My best advice: Magnum photographer Patrick Zachmann's key documentary tips

A wide shot of four couples holding red balloons, standing in the remains of an ancient palace.
Here, Patrick Zachmann photographed a group of 30 couples taking part in a traditional Chinese wedding in Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace), Beijing. Taken on a Canon EOS-1 with a 35mm lens. © Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photo

French photojournalist Patrick Zachmann specialises in long-term projects that give an intimate insight into the people he photographs. His subjects have included Jewish communities, the police and mafia in Naples and the Chinese diaspora around the world, and more recently, he has focused on illegal immigration in Europe. Throughout his career, he has consistently dealt with themes of identity and belonging. He has been a freelance photographer since 1976 and became a full member of Magnum Photos in 1990.

A Canon user since the early 1980s, Patrick currently shoots with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Here, he passes on three pieces of practical advice that have helped him on his path to success.

Take a lot of pictures

"I am a self-taught photographer but in 1975 I went to a workshop in Arles, France, led by Guy Le Querrec, who later joined Magnum. It was in July and there were lots of tourists around. During the workshop, Guy came to the beach with a group of us and I observed him photographing. I saw that he wasn't just shooting one or two pictures from one position, he was taking a lot of pictures, moving around and talking to people.

"Seeing him work this way was one of the first lessons I learned and it allowed me to progress and improve as a photographer. It's now something I always pass on to students in my own workshops. Often, even accomplished amateurs only take one or two pictures in good situations. I always tell them to take as many pictures as they can, until they are satisfied."

A silhouette of a weather balloon being launched by four people, against the background of a dark blue sky.
Patrick takes as many pictures as possible during a shoot, which helped him to capture this atmospheric low-light shot of a weather balloon in the Atacama Desert in South America. Taken on a Canon EOS-1 with a 50mm lens. © Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photo

Watch out for backgrounds

"I am more interested in a succession of pictures on a particular subject or theme than in single pictures. But photography is still a question of taking the picture at the right instant. Even when the main subject is still – for example when you're shooting a portrait – there can be a really decisive moment happening in the background. There could be a dog passing by or somebody walking at just the right place in the frame, and it completes the picture.

"The Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain helped me understand the importance of backgrounds. We were in his home, having some lunch, and he took a napkin and folded it into a rectangle, like the frame of a photograph. He showed me how we could organise the visual elements inside the frame, but also said that what happens on the borders is more important than the centre. I liked this idea – it was kind of a philosophy of photography, but also of life."

A wide shot of four people on a train. A boy in red, on the left of the frame, looks directly at the camera.
"You can give back to people simply by being there with them, listening and paying attention to them," says Patrick. Taken on a Canon EOS-1 with a 35mm lens. © Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photo

Give back to your subjects

"As photographers and journalists, we take a lot from people and are very demanding. We share some moments with the people we photograph, then it's over. I always felt myself feeling a little bit frustrated by that situation. So little by little, with experience and time, I understood that we have to share something with the people we photograph.

"Don't give people money, but you can give back to people in several other ways. For example, I have given a lot of prints, small prints that very often I sign or write things on. I often return to photograph the same people and doing this strengthens the relationship I have with them.

"I've also come to understand that you can give back to people simply by being there with them, listening and paying attention to them. Very often the people I've photographed feel abandoned or forgotten, so they are very touched by the fact that you are spending time with them. If you listen to people, there is an intimacy between you and the subject, and the pictures you take will be better."

Shkruar nga David Clark

Patrick Zachmann’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photographer Patrick Zachmann holds a Canon DSLR and wears a waterproof jacket. He stands in front of some bushes.


Canon EOS 5D Mark III

A full-frame 22.3MP DSLR with 61-point autofocus and 6fps continuous shooting, this camera offers manual control over everything, plus a built-in HDR mode.


Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

With its fast maximum aperture and rapid focusing system, this compact, high-performance standard lens can be relied on for superb quality in any field of photography.

Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM

A 35mm prime lens with a four-stop Image Stabilizer and f/2 maximum aperture – ideal for low-light photography. Ultrasonic AF is fast and accurate. An aspherical lens element boosts image quality.

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