is you don't the camera down. You drop the lens down. And that way we can keep the camera's back parallel with those lines in the wall, and then those lines do not do any moving. Then I had another Idea. I had gotten seamless paper. Keeping the north light sense of lighting in its simplicity. What I did here was I turned the, this soft box off the background.

I wanted it to be shining through the glass. I needed, what I call the flag, somebody blocking some of that light that is shining right into the lens. And I, we could have either gotten a, a large board and put in there. Or, it was simple enough to have, in this case, Miranda just stand there because she, she could provide the same effect. (MUSIC) Then I felt, frankly, this is what was going on in my mind. I thought, I wonder if there's some more elements I could put in here.

And then I asked Miranda to put the straw in. And, and, and once I saw her do that, I thought, that's a picture. Douglas: Put your hand there. Yeah, that's right. Yes, yes, yes. Okay. Thank you. Douglas: And then the bartender came over to provide some other pieces and he did some twists, but it was observing. I didn't premeditate that, that those hands would have that light. And by having it come somewhat from the back, it tended to give a wonderful edge to the glass itself. But it's all watching, and creating.

Douglas: (MUSIC) Beautiful. Douglas: Another way of shooting, because there are many ways you that you get different pictures. And that's the power of your photography, telling your story. Is, in this case, I wanted to photograph the pastry. And frankly, what I did is I, I, I become very fundamental. I, I think, what are the characteristics of this place? It has these wonderful arches and I wanted to see those in the background. I wanted to see some of the sun in the sky.

And I got a sheet of aluminum material and put it across one of the tables because I wanted to see a reflection. And so, what I wanted to do is basically use almost natural light entirely. I ultimately did use a little light panel as a fill light. But most important here is what pieces you have. What choices you make. It started with this one piece which I had a love affair with. And I looked at it through the camera. And then I thought where can it's other neighbors be. I very carefully picked different tones and I didn't want any two to be the same. I wanted different shapes.

Forms and I didn't want any one to block another. Keep asking yourself, can this be better? And at one point I'd lost the sun. Yes, we moved the table. We can see the sun again. But, you try some things because you want it to be good. That's the bottom line. Whatever you do, make it worth while. (MUSIC) Now, I'd photographed the pastry. It looked glorious. Where is it produced? How is it produced? They actually have a second restaurant next door.

They produce it at their other entity, The Little Next Door. (MUSIC) I got permission to go over there. Went into the back and I went without an assistant. I went with my two cameras. I had a 24 to 105 and again my 16 to 35. I met the pastry chef, and I introduced myself. And I got to know her as quickly as I could, just as she was going to start working. And I asked her how long she'd been there, and she'd been there ten years.

Everybody has a story they like to tell when they can. And that's part of you connecting quickly, if you can, with people. And getting their cooperation. I watched her create this beautiful cake. She started with the basic elements, she put the icing, I guess you'd call it, or frosting on it. And then she put cookies around the side. And she built it. And suddenly, there was another beautiful piece of work created. But, you know, the interesting thing is, I finished with Lisette. And then I had her hold it out for me because this was her product. This was what she had done.

Douglas: Thank you very much, Lisette. That was wonderful. Thank you. Douglas: In any case, we were in the back there. We'd finished the shot we went there to do. But what I didn't do is, I didn't want to rush out of there. I wanted to look around as long as I could, because something else might be happening. And indeed it was. I found a man just off the side rolling pastry out. What was he doing? He was preparing croissant. I saw him roll them up and put them on a tray that was going to go into the oven. And I watched this process.

Then, I watched, over at the side where Lisette had been a few minutes earlier, and I saw a man start drawing. And then he did several happy birthdays, and we saw them grow. And I feel I got something quite effective there. (MUSIC) So, my one picture of the creation of the cake with Lisette became three pictures. And that's again, getting the most out of everything.

(MUSIC) I felt I could understand the entire story once I had the idea of a group photograph. These are the people that make it all happen. It doesn't, the wheels don't turn without them. And, once I had that idea, and I truly did believe if was probably one of the most important pictures. All these special pictures, the close-ups, the, the wide shots and all this, all of that is important and these are all the building blocks. But ultimately, you need a wonderful, sustaining piece right in the center. Douglas: What we really have to do, is very simple. We have to get the, the chairs off the tables.

