Fieldnotes

Sequencing a Photobook or a Photo Zine

3 May 2023

Have you ever thought about what goes into sequencing a photobook or a zine?

As some of you know, I’m in the process of making my own photobook The Hill of the Skull.

I’m no expert on photo book sequencing, but I have been thinking about it for the last several months and I would like to share with you some points that I’ve learned along the way.

I hope it will help make the process for you easier than it was for me.

In this post, you will learn five, important tips or approaches to sequencing your own photo book.

This is not an exhaustive or a definitive list, just some points to consider as you embark on your journey.

I’ve recorded this post as a video, feel free to watch it below.

What is sequencing? And why is it important?

Sequencing is the art of arranging a number of photographs in a particular order.

Photo sequencing is essential in photobooks and photo zines, which lend themselves to longform content.

When you’re dealing with many photographs for a book or a zine, arranging them in an interesting way is a creative act.

And when we deal with a number of images, we can no longer expect just one image to hold our interest. Now we have to contend with twenty, forty, eighty images to grab and hold our attention.

In my opinion, some thought needs to go into sequencing images. A haphazard arrangement risks your readers losing interest.

But a good sequence can creative a narrative, build tension, or present interesting juxtopositions and contrasts.

I will assume that you’ve already selected your images, that you’ve already selected your shortlist, which is another problem altogether.

Think about the why

I wanted to start with the most important consideration.

And this is to think about your “why.” The why rules the roost. This is the big picture question. This is your north star.

You’ll want to ask yourself: What is the point of this book or zine? What is it trying to communicate? What do I want this book or zine to achieve? What message or story do I want it to tell? What do you want your readers to get from your images? How do you want them to feel?

Think about it. Write it down. Articulate it.

If you have a clear sense of the why, it will be your north star, illuminating your path and guiding you to where you need to be.

Having a clear sense of purpose helps you present and sequence your photos.

Sequencing a Photobook

Think about narrative

But thinking about the “why” is conceptual. And I want to give you a few practical approaches.

One such approach involves narrative. This is storytelling.

Can you arrange your images in such a way that a narrative, or a story gets told? It can be a simple, chronological narrative like a photo essay, or a photo story. This happens, then that.

This is a fine way to arrange images, in terms of documentation and conveying information. But narrative doesn’t need to be straightforward or chronological, right? There are many ways to tell a story.

Are there groups of images that are an emotional climax? Are there images that build up to that point? Are there images that create conflict? Tension? Resolution?

Think about form

Another approach involves form.

Narrative and storytelling, as I just alluded to, often involve content - the plot - the action - the subject. Here, you let what is being represented in your images (the content, the subject) guide the narrative.

But in an approach that involves form, you let how something is represented guide the sequence.

In other words, how can the formal characteristics of your photos help you arrange them?

Are there important colors or patterns that can help you group and string your images together? Are there striking formal similarities or contrasts that pair or string together nicely? Any similar or contrasting shapes or lines? What about tonality, light, perspective, composition?

Sequencing a photobook or a zine with formal qualities in mind can be an interesting approach.

Sequencing a Photobook

Make work prints

Making work prints will help you sequence and arrange your photos.

Once you’ve selected your shortlist of images, I recommend that you print them out. They need not be big. They can be the size of an index card. Or bigger, like standard 4x6 photo prints.

The point is to have cheap physical prints that you can tape to your wall or arrange them out on the floor.

This helps you move the photos around into groups according to form or subject, and easily rearrange their order. This also helps you get away from the computer and see relationships between the images, as a continuous whole.

In The Hill of the Skull — the book I’m finishing now - I used a putty to affix the work prints to my wall. I looked at them every day, studied them, rearranged them. It was helpful for me.

Some people put their work prints on tables and on floors, and others like them on walls. But if you can’t print them out, you can use programs like Figma to rearrange your images on a virtual whiteboard.

Consult the living

Once you have a working draft of your sequence, it is important to consult the living. What I mean is, ask other people for advice.

You can ask friends, people who aren’t experts, and ask them their opinions about the set. Sometimes this yields valuable information — are they confused? do they immediately get it? Maybe they’re not your audience, but sometimes this perspective is helpful.

You can also ask photographers and experts, people who regularly look closely at images. This information is valuable.

Ask for constructive feedback. Don’t take it personally. It is sometimes difficult to hear feedback and our work, but it is an important process in growth.

Sequencing a Photobook

Consult the dead

The second point here is to consult the dead. What I mean is, take a close look at other photo books and zines.

Of course, the photographers of the books don’t need to be dead.

The point is to study other photography books.

Study them for not what is being represented, but how everything is represented. Study them for how the images string along, how the images are grouped together.

In most cases, a lot of time and thought goes into the sequencing of images. More often than not, photographs aren’t just randomly thrown together.

Use other people’s work as sources of inspiration. Consult them as if they’re professors teaching you how things are done. They’re you’re archetypes.

Don’t rush the process

Lastly, and this is a bonus tip here, don’t rush the process.

Sequencing and arranging is not a quick process. Take your time.

Sometimes it takes a while to see connections. Sometimes it takes a while to see patterns and relationships. Sometimes it takes a while for everything to come into focus.

Give yourself some time and space to treat your images thoughtfully and sincerely, and good things will happen. Trust me.