How to Create a Powerful Photo Series: Interview with Felix Rome

Marianne Stenger
1st February 2020

Photographers are not just artists, but storytellers. A single image can make a powerful statement and highlight an important issue, but one photo on its own is often not enough to tell a complete story. This is why a photo series can be so powerful.

Shooting a large body of photos and then narrowing a project down to include only the strongest images can help you provide a story with some background, demonstrate clearly who or what is affected by an issue, and document changes over a longer period of time.

But how do you go about shooting the right images, selecting your strongest ones and then compiling them into a cohesive photo series? To provide some insights into what it takes to produce a compelling photo series, we spoke to nature and wildlife photographer Felix Rome.

His photo series “Wild Knight” is a combination of a photo projects that focus on the wilderness and various species of wildlife on the West Coast of Canada. The resulting photo book won the Bob Books Photo Book of the Month competition in October of last year. Here are some of his insights on how to plan a long-term photo project and design a photobook.

Finding inspiration and choosing a theme

If you want to create a photo series, your first step will be to find a topic that inspires you and choose a strong concept or theme. Felix Rome’s photo series “Wild Knight” is a combination of some of his previous projects that were turned into photo books. The first photobook he ever made was for his final year university project.

“I spent two months camping in the wilderness on the British Columbian west coast with the idea of creating a book that displays the changes in behaviour throughout the summer period, and how bears adapt to the change in food supply,” explains Rome.

“The following two years I was back in the same area but working as a wildlife guide. This allowed me to study the behaviour of bears on the coastline and explore the area in more detail and observe other species that live on the west coast of Canada.”

He says his passion for wildlife photography was first sparked when he stayed at a lodge that specialised in bear viewing. “Before the holiday I was given my father’s old point and shoot camera. I was so happy with it but when I looked at the images I’d taken, I wasn’t happy with most of them. I remember telling the owner of the lodge that I’d be back with a bigger camera to take better images. Sure enough, eight years later I was back and I now work for them.”

Rome points out that although he always wanted to turn his images into a photo book, his ideas would change each year. “I spent over four months of the year driving a boat in Knight Inlet trying to find wildlife. I knew that the more time you spend in the field the more chance you have of seeing something amazing. The images in the current version of the book may be improved next year, so it’s an ongoing project that I don’t see ever being complete.”

He says the photo book’s title “Wild Knight” refers to the area that the images were taken in. “Knight Inlet is a fjord located on the west coast of British Columbia between Vancouver Island and mainland BC. It’s a beautiful area filled with a diverse array of wildlife. You can watch a bear feeding on mussels on an intertidal beach while a humpback comes up for air behind you.”

Planning and researching your topic

Once you know what your series will focus on, it’s time to do the necessary research, decide what you want to include, and create a shot list that will help you capture the right images.

Rome says when he’s working on a long-term photo series or essay, he takes images carefully and with a purpose. “I think about what images I don’t have, but need to help tell the story of a certain species, and decide what images aren’t good enough and need to be improved.”

However, he adds that knowing what images you want to get isn’t always enough. “There was a certain image of a black bear feeding on the coastline that I always wanted to get, and for two years I never did. But on my penultimate trip last year, a black bear was on the perfect beach and I was able to take a wide-angle image with Knight Inlet in the background.”

Research, says Rome, is important when working on a photo series, and especially when it comes to factors like animal behaviour. “If you want to capture a particular moment of a dolphin jumping out of the water, you need to know when that is most likely to happen. Without knowledge of the animal’s behaviour, I wouldn’t have captured the images I have.”

He says researching the area and environment is also important, as this will not only help you find your subjects but also begin composing images.

“I have always felt that a wildlife photograph is only as good as its background. Having a picture of a humpback whale taken in the midday sun with the open ocean behind it, is not going to be as impactful as the same image taken in the fog with a mountain range just visible in the background. Giving context and environment to the image is just as important as the subject itself.

I work with shot lists, but in a different way. I know what I want to get but sometimes nature doesn’t deliver. However, I’ll know that I need an image of an animal in its environment, so I will only shoot with a wide-angle lens until I get a shot I’m happy with. Sometimes I don’t take any images for weeks because the opportunity to capture what I need doesn’t come about.”

Selecting your strongest images and telling a story

Another important aspect of creating a photo series or photobook is selecting the right images. Rome explains that when making a photobook, it isn’t necessarily about choosing your best standalone images, but about figuring out which ones best tell the story.

“For my first project on grizzly bears, I took over 8000 images and it was hard to reduce them down. I knew I was going to make a book, but I wasn’t sure what the narrative was going to be. In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend this approach, as I spent many nights organising my photos and trying to find a good narrative.

After the first project things became easier, because I knew what stories I wanted to tell and became more selective with the images I took. But reducing the images down is still a long process, as there are some photos I knew would be in the book as soon as I took them, whereas others I may have forgotten about actually tell the story very well. Some of the images in the book are not fantastic standalone shots, but they fit within the narrative and display a specific behaviour.”

When it comes to deciding which images to include, Rome suggests first getting rid of any duplicate shots. “Once you have an image of say, an orca fin, you don’t need to add four more,” he explains.

“Having multiple images of more or less the same thing becomes repetitive and the viewer will lose interest. Sometimes I have multiple images of a certain behaviour, and deciding which one will go into the book is dependent on the other images in the series. Matching colour is important to help the flow of the book, alongside trying to show the environment in which the animal resides.”

Designing your photo book

Rome says a photo book should be able to hold its own without text, but sometimes text is needed to explain a certain behaviour. This is especially true if the audience doesn’t know much about the topic, as having some text helps them connect to the subject better.

“Including some text helped me explain my story and the people that made the project possible. It isn’t a prominent feature in my book, but I feel it is just enough to have a positive impact.”

The design is also an important feature of a photo book, and you’ll have to think about how many images you want to include on each page or whether you want to include double page spreads.

“I wanted to have a design element, but didn’t want to make the book too complicated with images overlaid on top of each other or text going through pictures. Giving images space to breath creates the greatest impact,” says Rome.

“Not every image will be amazing, so selecting only a few top images to be double page spreads creates a deeper impression on the viewer. Some books can be over-designed and over the top. At the end of the day, the images are the main focus of the book, so make sure they stand out.

The main thing I’ve learned is that although it’s easy to create a photo book, it’s difficult to make a good one. The story is everything. If you started reading a book and there was no plot or main character you would probably put it down, and it’s the same with a photo book.”

Images © Felix Rome

You can see more of Felix Rome’s work by visiting his website or following him on Instagram. Do you have an amazing collection of photos that you’d like to turn into a photo book? Why not create your own Bob Books photobook and enter it into our Book of the Month competition for a chance to win a free book?