It’s been a trend for awhile now - people are shying away from more traditional, posed portraits and falling more and more in love with documentary style portraits. It makes sense; a posed portrait, though a beautiful addition to any wall, just can’t capture the unique personality of a family like an unposed, candid portrait can. From the morning routine to get ready for school or work to a fun family picnic at lunchtime to playtime in the back yard, documentary portraits can take just about any form.
With that freedom, you can create a dynamic, engaging collection of photos that reflects each family’s unique personality.
But shifting to documentary portraiture is more complex than it sounds. You have to release quite a bit of control, including that over posing, lighting, and shoot locations. However, once mastered, you will have a service that is unlike any other photographer in your area. It’s just a matter of following a few steps.
The entire point of a documentary style is to document the family in a completely objective way. You’re just there and happen to have a camera, so your job is to be like a fly on the wall - no telling family members what to wear, where to stand, or to look at the camera. In this regard, documentary portraiture is not unlike photojournalism. The point is to tell a story in an honest and raw manner.
To do so, follow these protocols:
Let things happen on their own. Do not direct your clients in any way, shape, or form. This requires an incredible amount of patience. A one-hour session is not going to cut it for documentary portraiture. You might need several hours. You might need to revisit the family several times. It’s simply a much different workflow than traditional portraiture.
Do Not Disturb
To the extent possible, do not disturb the environment in which you are shooting because to do so would alter the honesty of the shot. This includes changing the lighting or moving objects out of the frame. Instead, let the family’s activities play out and wait for the “it moments” to happen. Don’t direct; instead, learn to identify when laughter, playfulness, silliness, and other photo-worthy events are about to occur. In this regard, your process will be a lot like wildlife photography. You’re simply observing and waiting for the right moments to press the shutter.
Strive to showcase the family dynamic - their relationships with one another and their uniqueness as a family unit. But also try to find moments in which you can highlight each family member’s unique personality.
When taking documentary portraits, remember that you aren’t there to document what is happening, but who is there. Look for ways to explore the various relationships in the family and make that the centerpiece of your shots in the context of whatever activity is going on.
Tell a Story
What you are creating isn’t a random collection of single shots. Explore ways to create images that tell a larger story. This can be done in many ways, from selecting a theme for the series of photos to the manner in which the photos are shot. For example, try taking a portrait of each family member, but ones that focus on something other than their face. Additionally, don’t be afraid to take shots of the surrounding environment. Still lifes or landscapes can help you tell the story you wish to create.
However that story unfolds, avoid heavy post-processing. It defeats the purpose of the documentary style. Make light edits as needed, but to heavily process the images would negate the honesty and rawness of the documentary style.
Why Documentary Portraiture?
Taking a documentary approach to portraiture unlocks the most personal and the most intimate moments of a family’s life. Not only that, it gives you unfettered access to who these people really are and how they act in their everyday, normal lives. This, in turn, gives you an opportunity to build a more meaningful relationship with each family member, and that closeness makes the images you create that much better.
As a result, a documentary style gives clients something they want, but often can’t get on their own - a well-exposed, well-framed, candid image of a sweet or precious moment in their lives. In essence, you can provide them with a much better version of a snapshot they might take on their own. After all, the off-the-cuff images that we take of our families in our everyday lives often become the most cherished. Why not create a professional-grade snapshot that families are sure to love?
From a personal standpoint, documentary portraiture represents a total change of pace, and allows you to explore new methods of creating portraits. It will stretch your boundaries, force you to rethink how to frame a shot, and will challenge your ability to create meaningful, beautiful images without the benefit of directing people or manipulating things like lighting or the setting in which you shoot. It’s certainly a challenge, but the rewards of mastering documentary portraiture are worth it - for your clients and for you.