You are on page 1of 11


Photography 2:
Social Documentary

Written by
Michael Freeman
About the author

Michael Freeman is one of the world’s most highly respected professional

photographers. He is widely published, with more than 80 books to his credit
including the classic 35mm handbook (over 1.5 million copies sold). His
publications include Spirit of Asia; Angkor: Cities and Temples (both Thames
and Hudson); Japan Modern and The Modern Japanese Garden (both Mitchell

Michael has also produced a unique series of guide books for the digital
photographer and this is published by ILEX, who are digital media

He has worked on commissions for many well-known publishing clients,

including Time-Life, Reader’s Digest, Condé Nast Traveller and GEO. He is also
the principle photographer for the Smithsonian Magazine.

Beyond the basics
What is social documentary photography?
The scope of social documentary
Extra resources
The equipment you will need
Following the course
Your portfolio
Your logbook
On completing the course
Project and tutorial plan

1: The reporter’s eye

Putting the subject first
Dealing with people
First subjects
Project 1: a friend in a public place
Basic composition
A single subject
Project 2: framing - a single figure
Several points
Project 3: framing - 2 people
Project 4: vertical vs horizontal
Project 5: eye-lines
Project 6: direction of movement
Project 7: a day at the zoo
Project 8: thinking about the way you work
A closer view
Project 9: suggesting more with less
Project 10: high viewpoint
Project 11: crowds
Natural portraits
Project 12: a natural portrait
Project 13: hands
Project 14: people at work
Project 15 (optional): tools of the trade
Project 16: urban life
Project 17 (optional): holiday
Project 18 (optional): life at a beach resort
Your logbook
Assignment 1: a day in the life of …

2: The telling moment

The importance of timing
Project 19: analysing moments
Project 20: anticipating a moving figure
Working quickly
Project 21: camera handling
Project 22: action - peak moment
Following the action
Project 23: action with a motor-drive (optional, dependent on
your equipment)
Project 24: using an auto-focus lens (optional, dependent on
your equipment)
Project 25: follow focus
Project 26: selective focus
Project 27: selecting the right shutter speed
Project 28: improving your slowest shutter speed
Photographing people
Project 29: children at play
Project 30: emotion
Improving the shot
Project 31: a situation that improves
Project 32: street photography
Assignment 2: relationships between people

3: Working in low light

Extending your range
Fast film
Daylight indoors
Tungsten light
Project 33: tungsten light - colour and exposure
Fluorescent lights
Other kinds of artificial light
Tripod and standard film
Using blur for effect
Project 34: handheld slow exposure
Project 35: a city at night
Planning the rest of your course...
Assignment 3: a critical review
Assignment 4: in the style of an influential photographer

4: Documentary styles
The appropriate lens
The subjective camera
Project 36: wide-angle technique
Project 37: telephoto technique
Black-and-white film
Project 38: black-and-white
Project 39: making connections
The photo essay
Project 40: laying out a photo essay
Project 41: a cropped print
Assignment 5: photo essay

Your portfolio
At the end of your course
Appendix A: if you plan to submit your work for
formal assessment
Appendix B: information concerning the proper use of
materials and equipment
Further reading
Project 22: action - peak moment

Look at the snowboarder. Apart from the other qualities of this action picture,
it shows the snowboarder at the right split-second - at the height of the jump
with snow spraying out behind. This is one of the peak moments in this sport.
With very active subjects, timing is critical, and is less easy to achieve than
with normal movement.

Capturing the peak of action calls for great accuracy: when a footballer goes
for a header, a small fraction of a second can make all the difference. Many
people believe that a motor drive or auto winder is essential equipment
because of its ability to fire off a number of frames faster than could be done
by hand-winding, but in fact it is useful only in a few circumstances. The
problem with a motor drive is that few operate faster than about 6 frames per
second; at the fast shutter speeds needed (around 1/500 second), you would
cover only about one per cent of the action if you kept your finger pressed on
the shutter release.

Nothing beats releasing the shutter once at the right moment. The motor
drive is then useful mainly because it frees you from winding on for the next
peak of the action. The basic skill is to be able to stop movement in the image;
this means having a good knowledge of what shutter speeds freeze what
degree of action. The table that follows gives an idea of this for different kinds
of activity.

One of the most important things to realise is that the shutter speed that will
stop movement depends not only on how fast the person or object is
travelling, but on how fast the image of this moves through the viewfinder
frame. The actual speed, therefore, is less relevant than it might at first seem
to be. The smaller you are prepared to accept the moving image in the frame,
the easier it will be to catch a frozen image of it. Also, movement towards the
camera appears slower than movement across the frame. Changing the
position from which you shoot may sometimes be a solution on an occasion
when the light is sufficient for the shutter speed that you want to use (see
table above).
Following the action
Simply using a fast shutter speed and freezing the image is not the only way
to treat movement. It is not even always the best result. There are times when
it works better to convey a sense of action with blurring rather than a crisp,
motionless image.

One of the most useful techniques is panning - following the movement with
the camera in such a way that the image is kept centred. Swinging the camera
in this way is useful not so much because it helps to keep the image sharper at
slower shutter speeds (which it does), but because the background can be
blurred and so the subject is isolated. Select a shutter speed just fast enough to
hold the image of the subject. This is illustrated in The Art of Photography, and
the image below.

For the project, you will need a situation in which there is fast movement; it
could be, for instance, a vociferous market trader holding up merchandise
and waving his arms about. You will need to reserve this project until you
come across a suitable subject. Then take at least 10 photographs from the
same camera position with the same lens in which you try to capture 10
different gestures and/or expressions. When you have the prints, examine the
sequence of pictures and write a short commentary on the differences
between them. Order them in preference. The pictures that follow are an
example of this kind of action. Which is the critical point in the sequence?

This is a sample from Photography 2: Social Documentary. The full course contains 41
Projects and 5 tutor-assessed Assignments