What is Documentary Photography

While there are many different genres of photography, documentary photography is perhaps one of the most honest forms of the art. But what is documentary photography?

This guide will explore the definition of documentary photography and provide helpful guidance for photographers who are interested in creating their own photo documentary.

documentary photography
Photo by Andreas from Pexels

What is documentary photography?

Documentary photography is a form of fine-art photography that aims to shed light on a cultural, social, or political issue. Similar to street photography and photojournalism, there are no posed portraits and no glamourized scenes. Unlike them, however, documentary photography uses a series of images, instead of a single shot, to tell a story. 

Documentary photographers set out to capture everyday life, exactly as it exists, historically in an attempt to affect social change. That said, documentary photography can be used as a way to tell your own story or preserve your family’s history, too. 

The history

Most people are familiar with documentary movies. Well, before movies, we had still images — and documentary photography. The genre never actually went away and is gaining in popularity again.

Some of the earliest photography documentaries took place during the Civil War. Other well-known documented topics were the settling of the American West, the struggle during the Great Depression, child labor during the Industrial Revolution, and the conservation efforts that resulted in the formation of the U.S. National Park system.

Photographers were instrumental in bringing awareness to these and other issues and, in many cases, affecting change.

Migrant Mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange, during the Great Depression
Migrant Mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange, during the Great Depression
Power house mechanic working on steam pump (1920) by Lewis Hine
Power house mechanic working on steam pump (1920) by Lewis Hine

What’s the best camera for documentary photography?

Documentary photography can be taken with any kind of camera. Your smartphone, a DSLR, a point-and-shoot, or even a disposable.

However, if you’re serious about becoming a photographer, you’ll want to invest in a camera that will provide you with options when it comes to manual settings, the ability to change lenses, and produce large file sizes that can be printed, especially if you plan to publish your work.

What’s the best lens for documentary photography?

The very nature of documentary photography means immersing yourself within the subject and photographing whatever happens. This means you’ll need to be prepared for anything.

With that in mind, it’s a good idea to have a wide range of focal lengths at your disposal. At the very least, carry a zoom lens and a wide-angle lens so you can capture all the action, near and far.

documentary photography
Photo by Lauro Rocha from Pexels

How to start a documentary photography project:

Whether you’re documenting the struggle in a war-torn foreign country or just capturing the everyday details of your own family life, the same principles will come into play. The rules of good composition and proper exposure, of course, still apply. These tips will help you get started creating your own photo documentary:

1. Find a subject. The best-documented stories are the ones that are important to you. Choose something that piques your interest and you’ll find it much more rewarding to document.

2. Research. Learn everything there is to know about your subject. Research the location, the people, and the history. You might learn interesting angles that you otherwise wouldn’t have considered.

3. Connect with your subject. Shooting documentary photography takes a considerable amount of people skills. You won’t be posing or directing the people in your photos, but they must be comfortable in your presence.

4. Make a shot list. Plan out all the locations you want to photograph along with specific subjects, camera angles, certain people, and things you don’t want to miss. You can’t plan every shot, though. Be sure to leave space for spontaneity.

5. Be creative. Don’t be afraid to try something new. If your goal is to affect change, you may need to push the boundaries to make people think about your cause. 

6. Backup your work. Documentary photos are typically shot over a long period — days, weeks, or even longer. Be sure you have a system to keep your photographs protected and organized.

Photo by Hejaar from Pexels

Final thoughts

Documentary photography is a form of fine art, but it’s also an important way to preserve history and sometimes even affect social change. It’s a powerful way to explore the human condition and share historical events.

That said, it can also be an extremely personal way to preserve your family’s history. Armed with a camera, a passion, and a story to tell, you too can create a photo documentary.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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