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Documentary Photography: Creating a Life in Storytelling

Lesson 5 of 13



Documentary Photography: Creating a Life in Storytelling

Lesson 5 of 13



Lesson Info


So earlier we talked about scheduling time for the work that we love and a lot of us in the room are already using Wednesdays as the time for our creation, time to be creative. So I was doing my work and like falling in love, all I could think about was Wednesday. (audience laughs) I had to go six whole days to see Wednesday again. So I was like, wow, why am I only doing what I love one day a week? So this was rolling in my mind. But the reality is like, but I have to pay my bills, and that balance again. So the inevitable happened, tax preparation, ugh. So I'll tell you, I'm not the queen of organization, but I do have a very sophisticated methodology for calculating my taxes and this year I was using the back of three unopened envelopes, because I'm also not a big fan of mail that's not like a handwritten letter. So on these three envelopes I wrote all my newspaper jobs, newspaper, date, and rate. And so that's where I had my foundation, it was newspaper work, so that's what I was mo...

stly doing and what I did still enjoy doing. And then so I had one envelope that really quickly filled up and then to the second envelope, spilled onto the second envelope, and then my third envelope was like what I will refer to as like my corporate work, which was probably only six or seven jobs in that year. This could be like a conference or corporate portraits or an embassy event, 'cause I lived in D.C.. So it was a lot less visually interesting work, but it paid at a higher rate quicker. So that was really interesting to me, 'cause it made me think about how valuable is my time and what do I wanna use my time for? 'Cause if I wanted to do just newspaper work then I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. But what was most important for me was to buy myself time to work on the projects that I loved. So we're gonna, again, a little bit of math, using the median household income from as an example of $60,000. So this is what I was finding for my work and while newspaper assignments might, you might fill in the blank with whatever work that you do, portrait assignments, family portraits, corporate portraits, but this was just my personal experience. So to use that example of $60,000, if you needed to make, a year, if you needed to make $5,000 a month for me, so like kind of the average-ish newspaper rate at the time was $200 and that could be for a full day, most of the time it was for a full day, eight hours a day. So that's about 25 days and up to 200 hours per month. So in a year, that's 300 days of work, and in a year that's 2,400 hours per year. So my corporate work to make the same amount of money, 5,000 divided by $200, 25 hours, because I'd require a four hour minimum, 'cause I would find that's what most events lasted four hours and I'll talk more about that, time of arrival to time of departure. So if you divide 25 hours by four that's 6.25 days. So 6.25 days of work and 25 hours a month. And like if you haven't had coffee you're just like ah, that's a lot of numbers. So in a year that's 75 days per year and 300 hours. So let's put these next to each other. So 300 days of work and 2,400 hours, 75 days of work and 300 hours. Okay, so you can forget everything I just said and just look at the difference. 225 days and 2,100 hours. When you're like where am I gonna find my free time? There, those right there. So for me, when I wanted to do, I wanted to buy myself time to work on my projects and at that point in my career I had to make a compromise. So if I did all of the newspaper jobs and even if I got hired 300 days from a newspaper, like I'd be so fortunate, 'cause that's a lot of days to be hired, I had to make some compromises. So I wanted to take more of this kind of work, so that I could have time to do what I loved. So this budgeting exercise was invaluable to me, because time is important. And then while doing this budgeting exercise I thought about like how I used to quote a job and it was like my flat rate. And I thought about all the things that got lost in the flat rate, all the things that you don't get paid for in the flat rate. So I started line iteming. My creative fee was one line. That is what I get paid per hour for my unique skillset, and the amount of hours that I do it. Time of arrival to the time of departure. Just 'cause you show up early and you stay late is not just 'cause you're like, hey, I'm here. It's because that's what's expected of you to put your client at ease and to know that you didn't miss a picture. So you should be paid for your time. Post-production fee. Like that takes a lot of time, right? And we're just putting it in a flat rate. And your hourly rate, and the way I calculated it and that's just the way that I do it, was half of the creative fee. And so I would usually find that in a four hour job if it needed to be edited, a selection of images made, toned, and depending on the length of captions, it could be like two hours of post-production per four hours. Probably one to two hours post-production for four hours of shooting. Rental equipment. So if somebody wanted to take portraits I didn't own lights, so I had to rent lights. I shouldn't have to charge for that, so I'll charge the client for the rental of lights. Even if you're a portrait photographer and you have your own lights you should probably be able to charge some kind of lighting fee to help you repay yourself for your kit. Assistant fee. Like does this job require extra assistance? And if so, you should charge for it. So if they're doing a set of corporate portraits and you have a backdrop and you have lightings that needs to be adjusted and you're gonna do 20 portraits in a row, you want someone to help make sure everyone's clothing's right, like charge. Don't make it harder on yourself. Put it in the invoice and pitch it. They could say, well, we don't need an assistant, but at least you're putting it out there at first. A lot of clients like to have a gallery that they can share with the participants of the event. So say you shot a conference and these are probably pictures that you're not gonna use in your own portfolio, but like I use PhotoShelter and I'd upload an online gallery, create a private link, and then send it to the client, and then that client could share the link with the participants. And then within PhotoShelter is you can set the price of printing photos, so they'll print the photos different sizes and they'll do the shipping. So it wasn't, I loved it 'cause it wasn't extra work for me, but it was also another stream of revenue that was pretty passive. I just put it up there, if you want pictures order them yourself and they'll come to you. So I thought that was a great feature of PhotoShelter. A rush fee. Have you ever gone to the post office and you're like, hey, I need this sent overnight. And they're like, okay, no problem, we're gonna charge you regular rate? (audience laughs) No, they're like, do you want priority? Or do you want express? 'Cause there's two different charges. There's like slow mail and there's the rush fee. So sometimes your client wants, like we need these pictures yesterday. And so you should be able to charge a rush fee to put all of those important things in your life on hold, so that you can rush the job. Courier fee. So this was an interesting one. I had a client who asked me to put my images on a CD, yeah, that's dating back, and they wanted, 'cause they said, we really need to have the CD today, can you send a courier over? This is Washington, D.C. And I'm like, sure, I can send a courier. And then I'm like looking up like how, the courier, how much is the courier cost? And it was like 50 to $75. And it was like 10 minutes down the road. And I was like, I'm not doing anything today, I'll put on my coat, I'll be the courier. And so I charged, put that into my invoice. Cost me, they were gonna pay a courier 50 to $75, why not just put it in my pocket? And I delivered the CD to the desk, to the receptionist, and boom. So creativity, it's found everywhere. So my question is to you, if you had all the money in the world and all the time in the world, what would you dedicate yourself to? And then think about it really, do you need all the time in the world? Do you need all the money in the world to start right now?

