The Photography Rule You May Have Broken

Ok, I’m glad that title caught your attention.

There’s been a bit of a buzz in our documentary family photographer about following the “technical, photography rules” of a documentary photographer that takes on clients… what’s allowed in shooting, what’s allowed in editing, and so on. It pisses me off. The focus is in the wrong place. What you should really be thinking about is what feels right to you as an artist…

I am seeing questions in our community like:

  • Is this photo considered documentary?
  • What if I want to give my clients a “Grandma” everyone-smile-at-the-camera shot?
  • What if I see an awesome photo op and want to blurt out, “stop, don’t move!”
  • Is it wrong to move my subjects from a dark space in their home and ask them to ( insert: sit or play a game or whatever they’re doing) where there is better light?
  • Is it wrong to remove this distraction in the background in post-processing?

Have you ever asked any of those questions to yourself or in a FB group? If so, comment on this blog post, I’d love to know what’s on your mind.

If photographers love shooting what makes them feel alive, why do these questions stop them in their tracks?

My vision when developing Fearless and Framed wasn’t ever to be a place to tell photographers what’s right or wrong in their documentary-style shooting. I’ve not been accused of this, but I feel like I’ve been part creator of a monster sparking all of those questions above.

It reminds me of when I started taking on clients. In my mind, I had a set of rules of how I thought I had to photograph them (primarily to shoot in what I thought the clients wanted that looked familiar to what they likely have seen other photographers doing). I feel like even though we’re talking about a specific style here at F&F, some photographers are getting back to their roots of “what’s correct and what’s not” which is often the ultimate mind game.

This way of thinking leads them astray of what ignites their shooting to begin with.

I’m curious, are you photographing clients in the way you want to be shooting? Did it start off this way or did you evolve into shooting with your own voice? Are you like me where you felt your passion as a photographer, but you were led in a different direction (far from your voice) when photographing clients? Please, tell me below.

My vision when creating Fearless and Framed was in two parts:

1. To let photographers feel free to shoot what comes from within their heart + soul – being fearless in composing their frames internally (that’s how I came up with the name).

2. To give photographers an awareness and encouragement in using documentary-style photography with clients. I wanted a place on the internet as a voice to advocate for photographers that feel better shooting more candid and little to no direction. A voice for those photographers saying, ‘you don’t need to shoot in a way you may feel you HAVE to conform to.’

Why? Because that was my perspective and my story as I shared here. As a photographer that started out in my approach to client sessions in a way all wrong for my own artistic vision, I wanted a place that introduced and expanded the possibility of documenting memories for clients. This style has been in my blood all along and I tried to fight it by setting out to do learn how to pose and creatively direct… when it felt unnatural to me. I knew other photographers could relate and it’s been proven that many, in fact, agree.

Photographers, maybe even you reading this, have been commenting on our blog, replying to my emails, and declaring on social media a new-found freedom in shooting what feels damn good for them. Photographers in the free training 7 Day Storyteller’s Challenge have said the same. It’s like some photographers have learned how you can move through a session without directing, but feel guilt that they may be doing something wrong if they ______ (insert: any of those questions above).

Think of the music industry.

I’m going to be honest and admit that I don’t really keep up with music. These are a few things that come to mind to prove my point:

Remember when Tim McGraw and Nelly collaborated together for “Over and Over Again?” Country artist + Rap artist. More of these cross-genre collaborations are on this list from Styleblazer.

Country artist Taylor Swift recently did a pop album.

Country artist Sam Hunt’s popular song, “Take Your Time,” isn’t even of him singing – he is primarily speaking his lyrics. Side note: I looked up the song on YouTube to link to, never had seen what Sam Hunt looks like, and wow he’s gorgeous!

Linkin Park has integrated a rap-rock feel to their songs.

It’s pretty incredible to see genres collide, right?

I love an artist that pushes themselves to reach a sound that is beyond what they are comfortable with and express their voice. We can do that as photographers too.

Rather than focusing on what is right and what is wrong to ensure your spot under a label, do what feels right for you. Answer those questions you have when developing yourself as a photograher in terms of, “Does this enhance my voice or my inner message?” Focus on developing your photography voice, rather than developing your photography for a title.

