Shoot as if Your Free Time Were a Documentary

Shoot as if Your Free Time Were a Documentary

During our free time, we often tend to hunt for the big shots and the most impressive images. To become better photographers, we also need to develop our view for the little stories on our path.

The Big Shots and the Small Shots

As photographers, we always tend to reach for the stars. Instagram and the global competition of photography have put us under the constant pressure of publishing new stunning images. We need an extraordinary composition under supernatural light. Make it sharp, shoot at sunset and post-process the focus-stacked HDR.

Of course, a perfect scenery gets a lot of likes and gives everyone a little moment of satisfaction. I love stunning, dramatic landscapes. But do they always tell the whole story? Wouldn’t it be smarter to also collect a lot of small shots, instead of just aiming for big ones? I think, we could grow our artistic and professional skills if we treated our leisure-shootings like a documentary.

Of course, I am proud of the dramatic images, too.

What Is an Assignment? What Is Your Hobby?

I’m not a self-optimizer, neither do I live my life like a business. Yet, some parts of my life belong to my business, while some parts of my business secretly invade my life. Depending on your focus in photography, the borders between what is your job and what is your free time are more or less blurry. Probably, you chose photography as a hobby or profession, because you like it. You might be a pure hobbyist, a full-time professional or you make some money from small projects for friends and colleagues.

Most of my photographer-friends will not leave their camera in the studio, office or student dorm, but also take pictures for themselves. After all, we love photography. We want to improve our skills, get new ideas and experiment in a safe environment, where we don’t need to serve a customer. In such a moment, we are independent and free from pressure. We can work on our artistic view.

No Pressure Doesn't Mean to Not Set Goals

A while ago, I used to go out and exclusively shoot anything that is beautiful. I still do it, when I shoot landscapes. I go out just to relax my mind for a few hours. Lately, however, I found out that I could do a little better if I treated my hobby-photography as if it was a documentary-assignment.

Shooting the fields of my home town after a stressful day always cools me down.

Actually, it happened during one of those moments, where my job penetrated my life. After I came home from a trip in India, I realized that I shot quite decent images in my free time. Usually, I focus on people, culture and the social environment when I take images in another country. This time, I went on a little tourist trip through a few more or less famous places.

Back home, I realized that I could actually sell my images, maybe even write a few words about the destinations. I found a suitable costumer, negotiated, and finally agreed to write a bunch of articles for him. He’d also get the license for using some images. It was only then when I realized that I shot some “big” pictures of the places, but I did not shoot it like an assignment. I just went for the beautiful, Instagram-like views. They looked nice but were often generic and didn’t support the story.

A standard image of the Taj Mahal. It hardly tells an individual story about my trip.

Shooting a Documentary Versus Shooting to Impress

If your work is connected to documentary photography in some way, you have to shoot everything. You can’t just pick the cherry-images from the cake of photo-opportunities. You also have to shoot situations in less-then-perfect light. It doesn’t matter if you are into travel-photography, shoot business events or work as a wedding-photographer. If the sunrays don’t hit the bride and the groom while they are kissing, you might separate the couple and scream: “Wait! Move a step to the right!”. At least you’ll be famous. But you might need to search for a new job. The same happens in travel-photography. You can’t shoot a whole city in the golden hour.

Not really perfect light and very messy. Yet, this image documents the crowds on the biggest human gathering on earth.

In many situations, the value of an image is not its beauty, but the story it tells. Sometimes it can even be the fact that you managed to capture a situation, which will not repeat itself. Especially if you shoot an assignment on cultural practice, you don’t necessarily need a setting sun, a blurred waterfall or soft portrait light. These things add to the “Wow-effect” –  but sometimes, the “Aha-effect” is more important. Having a medium-quality image of something that supports your story is better than an empty SD-card or film

Creating Documentaries Will Teach You a Lot

Making a documentary is all about being there and giving your best. You have to think about what you do and what you need. You even need to think about things out there that you don’t know yet, but you might need later. Preparation and flexibility is the necessary combination.

The light was low at this Pakistani Shrine, so I had to prepare the exact settings and wait for the man to move into the spotlight.

When you shoot something in your free time, you can practice both. You can prepare your shoot and think about what you need and how to achieve it. You can also learn how to be flexible. Take an image of the broken path up that hill. Ask a friend to pose for you. Shoot an image of the friendly vendor of the hut on top of the mountain. Even though you won’t sell this story, you can practice for the future.

Tell Your Own Story

After all, what is the meaning of your images? You can keep them at your external drive and look at them when you're gray and old. Then you have a lot of big images to be proud of. Or you can show them to others and use them to tell a story. Your own story.

Remember that all of your images are documents of your life!

Think about what makes your photography-trip special. Which images do you need as a visual support to the story? What will you tell your friends and family? Was it the weather, the nice walk with your friends or the amazing food you had in your break? Did you like the pool of the hotel or the artist on the local market? Of course, you can add your favorite “big shot” as a highlight to your story. Quite often, however, the journey is more interesting than just a nice image. Confucius once said:

The way is the goal.

So make sure to capture the way, too.

Nils Heininger's picture

Nils Heininger is a photographer on the road. He loves long rides on motorbikes, camels and old trains. While discovering the world, he uses his camera to share stories from people across the globe. With a Micro-four thirds in his pocket and a full-frame in his bag, he's always ready for new adventures.

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Great idea! Thanks!

Thanks Brent!

Always carry your camera. Always have it ready/loaded.