If you decided to start a documentary photo project, you already know what you are going to talk about. If not, I could possibly argue about the necessity to do it. Maybe you want to challenge yourself to produce something more meaningful of just some random shot. That’s great!

If you don’t already have a good idea for your first documentary photo project, the best starting point to decide what to talk about, is from your own interests. This could be your work, your hobby, a sport you practice, an art form or any other thing you are passionate for.

If you still didn’t get a list of potential subjects for your project, have a look to the pictures you took so far, and try to identify some common topic. Maybe you already have one or more favourite, at an unconscious level. Are all your pictures about people? Or about cats? Maybe you like to take pictures of cars? Or maybe boats?

Once you identified a potential subject, ask yourself about your relation with it. You really have to love or have a genuine interest in the subject you are going to document, if you want other people to get interested in it.

If you didn’t come up with a good idea yet, I’ll write an article soon on how to easily find something good to work on. If you did, now you have to set up everything to start working on your documentary photo project.

Research

Your documentary photo project doesn’t start when you start taking pictures. It starts far earlier. As mentioned by Chuck Jines in his interview, “so much work today never gets past the surface”, and that’s because most people don’t make the necessary research prior to start.

Even if you know your subject, you need to collect and reorder all the information about it. If your project is about a place, a town or a region, you need to understand its history, the people living in there, any transformation the territory has undergone over the years.

If your project is about People, what do they share? Who are the key figures of your story? What’s their story? Try to connect and empathise with them, understand their problems, their aims, their desires.

Keep note of all this documentation: it will come handy to write the artist statement and, in general, to present your work.

Meet the people

When documenting people, it is a good idea to meet with them in person. You don’t want to look like the guy who is taking advantage and doesn’t care of others. You want them to trust you and be comfortable with the fact you are around taking pictures.

Spend some time with the players of your story without the camera. Join them in their day to day activities. Ask them all the questions you need and share with them the objectives of your project. Explain them why you think it is important someone else knows their stories.

Once people are aware of your presence and of the purpose of your project, they will appear more relaxed, until they will forget of your presence. This familiarity will also help you to get access to places and situations otherwise difficult to document.

Prepare a plan

We are still in the documentation phase. If you have done your homework, you should have a notepad full of notes about people, places, situations you want to include in your project.

If you like to work with paper and pen, just draw a table to fill it with the necessary informations. I prefer to use a spreadsheet, to be able to change the order of the rows by different criteria. now, create a column for each of this information:

  • title (a temporary title for your picture, just to quickly identify it);
  • subjects (who or what you are going to represent in this picture);
  • place (where is this picture due to be taken. Also take note of the time of the day you need to make it, is necessary);
  • gear (if for this picture you need a specific lens or gear like flashes, reflectors, tripod, etc, note it in this field);
  • notes (why are you taking this image, what do you want to represent with it, what’s its role in the whole project?);

The practical reason why you want to do this list, is just to be sure you won’t forget to shot a particular subject or situation. Also, using a spreadsheet, you can order your shots by place, so you won’t have to come back if you forgot to make a specific shot.

Shooting

It’s time to start shooting. Take the camera and the list you made in the previous point and go!

Don’t just take a single shot for each element of the list. Try different shooting points, angles, exposures, poses and compositions. Also remember, as you are shooting a documentary photo project, you are a storyteller and also the director. Here you have to choose if and how you want to interfere with your story, or if you just want to testify the events you are depicting.

If you are using a film camera, always take a couple of shots, if possible, just in case your subject blink the eyes exactly when you press the shooting button. With a digital camera, you can preview the shot in the LCD display, on your mobile phone or even on a computer if your camera provide a tethered shooting modality.

Editing

You finished the shooting part, now it is time to edit the pictures collected so far. Many photographers work on the editing while shooting, I prefer to dive into this phase only once the shooting part is completed.

When approaching the editing, you should already have in mind how many pictures are going to be part of your project, and possibly how are you going to present it.

If you used a digital camera, you can just visualise them on your computer screen and mark those you want to keep. You’ll do this recursively until you reduced your pictures to the number previously decided. Using a software like Adobe Lightroom, you can mark them with flags and stars, in order to crease different subset of pictures like first choice, second choice and so on.

If you used a film camera, you’ll need to develop them. Nowadays, many online film development services offer to develop your film and then scan them and provide the pictures on an electronic support. You can then import them on Lightroom and proceed as discussed previously. If you like the old way, you can ask the laboratory to print the contact sheet, from which to choose the pictures to send to the final print.

Not all the laboratories are the same, of course. Ask to some friend for references or do some online research prior to send your rolls: once developed you won’t be able to come back.

Post-processing

Now you’ve decided which shots will be part of your project, you are ready for the post-processing phase. Here, the key concept to keep in mind is consistency.

If you chose to apply to your pictures a specific Black & White, or a specific post processing, try to use it for all the pictures. If not useful for the story, try not to mix different post processing.

Also try to stick to the same format. When working on a project, I prefer to sacrifice something in terms of composition, to keep all the pictures the same aspect ratio, like 3×2, 4×3, etc…

Working on digital, if you are planning to distribute your pictures both on internet and printed, it is a good idea to produce different versions of your project for different medium. Softwares like Adobe Lightroom allow you to choose the amount of sharpening for the type or paper you’ll use for your prints, or depending on their dimension.

 

Now it’s your turn: is there any other step worth to be mentioned when starting a documentary photo project? Use the form below to let me know your thoughts.

 

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