Ideas for Documentary Photography

By Kim Durant

Updated July 21, 2017

Documentary photography can capture significant events or everyday life.
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Many different types of photography beckon the budding photographer, among them portrait photography, art photography, news photography and documentary photography. Whether you are putting together a final portfolio for a documentary photography class, want to start a project that could eventually be exhibited in galleries, or simply want to grow your skills behind the camera, documentary photography can focus on almost any aspect of human life and the world we inhabit.


Skateboarders are a distinctive subculture.
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Take photographs documenting a little-known or often-misunderstood subcultures. Subcultures are often formed around a common interest, such as an activity like ultra-running or a pursuit like astrophotography, but they may also be a religious subculture or a geographic subculture of people who live within a specific area. Photographs documenting a subculture could include shots of the people who are part of the subculture, the accouterments associated with the subculture (such as the clanking metal gear racks of rock climbers), and the activity, place or pursuit around which the subculture revolves.


A study of a country parish would be very different from one of an urban megachurch.
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Capture the one-of-a-kind essence of a place with photographs. Choose a place that holds meaning to you or to a group of people. Potential places for documentary photography projects include stores, houses of worship, schools, meeting halls, restaurants, cafes, factories, workshops and stores. Photographs to document a place should include far-away shots establishing the context of that place, detail shots of any unusual architectural, artistic or other features, shots of people entering, leaving and using the place, and shots of the place in different weather and lighting conditions.


Environmental issues can be powerful subjects for documentary photography.
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Expose -- pun intended -- a social or ecological issue in photos for a documentary photography project that could raise awareness and even have an impact on that issue. Potential issues that a photography project could document include an environmental issue (such as an oil spill, chemical contamination of a water supply or a new development on an ecologically sensitive area), a social issue (such as homelessness or hunger in a certain region) or a political issue (such as a fiercely debated and protested bill).


Music events can also serve as subjects.
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Chronicle an event in photos for a short-term documentary photography project that will demand concentration, planning and well-developed from-the-hip shooting skills. Events suitable for documentary photography projects include everything from quinceaneras to festivals (particularly the quirky regional kind) to religious ceremonies. Shots to get include detail shots of the items used in the event, big-picture images showing the scope and layout of the event, and, of course, action shots of people participating in the event.