You mean…she can tell what I’m feeling? Get Out!
Discussions of documentary photography often occur within the context of significant historical events; Dorthea Lange’s Depression-era work, Diane Arbus’ offbeat coverage of 1950s and 1960s NYC, Lewis Hine’s impact on American child labor laws. Since the invention of the camera, photographers from every part of the world have played a vital role in the preserving the facts of this planet’s social evolution.
A documentary photographer’s work is never done.
But just because an event doesn’t make a splash on a global scale doesn’t mean it’s not worth documenting. Any event that is important to any one of us can and should be preserved, if for no other reason than being able to revisit a memory whenever the mood strikes.
If you’re interested in getting started in documentary photography, you should know upfront that it is not an inconsequential undertaking; you have little to no control over timing, lighting, or the subject matter itself. You must be quick to recognize and respond to a wide range of situations, as you don’t want to miss any important moments. And, in concert with your camera, you have to translate everything going on around you into a visual story.
The following tips will help get you going.
Choose and Research Your Subject
This could quite possibly be the most challenging phase of the process; who is going to be the center of attention in your documentary project? It could be someone in your own family whose story you want to tell — your grandparents, perhaps. It could be a family other than your own, a neighbor, or a group of individuals employed in an occupation you find particularly intriguing. You can choose someone you know well or someone you’re not especially acquainted with.
Regardless of how well you know the subject, spend some time doing research and asking questions, as this will assist you in determining how you want to present your subject and you will have at least a slight idea of what to expect during shooting.
Get Inspired and Choose a Style
Now that you know what you’re going to shoot, you need to decide how you’re going to shoot it. Will you use natural light or flash to impact mood? What do you need to do to ensure your photos are coherent and thematic? Should you do mostly wide shots? Long shots? Will your finished images be color or black and white? If you need help deciding such things, take a look at great documentarians like those listed at the top of this article, or browse entries from photography contests under the appropriate category. There’s no shortage of inspiring work out there for you take some cues from.
Decide what gear you will need to pull off what you have in mind; if you need to be mobile and move quickly, a minimalistic approach will serve you best. Also, obtain permission as you need it. If you are shooting at a place of business, for example, you can’t just show up with your camera and do whatever you want. It’s important to not be intrusive, so play nice with others and they will likely return the favor in kind.
Embrace Your Role as a Storyteller
You have the responsibility of objectively telling your subject’s story; regardless of whatever stylistic decisions you make, your number one goal is to represent the truth as it relates specifically to your subject. You are not editorializing, you are documenting.
Interact with Your Subjects
…Assuming your subject matter is people-focused. If so, and your aren’t going for the detached observer approach, then your work will benefit from establishing relationships with your subjects. Introduce yourself, explain a little bit about what you’re doing, ask them about themselves; if your subjects are at ease and comfortable with having you around, it will be strongly reflected in your images.
Play the Waiting Game
Don’t think that the moment you walk onto your location great moments are going to start happening; it doesn’t work that way. You have to wait for things to unfold and develop at their own pace. Remain vigilant, always on the look out for defining moments, but don’t try to rush it. Accept that it could be hours, perhaps days, before you get the shot you’re looking for.
Of course, if you’re working within a limited timeframe, you will need to maximize that time. In such cases, don’t become overly focused on one thing; refocus your attention elsewhere, then come back to your original target.
The Big Picture vs. Details
You can more effectively tell a story by using varied perspectives; don’t rely exclusively on one kind of shot. Use wide angle shots to establish the scene, and use more detailed shots to personalize the story.
Keep Post-Processing Simple
If you rushed through the shoot or didn’t put the deserved amount of care into each shot, going overboard with post-processing cannot save you; it will only call greater attention to your failure to get things right in-camera. So, in keeping with the idea of truth and reality, make sure that your images require little processing. Thoughtful framing and composition will have far more impact than unnecessary processing flourishes.
It’s All About Presentation
Now you get to show off all your hard work. Choose the most meaningful images and round them up into a cohesive unit; organize them in such a way that they form a story that is easy for the viewer to follow. Keep in mind that the images that have the most narrative impact may not always be the “best” shots — don’t include photos just because they look nice. Stick to images that act as vital pieces to a puzzle.
