Lens On Life

Documentary photography holds the power to capture moments of historical significance, to broaden our exposure to people, places and experiences beyond our reach, to shape (or shatter) our perceptions and to offer an authentic view of humanity. While photography is much about exposing what we see, there’s so much more going on beneath the surface.

There’s a complicated concoction of thoughts and feelings that drive the impulse to lift a camera to our eyes, to compose the raw material of what’s present and to wait patiently for the proper moment of capture, when time and space sync and align. We, as documentary photographers, most often play the role of intense observers, attempting to minimize our influence on the subject in focus, yet I believe we subconsciously infuse a bit of ourselves in each of the images we create.

Whether you’re an avid mobile shooter, an eager amateur photographer or a seasoned professional with a desire to explore documentary photography—or simply document your own life—I created the book Lens on Life: Documenting Your World Through Photography to serve as a companion on your journey. You don’t have to visit faraway lands, witness newsworthy events or carry expensive camera gear to document your world. Try these seven tips to get you started.


The streets of this community had been shut down in Kathmandu, Nepal, due to a local festival and impending parade. My driver had to stop the car less than a mile from my destination. As I waited for my escort to meet me at the car, this young boy walked up and began to bounce his balloon.

1. Focus on the moment by minimizing the complexity and size of your equipment.

Documenting life through a viewfinder in search of interesting moments requires you to be fully present, following your subject and composing the moment rather than fumbling with the settings on your camera.

Choose a camera that feels comfortable in your hands, and shoot with it daily to become familiar with its capabilities and limitations. While a high-end digital SLR does give you the flexibility of fine-tuned control over settings, such as ISO, white balance, aperture, shutter speed and exposure to capture the image in your mind’s eye, it demands more time and thought to control during the shooting process. Consider an unobtrusive, simple-to-use camera (such as an iPhone) that fits in your pocket, backpack or purse, and shift your focus on the moment.

2. Stop shooting what you think you’re supposed to be shooting, and shoot what you love.

The process of uncovering your vision is a lot like learning to color outside the lines of a coloring book when you were a child—to put aside a set of predetermined subjects and defined boundaries, and to get comfortable drawing your own lines and shapes on a blank piece of paper.

Grant yourself the freedom to stop making the photographs you think you’re supposed to be making to please an audience and begin making photographs or curating your work in a way that pleases you. The best way to uncover your vision is to follow your instincts, shoot frequently, experiment often, study your images and look for trends.


People watching at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.

Put yourself in front of subjects that move you as often as you can. If you like taking pictures of your children, take pictures of your children. If you like taking pictures of strangers walking dogs on the street, take pictures of strangers walking dogs on the street. If you’re not sure what you like to shoot, grant yourself five minutes each day for one month to just shoot what moves you. Review your image archive and look for connections or repeating subject matter to identify trends.

3. If you don’t see an interesting image, inspire one.

Or don’t shoot. You’ll undoubtedly encounter situations when you can’t find a good picture. It might be a mundane setting, poor lighting conditions or lack of an interesting subject. When this happens, don’t feel as though you must shoot. All the creative processing in the world won’t save an image that doesn’t contain something interesting.

Consider ways you can inspire an interesting image by introducing something new within your environment to trigger a spontaneous reaction. Start blowing bubbles. Hand someone a balloon. Ask your subject to stand on his head to shake things up. Or simply put your camera away, and go someplace else.

4. Turn the focus on yourself.

The style of your professional photographs and your personal photographs may or may not be markedly different from each other. If your styles or subjects do diverge, consider creating two websites, or two galleries within a single website, to differentiate, present and share your professional work apart from your personal work.

If your professional and personal styles are more similar, give yourself the freedom and space to explore a new path in your personal documentary work. You might be holding yourself back for fear of detouring from a signature style in your professional work or perhaps documenting and sharing your own life in a public way makes you feel self-conscious. What you may not realize is that much of photography is about understanding who you are—getting comfortable with your own vulnerability so you can build a capacity to reveal your subjects with empathy and sensitivity.

Try shooting your personal documentary in a way that differs from your current work. If you shoot your professional work with a digital SLR, consider using your iPhone camera for your personal experimentation. If you’re short on interesting subjects, turn the focus on yourself. Learning to expose an authentic view of yourself can help you develop an appreciation for your own imperfections, and gain confidence in the value of your presence and unique perspective.

5. Explore your environment to document what’s inside you.

When we think about documentary photography, our thoughts might move initially toward photojournalism or newsworthy mom-ents—images that portray a view or a perspective of our external world, what we see. But I suggest that documentary can and should be stretched to meet the needs of the photographer, and needn’t be limited to the notion of a visible exterior.

Consider using the limitations of what’s present in your environment to document the evolution of what’s going on inside of you. Keeping a camera with you at all times gives you an opportunity to quickly make images to express who you are, what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling in a more conceptual way. Think of this form of documentary photography as visual journaling, using physical elements of your environment as you would use words to express thoughts or feelings.


A moment of hush among the bridesmaids before the Webster/Tate wedding ceremony in Apalachicola, Florida.


6. At least once each week, carve out and schedule a one-hour break in your day to explore an unfamiliar environment.

Use this time to go for a quick drive, walk beyond your neighborhood, pedal your bike off the usual route or ride the train and get off at an unfamiliar destination. Let yourself wander and find inanimate objects (organic or man-made) that seem to express your feelings of the moment.

Let it get a little awkward. There’s something about documenting suspended moments of awkwardness that moves me—like
silent record scratches that pierce the predictable rhythm of life in motion. They create tension and make me feel a little anxious, but in a good way.

Don’t shy away from shooting these awkward moments because your subject isn’t smiling or because elements have aligned in ways that create visual tension. Be a witness to that tension and expose it.

I’m not suggesting you shoot with malice or the intent to embarrass or expose your subject in a hurtful way. However, I do believe that if your heart is grounded in respect and wonderment for your subject, it’s okay to be honest in the portrayal of the moment, even if the moment is a little bit awkward or quirky. As documentary photographers, our aim is to shine a light on what’s true, and the truth is, we often connect most deeply with one another in the context of awkward moments.

7. Reveal the truth responsibly and seek positive change.

Some of the most powerful aspects of documentary photography are its capacity to reveal unseen or ignored social injustices and its potential to inspire awareness, dialogue, action and positive change. While the path of social documentary can be intense, intellectually complex, physically demanding and emotionally draining, the call to photograph and share stories on behalf of people in challenged and often dire circumstances is a special blessing.

Whether you’re supporting the efforts of an NGO or working on your own, be courageous and reveal the truth with dignity and respect for your subjects. Find a way to make a positive impact in the lives of your subjects. Consider creating a Fair Content agreement (www.faircontent.org) as an active step toward positive change.

Stephanie Calabrese Roberts is an award-winning documentary photographer and a regular contributor to Shutter Sisters, the most popular women’s photography community online. In addition to Lens on Life, Stephanie is the author of the best-selling The Art of iPhoneography: A Guide to Mobile Creativity and a co-author of Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters Guide to Shooting from the Heart. She’s also the founder of Lens on Life, Inc. (www.lensonlife.org), a nonprofit organization that inspires, cultivates and promotes a visual voice for children and young adults living in material poverty and challenged conditions around the world. See more of her work at www.littlepurplecowproductions.com.

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