Guide to Documentary Photography


Creating a series of pictures during a week, a month, or even a year is about documentation photography. It is a photo style that tells about almost everything occurring around us. It can be a shot of streets, events, people, or architecture. Before creating such a photo session, you should consider the following questions:

  • What problems can I face?
  • Do I enjoy photographing the subject?
  • Is my idea visually interesting?
  • Will I have easy access to my location?

The pictures reflect all kinds of events without artistic processing, fiction, or decision. Photographers perform them in chronological order. In this way, they get a consistent documentary history. Often the appearance of one or another documentary leads to changes in the political or social sphere of life. It is because the developments are portrayed as it really is. That is, documentary photography is evidence of an event and calls for some actions.

documentation photography

What Is Documentary Photography?

Documentary photography is a series of pictures taken chronologically on a particular topic. The tasks of the documentary photography style include the creation of a photographic composition that is evidence of actual events, a document of the era, and an appeal or warning. Work on such projects does not involve any time limit.

Most often, such photography solves the task of photojournalism. That is why it classifies as one of its genres. Many believe that photo documentaries should mainly perform informational functions. But for some, it has become much more than easily recording any topical moments. It demonstrates the author's view of the highlighted problem. In types of documentary photography are features that distinguish this genre from others:

  • the shooting of a social problem that causes resonance;
  • aesthetics of shots in combination with their naturalness and realism;
  • it is usually several photos or even a whole series of pictures connected by a common theme or idea;
  • it has a connection with political tendencies and claims to have political influence;
  • documentary photography is public.

The history of documentary photography style began in 1935. The government commissioned a group of people to create documentation of rural life. It was in the USA. They needed to depict the work of impoverished villagers, avoiding artistry. Thus, even then, they laid the basic beginnings of documentary photography. It is relevant to this day.

Modern documentary photography has gone beyond the scope of a story about pressing issues. It manifests the photographer's subjective position, style, and point of view. But the information function remains the leading. Photographers often supplement such pictures with text that describes the depicted event.

Types of Documentary Photography

There are typology, social reporting, chronicle, and street photo shooting. Documentary photography gives a sense of truthfulness, sincerity, and reality. It is not easy to capture a bright moment without adding anything artificial to it. Because all shooting objects can be different and have various complexity. So, documentary photography has several styles:



Street photography

It is a type of documentary photography without a clear social orientation. It usually depicts people in ordinary situations in public places. For example, on the streets, parks, beaches, and the like. That is, street photography documents what is happening around. As a street photographer, you have to go unnoticed. So you have more chances to capture unique and authentic moments.


Photo chronicles reflect current events reflected in photographs. It is for describing the events taking place from a specific location of the events. It is reportage shooting in documentary journalism.


A typology is a set of separate images, each of which does not carry a single statement. That is, each of the photos, unlike the case with the photo story, does not illustrate the opinion of the author. And documentation photography content emerges only when you've viewed all images together.

Social reporting

There is no clear social orientation in this shooting. It is an image of ordinary things and ordinary situations. Nothing artificial, everything real. 

Usually, famous social documentary photographers present their work to the public in books. Besides, it can be in albums or exhibitions. Many documentary projects became famous thanks to the pages of newspapers and magazines. Some materials are created for films and broadcasts. You can also create your photography website and spread your documentaries worldwide.

tips for documentary photography

Tips to Create Compelling Documentary Photography

A photoshoot that has documentary content is not a one-time shot of something. It is a long-term project that needs a lot of time. And photographers do not create it in the studio but in locations. So, this process can be challenging. Because the task of the photographer is to create frames for the appropriate topic. 

But there are always tips for documentary photography. For instance, you need to find the right location and plot. Also, you need a quality camera. But creating frames is not all work. You need to put all the photos for a complete presentation of documentary works. In the end, you should get a chronological history of a topic. 

