12 min read

Documentary Photography – An Introduction

12 min read

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Man holding guitar - street documentary photography in black and white.

What is Documentary Photography?

Documentary photography is an umbrella term used for photography that documents our world. This includes the everyday and extraordinary life or historical events. There is no precise definition of documentary photography. However, the documentary photograph should be an accurate representation of our planet. And those who exist within it.

Documentary photography differs from other forms of photography as it is not about creating a “perfect” picture. Instead, it is about capturing the world as it is. That includes all the raw, messy, and sometimes painful parts of life. A documentary photographer should act as an eyewitness. They bring important stories into the public domain.

History of Documentary Photography

The origins of documentary photography come from the basic human desire to capture and change our world. For decades, artists and storytellers have used the camera as a medium to evoke social change and document important events.

Some of the earliest examples of documentary photos date back to the American civil war. Thanks to the invention of the camera in the early nineteenth century. This was one of the first wars in which a picture of the intimate reality of war could be brought back to the public. It forever changed the way we view and receive news.

In the mid-twentieth century, the popularity of documentary photography took off. From photographs of the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, to the careful portraits of poverty by Dorothea Lange, it became a vital way of capturing world events.

During this time, documentary photography became reinvented. Artists began to see the camera as a tool for societal change, using it to shed light on injustice and inequality. Over the years, it has adapted and taken on many forms. However, the underlying premise remains the same.

photo of the American civil war.
American Civil War, Kelham Hall. Lancaster Glass Half- Plate.

Types of Documentary Photography

The ultimate goal of a documentary photographer is to capture a moment accurately and truthfully in order to tell a story. It should also offer alternative ways of viewing the world.

There are many different ways a photographer can do this. Similarly, there are several different types of documentary photography. Each represents different aspects of our society. Here are a few common types of documentary photographs and how they reflect contemporary life.


Photojournalism is a popular form of documentary photography. Photojournalists specialize in capturing breaking news events and documenting events of historical significance. Photojournalistic images capture current events for newspapers and websites.

Photojournalism is an important part of documentary photography. It helps to accurately inform the public of important events and inspire change. Some of the most harrowing photojournalistic images have had a long-lasting impact on society.

For example, the distressing image “Fire Escape Collapse” by Stanley Forman. This captured an image of a woman and her child falling from a burning building in Boston. The fire escape collapsed just as the victims were waiting for rescue, and the photographer caught the moment. The image circulated in over a hundred newspapers and deeply shocked the public. It immediately led to the adoption of new fire escape safety legislation in Boston and the United States. In the end, it no doubt saved countless lives.

War photography is also documenting a historical and significant, newsworthy event. Many examples of this type of photojournalism come from the war photography of World War II.

Robert Capa’s famous pictures taken during the Spanish Civil war attempted to show the futility of war. Other photographers such as British photographer Don McCullin were drawn to the victims. Including shell-shocked soldiers during the conflict of the Vietnam War.

These photojournalists wanted to use photography as a catalyst for change. And many were successful. Photojournalism can be a harrowing, risky, and draining profession. Yet, it also comes with great personal and societal rewards.

War documentary photography by Robert Capa - Documenting soldiers during world war II.
Normandy, Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944″ – by Robert Capa.

Street Documentary Photography

Street photography is a type of candid documentary photography. As the name suggests. It involves real-life reportage of everyday life and happenings of the streets.

Street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson made this genre famous. Cartier-Bresson helped bring about the start of candid street documentary photography. For example, his book ‘The Decisive Moment’ forever changed documentary photography.  In this, he captured images of everyday life that would have normally gone unseen. As a pioneer of early street photography, he turned images of life in the street into works of art.

For amateur photographers wanting to get into documentary photography, this is a great genre to start off with. For instance, you don’t need to have experience. You also don’t need to spend time organizing a documentary photography project. This kind of documentary work involves heading out into the world with your camera and creating images from what you see.

Social Documentary Photography

Social documentary photography is photography that aims to elicit social change in society. This type of documentary photo captures everyday life. But with an important message or underlying theme. Most social documentary photographers develop a story with their images. This is done by closely following a person or group of people over time.

Unlike street and photojournalism, social documentary photography needs to have a planned idea of the photographer’s story. For example, it may include a shot list inspired by the photographer’s research into the project beforehand. Street and photojournalism are more concerned with a snapshot of a moment. But this type should present a more unfolding or in-depth story.

Notable photographers in this field include Jacob Riis (1849-1914). Famous for his pioneering documentary photographs of New York slums. Especially his series ‘How The Other Half Lives’ (1890). This series was fundamental in creating lasting changes to New York’s living conditions. Jacob Riis was one of the first photographers of his kind. Proving that art and documentary photography can have a meaningful impact on those who view it.

