The Documentary Photographer

The very short answer to what makes you a documentary photographer is this: you are an observer…

What is a documentary photographer?

To do it you need a stamina that is more than just knowing the right shutter speeds and using light. You need to know people. You need to know the story. You need to know how to predict movements and moments. You need to be present. You need to maintain all that for hours or days at a time for just a handful good shots while only eating granola bars.

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The very short answer to what makes you a documentary photographer is this: you are an observer.

Your job is to see, and when you see something, you expose for it and click the shutter. That is all. You see with your eyes, your experience, your body, and most importantly your emotions. 

It’s tempting to interfere, I know. I’ve been doing this professionally for 15 years, and that water bottle is always in the wrong place, the subjects are frequently turned away from the window or backlit by something else, the clutter on the couch is messing with your perfect composition.

It’s tempting to fix those things either there on location or in post. I’m here to tell you: Don’t. 

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Documentary photography differs from all other family photography in this one thing: it’s 100% based in realism. It is untouched by anything but light reflected through your lens.

How you choose to interpret the light, the scene, the moment, the action in front of you, that is what makes you a documentary photographer, that is what gives you your style.

Not post processing or other bags of tricks.

Yes, we can argue that your presence is interfering with the scene. This is true, but that diminishes over time as you get better at blending in.

To be a documentary photographer, to call your images documentary, you need to adhere to the very strict standards that apply to this genre. Don’t interfere, don’t touch, don’t be tempted.

And don’t worry! If your preference is to interfere, then by all means, own it!

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However, if you do, do not call it documentary. If you call a photograph documentary, but have interfered in some way, you are undermining the integrity that others have worked hard to build in this genre.

You’re probably asking, why does it matter? It’s just a label.

 You’re right, it is a label. And it does matter. Documentary photography is about being able to adjust your expectations and react to what’s in front of you without having any part in it. That is the skill, and it is hard work. But trust me, when it all comes together the reward is great. The image happens when you click the shutter, afterwards it’s too late.

The moment is gone, embrace your disappointment and move on to the next.

If you are photographing kids, chances are good there will be a next time.


If you have any questions about documentary photography, any questions about photojournalism, or just want to learn more about this genre, please don’t be shy. Join us in our discussions on our Facebook group here or get in touch with me on one of the many platforms. I’m always happy to talk photography.

Kristine Nyborg /