Documentary Photography: Capturing Places and People | Ami Vitale | Skillshare

Documentary Photography: Capturing Places and People

Ami Vitale, Photographer, National Geographic

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7 Lessons (35m)
    • 1. Introduction

      3:07
    • 2. Project: Document a Place in 2 Photos

      0:36
    • 3. Shooting Sunrise

      11:00
    • 4. Equipment

      4:39
    • 5. Perspective

      10:36
    • 6. Shooting Sunset

      4:45
    • 7. Explore Photo Classes on Skillshare

      0:36
170 students are watching this class

About This Class

National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale takes you on an adventure to Venice Beach, California, sharing her documentary photography techniques. Immersion and relentless observation are key in Ami’s practice. She always arrives at a place before the sun comes up and revisits it again at sundown to capture the best photos, understanding the place through patience and persistence. Ami will take you step-by-step through her best practices of finding the beauty in a person or an experience, and telling a story through that. This class is great for aspiring photojournalists, professional photographers seeking inspiration, and everyone who seeks essential tips and zen habits for documenting the world around them.

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What You'll Learn

  • Introduction. Documentary photography, though it shares common features with street photography and travel photography, is a distinct discipline unto itself, and Ami Vitale brings her expertise in photojournalism to this challenging art form to capture images that intrigue and inspire viewers. In these lessons, she will show you how to virtually become a natural part of the landscape, and therefore better able to take photos that genuinely reflect not just the people, but the spirit of a place.
  • Project: Document a Place in 2 Photos. Ami’s approach to documentary photography involves patience and repetition. For this project, she recommends staying in one place for one hour and letting life unfold before you. A documentary photographer shouldn’t feel the need to chase down their subjects. Instead, they should become a part of the world they wish to photograph in order to see that place more clearly, which requires what she calls, “The Art of Patience.”
  • Shooting Sunrise. Ami arrives at Venice Beach, CA before sunrise and explains the philosophy behind her approach. Sunrises and sunsets may have the same kind of light, but the energy is completely different. She gives her thoughts on how to best approach people, as well as what you should do after you take their photo.
  • Equipment. Keeping a low profile is essential to capturing the most honest photos, and this includes streamlining your equipment. A giant camera can be an obstacle between you and the people you want to talk to, and Ami shows you what she carries in her camera bag, as well as a few items you might consider leaving at home. She also breaks down how and why you should have backups for your backups, as well as the importance of keeping your camera in working order.
  • Perspective. Many photojournalism courses prepare photographers for a “Get in. Get photos. Get out.” approach. Yet, Ami’s class on Skillshare advocates for a much more complete approach. It takes time to tell a story, and in her career, she has found ways to get beyond the sensational and superficial to document the truth behind them. She shares a few stories from her travels that can help you avoid unwanted attention, tunnel vision, and other pitfalls of the traditional approach. She’ll show you how to embrace the situation and jump in, which not only leads to better photographs but also helps you see from the perspective of your subjects while also creating a bond with them that can help you find the story, wherever you are.
  • Shooting Sunset. At the end of the day, Ami returns to Venice Beach, this time at sunset to rediscover the place she had seen only a few hours before. The empty, tranquil beach is now buzzing with nightlife, showing a completely different side of itself for your camera. She also shares some techniques on how to keep your images sharp, even in low light, as well as what to avoid in the background of your photos.