Documenting social issues also requires great patience and persistence. A passion for storytelling and aiding underprivileged parts of society is a must.

Family documentary photography by Jacob Riis.
New York tenement family, New York, NY, c. 1890. – by Jacob Riis.

Environmentalism & Conservation Photography

This type of documentary photography relates to social documentary. This is because our natural environment has a large impact on our society. However, conservation & documentary photographs do not necessarily include any people in the photos.

Wildlife photography may also fall under this genre. The intention of wildlife photographers is not only to capture beautiful pictures of animals. But often to document our disappearing or endangered world.

Photographers such as Steve McCurry often explore human’s connection to the natural world in their images.

If you are passionate about environmental issues, this genre may be perfect for you.

Digger going through a pile of trash as an example of conservation & environmental issues.
Environmental & conservation photography by Mumtahina Tani.

How to Get Started With Documentary Photography: 4 Tips

Master Your Camera

One of the key components to taking good documentary photographs is mastering the art and science of your camera.

As a documentary photographer, you will need to be able to think fast on your feet. For example, you may have to learn how to shoot quickly, freehand in low light situations. Or you may have to deal with a fast-moving backlit subject on a bright and sunny day. Either way, you will need to be prepared and know exactly what your camera needs to capture that photograph well.

As you are trying to accurately document pictures of everyday life without interruption, you have to work with what is in front of you. You can not ask your subjects to stand in better lighting or pose in a place that makes your picture ‘perfect’. Therefore you need to know the ins and outs of your camera, like the back of your hand. This way, you can adapt to the settings without disturbing your subject.

Getting to know how your camera works in manual mode and how to change settings accurately will allow you to take much better pictures.

contemporary documentary photographer taking photos.
Volunteer Photographer by Chris Hunkeler.

Find a Cause, or Story to Tell and Do Your Research

Documentary photographers must have a passion or cause that they care about in order to create meaningful work. There is little point in devoting your time and art towards something you don’t believe in yourself.

Choosing a subject or a project that you are passionate about will help you stay motivated. Especially as you face the challenges that come with being a documentary photographer. For example, if you’re passionate about LGBTQ+ rights and have a personal connection or story to tell. Look at working within that community and find out what needs highlighting.

It’s important to make sure you know everything you can about your cause before you start your documentary project. Doing your research before you get involved or begin to approach communities will help them to trust you. It will show that you care about the cause to have researched it on your own time. But also, that you are professional and knowledgable about the realities of the issues.

Some of the best-known documentary photographers were also heavily involved in activist causes. For example, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine were working against poverty and child labor before they started taking photographs. Their work later helped bring about new child labor laws to protect children.

Other early examples documented the American civil war or a cause that they felt passionate about. Each photographer was taking pictures that were meaningful to the cause they believed in or the issue they were trying to change.

child labor working in a cotton mill.
Spinner in Globe Cotton Mill, Augusta, Georgia, 1909 – by Lewis Hine.

Be a People Person

If you want to be a documentary photographer, one of the most basic attributes you should have is the ability to empathize with your subjects.

People will need to be able to trust you if they are going to let you into their life. Especially if they are going to let you into their life with a camera. Your subjects need to feel safe in order to let their guard down and let the scene naturally unfold. Building intimacy and trust will yield a more meaningful body of work. And produce better images.

man wearing a mask.
War photographer AIDS in Asia – by Zoriah Miller.

Be Observant Take Time and Be Patient

Much of success in documentary photography comes from a ‘fly on the wall’ approach. This means documentary photographers need to be able to almost blend into their surroundings. This is in order not to disturb the real-life situations they are trying to document. People often become nervous when they see a camera and might begin to change their behavior, which is counter-effective if you are trying to document a scene.

Documentary photographers always have to keep one eye open. As you don’t know when opportunities for great images may present themselves. For this reason, observational skills are important.

Likewise, it takes time to build trust with your subjects. This trust is a vital component of being a successful documentary photographer. Coming in hot with a camera and beginning to photograph your subject straight away is usually not the best approach.

A documentary project can span the course of weeks, months, even years. Above all, give yourself the time you need to get to know your subject. And time for them to get to know you.

Drag queens getting ready behind the scenes. Social documentary photos.
Documentary photographer Ainsley DS captures the preparation of drag queens.

