If you’re a novice to photo-documentary and looking to create some compelling images, then here is a complete guide to documentary photography.
The prospect of taking photographs for a documentary can be intimidating if you’re a beginner, so here are some documentary photography ideas and examples to help you spark your imagination so that you can capture some impressive images for your project.
An introduction to documentary photography
Documentary photography is all about chronicling a subject and creating a narrative through your photographs. An untold story about certain environments or people can be expressed through a series of pictures. With your photos, you are not only telling stories that deserve to be told, but also documenting current history.
Documentary photography vs photojournalism
While photojournalism is similar, the primary function of the photos is to convey a story as part of news reportage. Our definition of news in the modern day has seismically shifted, meaning that there is a wider overlap between the two.
Documentary photography also tells a story, but the content is typically more emotive, and a series of photos tells the story. While photojournalism can be evocative, documentary photography is a more complex and expressive medium.
Focus your story
For your photography documentary project, you should decide on the subject on which to focus your story.
The more specific your subject is, the easier it is to explore the concepts you want to express in your photo documentary. Your documentary can be personal; documenting a community or a specific group of people, or a person. Otherwise, it can be more geographically-oriented, focusing on a certain environment.
Style is important to consider, and it goes hand in hand with form. Think about the kind of mood you are trying to evoke in your photo-documentary. Is it bleak, uplifting, humorous? Your style will be achieved through your signature blend of content and form. Your artistic temperament will emerge through the kinds of photos you take, so get the creative juices flowing!
Consider the form you want your photos to take. Your photo-documentary is not only a commentary – but an artistic endeavour; the artistry of the picture expresses what you want to say to your audience.
Consider the balance of light and shade in your photos and what this might suggest. Portraiture can be a nice form to try, as portraits will add a layer of personality and emotionality to your photo documentary.
Silhouettes can be striking and artistic. Juxtaposition in your photo can convey a strong message by displaying two contrasting elements. Action photographs are stimulating as they bring the photo to life. Get inspired and experiment with different forms and see how they slot into your photo documentary.
Connect the dots
It’s important to make sure that your photographs are cohesive. There are no strict guidelines for starting a project; you can choose your subject first, or arrange multiple photographs with a shared concept to create a visual narrative. It is fine if your documentary is more compositional in nature, but either way, make sure that the photos are thematically interconnected.
You can choose a specific emotion you want to convey in your photos such as ‘excitement’ or ‘loneliness’ – which you can document. Choosing an area to shoot your photo-documentary is a concise way of ensuring the photos are cohesive as they will be connected by location.
When shooting, it’s a good idea to jot down any specific shots you want to take beforehand. By visualising your end result, it will help you streamline your content and cut down on time. There will be certain images that are integral to telling your story – if it’s about a group of people, maybe you will need a shot of them doing a particular activity. If it’s about the effects of people on the environment, perhaps you will need a photograph of pollution.
It’s also important to consider the mood you want to create, and which shots will conjure this. For example, if it’s a negative mood, consider getting shots with gloomy weather.
Don’t be afraid to get experimental with your documentary photography. It can be easy to get lost in your focal point, but sometimes it is pertinent to zoom out and be open to the wider context of your photograph. Be flexible and enjoy the process of photographing for your documentary.