The most important documentary tool you own.

“I wish I could do what you do.”

I hear this a lot. Usually from moms who appreciate good photography but aren’t invested in equipment and don’t think they have the time to learn how to use a fancy DSLR camera.

It is a common misconception, that you need a big expensive camera to make beautiful photographs. Guess what, I have lots of big expensive cameras BUT every photo in this post was taken with my CELL PHONE!

Photographing families thoughtfully and without direction is a rapidly growing family photography genre, with lots of nods to photojournalism and reportage. (Not sure what exactly documentary photography is? Read this first.)

So there are lots of very talented influences out there! Walker Evans was an American photographer and photojournalist best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting the effects of the Great Depression. One of the originators of the documentary movement, he once said:

People always ask me what camera I use. It’s not the camera, it’s – – – ” and he tapped his temple with his index finger.

Walker Evans was on to something.

Sure, having strong equipment that you know how to use well is ideal. Once these tools become an extension of ourselves, they get out of the way and make it easier for us to get the images that we want. But carrying around a big camera- ESPECIALLY when you have lots of little ones running around- is entirely impractical. It just isn’t going to happen. At least not for me.

And that’s where the cell phone comes into play…

Documentary photography is a unique genre, in that every image produced is used to chronicle events or environments for purposes of historical narrative. The focus is on preserving memories. The best way to photograph events as they unfold, is by using the camera that you have on you. In this day and age, everybody is carrying around a cell phone.

THIS is why your cell phone camera is the most important tool you own as a documentary photographer.

Cell phones have access in places where big cameras would raise an eyebrow; such as births, in some cities whose culture isn’t as open to photography (ie Marrakesh), or where the media isn’t allowed access. There are even photojournalists who choose to use their smart phones as an integral part of their arsenal! As journalist Phil Hatcher-Moore says,

“It’s important to remember that a smartphone in a professional photographer’s hand is going to be utilised far differently than a smartphone by my mum, for example.”

And that is the key: The tool is only as good as its user.

Cell phone cameras do give photographers a frustratingly limited amount of control over exposure settings compared to their most expensive cameras; BUT on the other hand, they allow the photographer to relinquish technical control, instead directing 100% of his/her energy into the image’s aesthetic. Using light and emotion to successfully frame a story within each photograph. As the supremely successful Annie Liebovitz states in her Masterclass:

“The quality of a documentary photograph stems from the honesty with which the photographer aims to tell the subject’s story…”

Having accepted the limitations of the cell phone camera, the photographer can focus on the MOST important photographic skills:

  1. Reading the light,
  2. Framing the story, and
  3. Anticipating the candid moment.

The good news is your artistic eye can be trained just as easily as you develop the technical ability to control your camera. All you need is lots and lots of practice!

With a cell phone always available on your hip, you can all be professional documentarians in no time.

Happy Shooting!

 

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If you like the content that I am providing, don’t miss my email updates! Families local to Pittsburgh can also request my REAL LIFE Magazine with session rates… Let’s chat about how a documentary REAL LIFE session will work for your family!

text overlaying vertical photograph of little boy pointing excitedly up at a kite

 

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