In conversation: when documentary met portraiture

Photojournalist Ilvy Njiokiktjien joins three photographers from two different genres to discuss shared techniques and how the Canon EOS R System is taking their storytelling to the next level.
A woman in a red headscarf stands smiling at the camera, holding a baby wrapped in a pink blanket in her arms.

"Coming from a documentary journalism background, I'm used to shooting what's in front of me," admits photojournalist Ilvy Njiokiktjien. "So when taking portraits, I had to get used to asking people to stand in a certain pose because I wasn't used to directing that way. It's so important that the portrait matches the story you're trying to tell, but I really struggled with that for a long time." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 35mm f/4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/4L II USM) at 1/500 sec, f/4 and ISO800. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

How do you separate a portrait photographer from a documentarian? It might seem obvious at first, but in reality the boundary between the two genres is often blurred. Documenting stories often includes photographing people, while the aim of many portrait photographers is to tell a subject's story.

To examine the intersection between the two genres, Canon Ambassador and photojournalist Ilvy Njiokiktjien joined three photographers from the worlds of documentary and portraiture: Laura El-Tantawy, a documentary photographer and Canon Ambassador who splits her time between London and Cairo; Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett, a family photographer from London whose images often have documentary influences; and James Musselwhite, a studio portrait photographer, also based in the UK.

Between them, they span the thresholds of both genres, making them ideal to discuss the similarities and differences between them. As EOS R System shooters, they're also primed to compare how Canon technology helps them perform in each genre.

Here's what happened when documentary met portraiture.

Hear more of the conversation in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

A close-up of a man's face, with an orange tint to the whole picture. He has a short, neat moustache and beard and coloured powder over one half of his face.

"They always say portraits are essentially a picture of two people," says James. "They're a picture of the subject and a picture of the photographer. You often find that some of the strongest portraits are actually more reflective of the photographers themselves." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 98mm, 1/3200 sec, f/4 and ISO640. © James Musselwhite

Ripples of inky-blue water smudged with dark patches.

This abstract image is part of Laura's I'll Die For You series – a long-term exploration of the relationship between people and the land. Laura feels the professional features of the EOS R5 have simplified her experience as a photographer. "It's definitely allowed me to focus more on the visuals I'm creating and not really have any hang-ups about technical aspects," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 105mm, 1/6 sec, f/22 and ISO100. © Laura El-Tantawy

Ilvy: So this is a question for all three of you. What are the similarities and differences between documentary photography and portraiture?

Laura: There's actually a lot of crossover in what all of us do. The way we approach it is perhaps quite different, but there's an aspect of documentary to each one of us.

I see myself as somebody that documents people and their stories, so the intersection is that both [genres] tell people's stories. I'm often directing people, but I look for the moments between, when their eyes look somewhere I haven't told them to look. That becomes as close to documentary within that portrait as I can get. I think the difference is that, in portraiture, you're more in control, whereas in documentary, you're much less in control.

James: I think portraiture is a way of documenting, while documenting people is a form of portraiture. If I'm in a studio with a family and I'm getting everyone to say cheese, I've not done my job properly. You need to be in a situation where they're reacting naturally, and that's when you start taking those portraits into a documentary style, which is more appealing.

But ultimately, documentary photography is about the story driving it. The story drives the camera, the photographer and all of the elements.

Helen: In pure documentary photography, there are very strict rules on what is and isn't allowed in terms of interaction or adjustment within a scene. Whereas in documentary family portraiture, there aren't any specific rules. I keep things as natural as possible, but equally, if there's a distracting person in the background, I'll edit them out and not worry about it. In a pure documentary situation, that would obviously be a real no-no.

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To define it, I see documentary photography as having less interaction and portraiture having a bit more. But certainly, I'm always flitting from one to the other and back again, and not really worrying too much about the sort of specific wording and differentiation between the shots.

Ilvy: I also think for clients, especially for families who might not have knowledge about photography, it's just important what the family looks like. Not if it's specifically a documentary or portrait.

Helen: Exactly.

A female wrestler in a glittery green costume, cape and mask and sparkly silver boots poses as she jumps in the air.

James found the sharing functionality of his EOS R6 particularly useful when he first used the camera. "I shared the images with the clients," he enthuses. "The EOS R6 and everything I've shot with it since has just taken everything to the next level and it's really allowed me to fully unleash my creativity." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 53mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4 and ISO320. © James Musselwhite

A black and white photograph of a young girl, facing to the side of the camera. A slight breeze is blowing strands of hair across her face and to the side.

"The quality of the RF lenses, particularly the L-series ones, is just mind-blowing," says Helen. "The RF 50mm F1.2L IS USM is my 'desert island' lens because the quality is fantastic." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/1.6 and ISO320. © Helen Bartlett

Ilvy: Do any of you look to other genres of photography for inspiration? As a photojournalist, I do this a lot with portraiture, actually.

Laura: I do, but in the last few years I've been self-editing and not really looking at quite as much photography. I think it's a way to protect my personal vision and to nurture it without other work psychologically seeping into the way that I see things. But part of it was also because oftentimes, as photographers, we just feel like there's nothing new to look at. So I wanted to look at external influences, from film, music and theatre, and just life in general.

James: Alluding to what Laura said, I often try to look outside of photography for inspiration. When I'm in London, I always check out the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. You can go back through history to any era and see these gargantuan paintings with so much effort and detail and storytelling.

