Documentary Photography - Six Tips for Creating a Legacy

Documentary Photography – Six Tips for Creating a Legacy


We’ve all gone through times in our lives where we’ve lost loved ones. As a portrait photographer I would get calls all the time for “Urgent” family photos where one family member was terminally ill, and yet others that have photos done after the loss of a loved one.

Why do we wait until it’s too late, or almost too late to capture the lives of those most important to us?

As photographers (and before you argue that you aren’t a “professional” or you aren’t a photographer, I’m here to tell you that you are! If you take photographs you are a photographer, and this applies to you!) it is almost our duty to record the lives and times of those closest to us, family and friends. I’m not just talking about birthday parties and weddings, which are both important, but how about everyday life?

Last fall/winter my husband and I lost our two cats who were 18 and 19. He had them for 18 years, they lived with me for five. It hit me hard and I wrote this: “Do What’s Important Photograph Your Loved Ones”.  I vowed to go and photograph my grandmother who is now 92. I finally did that and I have some tips for you on how to go and photograph and document the lives of your loved ones both young and old.

So this article comes with both tips and a challenge, for you to go do the same.

  1. Documentary means as it happens naturally, in their environment.
  2. Capture the person’s essence, their real personality
  3. Remember to capture the details and scene setters
  4. Think big picture, take shots for the background of a collage or potential photobook or album
  5. Not every photo needs to show their face. Facing away from camera, hands and body are important too.
  6. Create a story with images, leave a legacy
Unfortunately Uncle Ward has now passed on, but his legacy does live on in these images, now treasured by family.

Unfortunately Uncle Ward has now passed on, but his legacy does live on in these images, now treasured by family. They sure did love their instant coffee. He even took a spoonful of the grounds and ate it!


Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle significant and historical events. It is typically covered in professional photojournalism, or real life reportage, but it may also be an amateur, artistic, or academic pursuit. The photographer attempts to produce truthful, objective, and usually candid photography of a particular subject, most often pictures of people. – Wikipedia

Get into their day to day life. Plan to go spend a few hours chatting with the person, listen to their stories, capture what comes naturally and what just happens. Don’t create something that isn’t part of them, just be there to grab moments in time that will mean so much down the road.

The afternoon "soaps"

The afternoon “soaps” among all her family photos that plaster the walls.

Neil going to feed the cattle

Neil going to feed the cattle


This is not too far off from #1 but let’s take it a bit deeper. Just being in their home, using their environment doesn’t guarantee you’re getting into their heart and soul. If this is someone close to you, as in my grandmother, what is it about them you want to capture? What part of their personality do you want to shine through in the photos:  wisdom,  a gentleness; intelligence, caring, a sense of fun, or all of the above? Is there something quirky about them that makes them unique, how can you show that in your images?

For my grandmother, she is a social butterfly so I photographed her with some friends and playing cards (see above).  My husband’s uncles are farmers and storytellers. We got out the old family photo albums and listened to them for hours while they showed us old photos from the 1940’s. They came alive as they recounted tales of their younger days and when they had a TV delivered “a couple years ago” which we later learned to be around 1975!


We found out my husband’s grandmother was a hobby photographer during the 20’s and she had some really great images and albums!


The key here is to get emotional. I don’t want to see a studio portrait or even a lovely window light portrait for this type of project, I go for real, raw, emotion.


When photographing a person with the intent of documenting, make sure you think in terms of these three views: overall, medium range, and close-up or details. What that means is don’t forget to get in close on some things, and not just have the whole face or person in every image. Details like how they hold their spoon as they stir their tea (so get in close on the hands or maybe even just the tea cup) can add a lot of impact.

Tea and cookies at Grammy's. For as long as I can remember she's been feeding us. "Do you want a cookie dear?"

Tea and cookies at Grammy’s. For as long as I can remember she’s been feeding us. “Do you want a cookie dear?”