Famous Documentary Photographers From History

Since the very beginning, many photographers have made a name for themselves in the industry. If you’re interested in shooting documentary photography, take a look at these incredible photographers. Their work will likely inspire you to take great documentary photos.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs from the streets of Europe again changed the way we see the world. He pondered with the idea that a photograph could “fix eternity in an instant.” Taking street photos that captured a moment in time. You have probably seen many images from Cartier-Bresson without necessarily knowing it was his work.

Self portrait image by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Self-portrait by Cartier-Bresson.

Robert Capa

Capa was a pioneer of the documentation of war photography whose aim was to show the futility of war. One of his most famous images is “The Falling Soldier” (1936). This image captured the death of a Spanish Loyalist, receiving a bullet in the midst of battle. After World War II, he joined Robert Capa and other photographers in founding Magnum Photos. Magnum Photos still exist today as a highly successful picture agency.

Photo of a Falling Soldier documented by Robert Capa.
The Falling Soldier (1936) – Robert Capa.

Diane Arbus

In the 1960s, photographer Diane Arbus ‘transformed the art of photography. Arbus used documentary photography to bring representation to marginalized groups. Her subjects included people on the fringes of society. Like exotic dancers, nudists, carnival performers, elderly people, and children. Above all, her aim was to normalize representation for all people.

Street portrait photography by infamous female documentary photographer Diane Arbus.
Photography of people on the streets – Diane Arbus.

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks was a famous American documentary photographer. He pointed his camera at issues like poverty, civil rights, and the struggles of African Americans in the United States. Parks was also the first African American to direct major motion pictures. His photographic essays for ‘Life’ magazine paved the way for generations of black photographers and cinematographers.

Two Anacostia Boys captured by Gordon Parks.
Anacostia Boys by Gordon Parks.

Doretha Lange & Walker Evans

In the 1930s, American photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans were employed by the Farm Security Administration. Their job was to document the struggles of migrant workers and sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Lange’s photos, like the iconic Migrant Mother, helped raise awareness. They also helped spur the federal government to send aid during the great depression.

What Gear Do I Need to Be A Documentary Photographer?


This is the most obvious and important piece of equipment you will need. Ideally, a small and fast camera would be used. This is especially important when photographing people. For example, the Leica SL2-S would probably be a dream camera for most documentary photographers. It’s fast, discrete, and quiet. Meaning you won’t disrupt the scene more than you have to. However, the age-old saying “the best camera is the one you have with you” definitely stands. It doesn’t matter too much what camera you have, but how you use it.


The type of lens you need really depends on the type of documentary photography you will be doing. It may be best to ask yourself questions about where you will be shooting and what specifics you need. For example, if you are shooting in small, indoor locations, you might want a wide lens with a low F-Stop so you can fit everything in. Like this Canon EF-S 24mm. If you are shooting street photography from a distance, you might want a zoom lens. Over time, you will find what works best for you and the style of photography you are going for.

Basic Maintenance Kit

Documentary photography can be hard work for both you and your camera. Therefore it’s vital that you take care of both yourself and your camera gear. Keeping a basic cleaning kit on hand means you can quickly resolve any issues that may come about because of dust, rain, etc. Also, make sure you have backup batteries and SD cards in case anything was to go wrong.

Bonus Tip: Water & Snacks

In the same vein, taking care of yourself is also important. One of the best pieces of advice I received from my documentary photography mentor was to always keep snacks in your camera bag. You don’t know how long you will be on location. Or how long it will take you to get the shot. Keeping yourself energized and hydrated will mean you can last longer. And ideally, get more & better images as a result.

locals on the street.
Locals of Galle by Ainsley DS Photography.


Regardless of the type of documentary photography, the essence of a documentary photograph is storytelling. Whether it’s the story of everyday life, or historical events, or our environment. It plays a vital role in capturing our society and telling the story of those who may be unable to speak for themselves.

If you are looking to get into a meaningful form of photography, documentary photography may be for you, whether it is documenting news, society, street, or wildlife. You have the opportunity to make meaningful change.

Remember that it is not just about taking great pictures. But about storytelling. We can’t wait to see what stories you tell.

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Ainsley DS is a photographer and writer based in between Auckland, NZ and Paris France. She specializes in travel, portrait and documentary photography and has a passion for all creative pursuits. With an addiction to travel, she has lived on three continents and photographed over 40 countries along the way. You can purchase travel prints directly from her website or follow along on the journey!
Ainsley DS is a photographer and writer based in between Auckland, NZ and Paris France. She specializes in travel, portrait and documentary photography and has a passion for all creative pursuits. With an addiction to travel, she has lived on three continents and photographed over 40 countries along the way. You can purchase travel prints directly from her website or follow along on the journey!

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