It can be difficult at first. After all, each image can be from different locations and have other content. It sometimes takes weeks or even months. But be patient, and you will succeed with ideal results. The main thing is not to edit these photos. It is unacceptable in a documentary shooting. After all, this style is a presentation of reality without extra interventions. To understand such nuances even more, we have prepared tips for documentary photography:

1. Research your object

This tip for documentary photography is essential for all photographers. Before you take your camera, study your subject:

  • Get to the location where you plan to hold a photo session.
  • Determine what the principal object for shooting is.

This approach will help you predict what to expect from the shooting. Also, you will be able to imagine the object better. It will prompt you with more ideas for documentaries.

2. Create reality, not fantasy

All famous social documentary photographers make certain decisions before shooting:

  • It affects people's attitudes toward the documentary project in front of them.
  • From this, you can understand that the audience relies on you. They hope to see something that will depict the truth with the help of pictures.
  • Thus, there is no need to decorate the picture with extra motifs.
  • Do it as it really is.

It is challenging to work objectively. Some even claim that it is impossible. Because we all approach life with particular views and preconceived thinking. If someone sees just the street, it is a place of inspiration and strength for another. 

It means that every photographer has a unique attitude toward subjects. And each of them presents it thanks to their diverse visions. But there is no place for fantasy in documentary photography. You need to work as objectively as possible. At the same time, you need to create a truthful description of the subject. 

3. Criticize your work

Criticizing your work is not something unacceptable. On the contrary, it is an excellent opportunity to improve the results of your work. So, look at your photos more often. Criticize your work or find someone to do it for you. If you're not looking at your pictures critically, you can miss something important:

  • Consider all aspects of what you do.
  • Test whether your photos convey your story.
  • Experiment with exposure, colors, and focus.

Don't be too hard on yourself when grading your photos. It will help you motivate yourself and create incredible documentary photography.

4. Capture emotions

If there is a person in the photo, nothing attracts attention like their emotions. And in documentary shooting, this is of the utmost importance. If you film an event where people are present, create shots with their feelings:

  • Try to capture the emotion of people you want to convey.
  • Do it inconspicuously.
  • Don't ask people to pose. You have to create a photo without interference.

It is imperative if you photograph political or social events. For example, you have a task to create documentary photography of protests. In this situation, conveying people's dissatisfaction and indignation is essential. Choose the appropriate angles and feelings of people. So your results will be more important to others.

5. Always practice

Like any kind of activity, all types of documentary photography require practice:

  • Attend master classes.
  • Experiment with objects and angles.
  • Look for ways to improve yourself.
  • Review your work regularly.
  • View your favorite photos and share them with others.

You should be nuts about your work and look for opportunities to improve it. Feel free to join if you know of a community with common interests. So you can practice more and let others know about you. 

But before all this, it is also essential to be patient. Even after ten attempts to create documentary photography, the results can be bad. After all, this is hard work that requires more than one image. So be patient and practice as much as you can.

6. Make lists of ideas

Before starting the photography process, make an essential list of ideas:

  • You can write down any thoughts you have for any project.
  • Do not limit yourself to photographic views. Think outside the box. It will help you to be practical and unique.
  • In taking photos, you can create extra lists.
  • Edit your ideas as they change.

Creating practical concepts for documentary photography can take a lot of work. To impress with your results, they need to be original. It can be photography to raise some social issues or something like this. In general, there are many ideas. The main thing is to find an approach to this and do everything consistently.

7. Play by the rules

Someone lives by the rule that "rules are made to be broken." But in the field of documentary photography, you need to forget about this rule. Documentaries are a strict photo genre that has clear boundaries. So follow them and not contradict them:

  • There are photo restrictions in some places. Therefore, do not shoot where it is not allowed.
  • If necessary, ensure you have permission to shoot in certain areas.
  • If people ask you to refrain from taking photos, please do so politely.
  • The same situation is with people. If they don't want their picture taken, respect their request.

A professional photographer always remembers these rules and does not break them. After all, they are the key to successful documentary work.

