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.
Can you really get great shots on an iPhone?
That depends on how you define “great,” and there’s sure to be generational, educational, and experiential factors that cloud one’s idea of greatness. Furthermore, iPhoneography is often a divisive issue, with steadfast supporters and vigorous detractors occupying each end of the continuum. This all just serves to point to the subjectivity inherent in this discussion.
In the realm of mobile devices, the iPhone camera is generally well regarded but it’s hardly the god among mortals it was once considered. That doesn’t really matter, though. We all understand that, in the right hands, any camera is a good camera (or a good enough camera). So since the iPhone is, at the very least, a very capable camera, perhaps we should be talking about what iPhoneographers can do to maximize their camera’s potential.
It probably won’t settle any arguments about whether iPhone shots are great, but you can at least feel good about getting shots that live up to your own expectations.
Use Both Hands. The iPhone doesn’t feature any sort of image stabilization, so to minimize the chances of getting blurry shots you should probably hold it with two hands. You don’t get to choose the shutter speed, so despite the phone being thin, light, and generally comfortable to hold, you still need to make sure it’s as stable as possible.
Use the HDR Feature. This is somewhat related to the tip above because the iPhone’s HDR feature works by quickly taking three captures of your subject at different exposures and combining them for one ostensibly better defined image. But it’s pointless if your camera is moving.
Zoom with Your Feet. While the “zoom with your feet” advice comes with a number of caveats for DSLR/prime lens users, it’s really the only way to go for iPhoneographers; that slider at the bottom of the screen is nothing short of useless. Use it and people’s immediate reaction to your shot will be something along the lines of, “Oh, how unfortunate, you used the onscreen zoom….” If you want to zoom in on something and retain good image quality, just get closer to your subject.
Shoot in Good Lighting. Cell phone cameras typically have tiny sensors that don’t excel in low light conditions — the iPhone is no exception. It is by no means impossible to get an acceptable night/low light shot, but numerous factors will have to converge perfectly and you will need to use flawless technique. You simply aren’t going to get DSLR-like levels of high ISO performance out of your iPhone, so your best bet is to always shoot in the best light possible.
Use the Composition Grid. The fact that the iPhone gives you the option to turn on grid lines should be a hint that composition matters even when you’re shooting with a mobile device. An interesting and balanced composition is an important element of any photo, regardless of the camera with which it was made. The grid lines are there to help. Use them.
Use AE/AF Lock. Well, you have to know that feature is there in the first place, and many iPhone users don’t. It serves the very same purpose as the AE/AF lock on a DSLR. Just tap on the part of the screen that corresponds to the part of the subject you want to focus on, hold until the box that appears bounces twice, and you have now locked in focus and exposure. This can be helpful in tricky lighting situations such as when you encounter backlighting; you can focus on/expose for your subject alone and not worry about the background.
Go Easy on the Filters. Or don’t don’t use them at all. When it comes to things like Instagram filters, some people despise them and others use them on every single image that comes out of their phone — which is one of the reasons some people despise them. If you’re really trying to make a case for the legitimacy of iPhoneography, Instagramizing (Instagramifying?) everything isn’t going to help the cause.
Bring in Outside Help. You can definitely make do with the iPhone’s built-in camera functions, but if you want more control and flexibility, there are a rang of apps you can download to make your overall iPhoneography experience a more robust one. For a powerful yet user friendly photo editing app, try Snapspeed. If you’re looking for features like image stabilization, independent focus and exposure control, a horizontal level, and scene modes, give Camera+ a try.
So there you have it; take these tips, add them to any tips of your own, and go out there and represent for all the great iPhone photographers of the world.
Read more on Lightstalking.com
With all the cool technology spiraling around us, it is incredibly easy to get caught up in the numbers and specs of our favorite gadgets and devices. Moreover, we seem to always want the newest and the fastest of everything, standing on the flimsy rationale that they will make our lives so much better in every way imaginable.
For photographers, this rationale is a distraction at best, a monolith of an obstacle at worst. If you are unhappy with or uninspired by the photographs you are currently producing, the answer is not to buy new stuff; that will only serve to lighten your pockets, while providing no real solution to your ordeal. So, if your ultimate goal is to create photos that you (and your audience) truly enjoy, photos that grab the attention of all who view them, photos that encourage more than a passing glance, then learning to “see” may just be the shot in the arm that you need as a photographer.
“What the public criticizes in you, cultivate it. It is you.” — Jean Cocteau
When you work in any creative or artistic capacity — whether you earn a living from it or not — you’re an easy target for the negativity of others. The moment you present to the world the creation that you’ve put so much time and effort into, you can be sure the critics will emerge in force, prepared to pounce all over your work.
The question is easy to answer in broad terms; the basic elements of a good photograph are essentially the same regardless of what genre of photography we’re talking about. A good photograph of any kind finds the right mixture of craft and vision, of technical proficiency and artistry. Most people aren’t going to give a second glance to a blandly composed shot, even if it is tack sharp.