Transcripts

1. Introduction: My name is Ami Vitale, and I'm a photographer now and filmmaker. Today, we're going to do this exercise about repetition, returning to a place. We're here on the incredible Venice Beach, I've never been here before, and I just want to talk about how I work in, whether it's a foreign country or my backyard, it's the same principles. I will start early, early in the morning, when the sun is just coming up, I find it to be a quieter, sometimes safer environment, and then come back in the afternoon and really you get a much deeper sense of what the location is like, and I come back often. I will come back multiple days just to get one shot. Plant yourself in one place and be there for one hour. Don't move, just look around, and let the life come to you instead of running and trying to find everything. You tend to miss things when you're looking all the time, and sort of slowing down mentally and in your physical space and just be in one place. I find it incredible, beautiful things unfold right before your eyes. You become a part of the landscape, and people accept you more when you're there and they come to you. So, you're not on the safari, you're actually a part of it. Start by spending one hour in the morning at sunrise, and then coming back to the same place for an hour at sunset, and just really explore the light, how the light looks. But also the culture is completely different from morning to sunset. Here we are in Venice Beach and it's absolutely amazing. It was this very meditative space, people were actually meditating on the beach. People were very focused and we saw athletes and this determined personality. People starting their day at work, it was just a very different energy. Then, you come in the evening and it's wild, people are celebrating life and having fun, and it's a very interesting exercise. So, send in your photos, I really want to critique them, and I hope that it's a lesson that you get something out of, too. The art of patience because honestly the best photographer, it's all about patience. I know people that have enormous talent, but I really think it's about sheer hard work and patience. Sitting in a place long enough where the beauty unfolds before you. So, good luck. 2. Project: Document a Place in 2 Photos: Plant yourself in one place and be there for one hour, don't move, just look around, and let the life come to you instead of running and trying to find everything. Send in your photos. I really want to critique them and I hope that it's a lesson that you get something out of you, the art of patience because, honestly, the best photographer, it's all about patience. I know people that have enormous talent, but I really think it's about sheer hard work and patience, sitting in a place long enough where the beauty unfolds before you, so good luck. 3. Shooting Sunrise: So, normally, I'll wake up pretty early. Actually, even earlier, way before sunrise. The first thing I do is scout a place and I find going in the morning is my big secret. Because in the morning, people are much more laid back. You'll get the same beautiful quality of light in the evening but the problem is there's more riffraff and people that want to mess with you awake. I find morning is just a totally different mood and that's my secret to any place. So, here we are on Venice Beach and it's incredible, there's just a lot of mood. I love the blue skies actually before the sun comes up, it makes great photography. Also again, just that interaction with people, it's so much easier for me to get to know a place. The other thing I like to do is just place myself here and then as people wake up, you're already a part of the infrastructure here, you're a part of the surroundings. So, they don't think that you're an outsider coming. It's just a strange mental thing; by being in one place, you're already a part of the landscape and people accept you more because you're there first. So, I tend to arrive before any people actually get to a location wherever I am. Then in the morning, it's the hard workers who are awake. They're up doing something or they've got a mission. They're up early, they've woken up for a reason and so they're busy doing their own thing and they ignore you a little more. So, that's my secret but I think we should go around and just start exploring and looking at people, see what we find. The other thing I realized is I also would like to bring just one camera and one lens. You don't need a ton of gear, that's going to slow you down. It's just easier, people are less intimidated when they just see you, one camera, don't feel like you need to bring a lot of people either. I feel like it's actually safer in some situations to be more engaged and connected to people. The more stuff you have, the more people you have, it just creates more walls. This is incredible, look at all these people who are up and totally into their craft, their sport, it's fantastic. So, I'm excited to zoom in on this culture. I have to say getting up in the morning is so painful. When you're getting out of bed and it's still dark out, it absolutely sucks, I don't enjoy it. But then once you're out here, it's so worth it. You get about really 15 minutes before the sun actually comes up and then this magical blue dark skies, it's amazing and it's totally worth that little bit of pain and suffering. So, I'm waiting, there's actually a surfer going in , I'm going to go and ask him if it's okay to shoot him. Hi. Is it okay if I take pictures of you going into the ocean? Sure. Yeah. Awesome. Thank you, it's so beautiful. So, I love this, I absolutely love this. People are actually not terrifying, so much of it is what's going on inside of you. I always offer to send photos back to people, it's super easy with e-mail in most of the