Top tips to start documentary photography
What is documentary photography?
Are you an aspiring photographer? Do you like to photograph life around you? If the answer is yes, documentary photography might be of interest to you.
In a world where image manipulation and fake news are on a rise, documentary photography holds strong as one of the few genres of photography that record reality. In the early days, documentary photography was used for long term reportage of significant happenings around the world. Such as conflicts, historic events, and also as a tool for social change. Over time, the genre has grown to encompass a large variety of stories, both journalistic and personal in nature. A documentary project can be about a place, a person, a social issue, or any kind of story that a photographer feels is important to tell.
Manipulated or staged images can be made by fashion or portrait photographers. But they are not documentary. In essence, documentary means a real and accurate representation of the people or places in the story. One may shoot a documentary project over a period of days, weeks, months, or even years.
If documentary fascinates you or is your preferred way of storytelling, here are a few tips that you will find useful. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first project or fourth. These tips will come in handy if you’re starting a new project or are still unsure where to begin.
Tips to start a documentary project
Ideation and research
- Find stories in your backyard: Stories are everywhere if you look carefully enough. Often when starting out we get caught up in what story to pursue. We want to find something socially relevant, something that hasn’t been shot before. This search often leads us to nowhere. It’s important to start. Don’t wait for a big story to find you. You could start with your own life, your family’s or your neighbour’s. Make a list of the possible stories around you, and then start working on one or more. It’s important to find an idea that you love. Don’t start photographing something you don’t feel connected to.
- Do your research: Research is crucial. There is no shortcut here. As a photographer, it is your responsibility to research about your story and subject in advance. Also, try to learn from similar projects that have been done before. It helps you understand where your story fits in a larger context.
- Recce the location: If possible, recce the location before you start shooting. Make sure you have the required access to photograph the project. If a project interests you but you are unable to get the access, don’t start it.
- Decide on a time frame to complete your project: Documentary photography is all about patience. The longer time you spend with the subject(s), the more rewarding the result would be. Don’t be in a rush to edit or complete the project, unless you’re on assignment. You will come back with better photos and a better experience. But it’s also important to fix yourself a deadline for completing the project. This helps you stay focused and get things done.
- Form a relationship with the person(s) you are photographing: This is important when you are shooting people you don’t already know. Forming a friendship with them will help them trust you and be more comfortable with you shooting. Be empathetic and explain to them what you are doing. Respect the fact that they are letting you tell their story.
- Pay attention to light, composition and timing: Documentary photography uses minimal post-production. Hence, it’s important to get the best light and composition you can. Look for good light around you and make use of it. Wait for the right moment. The moment is what makes a good photograph great.
- Take a variety of angles: When you find a scene that is interesting, photograph it from various angles. Shoot wide and then move in closer. Do not take one photograph and move away. Your images will turn out better this way. And you will also have more options to choose from in the final editing. This exercise is more important in the beginning. Slowly you’ll find a form that works for your project. For example, you may see that wide-angle photos work better or that a vertical image is more suitable.
- Shoot in a fixed format: Shooting from various angles doesn’t mean you shoot with different cameras. Stick to one format – a DSLR, a medium format, a smartphone, a film camera, whatever you choose. Photographing in one format helps bring coherence to your images.
- Keep your gear with you at all times: Always be ready to shoot. You never know when a perfect moment will find you. You don’t want to be taking out your camera or adjusting the settings while an important moment slides away. Always be prepared. Carry your camera like a second skin.
- Take notes: Taking notes while shooting helps greatly when you are editing or submitting your project somewhere. There are several details that you may forget over time. Making notes helps you remember what you were thinking while shooting. It also helps to write captions for the photographs later.
Editing & Presentation
- Take advice: Finding a mentor who can advise you on your project can be of great help when you are starting out. Photographers are often unable to edit their work without bias. This is because they are so emotionally invested in the story. Hence it helps to have a mentor or editor who can look at your photos objectively. This doesn’t mean that you share your work on Instagram every day and seek advice.
- Print your photos: Printing your images helps you engage with them in a very different way. Something you would never do digitally. It is also a great tool to edit and sequence your work. When you have prints laid out on a table, it’s much easier to look for a story or pattern in your images.
- Get inspired: Regularly look at the work of famous documentary photographers. It will make a great difference to the quality of your images and will also keep you inspired. Some of my favourites photographers are Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Eliott Erwitt, Dorothea Lange, Mary Ellen Mark, and Martin Parr.
The most popular focal lengths for documentary and street photography are 35mm and 50mm. Famous photographers such as Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa have shot for years using fixed 35mm or 50mm lenses. 35mm is a magic lens that’s perfect for indoor as well as outdoor photography. It’s slightly wider than 50mm and helps to capture a wider frame. 50mm gives you an image that’s the closest to what you see with your naked eye. To begin with, you may want to invest in any one of these lenses.
Using a fixed focal length helps you move closer to the subject. As a documentary photographer, you need to get close to the action. If you want your images to look intimate and personal, do not stand far away with a long zoom lens. That’s okay when you’re shooting wildlife. But when you’re shooting people, getting close is crucial. As Robert Capa remarked, ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’.
Learn more: Top 10 lenses to step up your photography game (coming soon)
2. Camera & Lights
Any DSLR camera body that supports interchangeable lenses is good to start. You don’t necessarily need a high-end camera body. If you’re shooting in indoor or low light situation, it might be a good idea to invest in a flash or portable LED light.
To use a tripod or not is completely up to you. It depends on the kind of project you are doing. If you’re photographing something that requires you to move fast then don’t use a tripod. I personally like to use the tripod as it helps you to slow down. But when shooting in a street situation, avoid the tripod as it brings unnecessary attention to you.
Learn more: Top 10 tripods to step up your photography game (coming soon) / Best tripod in 2020 (coming soon)
I will leave you with some of the most famous documentary works.
- Country Doctor by W. Eugene Smith
- Depression Era Photos by Dorothea Lange
- Gypsies by Josef Koudelka
- Works of Martin Parr
If you have read this far and looked at the works mentioned above, then congratulations! You are ready to create your own documentary project. Let’s get going.