It'll just be very weak softbox, that's, that'll be it. Douglas: Basically, it was natural light with just a, a weak fill coming to get a little sparkle in the eyes. Keep the sense of daylight there. Don't kill it. Don't overpower with strobe, in a case like this. Douglas: Leave the daylight alone first. Douglas: Okay. Douglas: C is just 2.8. Douglas: So, I got the two brothers and I had the idea of having them stand on the table. Because the most deadly picture you can make, the least interesting, I'll call it, is have everybody in a line. because that's not the picture you want.

The great photographs of groups have invariably, through the years, been on different levels. And then I, we had some what we call apple boxes, or little boxes, so people could sit at different levels. I wanted everybody to be, to have their own possibility, and that's part of the fun of it. Douglas: Okay, now this is important. This is the whole, life of this whole place. Your energy will tell how good it is. Okay! (INAUDIBLE) Oh, you guys are tough. Two brothers.

(INAUDIBLE) Yeah yeah yeah. Douglas: You, you build up some enthusiasm. And so, everybody gets picked up and gets part of it. You will get that in those two or three minutes. Douglas: Get your hands up there Frederic. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Douglas: But make sure, again, keep a clear view that you don't build it up and get so enthusiastic, that you don't get the picture. You, you should really get more than one style picture in a situation like that. Get a, a quiet one.

And then you can have a, a dancier one if want. Have both ideally. And that's what we were able to do here. And the other thing that I did, after getting that one big picture, was go out and get the two brothers out at their door. Douglas: Yeah, just like that. Yes, yes, yes, nice. That's beautiful. That's wonderful. Yes. Nice, nice, nice, yes, yes, yes. Douglas: Frankly, outside I didn't need any fill light or anything. And they, they, it was just daylight, it was comparatively soft.

The fundamental picture for me was the brothers together. But when you have them there, why not photograph them individually? because they may make a statement in the story. They're not always together. Just have more because editors frequently need things that might not occur to you at the moment. And that is very important. Always provide your, the, the people you work for, with much more than they anticipated and they will be very, very happy. But most important of all, of all is to get the core story.

What is needed, because that's where it all happens. Douglas: Yeah, nice, nice, yes. Excellent. Douglas: (MUSIC) Then the most important parts. The entire Little Door really functions around what the public sees at night. Now, the way we had to do this was to get people of our own in there. Rather than to be, we're not going to shoot a candid shot of that restaurant at night. We wouldn't have the control we wanted. And so what I did is I selected this area where you'd see the effect of this arch. Then, I knew I could put two people in the far back, but I wanted some people comparatively close to me in the foreground because I wanted it to feel and look real.

Douglas: Now lean on the table, (UNKNOWN), if you will, and look into his eyes. Yeah, yeah. Good girl, (UNKNOWN). That's it, that's it. Good, good, good, good, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Douglas: So, what I wanted to do is make any light that we introduced there very minimal. So, what I did, frankly, it was, I took one of our plugin strobes. And then I put a warm gel on it, and I bounced that off the far end of the wall. And then I took the little LED in the front, I warmed that up.

And I made a choice that I wanted to be on a longer lens, it's a 70 to 300. And that would allow me to get as long as I would ever need in there. And the exposure I ended up with was a forty fifth of a second at 4.5, 4000 ISO. Basically, our strobe and our little LED are really fill lights. Beyond that, we're really taking the pictures with candlelight. Douglas: (MUSIC) Hey David, put your arm around behind her, or something.

This is a nice moment. Yes, yes, yes, I love that! I love it, I love it! Douglas: At that moment, all I could feel is I wanted to, to convey what the bottom line is. What you feel, what a person feels when they go in there. It's a world of elegance, and that's what you are in. And that's when I wanted to portray and was able to. Male Speaker 1: Cool. Douglas: It really looks glamours and beautiful and warm. Douglas: This is a true communication and expression of how I feel. And this is why it makes a perfect story.

It's all there. Piece by piece put together. Female Speaker 2: (MUSIC) Is that a wrap? Douglas: That's a wrap. Well done, everyone. Douglas: I've been telling different stories for more than 50 years. It's, it's a long time, but it's been wonderful and I still feel as much passion and enthusiasm today as ever. (MUSIC) If you are the photographer, just consider what your possibilities are, and always make it good. Because frankly, if you keep reaching, you'll probably get to places you didn't even know you could get to.

That is special, and that is why I am a photographer. (MUSIC)

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