Class Description


  • Identify what stories you’re drawn to photograph
  • Trust your instincts when documenting real-world scenarios
  • Overcome fear and doubt to step out of your comfort zone as an artist
  • Approach subjects creatively when capturing a story
  • Understand how to pursue a career in documentary photography
  • See all sides of a situation through empathy to improve your photos


Documentary photography captures real-life stories as they unfold, highlights social change, and, often, simply captures everyday life. In this class, former Official White House Photographer Amanda Lucidon inspires and guides a beginning audience into a career as a documentarian. Through a mix of sharing her own journey and providing insightful questions and actionable steps, Amanda helps budding photographers refine their goals and focus their efforts.

Utilizing her untraditional path and experiences, Amanda will discuss how to improve your photography through creative storytelling and how to grow professionally. Rather than sharing basics like exposure settings and post-processing how-tos, Amanda leads photographers on a path of self-discovery through photography tips on creativity, challenges, and launching a career in documentary photography.

As one of only a few female White House Photographers in history, Amanda talks through how creativity, resilience, and community helped her land a role documenting the American President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama from 2013-2017. Through her journey and a series of actionable steps and questions, you'll learn to turn your own creative passions into a career focused on the issues close to your heart.


  • Photojournalists
  • Documentary photographers
  • Documentary filmmakers
  • Beginner and Intermediate photographers


Amanda Lucidon is an award-winning documentarian, filmmaker, teaching artist, public speaker, and author. Lucidon served as a United States Official White House Photographer responsible for documenting First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, as one of only a few females in history to hold such a position.