Helen: I really enjoy landscape photography and like to incorporate the environment into my portrait work. At the moment, I'm getting most of my photographic inspiration from sports photography. Sports photographers have an extraordinary creativity in scenarios that they're in no way influencing and I find that really interesting as something that I can take into my work.

Shot from a distance, a black and white photograph of a man and a young boy holding hands as they walk along the edge of a field.

Helen usually shoots with two EOS R5s and a selection of prime lenses, but she also uses the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM when she needs to bring distant scenes closer. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 400mm, 1/800 sec, f/6.3 and ISO200. © Helen Bartlett

Ilvy: Let's move to the Canon EOS R System. I'm very curious to know which cameras you're shooting on.

Helen: I'm shooting on two EOS R5s now. My standard kitbag would be the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM and RF 50mm F1.2L USM, and then either the RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS or the RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM. I have an RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM if I need something wider or if I want to be a little bit less conspicuous and go with one camera and one lens. And I've got an RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens for when I want a bit more distance.

James: I'm currently shooting on the EOS R6. I've got an adapter so it fits all my old lenses. But about eight months ago, I changed most of them to RF lenses. My workhorse is the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM. It's the one I take on every shoot and I've found the change so slick. It's been revolutionary in terms of the way that we work in-studio and on location as well.

Laura: I have an EOS R5. My go-to lens, like James, is the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM. That's the one I usually use all the time.

Ilvy: I'm also using the EOS R5 and I have the Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, so I use the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM, the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM and the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. I'm quite liking the fact that with the adapters I can keep using the lenses that I already had. I mean, everything is so sharp and the adapter ring is perfect. It just works.

Hear more of Ilvy's thoughts about the EOS R System in this video:

Ilvy: So why did you all make the upgrade to the EOS R System, and was it a big change for you?

Laura: I was on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III before that so, for me, it was definitely a big change. The EOS R5 is much smaller, much lighter. I love it, as I was already making a transition into video and the EOS R5 just seems to work more naturally [for video] in the way that it's set up. I find that now I'm thinking much less about how to go to the next step to switch settings on my camera midway as I'm shooting something and it just all comes very naturally.

Helen: When the EOS R5 came out, I used it for a couple of weeks. I couldn't go back. It's such an instinctive camera to use and there's so much that helps us as photographers be inventive, creative and playful. For me, the electronic viewfinder has been an absolute game changer because I work entirely in monochrome. Having my viewfinder in monochrome, I can see how the tones and the light are changing as I'm working and it's allowed me to be bolder and faster because I know how it's going to look.

James: I took the EOS R6 on and, as everyone else has said, it's so intuitive. I remember the first studio shoot I did. A family brought a miniature schnauzer dog and I loved the autofocus, particularly with the RF lenses. It's quick and pin-sharp. I've never seen anything like it. You can choose whether face recognition detects people or animals. When I wanted the dog to be in focus, I could get that every time.

Ilvy: And with documentary photography, of course, the silent shutter is also lovely.

Five adults in a living room dance and smile, one of them holding a child in a party dress. Partially obscured in the background are more children and a buffet table.

"I started changing the whole way I shoot in the first few months of working with the EOS R5," says photojournalist Ilvy Njiokiktjien. "I love the fact that you can just walk around and think 'Hey, that might be an interesting shot', point the camera and it just focuses." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 35mm f/4L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.5 and ISO4000. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Shot upwards into the canopy, a blurred image of trees with yellow leaves against a bright blue sky.

The latest instalment in Laura's I'll Die For You series focuses on the challenges facing female farmers in the UK. She finds the EOS R5's custom menu feature particularly useful. "It really changed things for me," she explains. "It became very instinctive, to change settings as I continued looking through the viewfinder. I love that – it gives you so much freedom and flexibility." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/50 sec, f/22 and ISO200. © Laura El-Tantawy

Ilvy: My last question. If you were to trade jobs with each other for a day, who would you trade with and what do you think you would learn from the experience?

Laura: I'd trade with Helen because I love the pictures she posts of families. I constantly struggle with taking pictures of my own family. They often wonder if I'm really a photographer as my worst pictures are the ones I take of them, because they're never relaxed and themselves. So I'd love to take some pictures of my family that show who they are and show them loving life.

Helen: I love how Laura's work looks at people and their place in the world, but also that broader social context. I love the visual connection between the people in her projects and the photographic techniques and abstract nature of things. But then Ilvy, I love your long-term projects because I've never done anything like that. Obviously, I'd also learn a lot from James too. I mean, I don't know how to use flash, so that would be a good starting point.

James: I'm going to sit on the fence. From Helen, I'd learn how to take a family photo that everyone can enjoy, because I'm always so focused on family photography primarily. And Laura has the bravery to use her skill to talk about social and political issues. I still don't really understand what my position is in the world and I'm certainly not brave enough to put it out there. So that's what I'd learn from both.

Ilvy: That's beautiful. I'd have difficulty picking myself. But the thing I know the least about is using flash and lighting. So James, I would switch with you to try it all out. I look at your images and I don't even know how you take them.

James: Nor do I.

These four pros are all experts in their fields, but bringing them together to discuss their craft demonstrates how much overlap there is between the two types of photography – and how having the right kit can be crucial for realising your creative vision and capturing the content you love.

Peter Wolinski

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