When it comes to engaging people online, striking visuals are a must-have. In one of our monthly digital Drop-in webinars, Chris Allen of Asheville Photo Tours presented, “Stand Out with Your Own Photos: Visual Storytelling for Brand Engagement,” offering tips on how to take the best photos with your smartphone and what makes for good visuals.

Along with his wife Bonnie, Chris leads hands-on photography excursions in the Asheville area to help people learn to take better pictures. He has extensive experience in sales, user experience, and creative pursuits, earning his BFA in photography. Chris is a recent graduate of the JB Media Institute where he learned how to promote his business online. In this webinar, Chris covered image making tips, key elements of visual storytelling, smartphone photography tips and techniques, and advice on how to foster your image-making and branding journey.

Who is Behind the Lens?

You are! It’s important to be authentically YOU in marketing. Instead of taking photos, Chris refers to it as making photos. When you make a picture, you look more deeply at what you’re seeing and consider how you are experiencing the world. There’s an element of self-discovery involved. You are your brand. Express the authentic you with your own images.

Chris says that he tries to capture a feeling in an image. Captions can really help with this by letting others know what you were thinking.

5 Key Elements of Visual Storytelling

  1. Design: What is the light doing? What kinds of lines, shapes, patterns, colors, and textures are in the scene? How can you leverage these and turn them into a compelling design.
  2. Actors: There are going to be different elements in the image. If there are people, then you have to see who is the most important subject. You want to make them the hero/heroine. There are supporting roles.
  3. Visual Metaphor: Image of something that suggests an idea or theme beyond the subject. Something that engages the viewer’s imagination.
  4. Sense of Place: Can the viewer step into the world you’re trying to express?
  5. Time: Is it static or flowing (passing)?


Chris took this image with his iPhone and an app. You can see the play of light, textures, patterns, lines, and color. Many elements of design are contained in this image. As far as the metaphor here goes, this speaks to being rooted and grounded.


Be open to happy accidents. Chris was planning on shooting the image without the guy in the middle of it. He walked across and accidentally photobombed!

Visual Metaphor

What does this suggest to you? How does it engage your imagination? It’s helpful to have a leading line (foreground element) that carries your eye into the image. Anything that has a pathway, railroad track, or near/far aspect can be a metaphor for a journey.

Sense of Place

This photo was taken on the Blue Ridge Parkway on a foggy morning. Can the viewer step into this world? This is something that could be easily used in brand messaging on a website.


One way you can express time in a photograph is with a slow shutter speed. You can do it with a smartphone and tripod. There’s movement going on over these rocks.

Explore Your Visual Story!

A single image can tell an entire story. Not a professional photographer? No problem. If you have a smartphone, here are six elements to keep in mind:

  • Properly hold the phone: Think of ways you can brace the phone camera to hold it steadier.
  • Focus and exposure: Phones will autofocus and auto expose every picture, but you can modify this.
  • HDR (High Dynamic Range) techniques: For situations with a wide range of light and dark, you can switch into this setting.
  • Burst mode for action shots: On an iPhone, hold down the shutter release or volume buttons to take multiple shots of something in action. Then choose your favorite one.
  • Change your perspective often: Look up, look down, get down low, tilt the shot, etc. Be creative!
  • Tweak for impact: Apps you can use to process the image afterwards. Chris recommended Snapseed, Camera+, and Lens Distortions.

Your Image-Making & Branding Journey

Chris encourages everyone to continue to get excited about the kinds of photos you can take. Be playful and have fun! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Be open to happy accidents (like the photo above in front of the Village Deli on West Haywood in Asheville). Keep learning and see what other people are doing. Chris highly recommends Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Seek feedback from people and adjust your strategy accordingly. Work to create a body of work. Portfolios are great to have!

Photographer Minor White, whose work Chris studied in college, emphasized the self-discovery aspect of photography. He said, “Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.” We think that’s great advice!

All photos by Chris Allen