When it comes to documentary photography, the idea is to keep your images as authentic and true-to-life as possible, without interfering with your subject or their surroundings to influence the image.
When shooting documentary style, you can still use many techniques to inject creativity and magic and elevate your images from simple cellphone snapshots to powerful documentary images that tell a story in a single frame.
Here are my five top tips for improvingyour documentary photography skills…
1. Follow The Light
In its purest form, documentary photography means capturing the moment in a completely unscripted way. That means not altering the frame at all, not even switching on a light to brighten a dark scene.
BUT… That doesn't mean you can't find a lovely little patch of light to hang out in and wait for the action to unfold!
In the middle of the year, Sydney spent 17 weeks in lockdown; we were only allowed out for exercise and fresh air for an hour each day, and we had to stay within a 5km radius of our home. Fortunately for us, we live near a river, so most afternoons, that was where we went for our daily outdoor time. And it just so happens that the sun sets behind the river, so I was able to capture some glorious images of my children playing at the water's edge.
Lensbaby Edge 80 | ISO | 125 | 1/400 |
Similarly, the park across the road from us has gorgeous golden hour light, so late in the afternoon, I often take the kids over to burn off some energy, with the bonus of being able to capture some gorgeous, unposed moments while we're there.
Lensbaby Edge 80 | ISO | 2000 | 1/320 |
Of course, we can't always chase the perfect light, so when you're working in low light, don't be afraid to bump your ISO. A little grain is far better than a moment missed completely!
Lensbaby Velvet 56 | ISO | 3200 | 1/200 |
2. Compose Creatively
Another way to add magic to your documentary shots is to make creative compositional choices. Yes, yes, we've all heard of the rule of thirds, but I'm talking about moving beyond that and really mixing it up!
For example, it can be really impactful when shooting little kids to get down nice and low to capture them at their own eye level.
For example, to capture this next shot, I lay down flat on my belly at the end of the slip and slide and waited for my kids to slide down so I could capture all the joy on their little faces. This perspective also allowed me to keep my dad, watching from the grass, in the frame to strengthen the storytelling.
Lensbaby Edge 80 | ISO | 125 | 1/800 |
And in this shot, getting down low and shooting upwards allowed me to capture an everyday occurrence - my son on the swing - from a unique perspective.
Lensbaby Edge 80 | ISO | 500 | 1/320 |
Other fun compositional techniques to experiment with include leading lines, scale, and negative space, all of which can be seen in this next shot. The shoreline leads the viewer's eye through the frame, while my son's relative smallness against the landscape's expanse creates a powerful composition.
Lensbaby Burnside 35 | ISO | 500 | 1/200 |
3. Embrace The Blur!
Lensbaby lenses are manual focus lenses, so part of the shooting process involves letting go of the obsession with the tack-sharp focus that the razor precision of today's digital cameras and autofocus lenses has given us.
Back in the old days of film, with no fancy LCD screens on the back of our cameras, we couldn't see if we nailed a shot until it was developed, a process which often took weeks if you didn't have your own darkroom. So we settled for softer focus and less' perfection' - it was far more important to capture the moment than to fuss over-focus being a little soft.
I enjoy shooting with Lensbaby lenses because they give me back some of the tactile experience of those good old film days. And the trade-off for that is that, yes, sometimes I do miss focus.
For example, in the image below, I had intended to focus on my son as he slithered down the slip and slide. I missed, and instead, my focus fell backward onto my dad. But even though the shot didn't turn out as I had envisioned, I ended up keeping it because I kind of love the way the focus was on my dad and his role in this particular story.
Lensbaby Edge 50 | ISO | 125 | 1/800 |
Sometimes, I even miss focus on purpose. I love using blur as a storytelling device. I love the sense of nostalgia and whimsy it adds. For example, when I took the below shot, there were so many elements competing to be the hero of the frame - the moody clouds, the puddle reflections, the rainbow, and my little guy - and swirling them all into blur created a magical scene.
Lensbaby Trio 28 | ISO | 250 | 1/320 |
4. Don't Forget The Details!
When it comes to documentary photography, we tend to remember to step back to capture a whole scene as it's unfolding before us, but we often forget to step IN to capture the details! And the details are such an important part of the story!
The shot below was taken simultaneously as the one above of my son standing on the beach in his bright yellow t-shirt. Having captured the whole scene in that shot, in this frame, I wanted to document the way his little hand reaches out for mine when we're walking together.
Lensbaby Burnside 35 | ISO | 800 | 1/200 |
Similarly, in this next shot, we were at the river, and I loved the way my daughter's curls were blowing around in the crazy wind, so I wanted to capture them flying around against the backdrop of the gorgeous golden hour light.
Lensbaby Edge 80 | ISO | 100 | 1/400 |
"Back in the old days of film, with no fancy LCD screens on the back of our cameras, we couldn't see if we nailed a shot until it was developed, a process which often took weeks if you didn't have your own darkroom."
5. Edit To Add Magic
Some say that editing should be kept to a minimum with documentary images because it dilutes the authenticity of an unscripted, spontaneous moment. I am not one of those people!
I love adding a little bit of magic to my images in post-processing - I've often said that my camera helps me capture what a momentlooks like, Photoshop helps me capture what itfeels like.
For example, in this next image, my little guy was super excited to be helping to decorate the Christmas tree, and he had his tongue poking out in concentration just like his daddy does whenheis concentrating.
But it was nighttime, the light was awful, and our tree was tucked into a corner behind the TV cabinet and an armchair, so the straight out of camera image was pretty average.
But by cropping in tightly to draw attention straight to my little guy and eliminate background distractions, and adding an overlay of star bokeh which I created using my Lensbaby Creative Bokeh optic, I was able to create a final product which far better represented the moment as I had seen it in front of my eyes.
Lensbaby Velvet 56 | ISO | 4000 | 1/1600 |
Sometimes, too, it's really tricky to expose an image perfectly in-camera - for example, when backlighting. If you expose your subject, you risk blowing out the sky. If you expose for the sky, you throw your subject into shadow.
The solution is to find an exposure somewhere in the middle, where you can retain detail in both your subjectand the sky, and then edit to adjust as needed.
This is exactly what I did in the image below - slightly underexposed in camera to keep the detail in the sky, and then lifted the shadows and added warmth in Lightroom to balance my exposure.
Lensbaby Edge 80 | ISO | 100 | 1/500 |
These are some of the techniques I use to capture my kids' dynamic and creative documentary-style images.
Lensbaby Edge 50 | ISO | 400 | 1/400 |
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Emma Davis is a photographic storyteller who lives in Sydney, Australia, with six children aged between 3 and 18. She is a photography instructor and mentor at Click Love Grow, she's obsessed with colour, chaos, and blur, and she is passionate about documenting the beauty in all those ordinary little moments that make up our everyday lives.Instagram