world. Everybody has it almost everywhere I go today. It can be this wonderful experience, people love seeing beautiful pictures of themselves and if you make them feel beautiful, there's nothing better than that. So, I love this feeling actually of being able to give something back to them and it's not totally like you're just taking. But this is just a fantastic scene, I would've dressed differently if I had thought this through, I zoomed into LA really quickly. I think the other thing is dive in, get close to people, don't be so afraid. I never carry that long 80-200 or 80-400 lens. I think it's better to just don't be surreptitious and sneaky. Go right up to people, tell them what you're doing. I deal with rejection just fine, you have to have a little bit of a thick skin and respect people, not everybody's going to like it but I have to say most people are okay with it if you're okay with it. If I decided to do a story about surfers, this might be exactly how I start, just coming out in the morning and coming multiple times to get to know people and they start to recognize you. So, repetition is really important in what I do. I'm actually going to come back here tonight when the light is beautiful and just see the difference in mood and in light. The people that come are definitely going to be different than the people that get up early in the morning. I quickly just say to people, "Is it okay if I photograph? Can I e-mail you one?" Then there's this wonderful little voice recorder. So, you take a picture and then you attach to that picture the voice recording and they just say their name and their e-mail address. In a situation like this, it's too time consuming to get a model release but I'll e-mail them, send the picture and say, "This is what I'm thinking of doing with it. Are you okay with it?" Most of the time, people are like, that's fine and they sign a model release in retrospect, so that also works. Normally, I'll come and scout for the first day and I will come again. So, if I were here another day, I'd actually get up earlier. I'd arrived at 7:00 AM right now, I'd be here at 6:00 AM. I'd be here with the tripod maybe and photograph in really slow shutter speeds. I'm sure you're going to get some earlier surfers come in probably about 6:30 and I think that even earlier can create even more magic. So, that's what I would do, repetition, going back and back to a place. Even if you have two days, if you're traveling to a country, instead of trying to see it all, just go back to the same place over and over again and if your aim is to come away with beautiful pictures and getting to know people, it's so much better to just try to spend more time in one place. You get wet, you literally jump in. I think that it's worth it, it's absolutely worth it. Be careful with your camera though, salt water will absolutely destroy them. So, be aware of the camera and don't go so far in. Also, there's these people doing yoga and I won't go up in disturb people that are in their own meditative space, or you can feel right off of that who you should approach and who you shouldn't. When somebody's in their own internal world, let them be. It's actually really annoying to have a clicking camera when they're trying to come here for peace. So, it's sensing out and being respectful as well. It's a very fine balance and that's equally as important to me as just figuring out who to bug and who not to. The other thing I was going to say is I always manually expose, especially on the beach when there's lots of whites. Because if you just go by your meter, everything is going to be underexposed and really dark. So, I manually expose in a scene like this. It's going to be a couple of stops from what the meter says because of the whites. I was just thinking, it is so freaking beautiful. I think people really get that, get that you're trying to capture something beautiful. It's a very different response when you come out again when the light is just like this. They're at one with the ocean right now and they're in their zone and I think that they see you're in your zone and it's just this wonderful energy that happens. I find if I go out in the middle of the day with a flash, yeah, you can make great pictures and really interesting, but it's a very, very different response sometimes that you'll get from people. The other thing is just traveling light, not carrying a ton of gear, it slows you down sometimes. You don't need to add anything, the light is absolutely stunning. If I brought all the studio lights in the world, yeah, it's hard to beat this, it's pretty perfect. I grew up incredibly awkward, gawky, shy, introverted. But I found the amazing thing is when I put a camera in my hands, not only was I able to empower other people and give voice to their story, but the truth is it actually empowered me, too. That's how I got into photography. It's just been my modus operandi now, it's how I engage with people. It's just the easiest thing to get out there and people shouldn't be so afraid of carrying a camera. Because actually, it can get you so much closer to people than you can imagine and that's why I love it. I love going much deeper than this, this is wonderful and fun, but I actually love telling serious stories and giving people voice and actually, I'm giving myself voice at the same time. It is this big, heavy, obnoxious device that you're putting in-between yourself and a subject. So, you have to empathize that it can be absolutely intimidating. But I try to engage enough with people so that they forget about this. It's like, "Hey, I think you're cool, I think you're beautiful. Can I make a picture?" Doesn't matter if it's an iPhone or this big, wonderful device that does great things. Your job is to help them forget about this. I will hold it