In 2019, the way we watch TV is changing dramatically. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are giving stiff competition to traditional broadcast, cable and satellite services, who have responded with their own on-demand offerings. And with other media giants furiously entering the fray, from Disney and Apple to Twitter and Facebook, there’s more TV to watch than ever before.
But while that’s a good thing in theory, in practice it can be astonishingly difficult to find what you’re looking for amongst all the bewildering array of choices. So we’re here to help.
In this article, we round up the very best TV shows available to watch today on the subject of photography, from reality shows to inspiring documentaries.
Some are old, some are new; some are free to watch, while for some you’ll need a subscription service. But all offer first-class entertainment, that will teach you a thing or two about using your camera along the way.
01. Top Photographer with Nigel Barker
Fashion photographer and former model Nigel Barker was best known as a judge on the hit reality show contest America’s Next Top Model. Then, spotting a gap in the market, he teamed up with camera store Adorama to launch his own reality contest in the word of photography.
The format is very similar to Next Top Model, with contestants facing various tasks and eliminations week by week. Each episode focuses on a different photography theme, such as action sports portrait, fashion or landscape.
We'll be honest; as a reality show, this won’t teach you a huge amount about photography; much of the focus is on cranking up the human drama of the competition. But it is a lot of fun to watch, and you may pick up some useful tips along the way.
02. Sky Arts’ Masters of Photography
Another reality contest centred around photography, this show from Sky Arts sees 12 contestants compete in a “life changing” challenge to win the title ‘Best New European Photographer’ and a prize of €150,000.
Hosted by actress Isabella Rossini, the format is familiar: weekly challenge, followed by a weekly elimination. It's now run for three seasons, with judges ranging from actor Clive Owen to American photographer Steve McCurry.
A number of internationally renowned photographers also pop up to offer their insights including Alex Webb, Bruce Gilden, and David LaChapelle, some of whom can be quite harsh to the contestants.
While it’s debatable whether the contestants really are the “best new photographers in Europe”, this is generally a well-made reality show that offers some interesting insights into the business of photography in the real world.
03. Tales of Light
Looking for something a bit more challenging and educational than a reality show? Tales of Light should fit the bill nicely.
This Australian documentary series, which originally aired on National Geographic, follows a number of professional photographers travelling around the world to capture images that tell a story.
These range from Darren Jew shooting mating humpback whales in Tonga to Simon Lister documenting impoverished, at-risk children for UNICEF in Bangladesh, alongside goodwill ambassador Orlando Bloom.
With three seasons under its belt, this visionary and inspiring show has become a big worldwide hit, and is a must-watch for any photographer wishing to expand their horizons, or just enjoy the work of others.
04. Wild Photo Adventures
Wild Photo Adventures is an award-winning wildlife photography series that’s currently on its fifth season. It follows host and professional wildlife and nature photographer Doug Gardner as he travels around America to shoot breathtaking imagery of the natural world.
With subjects ranging from walrus, bears and moose in Alaska to white-tailed deer in Tennessee, the viewer gets to enjoy some spectacular scenery and wildlife. But there’s also a strong educational element, and the main focus is in demonstrating the kind of tips and techniques that can help you follow in Gardner's footsteps.
05. Harry Benson: Shoot First
This documentary chronicles the career of Harry Benson, a Scottish photographer who earned global fame with his candid shots of the Beatles, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson and others.
So as you mighht expect, there’s plenty of starpower and celebrity name dropping in this look at his life. But that’s not the whole story.
Benson also considered himself a serious journalist, and covered the Ku Klux Klan during the civil rights movement era, as well as befriending Martin Luther King Jr and taking controversial shots of John Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman.
A great raconteur and a complex artist, Benson emerges as a funny, engaging and intriguing man who’s just as interesting as the iconic pictures he took. This well-paced and perfectly produced documentary does him a great service, and is an entertaining watch throughout.
06. Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project
A former model and dancer, photographer Tierney Gearon attracted the wrong kind of attention in 2001, when photos of her own naked and masked children in the “I Am a Camera” show at London’s Saatchi Gallery prompted the authorities to threaten child pornography charges.
This captivating documentary follows the artist over the course of three years as she assembles a photo series on her manic-depressive schizophrenic mother, who lives in squalor in the suburbs of upstate New York.
The intersection of art and family can make for uncomfortable viewing, but like Gearon’s photographs themselves, there is a compelling and subversive beauty to this moving and intricate documentary.
07. Abstract: The Art of Design (episode 7)
Created by former Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich, Abstract: The Art of Design takes you behind the scenes of leading creatives in a variety of disciplines, including architecture, graphic design, illustration and even shoe design. Episode 7 is the turn of photography, and it’s an absolute corker.
Its subject is Platon, a British photographer who has taken portraits of many world leaders, including Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi. And his story turns out to be a fascinating one.
We learn why Platon eschews digital and still shoots on film; how he goes deep into his subject and pushes the envelope when it comes to empathy; and why he feels he needs to take a stand through his work. It’s hard not to walk away from this documentary with a sense of awe.
08. Chasing Ice
In this powerful documentary, National Geographic photographer James Balog, once a sceptic about climate change, deploys revolutionary time-lapse cameras to capture a multi-year record of the world's changing glaciers, as part of a project he founded called the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS).
The documentary includes scenes from a glacier calving event in Greenland that lasted 75 minutes, the longest such event ever captured on film, which Balog describes as “like watching a city break apart."
As much about the personalities and human drama of the expedition as the photography itself, this documentary adds up to an impassioned and compelling viewing experience.
In this emotional mini-series, six conflict photographers reflect on their experiences capturing the atrocities of war and other manifestations of violence on film.
The photographers featured in the first season are Pete Muller, Joao Silva, Donna Ferrato, Nicole Tung, Robin Hammond and Eros Hoagland. Their stories and career paths all differ, but they are united by their hope to make the world a better place by bearing witness to what they have seen and photographed.
An often uncomfortable watch, but engrossing and absorbing throughout, this series really digs deep into what drives photographers to shoot scenes of violence, and how they can be a force for good.
10. Jim: The James Foley Story
This documentary tells the story of James Foley, a US photojournalist who went to cover the Syria conflict and was captured and killed by the Islamic State.
Obviously the subject makes for pretty harrowing viewing, but note that the online footage of his beheading, which was notoriously shared online by his killers, is (quite correctly) not included.
There’s also a more positive side to the story, as the documentary focuses on how Foley, who had previously been kidnapped in Libya, found the strength in his family and faith to pursue his dangerous line of work.
11. The Fifth Sense: Episode 2
Harley Weir is a photographer who’s shot campaigns for some of the biggest names in the fashion industry, and whose work has appeared in magazines including Dazed, Pop, and British Vogue. In this five part series of short films - a collaboration with i-D magazine and Chanel No.5 - she captures five young creative women in five different cities.
In this episode, she meets Japanese photographer Momo Okabe and showcases her technicolour vision of Tokyo. We also meet the subjects of Momo’s photobooks, whose transforming bodies were first documented at the bars and backstreets of the Shinjuku district’s quiet gay scene.
12. Duffy: The Man Who Shot The Sixties
This BBC documentary tells the story of photographer Brian Duffy, one of the iconic photographers who defined the look of London's 'Swinging Sixties’, along with David Bailey and Terence Donovan, aka the 'Black Trinity'.
Duffy was perhaps best known for his collaboration with David Bowie, including shoots for three album covers; Aladdin Sane, Lodger and Scary Monsters. Created by his son, Chris, this lovingly-made documentary reveals the charming and entertaining personality that lay behind the famous images.
13. Everybody Street
This stirring documentary about New York’s tradition of street photography features some of its most esteemed practitioners, including Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, Jill Freedman, Bruce Gilden, Joel Meyerowitz and others.
