11 Tips for Intimate Documentary Photos I Learned Leading Photo Tours

In this article, I’ll share with you the lessons I have gained leading photography tours in Romania with Intrepid Exposures. These are lessons I feel we can all learn from in order to create more powerful photography.

Imagine having almost two weeks dedicated only to your visual perceptions, with no other interference. The only thing that matters is improving your photography. During each tour, we usually get to a special kind of harmony within the group. Our interactions with each other, our trust of each other’s skills and our sensitivity to the decisive moment are enhanced.

Over time, without the same exposure, these naturally start fading away when we get back home. This is why writing down the lessons we’ve learned is the key to making sure they stick. My personal list is at least ten times longer, but for the sake of this article, I will only mention the most important 11 ones.

Bear in mind that these lessons that I learned are about creativity. These ideas and perspectives are more connected to the creativity of a photographer rather than with the technical side of things.

1. The power of extraction

When traveling into a foreign country, you first start out by planning. Whether it is in one of our tours or not, the plan is pretty much the same. You fly over, reach the accommodation, get deep in the country, and fortunately arrive at a story or moment that is worth capturing.

We all take this process for granted without properly noticing what is really happening. There are several cultural, social, and geographical layers you need to consider in this process.

The photo that you choose to take bears the power of all your effort to get to the location, your predeveloped impressions, and your aims of the shoot. It’s like an extraction from another world. We need to be aware of this entire process, and sometimes lean into it, and sometimes lean away from it. A good shot does not just happen — there are lots of things we need to be conscious of before it appears.

2. Having a story in your pictures

So many of us get back home at times with thousands of pictures only to find out that most of them lack any kind of story and they have no visual consistency.

That is why learning to connect with a subject and developing empathy before raising your camera to the eye is one very important side of the photographic process.

Another way to look at this is from a portfolio’s narrative perspective. Any of our tours should end up with a series of 10-20 shots with different perspectives.

However, these photographs should be complementary and create together a bigger, wider picture. We all need to teach ourselves to “see” the narrative packed up in a final selection that considers at all the angles: people at work, religion, culture, landscape, light, etc. There should be a certain pace, a nice evolving rhythm (and I think Romania is the perfect place to start working on that).

3. The relationship between the subject and the background

This is one of the most overlooked techniques in photography but it makes a huge difference to the end result. We need a clean frame hence we should be very careful where we place our subject in relation to all the lines and spaces of the background. However, if we really pay attention, exceptional things may happen between our subject and its environment. This can result in an indefinable kind of relationship that will push your photos even further.

4. The decisive moment

In the past, I was photographing for years with the wrong idea in my mind. I thought that capturing a powerful, decisive moment, was about being quick.

However, I discovered another perspective. “It’s not about being in the right place at the right time, it’s about being in a place long enough for the right moment to find you.”

In other words, connecting to our subject’s inner self, carefully watching their gestures, anticipating their actions, and triggering the shutter when we spot a peak of the action may get us to a different, better shot.

I think all actions in whatever form, have a “decisive moment”, sooner or later. Only through careful observation are we able to depict those hand movements or those nuanced actions that really tell the story.

5. Taking a step back

“If your photo is not good enough, you’re not close enough,” said Robert Capa some decades ago. This is a valuable statement that helped me get over my timidity in time and pushed me very close to my subjects in so many situations. But now, I think it should be judged on a case by case basis.

Somehow, in the last decade, with all the technology available, with all our camera screens and quick and precise focus systems, I think we have found ourselves too close. A portrait is not just about seeing sharp details in the eyes; it is not just about wrinkles and Rembrandt lighting on a subject’s face. Sometimes, taking a step back and not allowing yourself to be seduced by the subject, enhances your story.

6. Be inside the action

There are various interpretations of this advice and I actually think Robert Capa’s statement above has more to do with this point rather than with the “physical closeness”.

Let’s say we meet a subject that is doing something with their hands, while their face and eyes are pointing to the same spot where the hands are working.

As an example from our tours, this could often be working the land, cutting the hay, singing on a flute or even mixing some food in a pot.

Of course, you approach the scene by shooting different outside angles, but there is one angle photographers usually miss. Lowering your camera close to the subject’s hands and shooting up, against his eyes is what I mean by being “inside the action”.

There is also another way of “being inside the action”. During our tours, we will meet groups of people either working, chatting on the street, getting out of the church on Sundays, or socializing at a market fair.

