A Simple Guide to Documentary Photography

documentary photography

Documentary photography technically predates even photography itself.

The idea of documenting has been around for as long as humans have been able to communicate with each other. That kind of long-lasting legacy should be a source of pride and fulfillment in any aspiring photographer.

Today, we’re going to take a quick look at documentary photography as a whole as well as some helpful pro tips and tricks.

What is Documentary Photography?

Documentary style photography is exactly what its name implies.

To document is to record something, and a photograph is a permanent image (digital or physical) produced by a camera.

Technically speaking, any type of photography could be considered documentary photography. After all, you’re using pictures to record something!

That being said, this specific term usually applies to people who use photography to document significant historical or everyday life events.

The term can be traced all the way back to the 1800s. Archeologist John Beasley Greene used photography to document ancient Egyptian ruins in Nubia in the 1850s.

To this day, we’re still using photographs to chronicle life’s events all over the world–just maybe in a more digital way.

Can I Be a Documentary Photographer?

If you’re using a camera, even your smartphone’s built-in camera, and you’re documenting life through photographs, then yes!

Don’t get caught up in the idea of whether or not you’re professional or amateur. If you’re using photographs to tell a story, then you’re already doing it.

There a lot of key tips and tricks, though, that can turn amateur point-and-shoot pictures into beautiful professional images.

Let’s look at some ways you can hone your craft through documentary photography tips.

The Best Tips and Tricks for Documentary Photography

Taking an iPhone and pointing it at your daughter on her birthday may certainly get the job done. You’ll have a photo to see her smile and remember that special day, but some adjustments to your thinking and style can really transform your photos.

1. It Should Come Naturally

One big difference between documentary photos and any old picture is that they capture events naturally.

Certain professional photographers, such as Jennifer Smith Photography, pride themselves on capturing life in a “natural and relaxed way.”

There’s a big difference between lining a group of people in front of Cinderella’s castle and saying “Cheese!” versus that natural shot. For example, grandpa leaning down to his grandson handing him a Mickey Mouse balloon wearing the mouse ears with the castle in view speaks a lot more to what’s going on.

Don’t necessarily try to force events to happen. Instead, be observant of your surroundings and do your best to capture significant moments as they happen.

2. Find the Nature of Your Subjects

Everyone is different.

Some people are excited and lively; others are subdued and reverent.

Spend time with your subjects, whether it be your own family or a stranger (hopefully you’re spending time with your family anyway, though).

Get to know the subject of your photos better so that you can find them doing or acting in a way that shows their true nature.

For example, let’s say you know someone who is an avid carpenter. You’re trying to use documentary style photography to show how committed they are to their craft.

Dig deep to find what truly makes them tick. Maybe it’s not even just the fact that they’re a carpenter but the fact that they love using a buzzsaw specifically.

Next thing you know, you’ll find a great shot of them at the saw, deep in concentration, and you’ll capture their true essence.

3. Don’t Worry So Much About Faces

For some reason, when we think of photographing people we assume you need to see their face.

It makes sense because you hear people saying things like eyes are the window to your soul. Studies have even proven this to be true!

But when you’re specifically looking to document life’s candid events, then don’t be too concerned with people’s faces.

Sometimes, people’s bodies, arms, hands, or even just their silhouettes say a lot more.

Don’t be afraid to get up close and make full use of the small details. Perhaps you know someone who has arthritis in their legs. Their significant other faithfully and regularly massages their pains, so you close in on the details of just the hands, legs, and feet.

This type of picture doesn’t show anyone’s face or reactions, but it still can speak volumes about what’s happening behind the scenes. Their love and affection for each other are evident in one shot.

4. Be Subtle and Stay in the Background

This is the most personal of the documentary photography tips. It’s all about how you act around others.

You need to remain unobtrusive to your subjects and the events. If people are too aware of your presence (and of the camera itself) things may change.

People have a tendency of becoming more guarded and structured when they know they’re being documented.

Someone may be just in the middle of consoling someone after the loss of a loved one, but if they see the camera they might change. It might only be a subtle difference. Maybe they’ll just turn to be out of the line of sight, maybe they’ll try to look less sad for the sake of pictures, but the details will change.

There’s a real art to this because, at the same time, you still have to physically be there.

If there are other people around, try to blend in with the crowd. If there is no way to really hide, then just be unobtrusive. Make it clear that you’re not trying to intrude on anyone’s moment.

You’ll find yourself capturing photos with richer story elements and combined subtle details.

Continuing the Journey into Documentary Photography

Documentary photography is an art form that captures historical and everyday life events in detail.

Documenting through photos has been around as long as photography itself has been around, but some tips and tricks can help you hone your own style.

If you find yourself needing high-definition texture photos for any future art, photo, or graphic design project, feel free to check out our natural textures!

Published by

Jonathan Mookes

Matt is a long-time graphics and design professional, his current research is 3D imaging and video development using bleeding edge technology!

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