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Capturing Documentary-Style Photos

Directing clients may be one of the hardest or most uncomfortable aspects of photography to nail down.

It doesn’t just depend on you, but also the subjects you’re photographing. One shoot might go great, people may be comfortable in front of the camera and respond well to your prompts, but the next session might feel awkward and staged even though you’re using the same prompts. 

How do you deal with this?

I believe it all comes down to your mindset.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re not creating a moment, you’re capturing it. 

If your entire focus is creating a moment, you’ll never be able to capture the authentic emotional photos that draw your audience into the photo. 

We all want to look at a photo and be able to feel the emotion. With some couples, capturing this comes easy, but with others, it can be more challenging.

The great struggle of photography will always be attempting to find a balance between authentically documenting moments and showing up as the director that our clients often need us to be. 

I like to think of this in terms of posing versus prompting. Even when I’m directing my clients, I try to do it in a way that prompts them to then do something as they naturally would. Sure, there will be times for fine tuning, but I'm rarely "posing" in the sense of telling them "put this hand here, this foot there, chin up, look at me, etc". Instead, when I'm shooting couples or families and wanting to photograph them in a storytelling, documentary way, I'm giving actionable prompts that point them in the right direction and cause them to move or react in a way that feels genuine for them. And then I capture it all as it unfolds.

The term "posing" has gotten a bad rap in the photography industry. The term is used loosely and means a lot of different things to different people. Trends are shifting to more storytelling, documentary-style shooting, and I'm here for it. But unless you're shooting a wedding, or event where moments and interactions are already unfolding naturally, it's impossible to shoot a session without any prompting or directing. In all honesty, your clients want some direction, rather than you standing with your camera and expecting them to know how to act. Being on the other side of the camera is a vulnerable thing, and for a lot of clients a very new thing. Giving them direction and reassurance is key to making them feel comfortable, so that you can ultimately capture them in a genuine way.

There are three key ways I strive for this balance of prompting and storytelling:

1. Actionable prompts

These are just what they sound like, I give my client something to do and capture it as they act out it. I typically start with something simple such as, “walk away and walk back” towards me. Then I’ll add variety once I start to sense they feel more comfortable in front of the camera. Then move into sequences of actions. These are my favorite because they allow them to move around and react in a natural way, and it give you the opportunity to capture the in-between moments and everything as it unfolds. The falling, the laughing, the genuine moments and natural emotions - creating those candid, documentary-style photos that we all love.

2. Activities

This is a key element to start implementing if you really want your photos to be more about story-telling and feel photojournalistic. Planning and event or activity for the couple that puts them in their element and gives them something to do allows you to sit back, and direct less. It's important for this to be a collaborative idea and something that fits the couple's hobbies, interest, style, and personality. Some ideas include surfing, sailing, rollerskating, cooking, skateboarding, an arcade, bar hopping, bowling, etc. 

 3. Getting to know your couple 

For so many reasons, it's important to build a relationship with your client and learn more about them. This way you can offer direct the shoot in a way that fits them well, and they will feel comfortable throughout the entire process, which will reflect in your photos. I always communicate with clients a lot during the process of working together, send questionnaires, and if possible, spend time together outside of the session.

It takes time and effort to learn how to effortlessly guide your clients to achieve a natural and candid look, but there are tools that can help you along the way!

To get to know your clients better, and come up with ideas for sessions, I've created Client Questionnaires (only $19) that you can fully customize and plug into any platform. 

If you want to start prompting your clients in a similar way, I created posing decks for you! Differentiated by session, you can shop The Posing Decks here (only $19-$27) start pulling from the hundreds of prompts I've written for you. 

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