Key Tips for Documentary Photography

Key Tips for Documentary Photography

All photographs document a moment or scene. But, when we talk about documentary photography, we refer strictly to the recording of reality related to protest or the generation of social conscience regarding a certain topic or characters.Most documentary photographs explain themselves, and their content tends to be overwhelming. Documentary photography is not the same as photojournalism. While the latter is more responsible for portraying the news, the first, you can use more aesthetic elements without destroying the content of the photograph or its essence.

Learn to Think Fast and Know Your Camera

Probably one of the best features that a documentary photographer can have is to have good reflexes and good camera handling. Events, in reality, are rarely static and you probably have to photograph progressive moments, which are generally the ones that give the best photographs.


The essential thing to achieve stunning documentary photography is to know what you are photographing Connect with the subject. The information is power, and nothing is more certain. Be sure to investigate everything you can about the location, customs, culture, and language (if necessary) of the place where you are going to photograph. At least having a notion will help you greatly to take advantage of almost every moment of the day.

Connect with Your Work

I said it before, but I will put it another way. If you are involved and sensitized to a social, cultural, or religious issue, then let this be your subject. This factor is key to achieve good photographs and most importantly, to portray a reality that you are interested in telling everyone. Never do a job that does not interest you or that repels you, at least not in these cases.

Pay Attention

It probably sounds obvious, but to collect good photographs, you need to pay close attention to what is happening around you. Keep your eyes open and your camera ready to shoot. Remember that if you are not going to carry a tripod, you should place the camera tape around your neck to avoid disasters.

Forget the Rules

It is true that all laws and photographic rules will help for an organized and clean composition. However, on many occasions breaking the rules can be much more productive. Forget the complex parameters for a moment and devote yourself to studying your surroundings and following a story for one.

Do Your Best Not to Influence The Scene

The less influence you have on the frame, the more authentic the result will be. If they see the camera or smile at you, it does not mean that your photograph is lost. I have seen thousands of cases where photojournalists are approached with the eyes of the protagonists of the scene and provide an equal or more powerful feeling. Documentary photography is very subjective, and it is most likely that there will come a point during in which you do not go unnoticed.

Less Flash

The flash can be quite intrusive in any type of photography. It can generate unwanted effects and results that alter the entire meaning of the scene. The less you should use it, the better. Try to modify other elements of the exposure, except ISO sensitivity. If you are interested in using digital noise or it just doesn’t bother you, you can raise the ISO a bit.

Details Are Important

Documentary photography does not have to contain people to tell a story. How about dolls perched on a floor full of scribbles and rust, like in Chernobyl? Although it has the mysterious component, it does not stop telling a story if it is a real fact. The details as protagonists of composition and as background shots in the portraits are extremely important and we must make sure not to leave any outside.


We are already clear that you must generate an impact. For this, it is very likely that you are going to need to resize photo, adjust the contrasts, brightness, clarity, intensity… everything that is necessary to generate the ideal photograph. For this, it is good that you have knowledge of at least one post-editing program. Then, I recommend that you have a massive selection among all the photographs you took, and don’t discarding the ones that you will leave behind since they can be used later.