How Photography Can Help Improve Your Writing

Look through your lens before picking up your pen. In Matthew Ferrara’s words, here’s how he uses photography to help flesh out characters and scene setting, and to jumpstart his creativity when he’s feeling stuck. His class on how to Connect the Arts will be at 16:30 on June 5!


As a writer, one of the most important things we do is “set a scene.” The places where our stories unfold are as important as our characters and their actions. Developing interesting and heart-felt scenes is hard work: It’s more than describing the features of a room or buildings on a street. Helping readers get a sense of detail, dimension, sounds and light challenges us to see the picture very clearly in our heads first. Then the words can flow across the page. One way I help myself do this dovetails with my other passion – photography – to visualize real scenes I’ll turn into places for my stories and articles.

As a photographer, each photo is like a dozen opening paragraphs compressed into a few inches of space. Just like an opening chapter, I have to compose each shot as I take it; frame the moment; highlight the action and draw the reader into the action. My camera is like a drafting tool. If I’m going to open a story in the countryside, I drive out to a place near my house and take my camera for a walk. I’ll capture different times of the day, try different angles and play with the light. Sometimes I’ll spot something I almost overlooked, like an odd rock formation or a camouflaged bird in a tree. Those surprises encourage me later to vary my starting points for setting a scene.

Other times, I spend the day photographing people on the street. Catching a waitress in a café or a clever street performer helps me save glimpses of character traits for future stories. A unique smile or a strange piece of clothing journeys from my camera to characters on the page. I’ve learned to “always be on the lookout” for a scene, some action or clever ray of light that can catch my reader’s attention. When I draft articles and need new ideas, I sit with my computer and flip through photos until something jumps out at me. If I get stuck describing a place or a person or even a plate of food, I look back through my shots to give my brain a gentle jolt of creativity.

Connecting different forms of creativity – photography, dancing, painting, cooking – to our writing is a powerful way to think of new ways to compose scenes. Every art form has unique perspectives and powerful ways of using places, people, sights and sounds, just like a writer does. To make my stories come alive, I often start by looking through my lens, before picking up my pen.

Florence at sunset

4 thoughts on “How Photography Can Help Improve Your Writing

  • Fred Orr

    Lisa’s suggestion about linking photos and eventual words will be actively applied when I join 100 other artists and writers down in the Tarkine, a pristine rain forest wilderness area in NW Tasmania. We gather over Easter weekend to absorb the mysteries and misty melodies flowing from the mossy bush, sparkling streams, and wild pounding Southern Ocean frontage. My goal is to link poetry to photos, trying to capture the words, the rhythms, the rhymes of this primitive area.
    It will be rough living with tents, sleeping on soil, no electricity, no wifi, no phone reception, no showers, no ‘proper’ toilets – a true opportunity to get right down and feel, really feel the grain of the area, smell the mosses, bathe in the mist, and observe but avoid any incidental snakes.
    There will be exhibitions of the produced works following this ‘happening’ with proceeds going to the Bob Brown Foundation (BBF) to help preserve this beautiful area. Google ‘Tarkine in Motion’ or the Bob Brown Foundation for more information.

    • Lisa Clifford

      How beautifully you describe this Fred,
      you are such a creative spirit! And what a fabulous thing to do, go to Tassie – the Southern Ocean frontage and work on your photos and poetry. Oh I wish I could come too! One day. You will really ‘feel the grain of the area.’ I love how you have put that!
      All the best and let us know how it goes?
      Lisa

  • John Hingston

    Hi Lisa,

    I have read this after just reading “Naples: a way of love” and would like to pose yet more questions.
    Did you and Carla work/walk together, collecting and sharing the encounters you record? How long did you stay in Naples? Did you you make a scouting trip first, and then return with shooting script/outline? What proportion of your conversations were serendipitous or spur of the moment?

    Finally, for one who would like to return, how serious were you about not carrying credit cards & passports? I always carry my card in one closed shirt pocket and my passport, stylishly wrapped in a ziplock bag, in my other shirt pocket. I realise that this may not be possible or desirable for women. My wife carries hers in a small waist bag. When we spent three days in Naples in 2011 we used public transport exclusively and often used day packs. Early on some locals did advise us to wear them on our chests, rather than on our backs. Pickpockets and opportunists are about from Sydney to St Petersburg, so we are used to being vigilant, and we don’t carry flashy cameras or jewellery.. Is there a high risk of being stopped and robbed? We used trains, buses and funiculari.

    We don’t often stay in places that provide a room safe, either; mainly airbnb apartments.

    I realise you are not a travel consultant, but I think as travellers and lovers of Italy, that we probably match a significant proportion of your audience/readership.

    I am looking forward to your fiction book being published, but next I will read “The Promise”. I think I need something a little more uplifting, having just binged on Michele Giuttari crime novels.

    Thanks for answering my previous questions.

    John

    • Lisa Clifford

      Thanks John!
      Yes, I will write a Blog on these questions. And I thank you for your continued support and interest in my work over here in Italy! I have a couple of points of interest I would like to write on my Blog, for the next 2 weeks, then would love to work on these answers.
      Thanks again for your continued interest,
      Lisa

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