Observing the group and shooting candidly from “outside” is something to start with. Most of the time, a communication bridge is opening and you could be invited “inside” to have a drink or have a look at something they are proud of.

Many of us would probably feel shy, or uncomfortable. However, that is an opportunity that needs to be taken. Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone may get you into unexpected situations that end up with better shots most of the time.

Most of us, when we think about “being inside the action”, we imagine something very dynamic, powerful and energy-driven. A third interpretation of this advice is a bit more subtle. It is again about connecting to peoples’ souls. If we get into their hearts, we get inside the “action”. A powerful portrait is about surprise. We need to surprise the person in an immerse moment and to capture part of their deepest thoughts.

7. Don’t get seduced, work the scene

Even now, after having led many tours, I still need to remind myself not to get seduced by the scene. That’s one of the traps photographers fall most often into. The brain sees the attractiveness of the scene, we panic about the moment fading away and we start shooting without mindfulness.

This is wrong. Instead of looking at the screen and feeling happy with what you’ve got, you need to focus. Push yourself to stay connected to the scene and work it ‘till it’s done.

8. Write down your thoughts

In our tours, we encourage participants to write down their thoughts. Have a notebook of your own. I have one and it is full of advice to a future me with five years of previous thoughts and quotes.

Writing down everything important, all the milestones you pass and all the new ideas will help you get better. Your own advice will emerge out of your subconscious the moment you need it the most.

Besides, when you have the privilege of discussing shots during a photography workshop with people that have witnessed the same scene, it is a great idea to write things down. I think this is one of the most enriching experiences, as you will get access to different perspectives on the same scene.

Other people’s opinions can complete your perspective and enhance your way of thinking or seeing in the future. So during a tour, ask for feedback. Take out your pen whenever you feel your ego hurt because this is the best moment to write down a lesson.

9. Stay true to yourself and to your photography

It took me years to realize that I was shooting someone else’s shots. Even now, sometimes, I am shooting without realizing that I am imitating some of the masters’ compositions.

Other times my ego gets sensible about the number of likes on social media. In fact, getting to know yourself, to shoot from your gut, to shoot just for your satisfaction is what matters.

10. Have patience, peel the onion

Many of the best photographic opportunities do not uncover themselves during your first encounter with the subject or the place you are visiting. During our tours, I have learned that visiting the same places and the same people over and over again, will only take me deeper into their stories.

The obvious attitude “here I am again, nothing better than last time could happen” will only take you to a dead end. Try instead to keep fresh eyes on the scene, keep your empathy alive and be prepared. Peel the layers of an onion, layer by layer to get deeper and deeper. Life is never boring unless we choose to see it that way.

11. Fewer lenses, simple gear

I am usually staying away from technical discussions, as I consider them boring and keeping us away from what is really important. However, there is one I have been struggling with and I think I am closer to the right path now. Some years ago I would have not started a journey unless I could carry with me all the primes and zooms, the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and the 70-200mm, all of them f/2.8.

I wanted to be able to cover all the angles, to respond to every possible idea I could have. Back then, I did not realize that having all of these options at hand narrows down your creativity. I now only use the 24-70mm and it pretty much covers most of my photographic situations. The idea behind it is to adapt all your senses to a certain focal length, to be able to “see” the depth of a situation rather than to be distracted by choices.

My fellow tour leader Jacob, shoots with even less, often choosing to only use a Panasonic Lumix GX8 with a 15mm prime. This single lens and camera approach teaches you to see the world through the constraints of your gear and to adapt creatively to it.

I could go on a lot longer about our Romanian photography tours. I think the lessons in photography are infinite and at some point in one’s life, they stop being just about photography and they transform themselves into teachings about life.

P.S. Reading about these tips can only take you so far. Come and join us in our Romanian photography tours and let us share amazing, life-changing experiences. If you are interested in joining us, we are now running tours in all four seasons. New Year traditions, Easter celebrations in Maramures, Summer Festivities and the Autumn Harvest season. Find out more about all of our tours here.

About the author: Mihnea Turcu is one of Romanian’s most active travel photographers: he did thorough visits in every historical region of his country to document the traditional way of life in several photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His sense of history, culture and quickly disappearing treasures of Romania heritage have made him quit his corporate career and totally devote himself to finding the last patches of Romanian spirituality. Turcu is an Adventurer in Residence at Intrepid Exposures, which offers high quality, off-the-beaten-track photography tours. This article was also published here.

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