Essential Techniques for Compelling Documentary PhotographyEssential Techniques for Compelling Documentary Photography

Essential Techniques for Compelling Documentary Photography

If you’re an aspiring documentary photographer, in this article we unpack a range of techniques for creating your own compelling stories.

From stepping outside your comfort zone to the power of patience, we take a look at some of contemporary photography’s greatest storytellers and the techniques they use to approach the documentary genre.

What is Documentary Photography?
Documentary photography is as old as photography itself. From the very first picture, photography as a medium existed as a representation of reality. Though the genre is said to have developed throughout the mid to late 1800s, documentary photography as we know it is today known by other names and subgenres including the photo essay, social documentary, war photography and photojournalism.
Documentary photography aims to reveal a truth, to convey an important story through intentional imagery. When we think about humanity’s biggest moments, of families during The Great Depression, of Tiananmen Square, we immediately bring to mind Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936), similarly, we think of Jeff Widener’s ‘Tank Man’ (1989). We understand the world, its beauty and its chaos through the truths photographers put forth.
Whether a snapshot or a more considered narrative approach to storytelling, documentary photography aims to recreate real life. In this article, we unpack a range of techniques used to capture the world around you through compelling documentary photography.

Techniques to Improve Your Documentary Photography

The Bigger Picture
Documentary photography tells a story in interesting ways, with varying perspectives. For this reason, most documentary photography projects combine portraits, landscapes, and even still lifes.
Let’s say you’re pursuing a photography project that relates to lithium battery mining. Photographs of lithium batteries on the shelves of your local supermarket might be nice to include in the overall sequence of images, but these images alone won’t convey the extent of the social issue. What tells a story in far more gripping and emotive detail are photographs that tell the story of humanity’s relationship to an issue.
Catherine Hyland travelled to the Salar de Atacama salt flat in northern Chile to document the world’s largest source of lithium. Hyland’s story is compelling because it alludes to isolation and human fragility, in both the lithium mine and the villages that surround the region.
Great documentary photographers, like Hyland, tell a nuanced version of events through various photographic modalities. The project is the story. The pictures are the chapters. And each chapter should build a bigger picture.
“[The] land [has been] taken over by this sudden boom in a lithium trade that fuels our digitally dominated lives,” Catherine tells It’s Nice That, “but there’s an undercurrent that this boom is transient, that there are longer running narratives, both human and geological, at play. There is enough lithium in the Atacama to make batteries for 400 million electric cars, but taking the long view, that’s not very many. We will consume, the cars will come and go, the lithium will run out, the mines will close, the land will remain.”
Chase the Story
Though many good projects have been executed from within the walls of one’s home, most of the time you’ll need to step outside of your comfort zone. Good projects don’t just land on your doorstep.
South African photographer Pieter Hugo travelled up the African continent to Nigeria after catching wind of a good story, and his eventual project, The Hyena and Other Men. Hugo’s friend had emailed him a cellphone picture of a group of men walking the streets of Lagos with hyenas on chains. That cellphone picture had mystery and motivated Hugo to make arrangements with a Nigerian journalist who had a connection with the ‘Gadawan Kura’ – the hyena handlers. A few weeks later, Hugo landed in Lagos and bega photographing.
Hugo chased the story because he believed it needed to be told, and because he had artistic confidence in telling it. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is great practice for a photographer so long as it can be done safely. You don’t need to fly to a warzone. But regardless of where you go, being respectful, making friends, establishing connections and following leads can be some of the most important tools a documentary photographer has in their arsenal.
On a practical note, established documentary photographers often apply for funding when pursuing personal projects like Hugo’s. Alternatively, some artists may self-fund the journey, hoping to sell the images later to news outlets, or in exhibition print sales and photobooks. Those working in photojournalism also spend time ‘on assignment,’ meaning their expenses are paid for by the news media company. BBC may not pick up your first story, so before you book flights, spend some time following the news cycle, seeking opportunities in your local area with local events.
Read more about Hugo’s experiences from The Hyena and Other Men here.
Exercise Patience
Revisiting an area is an effective way to establish trust with subjects. Instead of being the ‘random photographer,’ revisitation means you might become ‘the friendly photographer’, and the source that people entrust you with their personal or collective stories. Having the community on your side will inevitably lead to better pictures as greater access is often granted.
Gregory Halpern, an American photographer, travelled interstate to Omaha, Nebraska for his project and photobook Omaha Sketchbook. He did this for fifteen years, patiently compiling his notion of the American Heartland. Fifteen years is an incredibly long time to devote to documenting, but the underlying theme of ‘Americanness’ is vague and needs constant revisitation to solidify and best represent the theme.
A photograph is a moment in time. Photography is a matter of time.
Lens Filters
Lens filters are an important barrier of protection between your expensive lens and any stray objects you may encounter on the road. A broken lens will leave you picture-less so it’s always a good idea to use a UV filter. Creative lens filters are also an efficient way to add in-camera effects to your pictures and give artistic authenticity to the moment.
Shop the Urth range of lens filters here.
Particularly if you’re travelling, having somewhere safe to store your camera is paramount. Cameras aren’t exactly small investments, but a padded shoulder bag is and it can safeguard your documentary photography tools from harm, ensuring your story gets told.
Check out our durable carry collections here.