10 quick documentary photography tips

Start telling stories through your pictures: here are 10 documentary photography tips for shooting interesting subjects in compelling new ways…

Whether you’re just starting out in digital photography or simply searching for some inspiration, our top 10 photography tips will help you take your photography to the next level.


1 Tell a story

Use photography to tell a story. First you’ll need to choose a subject, which can be the hardest part of the process. Before you head off to far-reaching countries, try experimenting with photo ideas closer to home. Whether it’s the drudgery of life in an office or the joy of working your own allotment, you’ll find there are plenty of interesting stories near by.

2 Do some research

Even if the story is close to your heart or home, you should still do some research. Plan what you want to say. Ask yourself if you want to tell the story in just one shot or whether the subject might benefit from a series of multiple pictures. A photo essay, for example, could help you to reveal more about your subject.


3 Choose your style

Think about the way you intend to shoot and how you want the final image to look and feel. Do you want the finished pictures to be in black and white or colour? Do you only want to use natural light to enhance the mood, or will hard flash light add to your story? A bit of planning will make your photos more coherent. Take a look at the best documentary photography entries from our past Photographer of the Year competitions for inspiration, such as the one above, by Phil Charnock, or the image by Ho Lee at the top of our documentary photography tips list. Both of the images were shortlisted entries in our 2011 documentary photography category.

4 Be prepared

Once you’ve decided on an approach and style you’ll need to ensure you have the right gear to capture your shot. You probably won’t need to take your entire kit bag with you, so just select the tools you need. Be sure you’ve got the right focal lengths covered, and ask yourself if you might need a tripod. Are your camera batteries fully charged? Have you got spare batteries for your flashgun and plenty of memory cards? Don’t let a lack of preparation ruin a shoot.

5 Get permission

It’s a good idea to seek permission, especially if you’re photographing people going about their business. Explain what you’re doing and you’ll often get a hearty collaboration from your subject, but sneak around suspiciously and you’ll be given a wide berth or asked to leave. If you’re working on a long-term project you’ll need to build a healthy rapport to get results.

6 Don’t rush

The best documentary photography is often the result of a long-term project, so try not to rush in and attempt to capture all the shots in one go. If you do end up with limited time in one location, try to maximise the time you have.

7 Get back-up

One of the most important tasks for a digital photographer is to ensure all your images are safe. As soon as you get back from your day’s shooting, download your images and make back-up copies on an external hard-drive or DVD. It’s a good idea to keep your back-ups in a different location to your main computer.


Raw converstion: Adobe Camera Raw for highlight recovery

8 Process your images

Once your images are safe you can start to process them. If you shoot in RAW you can make most of your tweaks to colour, tone and contrast at the processing stage using smart software such as Adobe Camera Raw. For documentary photography projects, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to manipulate your images heavily. Just make a few adjustments or try converting to black and white for added impact.

9 Think about presentation

Once you’ve finished your project, think about how you want to show it off. If you’ve made a series of images, perhaps you could have them printed and framed to be hung in an exhibition, or perhaps they would be better suited to being viewed in a book format. There are plenty of online printing services that can make great books of your pictures for a reasonable price.

10 Learn from the best photographers

Magnum Photos is a photo agency that was founded by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour just after the Second World War. It’s since become one of the world’s most important photographic institutions. Check out the ‘In Motion’ section for slideshows of the members’ work, along with fascinating commentaries.


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