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Tips for Photographing Protests

Photographers all over the world took to the streets after Donald Trump’s election to document the protests happening everywhere.  Through these experiences, photographers learned a lot of lessons about the best approach to documenting protests and other large events.

Here are some tips.

Travel Light and Limit Your Gear

 In any large event you will likely be moving around a lot and may need to move quickly.  While shooting protests I often wish I had multiple lenses with me, but I have found that it’s a much better choice to be able to move around easily with as little baggage as possible.   My lens of choice is a 24-70mm. This lens allows me to get both wide-angle shots to show the size of the crowd and capture more of the story in a single frame while also allowing me to zoom in on signs or moments happening farther away.  I also like this lens for portraits that I want to make at protests.  That said, I have used a prime lens for evening protests and when I want to travel really light and find that my 35mm works well.  This is also a good choice if you want to travel really light or need to shoot wide open.  If you are photographing  a smaller protest two lenses may be feasible.  Also consider the Peak Design Ultralight Shell if rain is predicted to protect your gear and a sturdy Manfrotto backpack to keep your gear safe.    It’s also a good idea to dress for comfort!

Choose a Theme

Some photographers have a broad theme, which is to tell the story of the event.  However, others choose a specific theme to help guide them as to which photos to make during large events where there are so many possibilities.  Examples of themes are emotional moments, messages, children, etc.  You may decide on a theme ahead of time or one may become obvious to you once you arrive.

Study Documentary Skills

Shooting a protest or large event is very similar to shooting a documentary session of any type.  Even though it may seem off-topic, skills taught by Kirsten Lewis in her documentary family classes at CreativeLive and in her Documentary Family Handbook are very useful when documenting protests or other large events as well.  Street Photography:  The Art of Photographing Strangers with Ashley Gilbertson also has a lot of useful advice that can be applied to photographing protests and large events.

Don’t Always Chase the Iconic Shot

There may be many photographers at a large event and most of them will be after getting “the” shot.  While some of the results may be great, most of these photos will look the same – think of how many shots you have seen of the Women’s March with the U.S. Capitol in the background.  Distinguish yourself by looking for shots that other photographers won’t be chasing or find a different vantage point from which to photograph the same thing everyone else is! As an example, every photographer might be waiting to get a shot of the most interesting person at the event.  Instead, photograph others photographing to tell a different story while still including the interesting person.

Try to Present a Complete Picture

As with any documentary shoot, you want to be able to tell a complete story.  Show how many people are at the event, show details, show people, show messages.  If there are counter-protesters shoot them as well.  Try to capture the diversity of the event if present.   While my approach is about 90% documentary, I also like making portraits of the organizers of the event and other interesting people I see and meet.  Bear in mind that even if you want to shoot 100% documentary, some people will turn towards you to show-off their sign or smile as soon as they see your camera so be prepared to make some portraits even if you don’t intend to do so.

Be Patient, but not too patient  

Look for scenes that could be interesting and wait for the right moment.  This could be the right sign, the right emotion, or the right person to walk by.  For example, at the Women’s March on Washington I wanted to try to get a shot of the crowd in front of the White House.  However, I needed to wait for a moment when no protesters were blocking my view and ideally I also wanted a sign with a strong message in the shot.  I got a shot I found acceptable after a few minutes, but in large events you also need to be prepared to lose move on so that you don’t miss other great shots chasing one that may never come to pass.

Move Around a Lot  

It’s important to have a variety of perspectives and angles in any documentary shoot and protests and large events are no exception.  Get low to the ground, get up high.  Go wide, get close.  If you see a great sign at a protest, shooting low and having it framed by the sky can be powerful.  Similarly, getting up high and showing how large the event is can be equally as powerful.  Moving yourself slightly to the side can turn a standard row of people into a compelling diagonal.  Get in the crowd and hang back on the sidelines.  Move around to capture it all!

Identify Good Compositions  

In large events it can be difficult to quickly identify good compositions, but composing your image well is essential lest your subject get lost in a sea of people.  The first step is to identify who or what your subject is.  Even in shots of large crowds, having a clear focal point will make a stronger image.  Your focal point can be an interesting or emotional person, a strong moment, or a powerful sign, but the viewer’s eye should always have somewhere to rest.  For example, I knew that capturing a sign featuring a woman wrapped in an American flag would be more powerful with an American flag in the background so I waited until the woman holding the sign walked by a flag to take the shot.  Additionally, always consider your background.  The juxtaposition of an angry woman with a heart in the background is more powerful than just a photo of an angry woman or cute sign alone.  As other examples, use arms holding a sign as a natural frame and painted crosswalks as leading lines.  Also consider color.  In the photo of the angry woman with a heart in the background, the color of the woman’s pink hat and heart also naturally draw the two together.  Moments like this are everywhere if you look!

©Lucy Barber

For another compositional tip, Philadelphia photographer and activist Lucy Baber stresses the importance of keeping buildings in the background straight and of bracing yourself against something sturdy if possible when shooting a moving crowd.

Shoot a Lot

Don’t shoot blindly and hope for the best, but shoot enough to get the strongest images possible.  As with all documentary photography, shooting through the moment on burst mode is a good idea.  At large events especially, a split-second can make the difference between a good image and a great one.  The placement of moving people in the background or a quick change of expression can make or break your photo.

Capture Before and After

A lot of planning goes into a large event.  If you are shooting a protest, try to include some images of people making signs or people traveling by bus or metro with their signs.  For any large event, shooting the organizers meeting before the event starts or when people arrive can be powerful.  There are also a lot of stories that happen after an event, whether it’s a pile of signs after a protest or an organizer kicking off her shoes when it’s over.

Know the Risks

If photographing a protest, Philadelphia photographer and long-time activist Cathie Berry-Green of BG Productions advises that you should know the risks, and how far you are willing to go, ahead of time.  While most protests are peaceful and carry little, if any, risk that is not always the case.  Berry-Green has been to several protests that carried more risk and examples of such protests are those where civil disobedience is involved or protests that do not have permit.  While rare, Berry-Green has been hit with teargas and a rubber bullet.

©Cathie Berrey-Green

Arrest may also be a risk.  Normally you will have enough warning to leave the area if things get tense, but think about how much you are willing to risk to get the shot ahead of time.  If possible, work with a buddy and if there is dedicated legal support for the protest write the legal number on your arm.  If you want to keep your risk low, stick with media even if you do not have official media credentials.  But keep in mind that even members of the press are occasionally arrested.

You can also lower your risk by using common-sense actions such as staying on the sidewalk if an unpermitted protest goes into the street, heading warnings when given, or putting some distance between you and the protest if you anticipate violence.

Protests and other large events offer amazing opportunities for amazing images!  Go out and shoot one the next time you have the opportunity to do so.