Documentary Photography: The Art of Capturing the World in Black & White

Documentary Photography: The Art of Capturing the World in Black & White

Documentary Photography: The Art of Capturing the World in Black & White with Chris Lettner

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Always Carry a Camera

In my first photography class in journalism school, our teacher asked us to carry a camera around with us at all times during the semester. I thought this was a bit extreme at first, but in the end, I was one of the only students who really tried. It made me look at the world in terms of motives, frames and potential pictures. It made me think about photography much more, and it forced me to practice. You never know what unexpected event or curious scene you might come across.

The shots below, of a man brushing his teeth at a public fountain and a baby in a box at a market stand, are from the same walk to a market in Myeik, Myanmar.

I took the picture above through a window from the street in Budapest, Hungary. It shows a theater audience watching two actors onstage. The street serves as the backdrop; as the audience reacts to me taking pictures from outside, the actors start involving me in the play. Not everything can be planned.

Most great pictures don’t just happen like that. I’ve taken a camera on countless hikes, nights out and trips to the supermarket, and most of the time I come home with nothing. Increase your chances of capturing great pictures by always having your camera on you.

Right Place, Right Time

Most great documentary photos are the result of preparation, time and relationships. Street photography isn’t about luck; it’s about forcing chance. It’s not enough to have a camera on you. You need to go out of your way, get up early for the sunrise and stay up late for the action. Sometimes you might stand in the rain for hours on some street corner because the reflections are nice and it’s a great backdrop, but you have to wait for the right kind of protagonist to appear and complete the scene.

I shot the photo above at 7 a.m. The sun, barely over the horizon, aligned with one of the many alleys of the ancient bazaar in Isfahan, Iran. The place was deserted, with only the occasional pedestrian. Fifteen minutes later, the dramatic light would be gone and the place would be buzzing with people, products and LEDs.

Don’t Be Afraid to Talk to Strangers

You have to be open and forward to realize the difference between taking photos at a cafe on Main Street and getting access to people’s homes, weddings or saunas. Make friends, build relationships and say yes if someone invites you along. Even if you don’t speak the language, you can usually get a long way with sign language and silly drawings. 

The shot above is of members of a military band at a football game in Shiraz, Iran. My friend and I came across Hafezieh Stadium by accident, having followed the noise. Western visitors are rare, and when we walked in, the crowd gave us a warm welcome cheer. After taking photos with many people, we met Pourya, who spotted us in the crowd and invited us to the press stand. We spent the next week on an epic desert road trip with him and his 1979 Chevy Caprice he called Titanic, with its New York state number plates.

Get Closer

Keeping a distance is more polite and more comfortable, especially when you’re with strangers. But the closer you get, the better the pictures. I find it helps if you don’t come with a big DSLR, lights flashing and the sound of the shutter constantly going off.

The photo above is from a series that shows people’s emotions close up while they are experiencing the show of Prague’s Astronomical Clock. The show happens every hour, 12 times a day, and larger crowds gather each hour. Statues move about for 13 seconds. I enjoyed capturing the wonder in the faces of people oblivious to their surroundings as they watched, which makes this a prime spot for both photographers and pickpockets. I took the shot from about 4 feet away. If you want to ask for permission, you can always do that after.

Use Small Cameras

Small cameras freak people out less and they are less heavy, so it’s easier to carry them around all day. They tend to raise fewer suspicions from bouncers, security guards and law enforcement, so it’s sometimes easier to get them into places, and it takes longer for you to be kicked out.

In other words, sometimes it’s better to look more like a tourist than a professional.

I take most of my photos with the same fixed-lens Fuji X100S, occasionally switching to analog cameras or the even smaller and cheaper Sony DSC RX100, which almost fits in jean pockets. There are limitations in terms of image quality and versatility, but I’ve still never owned a DSLR.

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Black & White

Shooting real life, as opposed to in a studio or at an on-location shoot, you have little control over colors and lighting. Taking images for black and white can help deal with the difficulties of color composition on the street or in crowds, and in bad artificial lighting.

The rest of these shots document a Moravian wine tasting at the Čevela family vineyard in Hodonín, Czech Republic. The damp cellar is lit by two lamps mounted on the ceiling, the kind you might find in a garage or a mineshaft. The plastic shades on the lamps give subjects’ skin an artificial, unhealthy-looking orange. Black and white resolves this problem, giving images a feel that corresponds to the bare, archaic space.

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Documentary Photography: The Art of Capturing the World in Black & White

with Chris Lettner time to read: 5 min
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