Try these expert tips for safely capturing social activism pictures when you’re on-the-go at world-changing protests and events.

With worldwide events that deserve coverage, such as climate change, there’s no shortage of social activism pictures to create. No matter where you are in the world, from the current Hong Kong protests to anti-government marches in Moscow, social activism events need more coverage. And unfortunately, social activism pictures are few and far between in our Shutterstock library, despite that library currently containing over 250 million images.

Pro Tips for Taking Social Activism Pictures for Stock — Marching
Photo by Carolyn Brandt: Crowd of protesters marching with linked hands in air.

Safety is always a factor when capturing social activism pictures, as events can be unpredictable when large crowds clash with police forces. Photos of social activism can also come across as staged rather than captured in the moment, which makes them feel less authentic.

That’s why we asked our contributors who have been in the thick of social activism events around the globe what to consider when shooting protests. Here are some of the tips and considerations that they told us when they create social activism pictures.


Safety First

Dave Coulson, a Hong Kong-based photographer, captures social activism pictures of protests in the city since earlier this year. Above all, he says safety comes first when shooting social activism events. “Never put yourself unnecessarily at risk. Always plan an exit route, especially during violent confrontations.”

During situations where tear gas, rubber bullets, or live rounds are being fired, he advises to stay out of the firing line. If you can, he says to get to higher ground, such as a bridge or rooftop, to capture social activism pictures. He bluntly says, “No photograph is worth getting shot for.”

Coulson said it’s also important to consider your attire when photographing social activism events. In Hong Kong, for example, he advises a high visibility vest if you’re a journalist or photojournalist. That way you can identify yourself as an impartial observer.

He also advises to wear appropriate safety equipment. “When taking social activism pictures in Hong Kong, I use a rock climbing helmet for projectiles/batons/rocks thrown. I also use a good quality full-face respirator, so I can continue shooting in tear gas and pepper spray.”

Pro Tips for Taking Social Activism Pictures for Stock — Travel Light
Photo by Simon Rosen of Gilets Jaunes protest in Paris.

Coulson says it’s advisable to make sure someone outside of the event knows where you are. If anything unexpected happens while you’re capturing photos of events, they can follow up with the relevant authorities.

And, above all, if the event becomes too dangerous, Coulson has one word of advice: leave. “Know your limits. You can still take photos another day.”

Pro Tip: Travel Light

Travel light. When taking pictures at social activism events, there may be a lot of running around involved. So, choose your gear wisely. If you’re carrying huge amounts of camera equipment, you’ll quickly lose stamina. Coulson recommends a 24-70 or equivalent lens and a fast prime for low light situations.

Think About the Story

Every social activism event has a story. So, Coulson advises to photograph what you see and try to capture emotions. “Think about the story and how your composition can reflect what is happening on the ground,” he says. “Think carefully about what you want your images to say.”

But don’t take too much time thinking. Coulson says to shoot a lot and not be too selective when shooting digital. “Sometimes you may capture an incredible moment without realizing until you take a look on your computer afterwards,” he says.

Pro Tips for Taking Social Activism Pictures for Stock — Think About the Story
Photo by Rawpixel.com of man holding UK flag and shouting during protest.

While it helps to be spontaneous and capture the moment when shooting social activism pictures, Coulson also says like any assignment, it’s good to do your research before attending a protest or event so that you have a good understanding of what the event is about.

Fellow Shutterstock contributor Nicole S. Glass says concept photos have more longevity than a photo that shows the entirety of the social activism event. By capturing different perspectives, you can create photos for many different uses.

Pro Tips for Taking Social Activism Pictures for Stock — Try a Variety of Perspectives
Photo by Nicole S. Glass of hundreds of thousands of people taking part in the March for Our Lives, a U.S. nationwide protest in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in 2018.

In order to capture a variety of perspectives, Glass advises keeping three main things in mind when photographing social activism events:

  1. The scale of the event by using a wide angle lens to show off the size of the protest.
  2. Individual photos of people who are displaying emotion, chanting, holding a sign, or advocating for a cause.
  3. Detail shots that illustrate the concept of the event, like closeup photos of flags, signs, or accessories being used at the event.

Pro Tip: Move Around

Don’t just stay in one place and hope the image comes to you. Get on your feet, walk around and find the scenes you want to capture.

Pro Tips for Taking Social Activism Pictures for Stock — Move Around
Photo by Nicole S. Glass taken at March for Our Lives protest in Washington D.C. March 2018.

Photos that Sell

Glass said some of her top selling photos are images of political events and social activism in the Washington, D.C. area. “These types of photographs can have a lot of value to news publications that may not have their own photographer at an event,” said Glass. “In some cases, the photos can have longevity as well, especially if the issue is an ongoing one such as women’s rights or climate change.”

Capturing lesser photographed social activism events like local protests or activism over photos of nature, portraits, wildlife or beauty can help you stand out from the crowd, Glass says. “If you start capturing the lesser-photographed events, you may find yourself building a portfolio with a high level of news value.”

Pro Tip: Upload Quickly

Glass advises that if you find yourself photographing a protest, make sure you upload those photos as soon as possible. The earlier you can get them up on Shutterstock, the better, since news publications might need them shortly after the event.

And, above all, remember: a photograph isn’t worth risking your life for. You’re there to capture images and observe, not to put yourself in harm’s way. Bring a partner so you’re not alone, and if you feel unsafe leave the situation.


Top image by Jacob Lund.

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