behind my back and just chat with them but people know. I think the idea is just don't be surreptitious, don't sneak things, tell people, own it, own exactly what you're doing and why you're doing it. I'll explain to them, it can be a serious story where I won't even take the camera out and I'll start talking to people and explaining what I want to do. Or it can be something just fluff and wonderful like why not take pictures on this beautiful sunrise? I think people get it. They get that you're appreciating these magical moments and they love having pictures of this. They can't bring a camera out there, it's just there's nothing better than it. 4. Equipment: So, I'm just back and normally in documentary work if I can stay together with families I prefer that, than staying in a hotel as wonderful as it is, and I find that the closer I am with people, the better, and all of a sudden those walls and barriers are broken down at a much faster pace. So, we just got back from the ocean and that is really bad for gear, the salt in the air it can absolutely destroy your cameras really quickly. I was actually on an assignment before where in one week of just salt air along a beach, it rusted the entire inside my camera. So, now I'm hyper aware of that. The very first thing I do coming back from the beach is i wipe down my camera with a damp towel. Because the ocean, the salt in the air is the worst thing for it. The other thing I do when I get back is immediately take my batteries out,and charge them up, because you don't know where or when something might happen and you need to run. And memory cards and batteries are the easiest thing to get tripped up on. You'll find something amazing is happening right outside and you have no batteries. So, I have some already charged up from before then I replace them, put them back in the camera, and now I'm ready to go if something else happens. And then, I'll download disks and double back everything up. I always bring two hard drives, sometimes three hard drives. If it's a really important assignment, I like to have that security because, drives fail all the time and especially on your most important assignment, they will definitely fail. So, that's an important ritual. And, I have more gear in here but when I go out in the field one camera, one body's enough. But I have ideas for other things especially if I'm shooting the surfers today, had I thought about it in advance a little more I could have brought a longer lens and gotten more action shots of them, but that's not really what I was after. I like to be intimate with my pictures. I think that getting close with a wide lens is the fastest way to get close to people, it breaks down the barriers. So, immediately I put that lens close to them and it actually is much better than shooting from a distance with this thing. This is more like a gun, it's like a bazooka. So, i really prefer those. I also often shoot with a short fixed 24 millimeter, that's my go-to lens. Today, I was using a 24 millimeter to 70 and that's also a really great go-to lens because it's wide but, maybe something's happening a little farther away or I want to make a portrait of somebody and I'll go with 70 millimeters and just take a step back. So, I love those two lenses. If I'm shooting wildlife, I'm going to bring big glass, If I'm shooting portraits, I'm also going to bring a different glass. So, every story you should think a little bit about. I started out using the F- was it the F100 or the F90? I started off with film. My very first camera as a teenager was the Pentax K1000, all manual. There was nothing automatic on it, and I'm so grateful for the lessons. I shoot everything in manual, sometimes I mean I use auto-focusing, but the metering, the actual metering I shoot manually. Because I think, understanding light and being able to manipulate it and think about what you're doing. Where's the shutter speed?, Where's the aperture? It's like a painter. I study paintings too, and I look at how the light is falling and then try to translate that into the camera. And I think you absolutely need to understand your camera, and shoot on manual mode. I definitely don't think you have as much control of the situation. Yeah, I think that background is really important. Take the time to understand light, and what your camera's doing. 5. Perspective: The first light bulb moment for me when I realized that I was just doing the same thing that every other journalist was doing, was in Gaza in the Second Intifada. On this one square block, there were dozens and dozens of photographers all covering the violence. Literally, I walked around the corner and in the same place, I found this beautiful Palestinian wedding, and I couldn't believe there is just this image of love amidst all of these terrible things happening. I thought now, this is what I can relate to as a human being, I'm not seeing this at some strange distant war that I'm nothing to do with and I barely understand. Suddenly, I was seeing these as human beings that I understand, they want the same things in life like all of us do, and I thought why aren't we telling these stories? I think that this is what will drive change. That was sort of the first light bulb moment. Then I went and lived, my sister was in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I got a grant from the Alexia Foundation. There had been a civil war there, she had left. I went back to go and find out what happened to these people who were her family, and I thought I would stay a couple of weeks and I ended up living there, then months and then it turned into a half a year. I spent my days really just learning the language, learning about their lives, learning about how the majority of people on the planet really live. That's my second most important