Documentary by Laura Beth Davidson

Hey! I’m Laura Beth. At first glance, I’m a standard-issue suburban mother who drives a minivan and waits in the drive-thru for coffee and/or chicken nuggets a couple of times a week. But like every other mom I’ve ever met, I am more than the sum of my mom-parts. In other words, please don’t judge my character by the amount of crap that falls out of my car when I open the sliding doors.



I’ve considered myself a photographer for about eight years, and I’ve joked that the more children I had, the more control I ceded and the less patience I held for posing and directing my daughters in my attempts to make photographs. In 2018, I found myself with four kids (including one-year-old twins) and a strong desire to document our everyday life without losing my mind. I had been diligently photographing my world since our oldest daughter was two, but I wanted to take my work to the next level, and learning to use complicated lighting setups, elaborate props, and extensive Photoshop editing did not feel like the best way to spend my time. When I began learning about the family documentary genre, it was as if a whole new world had opened up to me. There were challenges that were appealing and realistic, like creating complex compositions and waiting until just the right moment to press the shutter. And there were actually expectations (or at least allowances) for imperfections like bad lighting and bad moods. I suddenly felt like I had permission to be honest about how hard motherhood can be; I felt free to make meaningful photographs of dirty laundry and temper tantrums. As much as these exhausting days with small children feel like they will never end, I know they will one day be a distant memory, and I am now compelled to record everything, even if it isn’t always pretty.



WHAT IS DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY?

A documentary photograph is one that is not posed or directed or manipulated in any way. It tells a true story in the voice of the photographer. Often, documentary images tell strong stories either on their own or as part of a series. While human subjects are often a key element of the documentary genre, I believe that anything that gives insight into a particular aspect of life should be photographed as a record—a document—worth preserving.


There are three main pillars of documentary photography: light, composition, and moment. I’ll discuss each of these elements and how I approach them in my own work.



There are three main pillars of documentary photography: light, composition, and moment. I’ll discuss each of these elements and how I approach them in my own work.


LIGHT

Because there is no scene manipulation in true documentary work, I never change, enhance, or add light to the scene I’m documenting. As a result, the light is often not beautiful, but that is not

to say that it can’t play a significant role in an interesting photograph. So don’t let “ugly” light keep you from taking a photo! If I’m photographing my kids in the grocery store, the overhead artificial light will be harsh and bright, but it will be true to the environment; it adds to the story.



I used to leave my camera at home if we were going to the playground at any time other than golden hour, but then I realized how many stories and moments I missed photographing simply because they weren’t happening in the lovely glow of sunset. A main objective of documentary photography to me is to record memories, regardless of the time of day or type of light in which they happen. Shooting in direct sun can also challenge you to find interesting ways to tell a story. Using shadows or silhouettes can help you flex your creative muscles in less than ideal light.





Occasionally, you may get lucky and find a compelling story to document in beautiful light. In that case, think about how the light enhances the story and not just the aesthetic of the photograph. Practically, the position of the sun in the sky and the length of shadows, for example, tell the viewer about the time of day. Figuratively, shadows and darker exposures tend to elicit a darker mood while brighter frames may suggest themes of hope and happiness.



COMPOSITION

Composition is the arrangement of subjects and other elements within the boundaries of a photograph. Again, because of the nature of the documentary approach to photography, those elements should not be moved or manipulated by you as the photographer. Instead, move your own body higher, lower, closer, or farther away from your subjects in order to play with how they appear in relationship to your camera and to each other. To compose a thoughtful image, you may consider layering, framing, balance and symmetry.


Layering

Sometimes a documentary photo contains more than one story or point of action. When this is the case, think about how the simultaneous narratives are presented in relation to one another. Using foreground and background is helpful, but make sure to close down your aperture (usually f/8 or higher is best) in order to ensure nothing is too much out of focus.



Framing

Using framing is a great way to elevate an otherwise boring story. Step back from the story you are telling and consider how you might add an extra layer of visual interest by shooting through another element that adds to the story. That extra layer can even be another subject in the photo; the objective is to guide the viewer’s eye around the frame in a way that makes your story clear.



Balance & Symmetry

When you compose an image, consider the visual weight of each element within the overall frame and the feeling you wish for the image to convey. Most of the time, our goal is to create a photograph that is satisfying and pleasing to the viewer, and to achieve this, we want the photo to be balanced or even symmetrical.



Occasionally, however, you may wish to tell a story that is uncomfortable, difficult, or tense, and in such a case you can “break the rules” by composing an intentionally unbalanced image.



MOMENT

Even though it is not acceptable to alter light or move objects when shooting in the documentary style, those elements are somewhat under the command of the photographer (by adjusting exposure, moving your body, or switching your point of view). The decisive moment, however, is impossible to control. Moment-driven photos require a strange combination of patience and quick reaction time. Often the “perfect” moment happens in just a fraction of a second and sometimes after many boring, imperfect seconds. You must be simultaneously patient and ready to press the shutter.



When I shoot, I begin by surveying the light and deciding how I want to use what is available to me. Then I consider which elements I want to include and the best way to arrange them within the frame. Once those parameters are decided, then I wait for a moment to present itself. I have learned (and am still learning!) not to “chase” a moment, because almost inevitably the composition will suffer as a result. When I move myself around and among the action as it unfolds, I am rarely prepared when an interesting moment finally occurs. If I literally plant my feet (or my butt) on the floor and wait for my subjects to move into a frame I have already organized, then any resulting photographs are much more rewarding because they are intentional; I earned them. The preparation and patience are difficult, but the payoff is always worth it!



If you are interested in learning more about the way that I use the documentary approach to look for unexpected beauty in my everyday life, check out my virtual self-paced course, Magic in the Mundane. Members of the p52Clicks community may use the coupon code P52 to get $10 off through the end of April.

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