From there, decide how you want to present your final product to your viewers. You might build an online slideshow, compile a book, hang prints in a gallery — it’s up to you. Documentary photography can be a demanding but rewarding task. Give your work the treatment you know it deserves.
Minimalism, an artistic style that relies on “pared-down design elements,” succeeds because it doesn’t overwhelm the viewer/listener — you’re not bombarded with elements to process, thus you can more easily appreciate the whole work of art.
This is essentially the artistic embodiment of the maxim that less is more. But not only does this philosophy apply to works of art and design, one can also take a minimalistic approach to the tools used to create art.
Want to improve as a photographer? Minimize your gear.
Too Much Stuff
Most, if not all of us, have given in to the self-delusional — and ultimately self-destructive — idea that if only we had more stuff we would magically be better photographers; a macro lens, a wide angle lens, a fast prime, a super telephoto lens. Somehow, these things will be what propel us to the ranks of the globally esteemed.
Like I said, delusional. Because while you’re busy acquiring new lenses and upgrading your camera to the latest model, you’re probably not busy shooting, and this is a problem. Of course, no one in their right mind would suggest that owning the best gear possible is a bad idea, but when all your attention goes to stuffing your camera bag full to the brim, then you’re completely missing out on the joy of photography. You might stand back and admire your collection of lenses and accessories, but then cringe at the thought of having to carry it all when you walk out the door. You’ll be perpetually uninspired, your creativity suffocating under a mountain of unused gear.
Imagine how many potentially great shots you will be missing out on, all because you don’t have your camera with you whenever you leave home.
Give it Up
No, you don’t need to get rid of all your lenses and cameras, but if you find that having so much to choose from is negatively influencing your ability to actually get up and make new photographs, then the answer is to place some limits on what gear you make available to yourself.
If you are one who struggles with self-disciple and self-control, then this is obviously going to be a challenge. But if you stick with it, you will eventually find that, psychologically, the whole process of preparing to do photography becomes less of an ordeal; giving yourself fewer choices makes it easier to actually choose. When you don’t have to think so hard about other issues, you’re freer to focus on creating meaningful images.
Here’s how to lighten the load on your mind and around your neck.
The One Lens Solution
You’ve got lots of great lenses, right? Go through them and pick your favorite, then for some length of time, shoot exclusively with that lens. If you think you’ll be tempted by all your other pieces of glass, put them away — out of sight, out of mind. 50mm is a common focal length for exercises such as this; it’s a classic focal length that has produced many a classic image. Some of history’s great photographers made their mark using nothing but a 50mm lens.
This isn’t an advertisement for 50mm lenses; it doesn’t matter what lens you choose — just pick one and stick with it. You will gain new perspectives on how to see the world around you and you will become intimately acquainted with your lens of choice.
The Film Camera Solution
Talk about downsizing! Minus an LCD screen, virtually unlimited storage, and other digital enhancements and conveniences, film cameras are the epitome of functional minimalism; load a roll of film and go. If you don’t already own a film camera, acquiring one won’t put a strain on your wallet. Creatively, you’ll become a more thoughtful photographer, as your resources are somewhat limited; given that you have a set number of frames when working with film, you will learn to be more cognizant of exposure and composition. When you go back to digital, you’ll feel like a more efficient photographer.
You can make your dollar — and creativity — stretch even further by picking up a toy camera. Toy cameras — most of which use film — are plastic and enchanting; you can make images with a toy camera that you simply can’t get out of a traditional film or digital SLR. Toy cameras are ultra affordable, quirky, and fun. All of these factors combine for a unique photographic experience, one in which you are free to concentrate just on photography.
Challenges push us and help us grow. It may seem to defy common sense, but self-imposed limitations are often good; limiting your access to the wealth of camera gear you have at your disposal will cause you to rethink your approach to photography and help you focus on the most important elements of creating.
All artists need their tools, but when one’s tools become the center of attention, the act of making art fades into the background. If you ever find yourself in such a predicament, seek to minimize the distractions that are keeping you from maximizing your potential.