Documentary photography is meant to provide an accurate representation of people, places, and events. The key word here is accurate. While documentary photographs are often impactful and emotion generating they won’t show the wildly distorted angles or colors found in other styles. Monochrome/sepia to create a mood or add emphasis to other features is sometimes done. Vignetting an image, a darkening of the borders of the photograph is another common choice but these two techniques are often as fancy as it gets.

Think About how to Portray their Life beyond the Portrait

Try and consider the whole person and how you would represent that to your audience. I can take a portrait of a fascinating old woman who survived the Holocaust. But how does she live now? Does she have a faded portrait of her parents on her mantle? What sort of tea does she like to drink and is it an ornate cup with its own story?

Images with extra details like these help add body to your documentary piece. Your viewers can learn just as much about her choice in clothing as they can about her portrait and what you write about her story.

black and white documentary

Photo by nimo_zhang / CC0 1.0

Do the Research

When I think about documentary photography I try and choose subjects that are personally interesting to me. Perhaps I have a special interest in Chinese immigration to the United States during the 19th Century due to my descent. Or maybe I have a neighbor who I know has lived an incredibly eventful life and want to do a documentary on him. Even a photoshoot and brief write-up make a fine documentary.

Vary the Focal Length

35mm to 50mm lenses are typically used in documentary photography because it’s a versatile focal length. It’s considered the field of view closest to that of the human eye. This field of view also works well with nature and architecture photography as well as portraits. But don’t be afraid to mix things up a little.

While shooting I can keep the interest of my viewer by using different focal lengths. Instead of relying on a standard 50mm field of view I might switch things up with a wide-angle 12mm view showing my subject and their entire living room.

family portrait

Photo by Engin_Akyurt / CC0 1.0

Consider Extra Sources for the Writeup

I might think I’m done after the photo shoot but really my work is just beginning. Sources are invaluable even if you have an eyewitness to your documentary subject. Sometimes the memory of your documentary subject is not as keen as you might expect. Research the claims they make to ensure they are historically accurate. As a documentarian, we seek to showcase the truth.

There is still room for artistry in Documentary Photography

An immediate spur of the moment opportunity might leave little time for composition. If a bank robbery or plane crash were to suddenly take place in front of me, I would be lucky to even remember to hoist my camera for a proper shoot.

But for a planned documentary shoot I should try varying my depth of field using the aperture setting. Depth of field is how much of a given scene is in sharp focus. This puts the emphasis on different subjects, as needed.

buddhist prayer

Photo by sabinevanerp / CC0 1.0

With a nice, open aperture, like f/1.4, I can create tack sharp portraits with a background that may suggest a garden or living room but does not take away from my subject. If instead, I want to emphasize that my subject was a farmer, I can use a narrower aperture, like f/8.0, so the tractor and fields behind him are just as sharp as his portrait.

Depth of field greatly impacts the story of an image. Therefore, as a documentary photographer, I should have plenty of choices here. A prime lens with an open aperture like a 50mm f/1.4 is a near-mandatory investment. And a second, more versatile lens, like a 24-70mm f/2.8 or 24-105mm f/4, will cover most of the rest of your documentary needs.


Documentary photography can be a challenge but it’s a sweet one because you’re given such artistic license. The challenge goes beyond a beautiful image here. “Can I accurately portray this person or event’s story using photography?” Each of my viewers is going to have a slightly different take on your portrayal but I hope to narrow that gap as much as possible.

Photo by Engin_Akyurt / CC0 1.0