Use photo backgrounds to tell a story

One of my favorite sayings is, “A Picture Paints A Thousand Words.” That’s a wonderful way to describe how photo books tell our story and take us back to a special time in our lives that we want to remember.

But are pictures enough? In my opinion, most of the time they aren’t—unless you simply want someone to enjoy your photography. However, if you want the viewer to know about the photos and the people in them, if you want the viewer to feel what you felt when you took the pictures and created the book, you’ll need to tell them with your titles and journaling.

Herein lies the problem: Not everyone is a born writer! When you’re faced with a page designed for large amounts of journaling do you procrastinate and suddenly find something more important to do?

I recently asked my sister to provide the journaling for a baby book I was creating for her two-year-old daughter. My plan was to accompany each photo with only one or two words, but I soon realized she had trouble coming up with even a few words.

So how do we solve the problem of what to write?

One way is to coax the information from ourselves or someone else by asking lots of obvious questions. Where? When? Who? What?  Once the questions are answered, it’s fairly easy to write the journaling.

Another way is to use fewer words and journal in photos. Here’s a technique I use when I want to set a scene: I place one large photo in the background that identifies the location. It might be a landscape photo or a scene that has plenty of room for other photos to be placed on top.

In one of my photo books, Scrapper’s Guide Team Retreat, I’ve used large location shots on several of the pages to set the scene for my story. When you look at the page, the photo in the background answers the first question of “where.”

Although you don’t need to do this for a background photo, I chose to blend my photos with digital scrapbook papers. This is a photo editing technique we teach at Scrapper’s Guide, so if you are feeling a little adventurous and have the time, you can visit our website to find out more about how to use digital scrapbook papers with your background photos.

The templates for the Seaside Vacation book are also available at

You can also set the scene for your story using Shutterfly photo book templates. The below example shows our 5-picture layout. Identify the place (San Francisco Bay) with the background shot and add the details with the 4 smaller shots in the foreground.

And if you want to add a few words, this 5-picture layout works well too.

So the next time you’re stuck for words, try one or both of these tips to help you communicate what you experienced!


  1. shannonr says

    love these ideas, I am often at a lose for what to journal in my books and will usually try to use the pictures to do all the talking….sometime this just isnt enought though. I will be putting your advice to good use. Thanks

  2. Joey says

    This is very helpful Susie. sometimes I find I am at a loss for words. I might write something at the beginning and with my latest book I used words to describe my neices & nephews. In other books I have used quotes or an old card and used those words throughout a book. I like the questions to ask ones self, who what where & when…
    The four W’s remind me of when was in a writing class. I forgot about them until this article.

  3. BarbaraJ says

    Susie, you have some great advice and I love how we can use our Shutterfly Books in the same way. I will be looking into your blending with photos and papers. Thank you.

  4. says

    I love using the background of my travels to help me explain where we are and save alot of time in my photobooks. I would say my rule of thumb now is to always take a picture of the sign that names where you are. This comes out so helpful even if you just use that picture for your title page. Use this idea for the killer place you just ate or the scary ride you just got off of. It helps because you now have the correct spelling and name of the location and it will give your photobook page a bigger impact when you have the picture of the logo of the famous place at your finger tips. As for example… a picture of the Disneyland sign outside of the park!

  5. photodonna says

    I’m new to this, but I love the idea of using photos as backgrounds to identity the location. However, I’m stumped on how to do it. I went to, but I don’t know where to look. Please explain the process. Thanks!

  6. photodonna says

    Suzy, are you saying that you do your scrapbooking pages in PSE first, then print them using Shutterfly? And, you sell tutorials on how to do it? Thanks again.

  7. Badenn3 says

    Wow that is pretty cool. I bet Shutterfly does not have over 40,000 pieces of digital art. I found this awesome company that offers you unlimited freedom to make you own projects how ever you want. Everything you make is forever saved on their server and they will pay 50% of the cost to remake it if it get wrecked or lost.

    Really cool projects with tons of selection… it is free too.

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