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13 December 2020
By Matt Hrkac

Advice and tips for photographing protests

If you live in or near a major city, chances are protest actions and rallies around various issues are going to be a fairly common occurrence. If you're into these sorts of things and are also into photography (like, for instance, me) then you may be interested in photographing these actions when they happen.

Blockade of the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) 2019. Taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens.

Know your legal rights as a photographer

As a general rule, in Australia, you're allowed to freely photograph people in public places so long as you're not using your photos for commercial purposes, and so long as you're not breaking any other law such as trespassing. As protests almost always take place on public land as opposed to private property, you're free to photograph these actions, and the people in attendance at these actions, as you see fit. This rule is similar in most other jurisdictions around the world.

However, in general good courtesy, if someone at a protest who catches you taking their photo asks you to delete their photo/s, it's probably wise to comply with their request, even if you don't have to from a legal standpoint.

Know what the protest is about and who's going to be there

Protest actions are usually advertised well in advance of their planned day of occurrence. Do some background reading on the issue that's being protested about. If you're carrying a camera at a protest action, it can be a common occurrence to be approached by attendees at the protest (usually people involved in organising the action) and asked about your thoughts on the issue/s being targeted - it's certainly helpful to have some background knowledge in these circumstances. It helps to establish your credibility as well, as organisers of actions will appreciate supporters taking good quality photos, especially if they can be used afterwards.

It's also helpful to know who's going to be at a rally. If high-profile public figures are to be in attendance, then chances are the media will also be in attendance and, depending on the rally, impromptu press conferences may take place where these public figures will address the media. These can present good photo opportunities.

It also goes without saying that unless you would willingly attend an action or protest without your camera (i.e. because you support the cause), then you probably shouldn't attend just for the sake of photographing it.

Change The Rules Rally, April 2019. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews speaking to the media

Change The Rules Rally, April 2019. Michele O'Neil, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President with union members speaking to the media

Change The Rules Rally, April 2019. First image: Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews speaking to the media. Second image: Michele O'Neil, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President with union members speaking to the media. Some rallies, particularly those organised by funded organisations, may have on-site press conferences particularly if high-profile public figures are in attendance. Shots showing the media at work in the foreground and citizenry taking action in the background, with the public figure in the middle, can make for powerful photographs. Taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens.

Arrive well ahead of time and don't get caught in the crossfire

It's helpful to arrive well ahead of time on the day of the action. This is especially the case for large protests, as you can easily be crowded out of any good vantage points if you arrive at the action late. Generally, the best photo shooting locations are at the front of where the action is taking place - where there are usually speakers and attendees standing facing the speakers - as you can pivot from photographing the speakers to photographing into the crowd behind or around you.

It's common that protests start out as rallies, where people gather and hear from a number of speakers, before transitioning to a street march. During a protest march, as a photographer, generally it's advisable to start at the front of the crowd and work your way back. Hence, be aware of when a rally is transitioning to a march (usually this is announced) and make your way to where the front of the march will be. For the biggest protest actions, most of the photo worthy moments will generally take place at the front third of a march, so this is where you'll want to be.

If you're unfamiliar with the location of where an action is taking place, arriving ahead of time is also helpful from the point of view of identifying escape routes in case things go pear-shaped. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, police won't automatically not use capsicum spray on you or not push you out of the way if you find yourself in among a group of people that they're attempting to disperse, just because you happen to be carrying an expensive camera. Always make sure that you have clear space around you. If things look like they could escalate, get yourself out of the direct line of fire as quickly as possible. If you then intend to capture the action, do so from the sidelines and/or from a distance.

Equipment and lenses

Black Lives Matter Melbourne Protest, June 2020. Taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens at a focal length of 50mm, f/5.0.

Black Lives Matter Melbourne Protest, June 2020. Taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens at a focal length of 50mm, f/5.0.

The lenses you want to use will depend on the action. A fast 50mm lens can be the only lens that's needed at a protest that's small and where you have mobility. If, however, the protest is large and you have limited mobility - you don't want to be juggling prime lenses around, hence where a good quality zoom lens with wide range is helpful for the sake of versatility. The lenses I currently use are as follows:

  • 50mm F1.4 - general purpose, generally use at smaller actions where there is room to move around.
  • 20mm F2.8 - for wide-angle crowd shots, or for situations where it's necessary to capture more of the scene.
  • DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA - generally use at larger protests where there's limited mobility and where versatility is required.

