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Strategies for Making Documentary Photographs

written by: Nicole Silvester•edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom•updated: 8/14/2011

There are a number of strategies for documentary photography. You might choose to shoot a lot quickly, or you may work slowly and carefully. You can shoot from the hip, or you can frame each image deliberately. Which strategy you employ can depend on your own preference, or on your subject matter.

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    Choosing Your Approach

    The documentary approach to making photographs - whether it is focused on a person, a place, an event or some other subject - can be both artistic and a force for social change. There are a number of different strategies for documentary photography, and which you choose will depend on your own shooting style, your comfort level with what you are shooting, and the individual demands of the subject.

    Some of the possible strategies to choose from relate to the speed and care with which you shoot: Should you frame only perfect moments, or should you keep the shutter firing to capture as much as possible? Other strategies involve the way you employ the camera: Will your subjects react to someone holding a camera up all the time, or is shooting from the hip a better choice? The combination of approaches is up to you, but it's a good idea to consider the options ahead of time.

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    Framing a Moment: Deliberation

    Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange When you're photographing something important, or seeking to make something important by photographing it, you probably want to capture particular moments. This is especially true if you are recording an event, or people in action. This still holds true even if your subject is people in a portrait style, or something entirely static like a building. There will often be one perfect moment that encapsulates everything about the subject. Henri Cartier-Bresson called this "the decisive moment," and he was an expert at capturing it. Dorothea Lange, too, had the ability to capture her Depression-era subjects at the moment when their gestures - small as they might be - most revealed their feelings.

    For some photographers, this moment is best captured by working slowly and deliberately to set up the camera, frame the shot, and depress the shutter release only at the very instant that the perfect shot occurs. This is a common way of working with a view camera, or large-format camera, which takes a long time to frame and focus, and for which it is expensive to buy film. Many photographers still work this way, though they don't generally take as long to set up as if they were using a view camera. No shot is wasted, and almost any frame they take will be useable.

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    Capturing a Moment: Speed

    Another strategy is to shoot a lot, and quickly, so that moments cannot escape. This is a way of working that became more popular when small cameras like early 35mm cameras were invented (35 mm cameras were often called "miniatures" because the film was so much smaller than the standard 8 by 10 inch view camera sheet film). These cameras were much more portable, and framing and focusing was considerably faster - allowing a photographer to keep up a continuous barrage of shots until they ran out of film. Now that many photographers use digital cameras, and camera memory cards are cheap and capacious, the number of photographs one can take is limited primarily by the speed of the camera's processor. The downside of this method of shooting is that an enormous percentage of the images will be unusable, and many could capture the moment you're looking for, but be badly framed, poorly exposed, or blurry.

    Garry Winogrand worked in this way, and though some criticize his work for horizon lines that are not level, he captured so many intriguing moments that his images are still amazing. Winogrand, though, had hundreds of discarded shots for every few he kept.

    Many documentary photographers adopt a strategy somewhere in between these two extremes. They take a lot of pictures, but each one is framed as well as possible under the circumstances. You'll end up with a lot of usable material and, with luck, a small number of the images will be outstanding.

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    Observing through the Viewfinder or Shooting from the Hip

    Something that could be a disadvantage, depending on your subject, is that carrying around a camera and constantly peering though the viewfinder (or holding the camera up to see the screen if you frame using the liveview on your digital camera) makes it obvious you're taking pictures. It sets you apart as an observer and not a participant, and if you're shooting people it can make them self-conscious. The behavior of people changes when they think they're on camera and they might not act naturally.

    One way to get around that is to shoot from the hip. To shoot from the hip means you hold the camera somewhere down near your waist and point the lens and fire the shutter without actually looking through the viewfinder to see how the image is framed. The theory is that because people assume you're just carrying the camera and not using it, they may act as if you don't have a camera at all. The disadvantage, of course, is that you have little control over the framing of the image or the point of focus. Shooting from the hip can actually result in some really interesting images that you might not have thought to take, but it can also mean a lot of unusable pictures and images that would have been great if only a different part was in focus.

    Waist Level Viewfinder There are a couple of ways to get some of the advantages of framing with a viewfinder and of shooting from the hip. One way is to use a waist-level viewfinder or a right-angle viewfinder. Both of these have you looking down at the camera instead of through it, so many people won't realize you're actually framing an image. Another is to purchase a digital cameras equipped with a rear screen that can be tilted or folded out from the camera body, which will let you see what you're framing without looking like you're about to take a picture.

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    Let Your Subject Decide

    Until you have a preferred method of documentary photography, try shooting a few different ways and see what works. If you find the people are acting differently whenever you point your camera in their direction, switch to shooting from the hip for a while and see if that makes a difference. Or just keep shooting normally, and if you're around long enough, they might relax.

    Determine if the subject you're shooting would be best represented through carefully framed images, or multiple quick and hasty shots, or some combination of both. Above all, approach what you're shooting with respect and an open mind, and that will show through in your work.


  • Image 1 credit: Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange, 1936. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.
  • The Photography Book. Phaidon Press, 2000.
  • Image 2 credit: Mamiya RZ67 up front view by Vitaly baranov (own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Upton, Barbara London, With John Upton. Photography. Fourth edition. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1989.
  • Cartier-Bresson, Henri. The Mind's Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Aperture, 1999.
  • Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. The Museum of Modern Art, 1982.