Documentary Photography : A Step By Step Guide

what is documentary photography?  for some, this term has them scratching their head.  but really documentary photography is quite simple, and just that.  it is to document what surrounds you.  as is.  it is to simply pick up your camera to document what is happening in front of you.  the trick is, doing it in a way that isn’t ordinary but is beautiful, rather than a simple snapshot.  many photographers give documentary photography a try when they complete a photography project called “a day in the life” where they take a picture every hour, from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep, documenting their typical day in it’s entirety.  documentary photography is a wonderful skill to build, as it is the daily happenings that surround us that we really should be photographing.  allow me to simplify documentary photography by sharing a step by step guide.

do you have a lot of photography goals, but need help achieving them?  check out what planner helps me organize my goal setting.

Documentary Photography : A Step By Step Guide

Documentary Photography : A Step By Step Guide | Bethadilly Photography

>>this post contains affiliate links.  thank you in advance for supporting bethadilly photography!<<

Step 1 : Think Of An Everyday Occurrence

thinking of something that happens in your life, day after day.  something that represents your current life.  maybe it is doing laundry or running the carpool.  whatever it may be, pick an activity that typically makes up your day.  for the sake of example, i am choosing nap time.  without fail, twice a day, we do nap time at my house.  more importantly, it is an event that i know i will want to remember later on down the road, as she grows.

Step 2 : Identify Elements Of The Experience To Document

once you know the activity you want to document, think about the certain elements that you really want to capture with your camera.  writing a list may be helpful.  for me, i wanted to document how she lays on her belly to fall asleep and loves to play with her toes after she wakes up.

Documentary Photography : A Step By Step Guide | Bethadilly Photography

3. Prepare Your Gear Ahead of Time

when the moment presents itself, you don’t want to be scrambling to prepare your gear.  instead, have your gear ready ahead of time so that you are ready to photograph as the moment unfolds.  for me, i prepared my gear before my daughter went down for a nap and had it ready, as i wanted to photograph the moment as she woke.  for this project, i photographed with my nikon d750 with a camera strap (always use a camera strap when photographing young children, to both ensure safety and allow you to be hands free when needed) and sigma art 24mm f/1.4 lens.

Documentary Photography : A Step By Step Guide | Bethadilly Photography

4.  Prepare the Space

please resist the urge to go crazy cleaning or feel the need to have a pottery barn home.  the purpose of documentary photography is to capture your life and surroundings as is, mess and all.  however, do take a moment to slightly simplify the space you will be photographing.  remove any unnecessary clutter that may draw the viewer’s eye away from your intended subject or story.  while you want to photograph life as is, you also want to make the purpose of your photo clear.

5.  Consider A Wide Angle Lens

documentary photography generally includes documenting one within their surroundings.  because the surroundings tell just as much of a story as the subject does, its a good idea to include the surroundings within the frame.  a wide angle lens does just that.  my favorite wide angle lens is the sigma art 24mm f/1.4 lens, as it works well in small spaces, allows me to photograph the entire scene, yet has a low aperture of f/1.4 to allow me to capture detail paired with blurred backgrounds.

if you don’t own a wide angle lens, that’s okay!  consider renting one or using a 50mm from more of a distance to allow more surroundings within the frame.

Documentary Photography : A Step By Step Guide | Bethadilly Photography

6.  Allow the Moment To Unfold

once your moment arrives, allow it to unfold as is.  that is the art of true documentary photography.  try to allow your subjects to interact as they would without the camera present, while you stand back and simply document.  if you have human subjects within the frame, document them as they are.  don’t stress about having them face the camera, as faceless can be a true part of documentary style as the subjects interact with someone other than you.

7.  Don’t Overthink It With Posing

in fact, don’t even think of the word posing.  posing has no importance here.  the less posed, the more honest.  remember, documentary photography is to document as is.  resist all urge to pose and instruct, and instead simply photograph.

Documentary Photography : A Step By Step Guide | Bethadilly Photography

8.  Be Aware of Your Composition Constantly

because documentary photograph often means photographing ordinary occurrences, some people often think they will be limited because it is boring or uninteresting.  quite the contrary.  i would rather photograph an ordinary day at home than a live event elsewhere.  one of the best ways to create interest with a photograph that contains ordinary things is through creative compositions.  remember the rule of thirds, try to shoot through things to create depth, and have fun with angles.

need some inspiration on composition?  check out the 8 creative photography compositions you should be using.

Documentary Photography : A Step By Step Guide | Bethadilly Photography

9.  Photograph From A Variety of Angles

documenting things or people means telling a story.  the best way to tell a full story is by showing the viewer the situation from a variety of angles, as each angle can pull the viewer deeper into the story and give them a further understanding of the scene.  try photographing from behind, from above, close up and then far away.  be sure to photograph from a low angle and from the side, giving a variety of perspectives.

10.  Hop Into The Frame, Too

if being within the frame helps to tell your story, do it!  set up a tripod and interact within your surroundings to document the moment to the best of your ability.  if you need some tips on creating a self portrait, be sure to check out my step by step guide for taking a self portrait with your dslr.

documentary photography is not only very powerful and honest, but can serve as a beautiful document for you to cherish in the years ahead as these are the photos that tell your truest of stories.

be sure to join my exclusive email list to receive my latest photography tips and tutorials.  it’s free!

need some photography tips + inspiration?  check out what posts are trending below!

Add a comment...

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *

  • Anne - These are so beautiful! I use a 24-70 f2.8 but would love the f1.4 capability of the art. I’m just not sure it’s worth duplicating (another) focal length. I love my 50mm art so I understand the drool worthiness of the art line. Ugh! Decisions are hard.ReplyCancel

    • {beth} a-dilly - I know, it’s so hard to decide! My 24mm Art is hands down my best lens. I am upgrading my 50 to the Art this month, so I am happy to hear you say you love it! The Art lenses are so worth it!ReplyCancel

  • The Bethadilly 52 Week 1 – Documentary » bethadilly - […] to learn more about documentary photography, be sure to read documentary photography : a step-by-step guide. […]ReplyCancel

  • Photographing With Perspective : Using Angles To Create Stronger Images - bethadilly - […] a story through your images.  be sure to check out how i use photographing with perspective with my documentary photography, as i photograph my daughter waking up from nap.  as you are photographing your subject, whether […]ReplyCancel