She does love her Bingo

She does love her Bingo

Tea at the Uncles'

Tea at the Uncles’


Things around them in their daily life set the scene, so remember to capture some of those things too. If they live in a house make sure to get an exterior shot, some of the gardens, and maybe even a close-up of the wall you can use later as a textured background. Does she have a favorite dress, one you always think of when you think of her? If so then photograph it, or a section of the material. Is he a craftsman, then, by all means, photograph his tools.

The most important thing in my grandmother’s life is her family and in her small living room, the walls are literally plastered corner to corner with family photos. Weddings, graduations, new great grandchildren, and even the pets are all there. Every shelf and horizontal surface have photos on them. You can bet I captured that (even though I’d taken make of those photos over the years, seeing them all up in one places speaks volumes to anyone that enters that room and you instantly know what she’s all about. She also collects angels and always has one pinned on her blouse. She has hundreds of them in her house everywhere.


For the uncles that all consuming thing for them was farming and their animals. So I got lots of images of the barn, farm buildings, and old retired machinery. Do all that without their assistance, let them go about their day while you just shoot background stuff. Think about how those images may work together making a photo album or even a digital book.


The Cooper Homestead farmhouse

The Cooper Homestead farmhouse


Similar to get in and show the details, think outside the box. Not every image needs to show the face or even hands. How about feet? Use a slower shutter speed and add some motion if applicable. Shoot for something different here that the “norm”. Think about how to represent them, and their life without showing their face.


With her youngest great grandchild, young and old.

Unfortunately Uncle Ward has now passed on, but his legacy does live on in these images, now treasured by family.


Every other point in this article leads directly into this one, telling a story. By following all the tips above you pretty much can’t help but create images that do just that so the only thing I will add here is to do it consciously. Go in knowing you’rl./e creating a story. Intention is a powerful thing. When you show up planning to create a story, your subconscious will naturally kick in and go to work for you, if you aren’t aware (hint:  that’s why it’s your subconscious).




One other thing you can do it go look at other photo stories, specifically some of the great photographers, masters of the photo essay. W. Eugene Smith comes to my mind, go study some of his stories for LIFE magazine. Anything by Cartier-Bresson but especially The Decisive Moment. Or some of my favorites Dorothea Lange, Margaret-Bourke White and Walkers Evans who all documented the Great Depression. Find out what draws you in to their images. How do they use scene setters and detail shots? Learn from the masters.


If you read my articles regularly you’ll know what I’m going to say – get out there and go photograph someone important to you. That’s the first step! Then DO something with the images that will create a family heirloom. A book is ideal as you can make copies for the whole family.

To see the full book I made of The Uncles for an example of how to put it all together. is a great way to make books that are high quality that don’t break the bank. I’ve made several copies of this one for family and have done other volumes for special occasions and family events as well as clients.

Update summer 2014: it is now four years since I took the photos of “The Uncles” and both of them have now passed on. At their funerals, the book was passed around and the photos of them enjoyed and many smiles shared. Stories were told and memories rediscovered. The book of “The Uncles” has become famous in their little town (about 500 people) and among our family. I’m SO glad we took the time to visit and take them to leave this legacy of them behind.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Darlene Hildebrandt is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles on her site Digital Photo Mentor, online photography classes, and travel tours to exotic places like Peru (Aug 31st - Sept 13th, 2019), Thailand, and India (Oct 28th - Nov 11th, 2019). To help you at whatever level you're at she has two email mini-courses. Sign up for her free beginner OR portrait photography email mini-course here. Or get both, no charge!

Some Older Comments

  • Darlene October 2, 2013 03:42 am

    @lh thank you that's one opinion. I have a different one. I design my images to work as double page spreads in the books I design. Did you go look at the finished full book? You'll see how they go together that way.

    But as I always say - to each their own and you do not have to agree with me, nor I you. That's the beauty of photography we can each have our own style and tastes.