I also intend to add a 70-200mm F2.8 telephoto zoom lens to the above as well.

Rally for Green Recovery, Not Gas Recovery in Geelong, November 2020. For small actions such as this where it's necessary to capture more context, a wide angle lens is beneficial. In this case, demonstrators are standing in front of a politician's office - it was necessary to capture the name of the politician. Taken using Sony's 20mm F2.8 lens.

Rally for Green Recovery, Not Gas Recovery in Geelong, November 2020. For small actions such as this where it's necessary to capture more context, a wide angle lens is beneficial. In this case, demonstrators are standing in front of a politician's office - it was necessary to capture the name of the politician. Taken using Sony's 20mm F2.8 lens.

Get your camera out of Auto mode

At the very least, you will want to control your camera's aperture setting. Using the Aperture Priority mode on your camera will allow you to set your aperture while your camera determines the shutter speed for the best photo exposure. This is probably the best camera setting to use at a fast-paced action such as a protest.

Why Aperture Priority? Because having control of your aperture setting means that you can control depth of field (i.e. whether the background of your photo is in focus or not) in your photos.

Manual mode allows you to set both shutter speed and aperture, which can become cumbersome but it does allow you a greater deal of control.

Go for candid and action shots as much as possible

Uni Students Strike For Climate protest in Melbourne, March 2020. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.0.

Uni Students Strike For Climate protest in Melbourne, March 2020. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.0.

Yes, there will be instances where during a march, demonstrators will pose for you when you point your camera at them. These can make for fine shots, however candid shots of people in action make for more compelling photos with a greater deal of emotion. People protest and take other similar actions because they're passionate about a particular issue or issues and if you're photographing these actions, you'll want to capture this passion.

Go also for shots in a range of both landscape and portrait orientation. Keep in mind that landscape oriented photos are good for both group and individual shots as well as crowd shots, while portrait oriented shots are good for individual shots only, especially if that individual is holding a sign. It's almost always better to photograph a person holding a sign rather than just the sign itself and in many cases, this is only possible with a portrait oriented shot.

Gamil Means No National Day of Action protest in Melbourne. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.8.

Gamil Means No National Day of Action protest in Melbourne. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.8.

Go also for different angles rather than just eye-level shots. Get on the ground and shoot looking up at the subject. If you can, move around the subject and photograph from different angles as well. This is especially applicable when photographing those who are addressing a crowd at the rally.

Uni Students Strike For Climate protest in Melbourne, March 2020. Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam photographed from a range of angles and positions (in both portrait and landscape orientations) as she addresses the crowd. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.0Uni Students Strike For Climate protest in Melbourne, March 2020. Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam photographed from a range of angles and positions (in both portrait and landscape orientations) as she addresses the crowd. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.0Uni Students Strike For Climate protest in Melbourne, March 2020. Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam photographed from a range of angles and positions (in both portrait and landscape orientations) as she addresses the crowd. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.0Uni Students Strike For Climate protest in Melbourne, March 2020. Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam photographed from a range of angles and positions (in both portrait and landscape orientations) as she addresses the crowd. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.0Uni Students Strike For Climate protest in Melbourne, March 2020. Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam photographed from a range of angles and positions (in both portrait and landscape orientations) as she addresses the crowd. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.0

Uni Students Strike For Climate protest in Melbourne, March 2020. Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam photographed from a range of angles and positions (in both portrait and landscape orientations) as she addresses the crowd. Taken using Sony's 50mm F1.4 lens at f/2.0

Keep in mind that it can be quite easy to take unflattering shots of people when they're speaking. In general, I've often found that the best shots I've taken of people speaking are when they're using hand gestures and are looking candidly at their audience. Of course, this favours speakers who aren't reading their speeches off a piece of paper, but I've often found those that do will at least occasionally look up and towards their audience, which often make for good photographs.

