Photo documentary is a discipline in photography that tells stories about a place or an issue by observing and photographing people in their environment. In the past few years, I have been lucky enough to shoot photo-documentary images for several geographic magazines and the marketing departments of Panasonic, Sony and Nikon. On these assignments I often get to travel to places that are completely new to me.  As budgets across the industry have dropped in the last few years, my visits are often very short and my job is to quickly find images that portray the spirit of each destination.

Photo documentary is arguably one of the most challenging branches of people photography. In many cases, you, the photographer, are not naturally part of the environment that you are photographing in and having an expensive camera in-front of your face makes you stand out of the crowd. Frequently time and the light are not on your side.

This article examines three methods that I often use to achieve strong images in unfamiliar or trying conditions.

Spontaneous, unplanned shooting:

Sugar candy boy Patan, Nepal. Sony A900, F2.8 1/250s

Despite what the name suggests, this does not mean that the photographer shoots thousands of frames hoping to get lucky. I'm talking about a well thought-out process that demands good knowledge of your camera gear.

The main idea behind this sort of spontaneous shooting is that the image is taken with the camera away from your eyes. This disguises the fact that you're taking a picture. People don’t suspect that you may be shooting from the hip, or while holding the camera to your chest and so are more likely to continue to behave unselfconsciously. This allows you to 'sneak' a shot.

One way to prepare for random shooting is to expose for the light conditions while not pointing the camera at the subject. I use manual exposure or exposure lock so the exposure values will not shift as I recompose. At the same time I also chose the focusing point according to the desired composition or assess the distance and manually focus.

The 'Sugar candy boy' image, above, was taken in Durbar square in Patan (Kathmandu valley, Nepal). This is a wonderful location. As well as containing architectural marvels ,it is also a cultural and social centre. The local Nepalese are quite savvy when it comes to tourists with cameras. Some refuse to be photographed, others will happily pose for a small fee.  

To capture this image with a wideangle lens I put the camera to my hip and look toward a temple as I shoot a short sequence of frames.

Circus Performer

While shooting an article about a school of circus, I was wondering around in the back stage area. I noticed this performer practicing before her act. Not wanting to disturb her, I walked by and shot from the hip. I under estimated the speed of the arms, but I like the movement blur that was captured.  

Dart-Throwing Monk

This image of a dart throwing monk was captured at a game outside his monastery.The camera was on the ground tilted up. I manually focused as I could not see through  the viewfinder and shot a burst of frames.      

Even with lots of experience and an intimate knowledge of your gear, shooting spontaneously like this is by far the most wasteful way to photograph people. Back In the days of film, I remember vividly the welcoming smiles at the lab as I walked in with a small mountain of film rolls...

Planned / Setup shots: 

Boatman, Chitwan national park, Nepal. Nikon D300s, F3.8, 1/25s

By contrast, this method of photography is all about predicting a definitive moment that you want to capture and shooting the frame just as that moment appears. In 'predictive' photography you do all the preparation for the actual exposure before the camera is put to the eye.

Frequently it starts with checking out the location once or several times before you actually go to shoot. This allows you to familiarise yourself with patterns of behaviour and light conditions. It means you can predict what is likely to happen and when. Because you know what is likely to occur, you can anticipate the moment and put the camera to your eye at the very last moment. 

The reason to use this method is that if the camera is held to your eye as you wait for the right moment, that moment might never have come because people become self aware and alter their behavior. They may wish to pose or even ask not to photographed at all.   

The 'Boat Man' image, above, was taken while I was leading a photo tour to Nepal last year. We spent few days in Chitwan National park looking for wild life and enjoying the beauty of the jungle. At the end of a long jungle walk, we were picked up by a narrow river boat to go upriver to our accommodation. I found myself with this photo opportunity within a meter of my eyes. 

For this photo, I considered what would be the right light for the image, then waited for the sun to drop beyond the horizon to get softer light. I followed the rhythm of the boatman’s stroke so I got his arm just the way it appears in the image. Then, just like as in random photography, I prepared the exposure and focusing point before lifting the camera to my eye and firing away, and looked through the viewfinder to make sure that the horizon was relatively straight. 

Girl on Verandah

While getting my breath after a long day trekking I saw this verandah. I was fascinated by the limited palette of colour in the scene and as I thought about shooting it, the girl appeared from the door. While keeping talking to my porter (to my left) I set the exposure and focusing point. The girl looked above me to the street and I shot this frame quickly.

Outside the Central Temple, Lhasa

Late afternoon in Lhasa created a dramatic pattern of light and shade between the central temple buildings. I had checked out the venue a couple of days before and discovered that the crowd goes around the central temple in one direction. I walked with the crowd, passed through the light patch, counted six steps (about 3 meters) turned around and shot who ever passed through the light patch.

Unlike spontaneous photography, once you lift the camera to your eyes and shoot, when you plan a shot the person you have photographed is usually aware of what you are doing, so a second 'take' is not always possible. That makes choosing the precise moment even more important.   

Confrontational shooting:

On top of a barn, Kagbeni, Nepal. Sony A900, F1.4, 1/800s

At times there is no way to conceal the fact that you are in a place with a camera and you and your subject are facing one-other. Sometimes people are very happy to be photographed and even ask you to do so. However, most times, these moments are over within a split second and one must react very quickly. In most cases I try and have a narrow depth of field focused on the eyes and keep the background soft. That keeps the viewers' 'focus' trained on the face of the person photographed.

The image above was taken in Kagbeni, in Nepal. This is a medieval looking village in the Annapurna range. I was on top of a barn to get a better look at the sky line of the village as I heard a sound behind me. This boy popped his head up to check who was making noise on the roof of the family barn. There was no way to pretend that I was not there with a camera, so I decided to capture this interaction between us. Quickly I changed the exposure setting to the widest aperture to isolate the boy’s face from the background and shot a quick burst of images before he disappeared. 

Inside a monastery

I photographed this monastery as part of UNESCO assignment. Inside there was one young monk and one photographer (me!). I noticed side light from an open door lifting the boy from the dark background.There was no way to go about it apart from taking an environmental portrait. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Mule Driver

I was approached by this mule caravan driver to be photographed. Shallow depth of field lifted the face from the background.

Either in a far away exotic location or in your local weekend market, these methods can help you create strong images of people in the environment. 


Giora Dan is an internationally published documentary and commercial photographer based in Christchurch New Zealand. His images have been widely published in geographical magazines in North America, Europe, Africa and the Asia/ Pacific region, including NZ Geographic, the  Smithsonian Magazine and British Geographical. You can see more of his work at his website, www.gioradan.com