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6 Tips To Help You Improve Your Documentary Photos

Documentary photos can have a powerful impact on viewers. They can notify people of an issue that they wouldn’t otherwise know about. Documentary images can help focus attention on different cultures that are rarely seen by other people. They can inspire, tell stories, and above all they can take the viewer on a journey that they may not go on themselves.

It’s important to remember that documentary photos differ to the conventional travel photographs. Yes they can overlap sometimes but documentary photos need to tell a story first and foremost. Here are 6 tips to help you improve your documentary photos.

woman burning leaves - Documentary Photos

1. Tell a Story

Before even a single photo has been taken, you need to decide on the story that you want to tell.

Are you trying to capture a specific event or ritual? Do you want to shed light on an environmental issue? Or do you want to document a different aspect of an already well-photographed location by focusing on say the grittier side of it away from the glitz and glamour?

Whatever the story is, your first action should be to write it down in a sentence. That will become your brief and with every photo you take, you should be looking to ensure it meets that requirement.

Not only will this help you to begin to build a shot list of potential things to photograph, but it will also ensure that you are always focused on the subjects you are photographing.

man cooking over a fire - Documentary Photos

2. Brainstorm Shots

Once you have an idea of what your story is about, you can begin to create a shot list based on that headline. So for example, if you want to photograph a traditional festival, some of the things that might be on your shot list could be things like:

  • The performers getting ready
  • Close up of the costumes
  • Head and shoulder portraits of the performers and audience
  • Action shots of the festival in action (for example dancing, singing, etc.)
  • Wide-angle shots capturing the entire event (for example to show the scale)
  • The venue (if it is in a place of special interest)
  • Any traditional foods or drinks served

This will help you plan your shoot and make sure that you cover different aspects of the story you are trying to tell.

Clearly, while you are there you may find that this list changes and other things get added or crossed off. The key is to make sure you capture a variety of shots based on your initial brief.

two men in red costumes - Documentary Photos

3. Planning and Setting Up

It’s not by accident that documentary photographers seem to be in the right place at the right time to capture stunning shots. This is not by accident or luck. There has likely been a lot of planning and research that’s gone into the shoot to ensure that they can maximize their time and capture the best photos. So, do your research before you start shooting.

For example, if you are photographing a parade get to that location a day before and work out the best place to be. Ask the locals if they know anything that might help you. Or if you are planning to photograph a remote tribe, contact local guides that can help you get there and also translate if needed.

Preparation is a huge part of documentary photography and you should spend time making sure you are fully prepared before you start.

parade with a religious float - Documentary Photos

4. Be Ready to Shoot

Once your research is done and you have planned everything, it’s time to execute and capture the photos. There is no magic formula for choosing your camera settings when taking documentary photos, as every scenario is different.

But you can prepare for it in advance by understanding your camera and predicting the scenario that you might face. For example, if you are photographing locals in their home where you are likely to encounter low light conditions, you can safely assume that you will need to raise your ISO level to be able to capture the shot. So, practice at home so that not only can work quickly but also you know your camera’s capabilities at high ISO settings.

Or if you are going to be photographing a dance festival where there will be fast movement practice being able to focus accurately and capture sharp photos. Trying to predict the scenario you are working in will often help ensure that you don’t panic when you are actually there and taking photos for real.

demonstration by doctors and nurses - Documentary Photos

5. Story Over Aesthetics

Arguably this is where documentary photography and travel photography differ.

While often in travel photography you want to try and tell a story, you also need to convey that in a beautiful and aspiring way that will make people want to travel to that destination. But documentary photography is about telling the story first and foremost and if the aesthetics have to suffer to capture it, then so be it.

So, don’t be afraid to break away from convention if it means you will capture the shot that will help tell that story.

protestors in the park - Documentary Photos

6. Edit Ruthlessly

Once you have captured all of the images that you wanted to get, then arguably the really hard work starts.

You need to edit and select the best of those images with which to showcase and tell the entire story. Flick through magazines and you will see that generally, a photo essay is anywhere between  6-10 photos maximum. You need to be ruthless in your culling and only feature photos that contribute to the overall story.

Try to detach yourself and think like a photo editor, not a photographer. The end result should be a collection of photos that are strong enough individually but also work as a collective.

Lightroom browser of images - Documentary Photos


Well done documentary photos can be mesmerizing to view and they tell an incredibly powerful story. It could be argued that they are often more powerful than the words that go along with them. Even the simplest stories can be phenomenal in a series of photos.

But capturing a set of photos that are different and yet can work together as a series and also tell a story is incredibly difficult. Follow these six simple tips and you will be on your way to capturing amazing documentary photos.

Now it’s your turn. Share your amazing documentary photos below.

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Kav Dadfar
Kav Dadfar

is a professional travel photographer, writer and photo tour leader based in the UK. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images and Robert Harding World Imagery and they have been used by clients such as Condé Nast, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and many others. Kav is also the co-founder of That Wild Idea, a company specializing in photography workshops and tours both in the UK and around the world. Find out more at That Wild Idea.

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