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Documentary Photography

Understanding documentary photography

Documentary photography is a form of photography used to chronicle historical events. It gives a straightforward representation of places, people, events and objects over time. What’s more, it captures public attention on the pressing social human rights issues. In modern society, this form of photography has the power to highlight stories to help bring about social change.


Documentary photography is a genre that can be traced back to the 1800s. It was also used in the 1950s to capture significant historical events during the American civil war. This form of photography gained traction in the 19th century because it was more affordable leading to mass production.

Leading photographers in the genre

Some of the most notable photographers include Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Mathew Brady. Also, during the post-world war, Jacob Riis brought the idea of social reform. Some of his most famous works include the children of slums and How the other half lives, which depicted the dismay of city life.

Another most famous photographer is Henri Cartier-Bresson. His photographs involved capturing ordinary people with warmth and humor. His pictures were used for decades in many books and magazines. Most of his work is recorded in the book called The Americans, which is credited to
be evocative.

Tips and tricks of taking photographs in this genre

Many photographers are not into documentary photography because it requires a specific set of skills. Unlike other forms of photography, you shoot the actions or events as they happen. Fortunately, there are tips and tricks you can follow if you’re focused on becoming a good photographer.

Do thorough research

Before you go out to shoot, visit your local library and research on all important information about the subject. In addition to that, get your notebook and take suggestions from the top three links from Google. While reading, keep an eye on someone you can contact.

Secondly, try to learn more about the subject’s culture before traveling to a particular locale. That way, you’ll build relationships and learn about the communities more quickly. It’s also a good way of familiarizing yourself with the topic you intend to tackle.

Remember, the biggest mistake you can make is traveling in a different community and then start comparing the cultures. While you’ll feel different, avoid turning your attention on this area. If your subject feels like a chore, you may have chosen the wrong subject.

Be open to life

If you want to become a professional documentary photographer, you must be open to what unfolds in front of you. While going through your photo album will give you an idea of what you love, it’s important that you make your mind open to any possibilities. Ideally, life presents far much better than what you imagine. A key part of documentary photography is developing a visual interest in every situation. This means you have to put your thoughts in the mind of the audience. Besides that, you have to develop empathy with people you contact.

Start making contacts

This is where the rubber meets the road. A general rule of thumb is that you should not be afraid of people. Even though you empathize with the subjects, make your request clear and straightforward. This may require honing your communication skills. By gaining their trust, they will open things to you. Additionally, explain briefly the intentions of the photographs e.g. are they for you’re a website, book, or an exhibition.


You don’t have to go to the subject to shoot when doing your practice. This genre is challenging because you have no control of your subject or the scene. Be patient to learn until you’re confident enough to take the task.

Remember to capture the details

When taking the photographs, think in terms of close-up or medium range. For instance, capturing details of the subjects as they stir their tea can add a lot to the image. To ensure the action happens the way you want, the background must be visible. Also, bring the foreground and background in harmony.

Watch the edges

When capturing the picture, don’t just concentrate on the frame. Instead, scan your eyes where the action is located. Moreover, avoid cutting off objects on the edge of the frame.

Variety is the secret

You must be creative when capturing your images. If you’re used to wide-angle shots, get out of the box and take aerial and close-up shots.

Following the above tips will make the tedious work of documentary photography a breeze. The photographs do not only tell a story but also encourage action where it’s needed.