Documentary Photography: 6 Tips to Improve Your Next Project

by John Stapel

tips to create amazing documentary images

If you’re looking to create stunning documentary photography, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, I explain everything you need to know to carry out a top-notch documentary project. I discuss planning, idea selection, ways to maximize the quality of your images, and so much more – so that, by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be ready to take pro-level shots on your topic of choice.

Ready to become a documentary photography master? Then let’s dive right in!

1. Start with a clear topic and plan

Monk in a Saamlor tricycle taxi in Chiang Mai, Thailand

If you want to create amazing documentary photos, I encourage you to plan out your project in advance.

Don’t charge into a project on a whim; without purpose or planning, you’re more likely to lose interest. You’ll struggle to keep momentum and fail to come up with fresh ideas to keep your project alive.

Instead, carefully select a topic and outline your project goals. Here’s my simple step-by-step method for getting started:

First, create a topic list. Write down ideas as they come to you. What would you most like to photograph? When writing your list, don’t restrict yourself. Jot down whatever comes to mind, and give no thought to whether or not it’s practical. Let your list grow over the course of a week.

Next, review your list. Consider each documentary project idea, then delete the impractical ones. Which topics could you pursue every day or at least every week? Discard any topics that are inaccessible. If you like an idea but acknowledge that it’d be difficult to carry out, add it to a list of future projects.

Then concentrate on what excites you. Which idea is interesting enough to shoot on a regular basis? A genuine passion for your theme or concept will keep you motivated! (By the way, don’t choose ideas that are too easy; being challenged is good for you!)

Market Tricycle Taxi Ride documentary photography tips

Third, narrow down your list to two or three ideas. Mull these over for a day or two before picking the winner. Remember, you should select a topic that excites you, challenges you, and is practical. (If you can’t choose, feel free to start out with two projects. Then, if it’s too much of a commitment, stick with the one you’re enjoying more.)

Fourth, for each documentary project idea, create a rough schedule. You don’t have to stick with it – as you carry out the project, you may find yourself wishing to adjust it, and that’s completely okay – but it’s good to block out time for photography on a regular basis. Otherwise, you may find yourself procrastinating, and your project may eventually fizzle out.

Finally, consider your ultimate plan for the images. In other words, once you’ve finished capturing your documentary photos, what will you do with the files? Stories are for sharing. Who will be interested in the tale you’re telling? What’s the best medium or platform to display your photos?

For instance, do you plan to submit a selection of your photos to a newspaper or magazine? Do you want to post weekly (or daily) on Instagram or Flickr? Do you want to create a blog dedicated to your project? All of these goals are completely legitimate; it’s up to you to decide what feels right!

Tricycle Detail

2. Know your subject better than anyone

Once you’ve chosen a topic, you should research it like crazy. Consider your subject, research its current situation, and understand its history. Even if you already know a lot about your topic, find out more. The goal is to tell a story, and the more you understand the story you’re telling, the better your results will be.

In fact, while you research, you may even want to outline a narrative. What will be the beginning, middle, and end of your story? The greater your knowledge of the topic, the more details you’ll be able to include. Of course, you don’t need to plan out every image – some of your documentary photos should be spontaneous! – but it helps to think about your ideal photos in general terms.

One more documentary photography tip: Look into other photographers who have carried out similar projects. See how they approached the topic. Draw inspiration from their photos – and use the inspiration to take your project to new heights.

Tricycle Taxi Rest documentary photography tips

3. Take lots of photographs

Planning is important, but don’t let it hold you back. My recommendation? As soon as you’ve decided on your project idea, get started shooting.

Then use your research to guide your work.

If you’re a very analytical person, you may feel tempted to delay shooting until you’ve finished your research. But this will slow you down, plus you may lose your initial excitement and momentum.

Instead, begin working with your camera. As your story (and research) develops, you can steer your approach in the desired direction.

And take plenty of images! If you’re embarking on your first documentary photo project, you should shoot frequently and on a regular basis. It’ll help maintain your momentum, plus it’ll make it easier to see the developing story.

