As a parent, I desperately wanted a way to pause time, a way to remember the big and little events that would be my kids’ childhood. As a creative, I also needed a creative outlet that wouldn’t require a lot of extra time away from my family. Documentary photography became both of those things for me.
Documentary photography is about real life, the chaos, the mundane, and everything in between. It’s more of an approach and less of an aesthetic. As the photographer, you may not alter or interfere with the scene in any way. This includes adjusting the lights, moving objects, posing or directing your subject. Pixel manipulation is also not allowed.
If you can’t control the scene or the subject, what can you control?
You can control the elements:
Composition is where you can elevate a candid snapshot to an intentional documentary work of art. Composition is important in all genres of photography and more so in documentary.
Quick tip: get eye level with your subject. This helps the viewer feel as if they are in the frame with your subject.
A few of my favorite ways to compose a shot:
Harness the light:
Learning how to utilize and harness the light available to you is a huge part of documentary photography. Life is happening in harsh light, artificial light, low light, and golden light.
Quick tip: Don’t be afraid to increase your ISO to capture a moment that is happening in a dimly lit room.
The precise moment you click the shutter is also known as the decisive moment. This phrase was coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson. If you don’t know his work, I highly recommend a study of his images. Moment driven photos are images where the moment is the most important element in the frame. Once you begin shooting for the moment, you will begin to anticipates your subject’s next move.
Quick tip: Shoot through the moment. When you think you have the moment captured, keep shooting!
Just like learning compositional elements and how to harness light, learning your camera settings is an extremely important part of documentary photography.
Here are a few recommendations to get you started:
Quick Tip: When composing your shot, ask yourself, “What is most interesting here?”.
There are many different genres of documentary photography, here are just a few