Being a documentary style photographer often means looking at things with a different eye to others it means capturing real life without any alterations, and that brings lots of challenges, such as setting up composition. It also means capturing the most meaningful moments, and knowing how to find them. If you want to go down this road, let’s take a look at some top tips for becoming a documentary photographer.
Types of Documentary
Even under the umbrella of ‘documentary’, there are a number of styles that you might prefer to pursue. The photojournalist is perhaps the most obvious one. A photojournalist takes photographs of events unfolding around them, normally with the intention of supplying them to a newspaper or other publication. They might be based in a war zone or just in their own hometown, but they always capture real life as it happens in front of them. Normally the images that they capture are attached to a specific news story.
The fine art documentary photographer does things a little differently. Their art is intended for display, in a gallery or in a book. They capture real life, but they will do so in such a way to evoke thoughts or emotions. They may look to capture humor by finding the most ridiculous real situations. They may poke fun at daily life. They may, on the other hand, seek to capture sad or poignant moments to create a moving collection. Normally their work is characterized more by a theme than a single story.
One of the things that most documentary photographers want to do is to become invisible. They don’t want people to react to the presence of the camera or act differently just because they are around. They want to capture the truth, so it is important that no one notices them. To this end, photojournalists will often stay in the same area for a long time, so that people are used to having them around. When others relax around you, you can capture their true selves rather than what they wish to portray.
The other way to be invisible is to stay far away. Using a telephoto lens, a lot of documentary photographers will remain outside of the scene, simply recording it from afar. This allows them to find a more stable position from which they can see the whole scene. They are then able to pick and choose which parts of the scene to record. This is also ideal for tense and dangerous situations, such as being on the front lines of a conflict.
The Present Moment
A documentary photographer also has to learn to live in the present moment, as this is what they are always trying to document. It won’t be any good to spend hours setting up a shot when you are looking to capture one moment of truth. By the time you are ready, it will be gone! You will need to know how to keep your camera ready to go at all times, and you also need to have quick reactions. A good instinct will help you to know when it feels like a great shot is about to happen.
You have to keep your eyes open at all times and looking for that perfect shot. Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about the decisive moment, which is the moment when everything aligns perfectly to provide you with your ideal image. Even in the age of smartphones and rapid fire shutters, this moment still exists. Learning how to look for it will help you to become a better documentary photographer!
Knowing the Limits
When it comes to post-production, there are some definite limits that you will have to abide by depending on what type of documentary photography you decide to pursue. If you are interested in photojournalism, you can never retouch an image or edit certain parts out. There have been many controversies over this practice, with careers being ruined as a result. You are a window for the viewer into the truth of what happened in this time and place. You can’t present them with a falsehood – and many photographers have got themselves into hot water for doing so. Color correction and contrast is just about all that you can do, although removing artifacts such as dust from the lens is also fine.
With fine art, however, you have more artistic license to decide what is too far and what is acceptable. You could even use your editing to make a clever political statement with your work. It could also add a new level of humor. In these cases, however, it’s generally recommended that you make it clear that your work has been altered. Again, you don’t want to get in hot water because people think that you are representing the absolute truth.
If you travel with your documentary photography, you also need to be aware of local laws. Attitudes to photography differ from country to country. There are some places where you do not automatically obtain copyright of your own works. There are some where you are not allowed to photograph certain places or people. There are others where the police are legally able to seize your camera and delete the images, and some where this would be illegal. As well as protecting yourself on location, you also need to know how the law sees selling your images. Is it legal to make a profit? For example, it’s illegal to take a photograph of the Eiffel Tower at night. If you were to try to sell a photograph with the Eiffel Tower featured in it at night, you would be breaking the law and could have your earnings seized.
Finally, perhaps the most important thing that you need to know about documentary photography is how to relax. When your heart is pounding and your hands are sweating it’s hard to get the right shot. Focusing, breathing evenly, and letting the shot come to you is essential. You can worry about missing the shot or not once the day is over!