Vary the images you take. Even if you use a single camera and lens, push yourself to create a diverse group of compositions. And if you have multiple lenses, try to capture both wider and telephoto shots every time you’re out.

Waiting for a Ride

You can also add variation to your images by using an array of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings. For instance, you can use a fast shutter speed to capture tack-sharp action shots – but then slow down your shutter to let the subjects blur.

Photograph in a mixture of lighting situations, too. Take some photos in the morning and others in the afternoon or at night. Work with natural light, then bring along a flash and see whether you like the results.

As you build up a body of work, you’ll start to identify the approaches and photos you like the most. Frequently review your images, then place your favorites into a separate folder.

Taxi Rider in Chiang Mai, Thailand

4. Cultivate a relationship with your project

Long-term documentary photography requires repetition. You must visit the same locations, photograph the same things, and meet the same people.

But though the scenes may seem similar from shoot to shoot, you can create fresh photos on each outing by remaining aware of your feelings. Pay attention to your mood, and try to capture images that express your current state of mind. It’ll make your story more personal and interesting.

Your view of the world is unique, and your photographs should reflect this. The concept may seem a little abstract, but over time, if you make an effort to combine your topic and your feelings, your photos will become more expressive of who you are.

Waiting for Customers documentary photography tips

And if there are people who are part of your story, interact with them and take their photos! It’ll lend character to your narrative. Of course, you don’t have to capture posed photos, and some photographers do prefer to keep their documentary pictures candid, but make sure to shoot at least a few images of any human subjects.

When you start engaging with subjects, they may be uncertain of what you’re doing or why. But as you revisit key locations and photograph key individuals, your relationships will change. Some people will become accustomed to you and will become more relaxed in your presence. Others may become irritated or bored. The photos you make of them will change, too.

Also, each time you head back to a location, look around carefully. Ask yourself: What’s changed since the last time I worked in this area? Also, what did I miss the last time I was here? Over time, you’ll start to notice things you didn’t pick up on before. These details can add extra interest to your documentary project.

Poise of the Rider

5. Review your photos and seek feedback

After each documentary outing, carefully review your images on the computer. What do you like about them? What do you dislike? How could they be improved? Use these questions to guide your approach.

Also, when doing your regular reviews, separate out the top 10 or 20 percent of your photos. This will give you a clearer idea of your progress. And from time to time, review your best photos and look for gaps in your story. What’s missing? What are you photographing too much?

Even if you’re loving the results of your project, ask a photographer friend or mentor to look over your photos and share their thoughts. They may point things out or ask questions you hadn’t thought about. Encourage honesty. Healthy feedback can lead to a deeper, richer story.

By the way, working on a project allows you to see your photography develop. Because you’ll be photographing the same theme or concept over a period of time, you’ll create similar types of photos for weeks or months. Take the opportunity to compare your older images and your newer images. Do you see growth in your skills and style?

Cycle Taxi Shadow documentary photography tips

6. Let your documentary photography project grow organically

While it’s great to plan out your topic and even think about photo opportunities and narratives in advance, you should also learn to go with the flow. If you feel a more exciting story is emerging from your project, run with it.

It’ll help keep you interested – and if the alternative story turns out to be a dead end, just turn around and continue with your original plan.

You may even find yourself discovering lots of stories as you shoot. While it probably won’t be feasible to take constant detours, be sure to keep a list of future projects and write down any and all ideas you encounter. That way, once you’ve finished one project, you can immediately get started on another!

Documentary photography tips: final words

Hopefully, you now feel ready to dive into documentary photography!

So start today. Begin writing your list of ideas. Don’t rush, but don’t let the thoughts stagnate. And once you’ve chosen a topic, get out with your camera and shoot!

Now over to you:

What documentary images do you hope to take? What will be your next project? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

  • GENERAL

    • How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

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Documentary Photography: 6 Tips to Improve Your Next Project