  • Lh October 1, 2013 06:31 pm

    I must agree technically it all looks sound, but the toning of the photographs seems rather inconsistent. Looks a bit like a number of different Lightroom filters have been used. Other images have a very natural tones with minimal pp (which suites the subject in my opinion), but yet other have a only hints of red left or a hdr vibe, bw and sepia. I would personally try to stick with one style throughout a collection such as this to keep the mood consistent. Nothing wrong with having bw images with colour images, but when there is an mix of techniques used giving each image a slightly different feel stops the viewer from concentrating on the context of the image and concentrate more on the technical side of the image.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt October 1, 2013 11:40 am

    @allen thank for reading!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt October 1, 2013 11:39 am

    @austin thanks glad you're motivated

    @kiran yes too true

    @ted it is?? I'd have no clue LOL

    @tonmoy all of my b/w conversions are doing using nothing but Lightroom. I wrote about it here:

    @cathi nice! great idea

  • Darlene October 1, 2013 09:57 am

    @Achyut - yes it depends on the type of photography for sure. This is for my own use and purposes so I'm the one that says how much. If you are a newspaper photographer or someone documenting news events then yes you must abide by the rules they set out.

  • Allen September 28, 2013 09:46 pm

    Great and inspiring as you always are, Darlene. Thanks for sharing.

  • Darlene September 28, 2013 08:20 am

    @m light - thanks!

    @val - ditto that!

    @belle interesting it had that affect on you but I'm really glad it played on your emotions.Tells me I'm doing something right.

  • belle September 28, 2013 07:54 am

    I love this article. I most specially love photo #7 (the old man with the toothless smile!). It instantly brought tears to my eyes and I don't know why. The emotional impact that that photo had on me was so powerful! I am not a professional photographer but I love to take photos, I am no expert either but reading this reminds me that sometimes it is in the little ordinary details that make the biggest impact the most.

  • cathi nelson September 28, 2013 06:21 am

    This is a wonderful testimony to the power of photos and stories. A project I completed once was a book called, "These are a few of my favorite things" It was a photo book about me and the things I love. Each page had just one photo, the first cup of coffee in the morning,my cookbooks because I love to cook, a place where I go when seeking solitude etc. Your photos of your grandmother playing cards reminded me of that and something we can all do for ourselves or others. In fact I founded the Association of Personal Photo Organizers an organization dedicated to helping people get their photos they can tell their story!

  • Val September 28, 2013 04:56 am

    What a wonderful project.Great photographs and memories that will last a lifetime

  • M Light September 28, 2013 02:33 am

    How many of us have looked fondly at old photos of our family, or perhaps someone that has made an impact on our lives? These photos are the historic footprint that we leave behind. It's important. One of the reasons I do what I do...really nice article. :)

  • Achyut Hatimuria September 27, 2013 11:25 pm

    Just wondering if that much of post-processing is accepted in documentary photography (with reference to the first photograph). I know these are not journalistic documentary photography...however, I have always been discouraged for heavy processing when we categorize the style as documentary (except minimal cropping and Black and White conversion).

  • Anthony September 27, 2013 06:39 pm

    Someone needs to tell all these link-spamming comment hounds that this site has rel=nofollow on their links, so it's pointless to try link building here for SEO.

    Good grief.

  • Tonmoy September 27, 2013 05:29 pm

    Hi Darlene,

    Superb article. But what blew me away were some of the treatments. Can you tell me how you have achieved that silvery tint in some of the photos, like the first and the last two in the article. Would really appreciate it if you can share the details.


  • Ted Nelson September 27, 2013 10:24 am

    I grew up on a dairy farm. Now it's gone and we wish we had more photos. Also, I can't get past the red McCormic tractor with the rear tire on backwards.

  • Darlene September 27, 2013 02:58 am

    @Laurie - valid points thanks

    @mary thanks for your opinions, as with anything in photography it is very subjective. As I said to Julan for his comments - you are entitled to your opinions, but they are just that and I am not offended if you do not like them.

