Exploring the Picture Essay: Tips, Best Practices, and Examples

April 18, 2023

Words by Jeff Cardello

A picture essay lets you harness the power of images to tell stories, evoke emotions, and convey a sense of place, time, and perspective.

Picture essays drop viewers right into the action, letting them see things through the camera’s lens, offering insights and understanding that isn’t possible through words alone. From static pages of photos, to carousels and animated articles, photo essays come in many forms. With no-code tools like Vev, it’s now easier than ever for journalists, designers, and publishers to create immersive, visually-led digital content to make their stories stand out from the crowd. Here’s everything you need to know about crafting stunning picture essays — from techniques and best practices through to world-class examples.

What is a Picture Essay?

Picture essays, also known as photo essays, are a form of visual storytelling. They are composed of a series of photos which together form a narrative or communicate information or ideas. They can have a clear beginning, middle, and end, but aren’t necessarily bound to linear narratives. Whether used for a chronological story or capturing a moment in time, all of the photos share a common theme that connects them.

Photo essays are often accompanied by text, providing context or conveying additional details. This can range from the most basic information such as titles, dates, or locations, or a caption helping to narrate the visual story. Some picture essays may rely solely on the imagery, while others may include more text to create a scrollytelling piece of content, with text even overlaid on the photos. The key to a picture essay is that the driver and focus is the visuals.

The Origins of the Picture Essay

Photography emerged as a documentary form at the beginning of the 20th century. Many cite Lewis Hine and the work he did between 1911 and 1916 in bringing attention to the harsh realities of child labor in the United States as one of the earliest examples of the picture essay. In 1948, the photographer W. Eugene Smith published a picture essay titled “Country Doctor” following a physician in rural Colorado and showing his work with the patients as well as what he did in his downtime. This is another notable example that elevated picture-taking into a journalistic art form.

Lewis Hine’s photos captured the hardships of children in the workplace and were instrumental in changing American labor laws.

Picture essays have remained an important part of journalism, having kept pace from its black-and-white beginnings to the high-resolution full-color images of today’s digital media.

Design Techniques for the Perfect Picture Essay

Scrollytelling Images

Scrollytelling images smoothly fade from one photo to the next as someone moves through a website, often with overlaid text to help describe what is happening in the images. This a subtle, yet effective way to break up content, and makes sure that each photo captures the attention of those scrolling.

Scroll Speed

Scroll speed is an effect that controls how reactive elements are to scrolling. Varying how reactive elements are to scrolling gives them a sense of distinction, rather than having them all lumped together in one long block. For example, a lower setting like 10% will make a photo move slower than one that’s set at 90%. This technique creates a scroll animation that keeps readers engaged in the picture essay. 

Scroll Progress Bars

A website full of photos often presents a lengthy amount of content for visitors to navigate through, especially if it’s a single page. Scroll progress bars, often tucked into the top of the screen, show visitors where they’re at and urge them to keep scrolling to the end.

Image Comparison Slider

When you want to display photos that show the before and after of something, an image comparison slider makes it possible to communicate changes through a single interactive image.

Clickable Image Hotspots

Photo essays rely on images to tell much of their stories, but text also provides context and additional information, clickable hotspots, also known as labeled images, maximize screen space and give visitors control in revealing details.

Image Carousels

Image carousels let visitors click, scroll, or drag through a series of images and are generally navigated horizontally, but may take other forms.

Best Practices for Picture Essay Design

  • Know the story you want to tell: Identify the main points you want to visually communicate. Photo essays can tell a linear story but also be used to convey a sense of atmosphere or feeling. 
  • Use different types of shots: Photographs can become monotonous when they’re all the same. Mix up things with different angles, close-up shots, different compositions, and other variations to keep your picture essays interesting.
  • Choose only the best images: Photos shouldn’t only look good, but be relevant to the story you’re telling. 
  • Know your audience: Keep in mind the target demographic the photo essay is intended for and make sure the style and tone are in line with who they are. 
  • Keep things moving: Utilize scroll-triggered transitions, animations, and other points of interactivity to guide visitors through and keep their attention.

10 Aspirational Picture Essay Examples

From Egmont to Taranaki

From Egmont to Taranaki is a picture essay built with Vev that’s both a personal story and a history lesson. It recounts the author John Campbell’s travels through the New Zealand countryside with a terminally ill friend while also delving into the painful past of how the indigenous Maori became dispossessed of these very spaces. Much like the twists and turns of the road, this photo essay bounces back between John’s memories and the history of this land.

Along with photos showing the beautiful green landscape and delightfully greasy food that John enjoyed with his friend during their travels, there are also animated effects. Fade-ins, text scrolling over fixed images, and parallax break the content up and keep up your momentum as you move through it.

Food for Thought

From sheep grazing on the rocky hillsides of Kyrgyzstan to fishermen casting their nets into the blue waters off of Indonesia, Food for Thought depicts where food comes from across the globe. The photos are big and brilliant, capturing the people tasked with the hard work of food production, the geography, as well as the animals and crops they are responsible for.

Each section uses a fixed image parallax scrolling effect that functions as a sliding window drawing the next image into place. There’s also a great use of hot spots, represented by circular icons that visitors can click on in learning more.


