How to take Your First Steps in the Art of Documentary Photography

You could say that almost any photography is documentary, as is documenting a moment, an instant, a time… however, what concerns us today is the documentary photography in the strict sense. This type of photography consists of recording the reality, not only to capture wonderful moments, convey a feeling, or simply making an image with a sense merely aesthetic. Tends to have as its aim to generate social awareness, and although it is sometimes confused with photojournalism is not exactly the same, despite the fact that on many occasions they nourish each other. Photojournalism is more focused on the news, currently relevant, while documentary photography aims to portray a reality, a context, and some characters who live that reality, regardless of whether or not news at that time.

Maybe you never have been interested in this topic, or simply will never have stopped to think on it, because of ignorance or because you have presented other issues more attractive to dedicate your attention, but if you have woken up even a little bit by the bug, read on for more in-depth and read some of the tips and keys to work with this genre of photography.

Some of the key points of the documentary photography

A photo documentary is a photo that explains by itself, with a shot has to deliver an emotional blow, and for this reason, in many cases the pictures can be very raw. The limit is perhaps in every one of the people that are placed behind the camera, decide what one wants and what one does not want to show. Some photographers agree that the limit is in the dignity of the person to be photographed. A good point to reflect on, don’t you think?

Documentary photography is located closer to the aesthetic aspect of Photojournalism, this latest search news, the news, the scoop, however, documentary photography, not only seeking to show the reality, the photographer is looking for an aesthetic result (not artistic).

If you want to dedicate yourself to this genre, you know what is more important is that you are interested in the subject that you are going to work, that is of concern to you and will not be indifferent. For that reason, you will not be able to be completely objective, but that does not mean that you’re not just with the reality, and what that reflects is fit as much as possible to the reality with the greatest accuracy possible.

Tips to make documentary photography

  1. It tells a story, tells what happens through a series of photographs. If there are several themes that occur at the moment, focus on one of them and tell the world. Remember that you should try contestant with your image to these questions: what? who? where? when? how? and why?
  2. It is important to have good reflexes and a good command of the camera to be as fast as possible and don’t miss anything.
  3. Researches on the topic previously and will help you to anticipate the action. You can even go with a list of the type of photos you need to show what is happening.
  4. It may be a good time to break the rules of photography (although you need to first know them to break them with a sense).
  5. Observe everything that happens around you, keep your eyes open because even the small details can be very important to tell your story.
  6. Creates a thread of a photograph to another within your series, in this way, your story will be better told, and will be better understood.
  7. Don’t miscue in the scene. Try to stay as quiet and unobtrusive as possible so as not to influence, to that end, it seeks a comfortable place, but close and shoot the eyes, to the heart of the scene.
  8. Shooting from different angles whenever possible.
  9. Take the time necessary, documentary photography can’t be done in a hurry.
  10. Respects the environment and ever photograph something that really does not want to show.
  11. Works without flash whenever possible (so as not to be intrusive).
  12. If the light conditions are more or less constant, you can work in a manual, and devote yourself to shoot instead of adjusting the parameters continuously, or you’ll lose a part of your history. Otherwise, use the priority mode of speed by choosing which allow you to not blurred.
  13. Put caption to the pictures. Although we have said before that a photo should explain itself, a title can help to draw a correct perspective of what is going on in the picture. Yes, without telling all, it is the image that should narrate it.
  14. You can also read about Street Photography: A Complete Beginner’s Guide
  15. And as always, love what you do, so your work will be more “big”.

Recommended targets

The more lenses are recommended for this genus are:

  • Wide angle: to capture the entire scene.
  • Profoto: if you have to stay out for any danger.
  • Fixed lens: if you can make it better, a 35 mm/ 5 mm are ideal.


The first phase of the edition consists of the selection. I am convinced that shoot hundreds of photographs, not to say thousands, but you will not need all of these to show what you want. Select a few that are the ones that will tell the story. If you are emotionally involved in the issue to the point of not being able to make a selection, wait some time and take a break, this will help you to be more objective.

The second part of the issue is much more complicated because it opens up a great discussion: edit, yes or no? There are many who agree that this kind of pictures allowed adjustments of brightness, light, colour (switch the white and black is already edit)… but what you should not admit under any circumstances is manipulation. There have been many cases in which the photograph has been manipulated, thus losing all its meaning, because it is not reflecting reality, but in a fiction invented by the photographer.


In all genres of photography, to observe the work of others is a great help, but I would venture to say that in this case it is even more important. Some of the references in the documentary photography are: Sebastião Salgado, José Ferreira, Susan Meiselas, W. Eugene Smith, Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank. These are just a few, I invite you to browse a bit through the network and visit their impressive work to learn from them.


Below I present you a gallery with some documentary photographs and two links to videos of galleries of two documentary photographers.