By following these tips for documentary photography, you can take good photos. Besides, it will give you organizational skills. And it will make the shooting process more detailed.

famous social documentary photographers

Famous Social Documentary Photographers

Among the famous social documentary photographers are Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, and others. Millions of events take place in the world every day. And people want to be aware of at least some of them. 

Documentary photos are ideal for conveying different occasions. With their help, we can learn about the actual events of the modern world. Some people coped so well with this task that they gained world recognition. Some of them photograph streets and some people. 

Regardless of the type of documentary photography, they are popular. It is about documentary photographers. Especially in the past years, their presence in society was significant. And their works are still masterpieces. So famous documentary photography cameramen are:

1. Lewis Hein (b. 1874)

Another famous documentary photographer is Lewis. It all began with photographs that illustrated school life. In 1905, he took pictures that told about the fate of immigrants in the United States. His works revealed poverty, confusion, and unfulfilled hope for a better future. New magazines eagerly printed Hein's pictures. 

Emboldened by success, he left school. He devoted all his time to documentary photography. In 1908, Lewis Hine became an advanced photographer. Hein filmed minor workers: miners, weavers, port loaders, stokers, and mercenaries. 

The photographer called his photos of this period "the gallery of the lost generation." His most famous works of that time are a series of photographs dedicated to constructing the Empire State Building in New York.

2. Peter Hugo (b. 1976)

This photographer is known for his documentation photos. He was born in South Africa. Peter Hugo actively and extensively travels the expanses of this continent. In the field of vision of his lens, there are Nigerian gangs and Liberian Boy Scouts.

"Looking to the side" is the name of one of the author's first photo series. These are portraits of people in documentary photography style. But people are unusual. Their appearance makes some viewers turn away from the photos and look the other way. 

The heroes of these paintings are people suffering from albinism, the blind, and so on. The most famous Peter photo project was the series of works "Hyenas and other people." This photo project caused another surge of attention to the creation of Peter Hugo.

3. Steve McCurry (b. 1950)

He is a famous social documentary photographer known worldwide. He is the author of a masterpiece of modern photographic art. The picture became the most famous cover of National Geographic magazine. It is about a painting called "Afghan girl." This photo is probably known to everyone. And to ordinary people in different countries and to professional photographers. 

Many of Steve McCurry's works captivate viewers with their truthfulness and poignancy. His photographs became iconic in the history of documentary photography and photojournalism. 

McCurry has bridged the gap between hard, realistic photojournalism and artistic photography. In his works, both things merge harmoniously and organically. Steve's work needs no explanation. They are immediately understandable to everyone worldwide, regardless of status and education.

4. Dorothea Lange (b. 1895)

People know this documentary photographer as the author of many masterpieces. It is a photo symbol of the Great Depression and the picture "Mother of Immigrants." But her achievements do not end with these legendary shots.

Lange is a famous social documentary photographer. She started as a New York portraitist in the late 1920s. Under the influence of the crisis, she took her camera to the city streets. 

She used photojournalism to convey to the audience the pictures that impressed her. The photographer's style is sharp, strongly contrasting images, a black-and-white chronicle of the lives of bankrupt American families.

5. William Eugene Smith (b. 1908)

William Eugene Smith was born in the USA, Kansas. Soon after his first photographic experiments, professionalists recognized his skills. And two newspaper printers invited him to cooperate as a photojournalist. Everyone who saw Eugene's work of that period had shock by his talent.

William Eugene Smith was even ready for the danger of documentary photography. For example, in 1971, he went to Japan to cover the mercury poisoning of people. They were in the villages on the coast of Minamata Bay. 

Then his vision and health, in general, deteriorated. But the album "Minamata," published in 1975, experts recognized all over the world.

Create Your Documentary Portfolio Website

Observe famous social documentary photographers to achieve the same great results as they do. Also, try to present your work as much as possible for promotion. To do this, you can create your website or sell your photos. 

How to do it? Find this information at Portfoliobox. We have all the necessary information for you to conquer all the peaks in this field.

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