Searching around YouTube for discussions about documentary photography I came across this gem from silberphotography.tv, interviewing former National Geographic photographer Bob Holmes. Holmes is an award winning travel documentary and food photographer, and in this interview he discusses his approach to what one could call the “National Geographic” style of documentary photography. What this translates to is awesome light, amazing subject matter and effective composition combined with a masterful use of the camera and lens as a tool to tell a story. I'd like to share some of my takeaways from the interview below.
Prepare yourself and your equipment, and know it well so that when you are photographing, your gear won’t get in the way. As photographers, we need to know how the camera is going to react to different photographic situations. There are a few nuggets here worth expanding upon. First of all, preparing yourself to make images is very important. Holmes talks about being ready to make photographs as soon as he arrives at a location. He starts to assess the situation immediately and begins pre-visualising images, without distraction.
He doesn’t elaborate too much on knowing your gear and how it will respond to situations, but here I think he is talking about knowing how your camera is going to meter and expose for a scene, whether it will be brighter or darker than what you are seeing in the viewfinder, how highlights and shadows and colours will be rendered, and also how the overall colour balance of the image will turn out depending on the scene.
If you know how your images will be interpreted by the camera, you won’t have to stop for too long to think about making adjustments and can focus on the scene as it unfolds - hence the camera is not 'getting in the way’. How do you get there? Shoot lots and get to know your camera, I guess!!
Look beyond the obvious
I liked this comment he made about looking beyond the obvious. As a documentary photographer, his job is to document the scene. I have no doubt that the first frames he makes are all about setting the scene and capturing the context of the images he is making, so that when we look at the rest of the photographs in the series we understand the context and how the subjects fit in.
There would be the usual opportunity to shoot wide shots, shoot medium shots, and to shoot tight shots. The artistry in his images, however, reflects his ability to ‘look beyond the obvious’ and capture a point of view that might not immediately be apparent. I think this is a key to capturing great photos and it is related to the way that we might remember the scene if we were asked to describe it to someone, say, the next day or week. We would probably give a pretty straight up and down authentic description, and we might even have a photograph to show to illustrate the point.
However when we experienced the scene ourselves, we saw many fleeting moments pass before our eyes. We probably also witnessed moments that perhaps only registered in our subconscious. I think that because the camera is able to capture moments in fractions of a second, it can sometimes capture what we witnessed and perhaps registered in our subconscious but had not fully realised more tangibly, until of course we see an image that ‘looks beyond the obvious’ and triggers our subconscious memory. I think these are the images that elicit the greatest emotional response.
Photographs need a punctuation...and patience
I loved this take on Henri Cartier Bressons ’the decisive moment’ and I am reminded that in fact it takes many frames and many attempts at working a scene to arrive at the decisive moment - take a look at the Magnum Contact Sheets for evidence that even some of the most iconic street photographs were made in a series of visual takes until the final composition or moment landed just as the photographer had hoped. As a street photographer I loved the nexus here with the documentary side. He says punctuation can come in the form of gesture, or attitude, and that these are critical to a powerful image - and that it may take some time for that punctuation to strike so that the scene is completed.
Interest comes from breaking the rules
Holmes makes the point that following the rules of photography (i.e. the rules of composition in photography) will lead to making pleasing looking photographs, but they are often boring - interest comes from breaking those rules sometimes. This is often repeated but it is still true - in order to break the rules properly and effectively, you need to understand them. As an example, I think doing things like framing just outside the rule of thirds, or cutting people off in a photograph, can create great tension, but it really has to be done right, and you can see from the images in the video, he is a master at it.
Another point to note is that he says that every inch of whatever is in the frame is the photographers responsibility. My takeaway from that is to make sure that whatever you leave in the image counts towards telling the story effectively and efficiently. Holmes goes on to say that a photographer needs to be deliberate and conscious about framing - and with practice it becomes intuitive. The wide angle image with the Burmese boys carrying bags (at 7:33) is a great example of this, and he talks about how he instinctively adjusted the framing to fit the story of the image.
Be a photographer not a tourist
His comment about being in the moment photographically really resonates - I know for my own photography if I am on the periphery of concentration when photographing I am not making nearly as good an image as when I am in the flow state of being totally focused and in tune with the scene, watching through the viewfinder as moments unfold.
He makes the comment about needing to put the time into a place, and that it could very well be a long time just hanging around before a moment unfolds that makes your photograph. There may be a need to go back again and again to the same spot, like we do with street photography - waiting for the right gesture, the right interaction or fleeting moment.
There are some beautiful travel documentary images in this video and Bob Holmes obviously knows his stuff, with his years of experience, travel and countless images putting him at the top of the travel documentary photography game. I hope sharing this with you draws attention to his work, if you have not heard of him already. Let me know your thoughts on his images and his discussion on his approach to photography in the comments below, and if you know of any other documentary or street photography related photographer interviews that are worth checking out, do let me know.