Seven tips to improve your documentary-style portrait photography
Documentary portraits are becoming more popular than ever. While once more the domain of magazine features, they’ve become a lot more widespread over the last few years and can offer insight into a who a person is, rather than just what they look like. In this video, photographer Joris Hermans talks us through his seven top tips for shooting documentary-style natural light portraits.
1. Talk to your subject
Talking to your subject can bring out a whole host of expressions and emotions that you wouldn’t otherwise see on your subject’s face. Whether your subject is shy and hiding away, or outgoing and confident, posing for the camera, engaging them in interesting conversation will allow their real personality to shine through, and let you get more interesting portraits.
2. Timing is everything
This leads on from the first one. Talking distracts them from the fact that you’re trying to photograph them, and is often the best time to shoot the photo. Keep an eye on them as they talk, and watch for when their expression turns from something obviously for the camera into something that more of who they are.
3. Let the eyes tell the story
Two things happen with the yes when you make a portrait of somebody. Either they’re looking at the camera or looking away from it. Although it might sound counterintuitive, having your subject looking away from the camera can often feel more intimate. Like you’re an observer on their life, while they’re lost in thought or looking at somebody else. It can also often offer a more intriguing story about the picture.
But there’s a time and a place for subjects looking straight at the camera, too. Looking directly at the camera makes you wonder more about the person, rather than what they’re doing or looking at outside of the frame.
4. Frame your shot wisely
Composition is king. When you shoot a tight headshot portrait, your image says very different things about your subject than if you shoot a wide full-length photo. Seeing what somebody wears and their overall posture can show your viewer a lot more about a person than just what their face looks like.
5. Focus on the background
This isn’t in the literal photographic sense, but more the “pay attention to it” sense. The background is often the key to making or breaking a portrait. A good background can provide context and add more to the story, while a bad background can be distracting or even ruin the shot completely. Think about what’s behind them, and whether it should also be in focus or not.
6. Let the light do the work
If you’re shooting with only the natural ambient light, as many photographers doing this kind of work are, then it’s important to understand how light works so that you can take advantage of it. Consider the time of day for the direction of the light and the overall quality of the light. Cloudy or misty days create a softer light that’s often more flattering. But harsh hard light can also add a lot of drama, perhaps reinforcing a subject’s personality.
7. Gear Matters
Even though “the gear doesn’t matter” often gets thrown around, it often does. Sure, you can get a good shot with anything, but you’ll usually get them more consistently if you use the right gear. For example, different lenses get very different results. What’s important is that you use the right gear to get the shots that tell the story you want to tell, and that you be consistent. Unfortunately, this is something you can only really pick up with experience as you figure out what works to create your vision.
What are your favourite documentary portrait tips?
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.