Here are 3 photographers that when their social-shared images land in my feed, I know exactly who the photographer is before reading their name:

  1. Denise of Catchnkiss Photography. I follow her on IG as well as she uses our #fearlessandframed hashtag often. She’s not afraid to get in close with her frame and because of this strength of hers, her images stand out to me in both an inspiring and recognizable way.
  2. Britt Hueter of BAMphoto. She shoots a variety of subjects from weddings to families to her amazing Undressed sessions. What I love about seeing her images come in my FB feed is that she kills it at leaving her fingerprint on whatever she is shooting…. whether it’s more of a set up, directed image or it’s a moment, this girl clearly shoots what she wants…. and owns it! I recognized this last year and invited her to submit an Iconic Photo for our blog (see it here).
  3. Tara Whitney. I’ve only recently discovered Tara. She rocks a mixture of completely documentary, lifestyle, and posed imagery. Every single image ties into the unique story she is telling. I’m in awe of her quote, “I am driven to document whatever surprises or delights me.” I mean, that is just everything we should all be doing, honestly. What I love most is that she has a portfolio with some seriously intimate images, for example, mom-to-bes with their baby bumps bared and beautiful (the one in the bubble bath is awesome). This leads me to believe she is fearless in going after what she wants to shoot.

Set your own damn rules and then give yourself a pat on the back when you break them and push yourself as an artist to share your voice.

Author: MarieMasse
I help client documentary photographers fine-tune their workflow + marketing game, so their work is filled with sessions that represent their voice + client values while earning a living. I shoot undirected, off-beat stories that aren’t preserved often enough (like the story of couples before starting a fam or becoming empty-nesters – a dream project of mine), so my clients’ old box of photos is a meaningful, visual diary of their life + legacy to leave behind.

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  • I have heard that you should also not change lighting while doing documentary style photography. This would be like turning on lights, opening blinds or even turning off lights….. documenting life as it really is. Is this true, or what if I see an opportunity for a great shot but need more light? What are your thoughts?

    • Hey Jenny! Great question. The short answer – in traditional documentary photography, altering the scene in any way then strays from true documentary. In tying this into the blog post, I want to encourage people to photography freely… trust your gut. Meaning, it’s ok to pull from various genres, approaches, and styles. I hear often in our community “Am I allowed to do this or that?” I get so frustrated with this question, because I believe people should follow their instincts. It’s pushing through your boundaries and self-limitations that make a strong artist. Photographers photographing in dangerous locations or in scenes where making any changes to the immediate environment need a more stealthy approach, but I can bet if they are in their own home, documenting their life and run into needing more light, they’ll flick on a light or two. I think it’s more important to try to be true to the client/subject’s story and not worry about getting caught up in the technical rules. If I can get away without adding light (turning them on, flash, etc.), I definitely do so. Personally, I like to push my limits with grain in the images too if it helps keep the scene genuine. However, if there’s not enough light, at the end of the day you have a job to complete. I absolutely would intervene and turn on some lights if I needed to in order to get great imagery of my clients’ story 🙂

  • Thank you so much for writing this post! While I have been shooting as a hobby for years, I just started a small business this year. I have been struggling with whether I am shooting the way I love to, in a unique way OR if I am just falling into the trap of shooting like other people who’s photos I love. This was refreshing to read and a great reminder to shoot in my own, unique way that I see things. That is what people will hire me for….because they like MY style.

    • The awareness of how you’re shooting and why is such a powerful thing. Once you can communicate your voice to your potential clients in a way they will understand (and want) the benefits, then you can truly rock your photography voice inside your client sessions… because they believe in you <3

  • This post really speaks to me! I’ve been wanting to start a photography business but I honestly don’t know what I should offer since I don’t know what to label myself as a photographer. I love documentary style so much but I love lifestyle. My style is probably somewhere in between. Sometimes I just want to shoot documentary with no direction and sometimes I just want to do lifestyle where I can interact with my subject. I honestly have been confused for awhile so thank you so much for this post!

  • I agree that it’s absolutely the most important thing to follow your gut and your soul while shooting. When we shoot what we truly love, we are at our best. No one should be confined by a label. I think often times people become attached to a particular term not because it speaks to them, but because marketing is easier when you can fit in to a specific box. What we call ourselves is important. The question should not be “Is this photo documentary?” The question should be “Is it important to call myself documentary?” While in the short term having a specific label may seem easier, at the end of the day you can market any consistent shooting style without calling it anything more than just “photography”.