Tracing the story of the artform over nine decades, and featuring commentary from historians Max Kozloff and Luc Sante, it expertly captures the visceral rush, singular perseverance and often immediate danger behind the craft, and explains why the results were so important.
14. National Geographic The Photographers
Going behind the scenes with a range of National Geographic photographers, this classic TV series from 1996 set out to answer the question: "How did they get that shot?"
The answers given by the interviewees are honest and revealing, and explore everything from bureaucratic obstacles such as obtaining visas, to dangers including wild animals and local bandits. The photographers also discuss of the emotional challenges of shooting scenes such as African famines, as well as the loneliness that can be involved in the job.
To modern eyes, the production values of this vintage series may look a little old-fashioned, but the content is as compelling as ever, plus it’s free to watch online.
15. World of Photography
And here's another vintage American TV series that’s now available to watch for free and is well worth checking out.
World of Photography was a weekly half-hour show that aired on ABC from 1985 to 1991. More than 175 half-hour episodes were produced, including more than 450 story segments, and around 200 of those archived stories have been uploaded to a special YouTube channel.
Photography has changed greatly over the last three decades, but much of the content here is as relevant as ever. As you’d image, a huge range of photographic subjects are covered, so it’s worth taking time to scroll through the videos and find episodes that are most relevant to you.
In this 2016 documentary from Clementine Malpas and Leslie Knott, five acclaimed photographers travel the world to provide detailed insight into the difficult conditions faced by refugees who dream of a better life.
Narrated by Cate Blanchett, Refugee is an absorbing exploration how the line between observer and participant is blurred while working in situations of intense drama and human suffering.
This American documentary tells the story of Chris Hondros, who was killed in a mortar attack while covering the 2011 Libyan civil war.
Tracing Hondros’s life and career, and describing the stories behind some of his images, this Kickstarter-funded documentary is a moving tribute to a likeable and compassionate photographer.
It also gets to the heart of an uncomfortable truth about photographing conflict; that it’s impossible to do safely. “The problem with war photography is there’s absolutely no way to do it from a distance,” Chris says at one point. You have to be close.”
18. Time Zero
Subtitled ‘The Last Year of Polaroid Film', Time Zero begins as a eulogy to Polaroid instant film and cameras, reliving the magic of the 20th century technology through the perspective of a few Polaroid artists and former employees of the company.
Next we move to February 2008, as Polaroid announces it’s ceasing production of instant film. We see the intense emotions of several photographers as they recalll hearing the news of Polaroid’s demise.
But then the narrative takes a new direction, and the documentary chronicles the passionate efforts of a small team who try to keep instant photography alive against all odds through 'The Impossible Project'. In all, it’s a thrilling ride, and a must-see for devotees of Polaroid film.
19. On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace
Over his 25-year career, Michael O’Neill has shot stars like Orson Welles, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson and Martin Scorsese, for clients including Fortune, Vanity Fair and Glamour magazines. But success didn’t make him happy.
Then he visited India, where he met yogis and gradually learned that photographing is a way of meditating, and that you need focus for both activities.
Based on his book of the same name, this documentary traces O’Neill’s 10-year journey through the landscape of yoga. It follows him as he returns to India for a second meeting with the yogis, as well as some other yogis in his native New York.
In truth, you won’t learn a lot about actual photography here. But it is a fascinating and beautifully cinematic viewing experience, and you may discover an insight that can improve your approach on a deeper level.
20. Gone Shootin (episode 1)
Gone Shootin' is a reality show travelogue series featuring Glasgow photographer John G Moore and his assistant Ricky Fleming. Episode one takes a look behind the scenes as Moore shoots the Box Office project for the National Theatre of Scotland. He also joins landscape photographer Colin Prior on location in the West Highlands and in the studio to discuss his career to date.
It’s a promising start... But unfortunately after its release in February last year, no more of the promised eight episodes seem to have appeared. Here’s hoping they’re on their way soon.