The Beginner’s Guide to Documentary Photography

documentary photography

In it’s most narrow definition, documentary photography is the practice of making a photograph which is an accurate representation of its subject. But the practice of shooting documentary photography is much richer than it’s definition would lead you to believe.

Documentary photographers, like photojournalists and photojournalistic images, are expected to capture the world or everyday life, as it exists, without stage managing or directing or editing the scene. In Documentary Storytelling and Photojournalism, Deanne Fitzmaurice put it like this, “its about not directing. It is just letting real life unfold.” Despite its anti-interventionist approach, documentary photography is not a dispassionate art form.

The origins of documentary photography are rooted in the very human desire to affect social change. Some of our early examples of documentary photography exemplify this impulse. At the turn of the 20th century Joseph Riis used photographs to inspire reform in New York slums. In the 1930’s Dorthea Lange shot photographs that told the story of the Great Depression in the United States (capturing images of historical significance like the ever-popular Migrant Mother). French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson helped bring about the start of candid documentary photography with his book The Decisive Moment.  Even when a documentary photographer turns her lens to a landscape or relic of history there is something evocative in the work. As Tate puts it, documentary photography, “offers alternative ways of seeing, recording and understanding the events and situations that shape the world in which we live.” In that way, documentary photography is a popular form of real life reportage and is distinct from abstract photography or even street photography. Abstract photography aims to convert a feeling, mood or expression, but it doesn’t focus on a subject. Street photography focuses more on candid photography.

Learn the fundamentals and art of street photography from street photographer Steve Sweatpants. Learn more.

Street photography with Steve Sweatpants

All documentary photography may accurately represent a subject, but good documentary photography is the handiwork of a photographer with a critical eye and story to tell. Capturing the decisive moment n any scenario takes a healthy amount of intuition and skill.

So how do you do it?

Mastering the fundamentals of photography is always a good place to start. But documentary photography is not the exclusive provenance of experienced professionals. Amateurs and beginners often use the experience of documenting to learn more about the craft of photography itself.

Learn the basics of documentary photography and more with photographer John Greengo. Watch now.

Develop your people skills to get close-up and personal.

In Visual Storytelling: Why We Shoot, Ron Haviv explained how technical photography skills only play a supporting role in the process of making documentary photographs, “these are just straight people skills that have nothing to do with the camera. So much of the work that we have to do [we do while] the camera is in the bag. It’s conversations. Its learning. Its research. Its understanding what is happening around you.”

documentary photography

Commit the time.

Part of understanding what is happening around you is making the commitment to spend time with your subject. Photojournalists are often asked to act quickly to document immediate events. Conversely, documentary photographers are often working with the advantage of time. A documentary project can easily span the course of weeks, months, even years. Give yourself the time you need to really get to know your subject. That intimacy will yield a more meaningful body of work.

Protect your work.

It is likely your documentary photography project will be shot over a series of days, weeks, or even years. As such, you’ll need to develop a system for organizing and managing your work. In Your Photojournalism Survival Kit Ron Haviv advises photographers to immediately duplicate their work and add metadata daily. Ron learned the hard way how quickly a lax approach to duplication can sink any project. He was photographing the conflict in Iraq during the American invasion and didn’t stop to back up his work. As he prepared to leave he discovered his drive was damaged beyond recovery. The wear and tear of bouncing around on rough roads destroyed his only drive and he lost all his work. Avoid making the same mistake.

documentary photography

Indulge your own curiosity.

Documentary photography can be an intimate exploration of a subject for your own gratification and understanding. It can also be a powerful way to share historical events or a message with the greater world. Photojournalist and documentary photographer Ed Kashi used photography to explore the realities and challenges of aging in American culture. He also used it to document his own family’s journey with his aging father-in-law. As a result, his body of work touches on the universal and the very, very personal. For Kashi the most important skill he brings to his work is his own curiosity. His personal desire to witness and better understand the world around him has allowed him to make such moving work.

Fitzmaurice agrees: simple curiosity is the origin of any meaningful documentary photography project. What is the most important documentary photography skill from her perspective? “You want to be interested in people–in life.”

Learn the basics of documentary photography and more with photographer John Greengo. Watch now.

Rachel Gregg