Photography Tips

Introduction to Documentary Photography

17th June 2020

Documentary photography is a ‘style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events, and is often used in reportage.’

Documentary photography covers a wide range of genres. From family photography to photojournalism and pure artistry, documentary photography aims to showcase real life as it happens. Whether it highlights a social injustice, an afternoon through the eyes of the family or just to capture an unfiltered, natural moment, documentary photography encourages us to capture the candid.

The Origin of Documentary Photography

The origin of documentary photography can be traced back to the work of British photographer Philip Delamotte (1821-89), who was among the first artists to use photography as a means of recording important events. Photographers such as Mathew Brady, Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, August Sander and Dorothea Lange shaped the early development of documentary photography in a period where the world was being discovered.

Skip forward to modern day and you’ll see that documentary photography has taken on new forms and adapted to the unfolding technological advances within society. Contemporary photographers include: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Clare Richardson, Roger Ballen and Deirdre O’Callaghan. Alongside social media, you’ll find contemporary documentary photography preserved in galleries alongside works such as paintings, sculpture and modern media.

However, it still holds the same meaning at the root of its creation – capturing pockets of the world or everyday life, without interruption, directing or editing the scene.

Family Documentary Photography

Documentary photography influences and weaves itself through many other mediums of photography – for example, street photography and family documentary.

Family documentary photography aims to capture the candid side of family life. Alice Chapman, of Alice Chapman Photography, spoke to us about family documentary photography – and why she loves it so much.

Alice Chapman Photography

“I love shooting documentary family photography because it’s so meaningful. When you shoot clients undirected in their own space, you can see who they really are and what their lives are actually like. That allows you to make photos that truly capture everyone’s character and their individuality as a family. Championing that individuality through your photos is a wonderful feeling. I love enabling clients to be themselves and telling them no-one has to be on their best behaviour on my account. I find the shoots are so much more fun this way too.

Alice Chapman Photography

My top tip for shooting documentary family photography is to be ready for anything – to let go of fixed expectations and go with the flow. You never know what the light and space will be like where you’ll be working, so you need to be confident to adapt on the go. Rather than working with a shot list, you’ll anticipate moments and know where to put yourself and your camera to be ready at the right time. You’ll see details, moments and connections along the way and respond to the feel of the shoot. It’s all about bringing your eye to them and seeing what happens, rather than putting them in front of your camera and telling them what to do. You’ll need to take the leap of faith that nothing is better than real life!”

Alice Chapman Photography

If you want to get in touch with Alice, or just want to see more of her amazing work, you can find her at or over on her Instagram – @alicechapmanphotography.

Documentary Photography Top Tips

1. Learn to anticipate the moment, not the shot

When you are crafting a photo or looking out for a photo opportunity, it’s very easy to naturally seek detail or a picturesque moment. However, the beauty of documentary photography is how candid your approach needs to be. Instead, focus on moments unfolding in front of you, not picture-perfect shots. With a more relaxed approach, you capture moments that may be overlooked when assessing the technical.

2. Step away from the editing!

A true photograph taken in documentary style is raw and unfiltered. Manipulating a photo, from airbrushing to manipulating images in the background, decreases the authenticity of the shot. Documentary photography needs to truly reflect the moment at hand in all its glory… even if parts may not be as aesthetic as you’re used too.

3. Reassess your aperture approach

To tell a coherent and authentic story with a documentary photograph, you will need to use a smaller aperture. This makes more of the background visible so you’re able to portray a wider shot, leading to a holistic view of the photograph itself. Truth and visibility is what makes documentary photography so raw and effective.

4. Step back and practise silent shooting

Whether you are photographing a busy and energetic family or have stumbled upon an act of protest, becoming part of your surroundings and observing through your camera lens is the most effective way of capturing the candid. However, please make sure you practise responsible photography and have permission to include individuals that may appear in the shot.

5. Take your camera everywhere

The more used you are to having your camera by your side, the more comfortable you will feel with documenting the moment you’re in. It will naturally become a reaction to something that you want to document, creating authentic documentary photography.

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