How to Improve Your Documentary Photography


Many associate the golden era of documentary photography with the heyday of picture magazines such as Life and Look magazine, but the practice of the photo story is still alive and well. Though such work may not find a home within the pages of most of today’s consumer magazines, there is still an interest in such bodies of work which can be frequently found online.

These photographers, many of whom I have had the opportunity to interview on my podcast, The Candid Frame, focus on more than just getting a nice-looking singular image. Instead, they show the power of a photo story where multiple images are used to convey facts, emotion and drama. These techniques can be used just as effectively by the rest of us whether we are focusing our lens on the lives of others or our own.


Look at Strong Documentary Work

Look and analyze the work of masters of the form including W. Eugene Smith, Mary Ellen Mark and Bruce Davidson. Explore how they use a variety of images to tell a singular story of a personal or place.

Create a Shot List

Compile a shot list of the images that you want to capture for the photo story. Remain spontaneous but periodically check your list to ensure that you are getting the key images needed to come up with a complete story.

Vary Your Shooting Distance

To create visual variety with images, vary your shooting distance and zoom with your feet rather than with your lens. Don’t hesitate to get in close.


Work with a 35mm or Wider

A wide-angle lens not only encourages you to get closer to your subject, but also allows you the ability to include the environment in your compositions. This helps to make the setting as much of a character as the people themselves.

Don’t Chimp

Focus on making pictures rather than reviewing what you’ve already shot. Things are changing rapidly and you don’t want to miss a key moment because your eyes are fixed on the LCD screen.

Look for Telling Details

Photograph details that don’t include people but that provide the viewer a sense of who the person is or something about that environment that you are documenting. Photograph hands, decorations or other elements of the subject or space that provide us insight into the who, what, why and where of the photo story.


Revisit the Subject

Don’t just photograph the subject once. Revisit the subject on different days. This will provide you a great variety of images and may also allow you to capture unique moments that might not have occurred during the initial day(s).

Edit as You Go

Review your images for how well they help you to tell a story. Look beyond the aesthetics of the singular shot, but how they work together as a whole. Look for important omissions, which you can make sure to capture during your next photo session.


Make a Tight Edit

Pair your selects to 12, 15 or 20 images and assess how they work as a photo story. Eliminate images that appear to be duplicates. Does the story have a clear beginning, middle and an end? Do you have strong lead and closing image?

Read The Passionate Photographer: Ten Steps Toward Becoming Great

The Passionate Photographer: Ten Steps Toward Becoming Great by photojournalist and documentary photographer Steve Simon provides incredible insight into moving beyond the single images and using your skills as a photographer to tell stories. This well-written and thoughtful book provides valuable insight into making strong documentary work.