Lucidon is the New York Times best-selling author of Chasing Light and Reach Higher. In 2018, the John F. Kennedy Center appointed Lucidon as a Turnaround Artist, highlighting the importance of the arts in underserved schools. Currently, Lucidon is working with her husband Alan Spearman and a team of artists on implementing a pilot program that introduces arts and mindfulness practices to at-risk youth in Memphis, Tennessee. Amanda’s work has been honored by Pictures of the Year International, National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism, and the White House News Photographers Association, among others.


  1. Class Introduction

    Meet the instructor and hear Amanda's non-traditional path towards a career as a professional photographer in the photojournalism and documentary photography genres. See what to expect in the class.

  2. Learning to Leap

    Photography as a career often involves a leap of faith -- learn how to find the courage to make that leap, how to assign yourself projects to prepare for documentary work, and how to capture photos before you have press credentials. Gain insight into overcoming personal and professional challenges, building resilience, and trying again after real-life failure. See how Amanda went from assigning herself projects to freelancing for the New York Times.

  3. Making Time for Creativity

    Creativity doesn't just happen on a whim. In this lesson, Amanda discusses the importance of making time for creativity and keeping space for personal projects even as you start to pick up paying work. Carve out space for personal, creative projects and your professional work will benefit too.

  4. Creating Your Own Path

    Looking at the lives of documentary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Lewis Hine, and others, and it's clear there's no one "right" pre-mapped route to becoming a professional photographer. In this lesson, Amanda discusses learning how to fail as you try new things and explore your own path -- including how she failed when she first tried video. Build your own unique path by answering questions about your own work.

  5. Budgeting

    When working as a freelance photographer, how do you keep track for taxes? How do you make sure you are earning enough? How do you set your rates? Tackle these questions with Amanda in this lesson.

  6. Staying Grounded & Generating Confidence

    Where do you focus as a professional photographer? In this lesson, Amanda shares how she found her focus and confidence. Learn how staying on top of trends and breaking news can put your work in front of more people. Then, apply the same ideas to your own work with action items at the end of the lesson.

  7. Multiplatform Storytelling

    Learn how Amanda found the opportunity to work as an official White House photographer -- and how she learned to look for emotions in her subjects. Finally, build your own steps to create your own opportunities for your own career through mentors and actionable steps.

  8. Thinking Creatively

    Working in genres like documentary photography and street photography, many moments are repeats. In this lesson, Amanda discusses getting creative with familiar moments -- like yet another speaking engagement -- along with pushing through at the end of a long day, troubleshooting, and assessing a scene quickly.

  9. Embracing Emotion

    Emotion shouldn't just be in front of the camera-- it should be behind the camera too. Here, Amanda discusses using your own emotions to connect with subjects and the viewer to create images with impact.

  10. Building Community

    Capturing a moment shouldn't interrupt the moment -- in this lesson, Amanda shares strategies for getting the shot while being unobtrusive. Learn to build a community of support -- and how to contribute to that community yourself.

  11. Defining Your Pillars

    Determining goals helps documentary photographers to focus their efforts and evolve their work. Learn how to define your own pillars to create a focus, find a story to tell, and more.

  12. Writing the Next Chapter

    When one project ends, what happens next? Here, Amanda shares how she found her next projects after working in the White House, including writing a book and going on a book tour. Use the fear of getting out of your comfort zone to stay on your toes.

  13. Q&A

    Finish the class with insight gleaned from a question and answer session with students like you. Learn about adapting your schedule, finalizing projects, and more.



I feel the class was a great honor to witness through Amanda’s eyes, as the journey of one of the most beautiful First Ladies of our time and to be able to capture the most personal moments of stillness. the class was so inspiring and I think it will be future lifetimes to come before we realize how important the Obamas were To our growth as a nation and evolution of humanity! thank you Amanda for your vision to capture the moments of stillness and sharing with us I loved this class In Gratitude ROBIN

a Creativelive Student

Amanda is an inspiration. Her hard work, dedication to her craft and in all the ways she pays it forward. This class will help you get beyond your creative blocks, see and create your own opportunities. All the while being reminded to BE KIND to yourself. With stunning images and fabulous stories, you'll learn from this class each time you watch it!


Thanks Amanda and CreativeLive. Great class. I'm studying photography and just finding my feet as a documentary photographer at 58yo. It's a wonderful thing to be able to record those moments. I may never be a White House tog, but thank you for the inspiration. ☺