Photojournalism - building a perfect portfolio (Part one)
This is the first part of a two part series on photojournalism. Look out for part two next week.
You’ve finally made it to your dream location, and by dream, I don’t mean your own secluded private island with swaying palm trees and a “ring-the-buzzer” butler service, but a place where you can bring your ambition of being a photojournalist to life.
But where do you start? What are the guts of your story? You may have a vision of producing a publishable photographic essay or coffee table book to showcase your storytelling imagery, but how do you lock the pieces together to create a dynamic documentary portfolio?
As a travel photographer who regularly travels to locations away from trodden tourist trails, here are seven techniques I use during assignments.
Before we start, I would like to talk about the power of research prior to departure. While unexpected, interesting finds, which are worthy of screeching to halt, constantly happen along the road, having a concrete plan beforehand will undoubtedly give you a solid base for bringing your project together.
Take time to source a contact who will connect you with your chosen subject; itineraries run a lot smoother with someone who understands your photographic needs. Groundwork, research, contacts – don’t leave home without them.
Before my departure on a recent trip to northwest India, I sourced a guide/translator who arranged a visit to a traditional akhara, an Indian wrestling gym. Australian gyms offer the latest swanky equipment, while Indian wrestlers train with concrete slabs, heavy ropes, and wrestle on mud floors. I had wanted to document their lifestyle for some time.
Having a contact allowed me to cover the story in-depth as the athletes and manager were expecting me. The internet is a great source of information, even for the most obscure subjects.
1. Creating a shot list for your subject
Your chosen story may be a timely topic, such as global warming, a famous annual festival, or an NGO (non-governmental organisation) type narrative. But once you have a project in mind, flesh it out beforehand so you don’t approach your subject paparazzi-style when you arrive.
Prepare a shot list, putting the must-haves at the top. I capture these shots straight away, then chase the more creative type images if opportunity allows. It’s a good practice to study photojournalists you admire before you leave home. This will help you pre-visualise images to include in the sequencing of your spread.
If you would like to see your documentary series published, contact publications who feature similar content to your topic before and request their submission guidelines. There’s nothing better than a commission before you depart to spur you on.
2. Cultural Sensitivities
Our world is full of diverse and interesting cultures and, when we travel internationally, belief systems and attitudes can vary widely from our own. If you are entering private property, even if it’s pre-arranged, put your camera away and take time to connect with the people you will be photographing.
This approach will build confidence, give you time to relax and ask any pertinent questions about what you can and can’t photograph. Through your interpreter, explain why you are visiting, and check if everyone is comfortable with being photographed.
Knowing you can photograph each person, will give you confidence to shoot freely. Wrestlers usually board at the akharas they train in, so everything is in proximity – the showers, sleeping areas and ablutions. Being female and among men who follow a strict Hindi religion, I confirmed any off-limit areas.
One aspect I had to be mindful of was where I stood when the wrestlers changed into their training gear. Pehalwan wrestlers wear a langot – a tiny traditional piece of Vedic clothing which just covers their genitals. The akhara afforded them little privacy, and a couple of times I had to quickly “disappear”.
3. Preparation – lens choices
Whether you are attending a privately arranged session, shooting a festival, street parade or protest, think about your lens choices as you will want to cover all possible angles. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure so maximise the time and equipment you have.
I always shoot in RAW format and carry a minimum of three lenses to cover most eventualities. I find a lighter camera bag with a wide, prime and zoom lens is favourable, especially if I’m working in a confined space such as an akhara where I prefer not to fumble around with too much gear.
Remember, the best lens is the one in your hand. To capture an environmental portrait, use a wide-angle lens and shoot the whole scene to tell the people’s story. When shooting wide, backgrounds are often messy so be sure to move yourself around as much as possible. Aim not to have your subjects merge into the background or each other, or worse still, have poles “growing” from people’s heads.
Likewise, keep people away from the edge of your frame as they can look larger than “Ben-Hur” when stuck on the edge.
In selecting your aperture, you can choose what to have in or out of focus. The 24-70mm f2.8, (often referred to as the workhorse lens) is perfect for shooting wide and zooming in on your subject. A large aperture, such as f2, will render a narrow window of sharpness, while a small aperture of around f16 will give a greater depth of field resulting in sharper detail throughout the image.
I rarely use the 70-200mm f2.8 in confined spaces, but if there’s plenty of room, or you are shooting a street festival, it’s the perfect lens for zooming in on interesting characters using a wide aperture of around f2.8/4 to make your subject stand out against a blurred background.
Always know your equipment. Prior to your trip, practice changing camera settings in a dark room. You will feel more confident, therefore helping your subjects relax.
4. It’s all in the angles
Once you have your main shots in the bag, play with your angles.
Lie on your stomach to capture a worm’s eye view, shoot from the hip (you’ll be surprised at what you can capture) or from above if there is somewhere safe to climb to. Without getting too close, I rolled around in the mud in the akhara to get myself into position as the background was quite challenging – so try every available angle.
Frame your subject using available structures or use leading lines in the foreground to guide your viewers. If you are photographing street life, try staying in one place for 15 minutes. This exercise trains the eye to anticipate more exciting images. I usually find by staying in one location, people accept my presence and continue with their tasks.
This allows me to capture people candidly and in the moment. Get in close, especially in the middle of a street festival, to capture wide-angle shots as you move within the crowd.
It rarely happens, but people will soon let you know if they are not happy with you taking photos.
About the author: Lynn Gail is an Australian based travel writer and photographer with a focus on culturally diverse subjects, ancient belief systems and off the grid destinations. Lynn is an award winning member of both the Australian Institute of Professional Photographers, and ASTW, the Australian Society of Travel Writers. You can see more of her work at lynngail.com.