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Documentary Portrait Photography Advice

Documentary Portrait Photography Advice - How to create expressive, documentary style portraits.

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Portraits and People

This excerpt is from Chapter 7: Documentary, of Expressive Photography by The Shutter Sisters. Visit Ilex Photo for more information.


Expressive Photography

Whether it is a facial expression, texture of the landscape or contextual details, clicking the shutter at the right second is essential in capturing "the moment."

Choosing to notice and incorporate details in your documentary images helps provide context and clues for the viewer, and can often add an element of irony or humor to your images. Small details in the setting might include an odd expression on someone’s face in the periphery of action, or the presence of something unique such as a turtle shell displayed over a fireplace, or a clever phrase written on the front of someone’s T-shirt. Also consider details that can help reveal subtle information about your subject, such as the frayed edges of a worn sweater or skinned knees beneath too-tight shorts to offer a more authentic view.

Beyond the window

As you consider the details of a setting, think about what they might indirectly reveal to the viewer. Shooting an image with a narrow aperture setting ensures your entire shot will be in focus, which helps give context to the story and the subject. By sharing the details of a particular space—such as a welcoming living room, toys on the floor, a pregnant woman’s profile by the window—it’s obvious that my friend is expecting her second or third child. It’s these kinds of telling details you can reveal in documentary photography.

Beyond the window

Her beauty

As I moved carefully in the tight space of this beauty shop in the Remera district of Kigali, Rwanda, to study the beauty of Grace and the art of hair styling, I was surprised to see the vast variety and quantity of familiar products lining the walls of this foreign space and intrigued by the tools used to straighten and curl her hair.
By using a wide-angle lens and a narrow aperture setting to focus on the details, I was able to offer a complete view of the scene here, while maintaining a focus on Grace.

Hair Salon


Intrigue in the tub by Maile

Successful documentary images are most often captured as spontaneous moments. But what makes this shot of Maile’s so expressive are the little details she captured in the setting—tiny toes pressed up against the edge of the tub, the curious expressions of the girls’ discovery of something mysterious beyond our view, and the inclusion of two small toys in the corner of the tub anchoring the composition.


Also check out Ilex Photo’s IlexPhoto Tool iPhone App.

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