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Dan Milnor on Great Documentary Portraits

by Topher Kelly
photo & video

Documentary photography, when you boil it down, is as simple as capturing real moments without slowing them down the velocity of the narrative. It’s quite possibly the most personal, intimate style of photography. In this field, capturing images has little to do with gear and more to do with patience, personality, and building relationships. creativeLIVE Photo Week instructor Dan Milnor, known for his award-winning portraits, shares a few of many keys to making powerful images.

1. Now is the perfect time to UNLEARN a few things.

Everything you know about portraits isn’t wrong, but according to Dan, it’s not entirely correct either. “I learned that a portrait was of a face or a person, but you can take fantastic portraits that don’t feature a face.” At its core, like any quality photography, a quality documentary portrait tells a story. Dan also says that the hardest part of the job is unlearning practices and stepping outside the box.

2. Be realistic with your timeframe.

Great portraits aren’t made overnight. Just like an author needs to study and evaluate his characters, a photographer must think about how he or she will tell his or her story. Dan’s Sicily project is over five years in the making, and his photographs grow stronger with every visit. His understanding of the people and the lives they live there is apparent in his work. “I always stress the long in long-term projects,” Dan explains.

3. “Can I make your portrait?”

When speaking with your subjects, let them know that you are building a piece of art. It’s more than a photograph; it’s a story unfolded. Using the right phrases will increase your chances of people saying yes. The most important aspect, however, is taking the time to make a connection or personal bond with your subjects. “Be more than a person with a camera,” Dan says.

4. Build the narrative.

Tell your story. During his Documentary Portraiture segment on creativeLIVE, Dan walked the in-studio and online audience through a series he shot of a rancher in New Mexico. Dan showed us a still of the dirt and one of the sky — to illustrate that you don’t need to show your subject’s face to tell their story. “Without seeing his face you know more than his occupation, you know his way of life,” Dan underscores.

5. Let them go and look for light.

Like most outdoor portrait photographers, Dan’s number-one rule is to not shoot in the high-noon sun. He also isn’t a huge fan of posing. Posing works for most photographers, but documentary doesn’t work that way. “Let them find the right light, be patient, and be in the right position at the right time.” Using the photo below, Dan explains that there is no way to stage a beautiful portrait. It just comes naturally.

Find out more about Dan and all the Photo Week instructors here

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Topher Kelly

Topher Kelly is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and editor at CreativeLive. Follow Topher on Twitter@Topher_LIVE.