For individuals and small groups for that matter, a shot looking up at them can make the subject/s appear more powerful, whereas eye-level shots will generally look more natural. For any shots of individuals, you'll generally want to use a high aperture setting (a low F number, i.e. F/2.8, results in a high aperture) to ensure a shallow depth of field (an out of focus background).

For crowd or large group shots you can also photograph your subjects looking up at them, which will result in a shot that makes the crowd or group appear more powerful and imposing. You can also hold your camera overhead (or perch yourself up on something, such as a seat or any other suitably flat surface) to give you more height, and shoot looking down at the crowd, which will result in shots showing a sense of scale. Eye-level shots combined with a standard focal length will get you more natural looking photographs of your subjects. Using a high aperture to blur out the background, combined with a zoomed-in focal length, can also show the scale of a crowd, especially when shooting from above.

Invasion Day 2020, Melbourne. Looking down at the approaching crowd from above, capturing the scale. First shot taken at a focal length of 80mm, second taken at a focal length of 26mm. Both taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens.

Invasion Day 2020, Melbourne. Looking down at the approaching crowd from above, capturing the scale. First shot taken at a focal length of 80mm, second taken at a focal length of 26mm. Both taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens.

Invasion Day 2020, Melbourne. Looking down at the approaching crowd from above, capturing the scale. First shot taken at a focal length of 80mm, second taken at a focal length of 26mm. Both taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens.

Always capture a protest in good faith

Yes, it's possible to make protests look worse than they actually are using photography. It's often a tactic of mainstream media outlets to paint protesters as the people who are in the wrong when the reality is anything but.

However, if you're reading this - chances are, you're not working for a mainstream media outlet. If confrontations do happen at a protest and you happen to be there, capture those moments as they take place. However, don't go out of your way to purposefully shine a negative light on those attending a protest without any justification for it. Photograph the protest for the purpose of documenting events as they take place as well as those in attendance.

Hence, to go back to an earlier point, why it's advisable that you photograph only the protests you would naturally attend rather than those you wouldn't.

You're there for a reason: act like it

Extinction Rebellion, Carlton, Melbourne Drown-In, October 2019. Taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens at a 16mm focal length.

Extinction Rebellion, Carlton, Melbourne Drown-In, October 2019. Taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens at a 16mm focal length.

No, you probably weren't asked by the protest organisers to come along and take photos at their action. But were any of the other, probably dozens of photographers representing mainstream media outlets asked to come along too? Again, the answer is almost certainly no.

If you're carrying a camera around at the front of a protest, it's inevitable that you'll draw attention to yourself. In addition to people asking you about what you think of the issue being protested about - you may also get questions from attendees asking you which media outlet you work for or other similar questions that can make a novice question whether they should be there.

Don't get discouraged. In such cases, be honest. If you're not working for any media outlet at all, respond as such, while also telling them that you support the cause (again: only photograph protests that you support). As you attend more actions in your area, and more groups make use of your work, you'll eventually become a familiar face.

You may also wish to consider joining the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance Media Division (or the equivalent organisation in your country). In addition to allowing you to seek representation should you ever need it, this will allow you to acquire a media access card as a freelancer, which you can carry with you when on the job, which will help you establish more credibility. It'll also allow you to gain access to any "off limit" areas, which may be established at rallies organised by funded organisations.

Make a point of sharing your work

I always make a point of sharing the photos I take at demonstrations and protests with the group or groups who organised those protests. This comes back to an earlier point that, generally speaking, protest organisers will appreciate their supporters taking good quality photos at their actions, which they can then use.

Change The Rules Rally, Melbourne, April 2019. Taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens.

Change The Rules Rally, Melbourne, April 2019. Taken using Sony's DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA lens.

Always shoot in RAW format

The RAW image format gives you more control in post-production than a JPEG file will. You should also invest in photo editing software such as Photoshop (which comes with Camera Raw) or any other software that will allow you to edit RAW files.

...and that's it!

These are my tips when it comes to photographing protests and similar actions.

About the author:

Matt Hrkac is a writer and photographer based in Geelong. He has particular interests in politics, elections, social movements and the trade union movement. If you like what you see here, please consider giving a small donation to help cover the expenses.

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