The Beginner’s Guide to Documentary Photography

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In it’s most narrow definition, documentary photography is the practice of making a photograph which is an accurate representation of its subject. But the practice of shooting documentary photography is much richer than it’s definition would lead you to believe.

Documentary photographers, like photojournalists and photojournalistic images, are expected to capture the world or everyday life, as it exists, without stage managing or directing or editing the scene. In Documentary Storytelling and Photojournalism, Deanne Fitzmaurice put it like this, “its about not directing. It is just letting real life unfold.” Despite its anti-interventionist approach, documentary photography is not a dispassionate art form.

The origins of documentary photography are rooted in the very human desire to affect social change. Some of our early examples of documentary photography exemplify this impulse. At the turn of the 20th century Joseph Riis used photographs to inspire reform in New York slums. In the 1930’s Dorthea Lange shot photographs that told the story of the Great Depression in the United States (capturing images of historical significance like the ever-popular Migrant Mother). French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson helped bring about the start of candid documentary photography with his book The Decisive Moment.  Even when a documentary photographer turns her lens to a landscape or relic of history there is something evocative in the work. As Tate puts it, documentary photography, “offers alternative ways of seeing, recording and understanding the events and situations that shape the world in which we live.” In that way, documentary photography is a popular form of real life reportage and is distinct from abstract photography or even street photography. Abstract photography aims to convert a feeling, mood or expression, but it doesn’t focus on a subject. Street photography focuses more on candid photography.

Learn the fundamentals and art of street photography from street photographer Steve Sweatpants. Learn more.

All documentary photography may accurately represent a subject, but good documentary photography is the handiwork of a photographer with a critical eye and story to tell. Capturing the decisive moment n any scenario takes a healthy amount of intuition and skill.

So how do you do it?

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