How to improve your documentary photography



Although I now work in the commercial world, my passion started with documentary photography. I was, and still am, obsessed with Annie Leibowitz’s work with the Rolling Stones and loved William Egglestone’s color observations of the mundane world he found himself in. When I find a free day, there’s nothing I love more than taking my camera out to document someone else’s life. However, unlike the plethora of studio lighting tutorials available, there seems to be a real lack of articles on documentary photography. Here are six tips for improving your images.

To get closer

You really want to get in on the action. Standing to the side for me is way too voyeuristic and it offers nothing more than what most people see as a natural viewer. Put your anxiety aside and get involved. Most people won’t mind your being there, and if there is a problem, politely apologize and go elsewhere.

Broad goals

Maybe not super wide, but certainly not telephoto. Once you start going past 50mm, the background compression is such that you lose all the context of the shot. As you get closer to the action, pull out a larger lens to add context and impact to your footage.

Show a different point of view

Millions of images are uploaded to the web every day. To stand out and add value, you need to position your work away from the crowd. It might just be about staying away from everyone else, or maybe bringing a style of one genre of photography to document another.

Continuity

Continuity comes in many forms. If you stitch your images together in a series, it’s worth keeping similar focal lengths. I find that it allows the viewer to get a feel for the scale and it helps him to feel “inside”. If the images go from 17mm to 200mm, then it is more difficult to connect with the story. The same goes for post-processing. For me, it’s fine to switch from color to black and white, but color grading and black and white grading should have some continuity.

Composition

Capturing the moment alone is not enough. Good composition will set your work apart from that of your peers. It’s not always as easy as walking down the street and running away. Find a point of interest, frame your shot, and wait for something to happen. By doing this, you are much more likely to capture an amazing moment with a great composition. Patience is your friend.

Candid?

Documentary photography doesn’t have to be straightforward. I have had several commissions and led many self-funded projects where I document a group of people using studio lighting and backdrops. The last self-funded project I led was to photograph punters at a local festival. By staging the images and using a studio backdrop, I was able to document the style, trends, and faces of the people who attended this festival in 2017.

What are your top tips for documentary photography?


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