Protest Photography for Beginners

Tips for Protest Photography Beginners

The first major demonstration I attended was in 2018 March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. It was my first protest ever, and at the time, I used a point and shoot Nikon Coolpix. It’s a decent lightweight, compact point-and-shoot camera for beginners. I couldn’t get a lot of close ups at the front of the March so the super zoom lens really came in handy.

In 2020, I attended a locally organized Black Lives Matter protest with over a 1,000 people. For this protest, I used a DSLR rather than a point-and-shoot. I used a Canon Rebel T6.

Here are some things to keep in mind when taking photos at a protest.

What is your role? Participant or Journalist?

Protest photography is a form of photojournalism. There are strict rules to photojournalism that makes it different than any other type of photography, even documentary. Before you attend a protest as a photographer, I think it’s important that you define your role: are you a participant or a journalist? Are you there to engage and participate or are you there to capture a story? I think asking yourself this question will effect how and what you shoot.

Capture the story, don’t become the story.

I know as a photographer you want to get close to the action, but I’d recommend shooting at a safe distance (pick a good lens). You want to capture the story happening, not be a part of it. Leave those moments to the professionals.

Be watchful. Sometimes you can get caught up in shooting everything that you’re not being mindful of your surroundings. As you’re snapping shots, carefully assess your surroundings, not only for your safety, but you also might capture an incredible shot.

Go with others.

I’d also recommend going with at least one or two other people to the protest. I wouldn’t recommend going by yourself as a novice because even the most seasoned photographers can find themselves getting pepper sprayed, clobbered, or even arrested.

Leave when it’s time to leave.

For beginners, it’s fine to stay a while after the protest and get some shots, but I strongly recommend heading out before a curfew goes into effect. “Protests” after curfews are considered unlawful and even if police show deference, it doesn’t matter at that point. Those who are out beyond curfew could be subject to arrest.

What should I bring?

Since you might be standing and walking for hours, pack light. I’d recommend packing a light bag containing the essentials: your camera, two lenses (the most) and fully charged batteries. Additional camera accessories can be optional but they’re not necessary because you’re not staging unique shots, your primary focus is capturing the story.

Editing Protest Photographs

Editing protest photography is important. If you’re not familiar with photoshop or any other software or app, get familiar with it because you may have to blur out faces and erase identifiable tattoos. Obviously, the first amendment gives us the right to protest our grievances with government, but some activists and protesters have been targeted because they’ve been identified in someone’s photo.

A unique aspect to protest photography during a pandemic is the amount of masks being worn. Some protestors naturally wear masks, but the wealth of masks during the pandemic definitely helped in obscuring identifiable features. It’s also important to not only be on the lookout for tattoos, but shirts with identifiable names and logos (such as school, town affiliations, etc.).

My recommendation is if you’re taking photos of people and you did not get their verbal consent, I’d suggest blurring their faces or getting shots that don’t share identifiable features of the person. If you have received consent from them, then by all means.

Some examples of shots:

Leave a comment if this article was helpful. Are there any other tips that you would recommend?

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