Documentary photographs can tell a true story in way that no other genre of shooting can.
It tells the story of real life and, to me, there is no better story. We are inundated with imagery that tells fictions of the world around us, but a good documentary image tells the truth, be it one that is universal or a truth which is highly personal. Here are my seven tips to improve your documentary photographs.
1. Don’t be an art director
My very first tip to taking documentary photos is to not be an art direct! That means you don’t tell anyone how to dress, where to stand, what activity to do, or even physically move objects in or out of the frame. Documentary photography is about honesty above all else, which means being truthful to the scene in front of you and the moment you are capturing. If you direct any aspect of the photo, then it is no longer a documentary photograph. That is not to say that it’s not an awesome photo, it very well can be! There are countless amazing photos in the world that employ varying amounts of art direction. From commercial to editorials to fine art to lifestyle, beautiful and interesting photos abound, they just can’t be called documentary.
2. Be open to life
A big part of being able to take a good documentary photograph is being open to what unfolds in front of you. Countless times when photographing my own family I think I know going in to it what will be the definitive photo of the experience, but inevitably what life presents is far better than what I had imagined. If I was fixated on carrying out the vision in my head, I would miss the moments that life presents honestly and without my direction. However, along with that comes the art of anticipating the moment. It is overwhelming to chase after a moment and when doing so one is left with nothing but misses. However, if you slow down and compose the background of your image and wait for the action to come, then you regain control of the scene. It is all too easy to get caught up in action and chase after it, but it pays off to slow down and learn to anticipate the moment.
3. Step back
A good documentary photograph will often include a sense of place, which means you need to back up! Let more of the setting into a photo to give the moment context. When shooting indoors this often means that I am backed up against a wall to get as much of a room into the photo as possible. Another way to get more of the setting in a photograph is to use wider lenses. My go to lens is the Sigma 35mm Art. Currently it is almost exclusively what I shoot with. I love how much of the scene I can get into the shot with a 35mm, plus using a prime lens really helps minimize any distortion that you might end up with when using a zoom lens.
4. Stop down
Along with stepping back to get more of the scene in a photo you also need to stop down. It doesn’t matter how much background you capture if it is so out of focus and full of bokeh that the location isn’t identifiable. To tell a story with a documentary photograph you need to use a smaller aperture so that the background is visible. It can be a big challenge to get used to, because you need to be a lot more aware of what it going on in the background than when shooting wide open. Look at the forms in the background and compose your shot to make sure the action happens where you want it to. Layering your composition by bringing the back, mid, and foreground into harmony will help push your documentary photographs to the next level.
5. Watch edges
When composing your picture, don’t just look at the center of the frame or where the action is located. Always be scanning your edges. Decide if you want objects to be in the frame or outside of it and move your camera accordingly. A photograph is the actuation of hundreds of micro-decisions and it is up to you to decide what will look best. Try not to cut off objects along the edge of your frame, but also know that there is only so much you can do and be satisfied knowing that you tried.
6. Close Photoshop
Part of embracing real life means you get to exit out of Photoshop (I know, what a relief!). In true documentary work you cannot manipulate the photo. That means no removing outlets or cleaning up a background. Embrace the cords, because one day people will look back at our images and identify them as a sign of our times. Getting a good documentary image goes back to doing all that you can when you compose and take the shot. It is up to you to make the decisions when shooting about if a certain element will be included in the shot or not. Once you adhere to true documentary practices it can be freeing. No longer do you need to stress over a light switch, instead just work it into the composition the best you can and let it be.
7. Always have your camera ready
My camera lives on the mantle in my living room, with a memory card and battery already loaded and ready to go. That way I never have to go far to grab it when something happens that I want to document. I also recommend getting a bag that you feel comfortable throwing your camera into for when you go out. It is good practice to always have your camera on hand so you can work on your craft anywhere and everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you live in a big bustling city or rural quiet town; your life is filled with photo opportunities. Have your camera on hand, compose, and make the photograph.
A really great documentary photograph looks effortless and that can seem a bit daunting when starting out (and will continue to even when you have lots of experience!).
A lot of work goes into documentary photography. You need to be constantly thinking on the fly and analyzing the scene in front of you. Not only do you need to watch for the moment to unfold, you also need to be aware of your background and how that plays into creating a story all while making a pleasing composition. There are a lot of decisions that happen almost instantly and to be able to do that takes a lot of practice.
Rather than trying to implement all these tips at once, try working on them one at a time. Once you feel comfortable with an aspect, then build upon it by introducing another. If you keep practicing and refining your craft, then you will see your skills as a documentary photographer grow in ways you never imagined. Embrace being open to life. It will surprise you.