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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. Blurb.com 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.

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Darlene Hildebrandt
Darlene Hildebrandt

is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through free articles on her website Digital Photo Mentor and online photography classes. She also teaches all about photo editing using Lightroom, Photoshop, and Luminar Neo and has courses available on all three.

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