    The look I was going for was antique, like an old faded out photograph similar to the ones we looked at in his albums. When you do mostly Black & White the middle shades are well - grey. So skin tone does look grey. The family and Neil himself were most pleased with the whole album I made so like I said - to each their own.

  • Mary September 27, 2013 02:21 am

    Nice tips. It would be nice to see more photos of Neil that aren't over-processed and washed out. Anyone who is still going to out to check on the cattle is far from dead. Some of the processing I see here has given the poor man a ghastly shade of gray to his face. And lighten up on the detail extractor effect and unnatural angles that make the viewer turn their head to put everything right with the world. You have a rare opportunity to be in someone's life, preserve it with quality processing.

  • Laurie Young September 24, 2013 11:17 pm

    Thank you! Thank you for talking about purpose and intent.

    I disagree with you on one thing. You said "before you argue that you aren’t a 'professional' or you aren’t a photographer, I’m here to tell you that you are! If you take photographs you are a photographer". I can't agree with that. I think photography is about more than taking photos, that's just playing with a camera. Being a photographer means having a purpose behind your photos (at least to me).

  • Darlene September 24, 2013 02:19 pm

    @julián - thanks for your comments. Photography is a very personal and subjective thing. I'm not sure what you mean by artificial colors but you're entitled to not like them.

    @jeannie thanks and yes I offer workshops, please visit my site

    @sherris sounds like you're doing great, keep shooting.

    @RobvE - thanks glad you liked it

    @Dewan yes a wedding is very much something to document as well, good job on it

    @mridula, Keith and raghavendra thanks so much

    @Gnslngr45 yes that's why I finally did with my grandmother

  • Gnslngr45 September 24, 2013 12:42 am

    I had a friend of mine pass away not too long ago and for several years, I wanted to get a session with him and his wife. I never did it. Now I regret not making the time.


  • Kiran NS September 23, 2013 11:14 pm

    A purpose, for photographers of any level :)

  • raghavendra September 23, 2013 06:01 pm

    Documentary photography is my favorite in photography. A picture must speak for itself love the concept :)

  • Austin September 23, 2013 11:41 am

    Great article and great advice. Since reading your article last year about photographing your loved ones more frequently, I have been trying to capture those solo portraits... this idea of creating documentary accounts of the little things in a person's life is such an intriguing project. Thanks for the motivation....

  • Keith September 23, 2013 07:28 am

    Some great shots full of life and character :)

  • Mridula September 23, 2013 02:40 am

    It goes down on my must do list!

  • Dewan Demmer September 23, 2013 01:05 am

    I have come to the realization that this is the style of photography I am most comfortable with. I find my images tend to show a perspective is if from the shadows.
    This article is very true in so many ways, and its good to put it out there let people realise just what it is.

    Now my images differ in many ways from these, but the approach is still similar and the idea of maintaining a story is there. Here is an example for comparison on the same idea :

  • RobvE September 22, 2013 09:50 am

    Great article.
    All photographers should take this advice to heart. It is often the simple day-to-day things that we forget to capture.

  • SherriS. September 22, 2013 08:41 am

    GREAT post Darlene! Perfect timing for me too. I am happy that I've taken some detail shots of my mom - her hands and the juxtaposition of my grandson's hand as well as her beautifully lined face against the smoothness of my grandson when he was tiny. But I just deleted an image of her cat collection yesterday! Why did I do that? I'm going to retrieve it now. Thanks for reminding me it's about the little details too.

  • Jeannie September 22, 2013 05:47 am

    Oh wow! This kind of photography is what I want to be doing! I have been struggling with how to capture these lifestyle photos of my family. Thank you for writing this. Do you ever offer workshops or mentorships? I am very interested. Wow! Non to go and reread and soak this all in on a deeper level. Thank you again!!

  • Julián September 22, 2013 03:55 am

    I think that technically are good, but too much photoshop,is a little bit confused see b/w mixed with sepia and very artificial colors, not real at all