How to Take Compelling Documentary Photos

by David Em

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Documentary photography is a type of photography that captures moments. It can be historical events, the environment, or someone’s life.

Woman walking on a road leading a herd of sheep.
Photo courtesy of Canva.

What’s documentary photography?

Documentary photography isn’t about capturing the most aesthetic photo. Instead, it’s about capturing reality.

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It’s a style of photography that provides viewers with accurate representations of a moment. It can feature images of people, items, events, or places.

Documentary photography isn’t about what the subject is, as long as the image documents it accurately.

The style of photography is used in journalism, museums, history books, and other sources of stories, history, and news.

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Within documentary photography, there are many avenues you can take.

For example, photojournalism is a type of documentary photography because it captures images from news events. Other documentary photographers may focus on poverty to encourage action and change.

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If you want to be a documentary photographer, focus on capturing photos that accurately portray a moment. It also means that you won’t edit the image in a way that changes reality.

Documentary photography is an important type of photography. It helps with social change, storytelling, reliving memories, and understanding history.

Photographer with text overlay.

History of documentary photography

In 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took a photo from a window. It’s called View from the Window at Le Gras. It’s known as the world’s first photograph or at least the earliest surviving one.

The first known image of a person was taken in 1838 by Louis Daguerre. It’s also the first photo of Paris.

Technically, the two photos are in the documentary category, as they captured life in the early 1800s.

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In the United States, credit goes to Joseph Riis, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, and Walker Evans. Each of them played a role in capturing images of American society in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Tips for taking compelling documentary photos

Man holding a door on a train.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

If you’re ready to start documenting life and events, the following are the best tips to help you become a great documentary photographer.

Learn people skills

Composition, exposure, and other technical aspects of photography are important. However, your people skills are just as important when it comes to documentary photography.

The ability to talk to strangers and get to know them is crucial. It helps you understand what’s going on around you, which allows you to capture accurate photos.

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If you want to take documentary portraits, your people skills can lead to strangers agreeing to have their photos taken.

With great people skills, you may even make connections that lead to seeing things from different perspectives.

Have an open mind

Documentary photography is about accurately portraying a person, event, place, or item.

So, you need to have an open mind. Don’t let your beliefs limit you because they can lead to a bias.

Have an open mind and see things from other perspectives. When you capture photos, do so from different perspectives because it can lead to powerful images.

Capture emotions

While you’re documenting moments, make sure you capture emotions. During events or daily life, look at people’s facial expressions and body language.

The two can help you tell the story of what’s going on and how people feel. Emotions are a big part of accurately telling a story through images.

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Keep it natural

Allow the scene to unfold in front of you. Then, be ready to snap photos of it.

Since documentary photography is about truth and reality, don’t change a thing. Don’t pose a subject, change what they’re wearing, or move things around.

Instead, your job is to capture things as they are.

Find interesting perspectives and capture reality. It’ll make you an amazing documentary photographer.

Use a small aperture

Large apertures are perfect for blurring out backgrounds, which look great in portraits and macro photography.

However, the background and surroundings are important in documentary photography. So, small apertures increase the depth of field, which allows a viewer to clearly see the entire scene.

The foreground, midground, and background are important for accurate storytelling.

Back up your work

Family sitting with instruments and a tent,
Photo courtesy of Canva.

Whether you’re capturing documentary photos of a family’s day or a protest in another country, you must back up your work.

You can upload the photos onto an external hard drive or cloud storage, or both. Regardless of how you back up your photos, it’s essential.

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As a documentary photographer, you’re likely to be out all day. When you’re capturing authentic and accurate moments, you can’t get them back.

So, back up your work as often as possible to ensure you don’t accidentally lose it. The last thing you’d want is to lose or damage your memory card and lose access to the photos.

Frequently asked questions

What’s the best camera for documentary photography?

While you can use any camera or smartphone to take documentary photos, the best camera is a high-resolution DSLR or mirrorless camera. It allows you to capture images with great detail, which can also be printed if desired.

What’s the best lens for documentary photography?

The best lens for documentary photography is a 35mm lens because it’s the closest field of view that the human eye sees. You can also use other lenses, such as a telephoto lens if you’re not able to get close to your subject.

What makes a great documentary photographer?

Since documentary photography is about accurately portraying an event or subject, a great documentary photographer has a critical eye and the ability to portray what’s going on.


Documentary photography is an important style of photography. With it, you’re accurately capturing history, moments, and things. It brings awareness and change.

If you’re documenting your personal life, it’s an excellent way to remember things you’ve done or places you’ve been to.

Featured image courtesy of Canva.

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