lesson which is, it really takes time to tell a story. Without the pressure of a deadline or the demands and expectations of an editor, I was able to give a much more authentic look of what life was really like. It wasn't the Africa of war, famine, plague, or the other extreme beautiful safaris, and I had never seen this perspective before in the news. I think that we go into situations with our own perception of what it is, with our own story, and the truth needs to gradually unfold and reveal itself to us because we come in with our own biases and our own- It's not this objective business at all, it's completely subjective and I think it just takes time to get to know people, culture, place, and only then are you going to start to scratch the surface of the truth that might be more what the local people see. I think that a lot of journalism is parachuting into a place for two weeks and it only polarizes people more, because we don't get to a different understanding of it. I think that whatever your project is, take a project and make it in your backyard. It doesn't have to be exotic. I find there's stories everywhere and it's really your job to get beyond what you read in the newspapers, get beyond what you see on the TV, find something truly unique. They really are, it's not that hard to do and it just takes time. Creativity and inspiration is really personal and I think that some of the things I've learned along the way. I think tunnel vision is really something that will kill creativity, we get so obsessed with what's in front of us, a project, an idea or simply an image in front of us, that we often forget to pull the camera, press it up against our face, pull it down, turn around you and look at it from another perspective. I literally have this image from cashmere which I almost missed, because I was so focused on this drama unfolding in front of me that I failed to turn around, and it was only at the last moment. Right before I was leaving, I looked behind me and it was the most incredible scene of all these faces, of people and it was such a symbolic image. They looked like they belonged in this landscape, it said a much deeper story than the stuff that was happening in front of me, that was pretty sensationalistic and it was a terrible moment in front of us. That is one lesson that I really think about all the time, it's like take the camera down, look around you, see what else is happening. I think another thing is a safety issue, because you have the camera pressed up against your face and people may be thinking about targeting you and you really have to be aware. So, very often it's like put the camera underneath a bag or a shawl, don't have it out there. Just be thoughtful about what's in front of you. If you see a nice moment, take it and then move along. Don't stick around in a place for so long that you're going to attract attention of the wrong kinds of people. So, I think constant movement too in some places if you're doing street photography is important. I think also a little bit of pain like the best situations are in bad weather and maybe you have to climb far to get to a place or jumping into the ocean. You might be uncomfortable for half an hour, an hour, a day, but it's so worth it. Literally dive in to whatever you're doing, embrace your subjects. I actually hate that word subjects, but I don't know what else to call it. But embrace the people you're with and immerse yourself in it, and get uncomfortable. Don't be afraid that you're going to get your shoes dirty or get wet or get cold, I think the physicality stops people but get over the physical pain. The other thing it does is it creates empathy. If people see you jumping in, for example this morning, jumping into the water, all of a sudden, the surface are like that's cool, she's jumping in and getting what? With like "That's great". You're not just sitting on the edge of things looking in with your face pressed up against a tourist bus. I find that with everything, it's like the less stuff you have, the less gear, the more you're with people. Don't be afraid also to put your camera down and help people. If they're doing something and need help, do not feel like this is my job, this is photographing. That is the best way to get close to people, they're going to show you things that are far more interesting than you could have ever imagined. It's just all about creating trust. It doesn't take long either, it's just showing that you're willing to put yourself out there, people can feel it right away, it's just incredible thing. So, don't let this be a barrier, let it be a connector, it feels great too. So, whenever I am going to do story, I research. I mean, 90% of my work happens before I ever get to a place. Maybe 10% of it is shooting, but 90% of that is usually try to get to know people before I arrive in a place, over the phone, through email, establish local connections. Figure out what the important story is. Another secret I do if I am going to a place I've never been, read the local newspaper. We're really lucky because English is a language which is being used in a lot of places, even in places where people are speaking a different language, they often will have a local English language newspaper. So, find the local newspaper and then you'll really get a better pulse of what's happening on the ground, because often those smaller stories don't reach the New York Times or CNN, they're only in the local newspaper. So, it's super important for your safety to also have a better story and understand what's going on. Take that time. Also, try to meet local journalist. Maybe there's local nongovernmental organizations working there, go and meet them and maybe offer to give them pictures back and they'll help you on the ground. Try to give back to people, that's