With its handsome metallic luster and Art Deco geometry, Bialetti’s pots help so many start their days with an easy way to brew cups of dark and delicious coffee.

They have a long and interesting history that can be traced back to 1933 when Italian engineer Alfonso Bialetti introduced its stovetop coffee maker. Bialetti tells its story through images showing where Alfonso drew his inspiration, product photos, and advertisements over the years. Along with a comprehensive timeline of visuals, you’ll also find plenty of motion in the form of parallax scrolling, animations, and other dynamic visuals. The scroll progress bar at the top is also a nice touch, showing people where they are in this one-page design.

Witnesses to History Keepers of Memory

Witnesses to History Keepers of Memory is an interactive photo essay put together by the Montreal Holocaust Museum. Pictured are Holocaust survivors along with the items they still have that accompanied them through detainment.

The main gallery of photos has much in terms of interactivity with hover-triggered animations, and a previous and next button letting you flip through them. The cursor turns into an eye icon, and clicking through on any of the photos brings you to a new screen that tells the story of the person pictured.

Seeing these people today, along with these personal items is a strong reminder that this terrible period of history wasn’t that long ago, and shows the strength and resilience of those who went through it.

Hakai Autonomous Ocean

Gliders are submersible robots used by scientists to explore what’s beneath the ocean and to gather data. They’re a relatively new technology, free from propellers, which harness ocean currents to move them through the water. The Autonomous Ocean begins with video footage of the sea rushing by and text telling how one of these $150,000 robots was experiencing trouble. It’s a dramatic opening that makes you want to keep reading to find out what happened.

Built with Vev, this single-page website is full of photographs showing oceanic gliders in action and how scientists use them. Scrollytelling images provide smooth transitions fading from one photo to the next, with accompanying text moving over them. This design also features a clever image comparison slider, displaying both the internal and external features of this submersible.

Moma Strange Brew

Viewed at a distance, John Klines’ art installation entitled Skittles looks like a refrigerator of fancy juices that you might find at any upscale grocer. The labels affixed to these juices reveal that inside these bottles are ingredients like yoga mat, fake plant, and shopping bag. All that looks delicious and nutritious from afar is something far grosser, making this art piece a funny and satirical take on consumerism.

This photo essay shows the steps involved in creating this piece, moving you through each stage of how this humorous and thought-provoking art piece came to be.


Picture essays are a documentary form of visual storytelling, and non-profits use them to bring attention to the problems of the world, and what they're doing to help solve them.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, more commonly known as UNICEF, is committed to the rights and health of children. This picture essay, featuring work by photographer Jan Grarup, covers UNICEF’s Denmark warehouse, where medicines and other essential goods are stored, and the people in countries like Haiti, Lebanon, and Uganda that these items reach.

Photos show shelves full of supplies, the places they’re sent out to, and the hospitals where they’re so desperately needed. You see the hardships that people face, and how UNICEF’s work helps improve their lives. It’s a breathtaking piece of photojournalism showing why their humanitarian work is so important.

The Guardian 

Slippery slope? Alpine tourism in the face of climate crisis covers climate change and how it impacts the Alps. This photo essay not only shows scenes of winter tourism, but what the Alps are like year-round. This gives an in-depth look at the interrelationships between the people, landscape, and ecosystem and the cascade of effects that global warming causes. 

Because this photo essay focuses on two very different times of the year, you’ll find several image comparison sliders showing what the Alps look like in the winter, and what they look like after the snow melts. Image comparison sliders work perfectly comparing different times of the year, and maximizing screen space.

The Naija Story

Since Nigeria declared its independence from Britain in October of 1960, they have had both turmoil and triumphs. Naija Story communicates Nigeria’s history, bringing visitors to who they are as a country today.

This design is divided into sections covering topics like politics, technology, and entertainment. Photo essays are an effective medium for history, and Naija Story uses them to highlight the events that have shaped Nigeria in these individual sections.

Along with photos, there are scroll-triggered animations that shift the visuals and text into place, as well as lines that connect all of these events making them simple to follow. There’s so much to learn about Nigeria, and it’s all conveyed in an artistic, yet easy-to-understand way.

Ukrainian Ballerina Uprooted by War Flies High Again

Ending our exploration of picture essays is this piece from Reuters, which tells the story of ballet dancer Ganna Muromtseva who fled from war-torn Ukraine, and whose journey brought her to the Hungary State Opera where she got to be a part of their performance of Swan Lake. With a well-balanced mix of writing and photos that show her life both on the stage and off, visitors get a personal look into her life.

Along with candid photography, there’s also a nice sense of interactivity. As visitors scroll text moves over the photos, giving context. There are also fade-ins as one moves from one image to the next, which also adds dynamics to the visuals.

Create Stunning Picture Essays in Vev

If you have a story you’d like to tell through photos, Vev offers a multitude of creative possibilities to bring it to life. With image comparison sliders, carousels, scroll animations, and other pre-built elements, we make it possible to create visually captivating editorial content just as you imagined it — without needing to write a line of code. When your design is ready, publish it to any existing website through Vev or embed your Vev project into your existing CMS.

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