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What is Documentary Photography?
Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo
Documentary photography is, by definition, the art of capturing historically, culturally, socially, or politically significant events and experiences. These photography subjects can encapsulate either breaking news, or more evergreen stories about real life stories across the world. Early examples of groundbreaking documentary photography include Henri Cartier-Bresson’s coverage of the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937, which focused exclusively on the excited citizens who had shown up to watch; Dorothea Lange’s portrayal of the tragic effects of the Great Depression on the American citizens across the United States; and avant-garde American artist Diane Arbus’s insistent imagery of the marginalized, from circus folks to transgender people—all considered taboo in the 1950s and ’60s. These photographers, among others like Lewis Hine, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, and Robert Capa, were influential in promoting a more casual approach to photography, one that relied on patience, observation, and eschewing the rules of straight studio portraiture for great images that told a whole story, whether that was documentation of war or simply showing how the other half lives.
Documentary photography also applies to portraying the seemingly insignificant minutiae of everyday life, assigning it additional gravitas by the very act of choosing to capture something ordinary on film. It can be a powerful way to tell your own personal story, or to preserve your family’s story by highlighting intimate or easily overlooked details. Whether shooting a different culture in a far-flung country or simply capturing details from your own home, the same techniques and principles come into play to produce a faithful documentary photograph. The following photography tips should help you get started.
How to Select the Right Camera
Photography has always been a multi-medium art form, beginning with the initial capture through a camera’s lens and sensor and ending with the final image being developed in a darkroom or published to the web. With documentary photography in particular, it is beneficial to think of what you will do with the images once you have them, then to work backwards and select the most appropriate device to get your shots.
The only equipment required for documentary photography is a camera—any camera. You may use an iPhone, a DSLR, a disposable, a Polaroid, or a regular point-and-shoot device. As the photographer, some prior research, familiarity with your subject, and intended use of your photos will inform camera selection. If the images will be published in print, a DSLR camera shooting in RAW is ideal for exporting high-resolution pictures. If publishing digitally, a DSLR, regular camera, or even smartphone camera will do, but be mindful to still shoot in RAW as most editors and most websites still require high-res imagery for publication. If you’re shooting documentary photographs for personal use, think about the story you want to tell and see if you can find a camera that matches the feel and quality of your vision (some light research on different film cameras and post-processing will help with the decision-making).
It is also important to take into account that the very nature of documentary photography means immersing yourself in the moment and letting things unfold. For this reason, it is beneficial to curate a selection of cameras and lenses that will help capture whatever action occurs. At the very least, a zoom lens and a wide-angle lens paired with a DSLR will ensure that you’ll get the shot, whether it’s near or far. If you’re heading into a wiley protest or an evening event, make sure you’re familiar with adjusting exposure, shutter speed, and ISO (all settings that allow different amounts of light in through the camera’s sensors) to accommodate for lots of motion or low-light photography.
Approaching Your Subject
Once you have selected a camera (or cameras) and have completed preparatory research on what your subject is, which would include learning about any historical context as well as present situation, the next step to documentary photography is to travel to where the action is and to enter the scene. It can be a little tricky in the beginning to gain the trust of strangers, however a little kindness and open communication goes a long way. Documentary photographers, while very present in a scene, also benefit from downplaying their presence in order to allow the natural action to unfold. Be conscious at all times of your camera movement and try not to interfere with the action.
How to Think About Your Shot List
A common mistake novice documentary photographers make is assuming that a subject’s face must be clearly present in every shot. Capturing faces is just one way to tell a person’s story; there are myriad other details a documentary photographer can show to complete the picture. This is where a shot list, which can be a simple list or a fancy shot list template, comes into play.
Begin a shot list by jotting down all the possible locations you want to explore, along with other relevant information like shot size, scene number, shot type, camera angles, and other extra notes. You can reference similar shots in your shot list or in a separate storyboard. When attempting to portray a subject, always ask whether you may shoot them in their home, work, or other frequented, favorite places. Focus on ambient details, like manner of dress and jewelry, a collection of mementos on a desk or dresser drawer, or subtle interactions with passersby. Close-up shots are just as important as a wide shot, which establishes interesting subjects as characters, revealing the truth in their story. Experiment with the effect that changing camera angles has on your subject; low angles can make things seem grander in scale while high angles have a diminishing effect. Think about these shot types and jot down some notes in the shot description of your camera shot list before getting started. While there will be quite a few specific shots you will have pre-planned, do leave some room for letting spontaneity color your particular shot.
Documentary photography is more than an art form; it’s an important way to preserve history. When social photojournalist Jacob Riis began documenting the plight of the impoverished dwelling in tenements in New York City in the early twentieth century, his photographs inspired national discourse and helped enact social change. While not all documentary photography has to be politically or socially charged, it does usually elucidate some aspect of existence, deepening our understanding of the human condition, one photograph at a time.