really important, whether it's just simply emailing them a picture or maybe you can connect them with somebody that might be useful to them, but try to actually give back and be a better person. It's so simple but it makes a big difference. I climbed up this mountain to 13,000 feet with tens of thousands of pilgrims. About halfway up the mountain, I was kidded out with all the best gear, I live in Montana. I had my Therm-a-Rest and down sleeping bag, and I knew that it would get really cold at night on top of this glacier. But guess what, my porter takes off with all my gear. So, I thought about turning back because I knew that it would be really uncomfortable, maybe I would get sick. What was I going to do? I didn't have food. I didn't have warm clothes. I literally had just my camera and the clothes on my back. I decided to persevere and go up that mountain, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I'm so happy that [inaudible] took off with my gear because all of a sudden the pilgrims were sharing their blankets with me, sharing their food. That painful moment, a little bit of suffering, first of all it creates empathy. Empathy is the most important thing you can have to create photography. I suddenly understood what they were going through, going up that mountain, how they might be feeling and then it created intimacy. I think empathy is the wellspring to creativity, it's so important. A little bit of pain, a little bit of suffering just makes stuff better. That's where inspiration comes from, that's where creativity comes from, being able to relate to whoever it is that you're photographing. 6. Shooting Sunset: I find, actually, it's much harder when there's so many people, there's so much busyness, and there's a lot more, I like the cleanliness of less people but it's I guess your mood really, but it's just such an interesting exercise to look at the same space and even come in the middle of the afternoon and just see how the light is, and it can create interesting harsh shadows, if you want to work with that, but I prefer this soft light at sunrise and sunset. Also, pay attention to your background. So when I'm shooting this, there's this wonderful silhouettes and nice light here but if you go from that angle you get all the buildings in the background which can be a really distracting background. So, pay attention. Here you have all this beautiful light and stuff happening and you get excited, but really what is behind the actual image is just as important as what's in the middle in the frame. So, I think people get tunnel vision on an exciting charismatic face and you absolutely forget what's behind that and that is just as important. Poles coming out of people's head. In this case, the buildings are very distracting so I'm going to just try to keep my frame this way with a nice clean background. I think with this surfers, I knew I wanted to get close to them when they're coming out of the water and I didn't actually see it until I asked him to stop and he turned around and there was this beautiful reflection backlit and it's again that same philosophy that you just have to do a 360 around whatever it is that you're photographing because it has a- you go in with one perspective, what you think you're the shot you're making, and then it's sometimes you get so obsessed with that one shot and if you turn around and look at it from another angle it's even more beautiful. So, I just am constantly moving and here he comes. This is nice. So, you should also be really pretty, again, have your aperture at the right setting so that when something goes by you're ready. I'm just sort of watching as the light is changing right now and I keep adjusting my aperture, and around sunrise and sunset, depending where you are on the planet, you can lose light and gain light pretty quickly so you just have to really pay attention. But I love this, again, I mean I love these hours and I think that even as it gets darker and darker, it's so beautiful now, but it's actually going to also be beautiful even in a half an hour. The light is going to get and more and more interesting. So right now, I have my ISO is at 3.20. The thing you want to keep low is your ISO because it impacts the quality of the image. I will definitely keep it as low as possible and I'll open my aperture and I'll move the shutter speed down to a lower shutter speed until that you want it to be sharp, too. Only then when I've exhausted those other two possibilities will I start increasing the ISO, because it really does make a better quality image. Then, sometimes I want a really slow shutter speed. I want to show the movement of the ocean and maybe there's somebody standing in it and the movement around them can be really beautiful, but other times I want to stop the action. Somebody might be running by and I want to capture that moment without any blur so I'm really paying attention to the shutter speed and what I'm trying to do. So, somebody now say love is just the lines in the water and so I'll sometimes go up close to people first and let them know that I'm shooting them and then I just let them become a part of the landscape and let them fall into that, but then they're okay with me photographing them and it can be much more of a scene center landscape shot. When I'm doing storytelling, I like to combine these very sweet images with stuff that's a little grittier, too, and that's also why I like to come back multiple times because your mood, like how you're feeling absolutely impacts what your images are like, so I'm in a sweet mood today and all the pictures are overly sweet. It's true and so it's really good to come back and explore your moods, too. You're going to see things differently depending on how you're feeling. 7. Explore Photo Classes on Skillshare: