How to start a documentary photography project

ricardo palma
3 min readFeb 16, 2023

Steal these 6 steps from documentary filmmaking:

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

1. Conceptualize Your Topic and Find the Story

Think of a subject or topic that you really care about. Chances are, you already have a concept that also encouraged you to make a documentary photography project. Here are things you may need to think about in order to determine the content and tone:

  • Your documentary’s purpose
  • Your target audience
  • Where the project will be displayed (exhibition, book, online)
  • Shooting location(s)
  • How much impact do you want the project to have

Do Some Research

Now that you have chosen the subject of your documentary, learn everything that you can about it. Unlike staged fashion photoshoots, documentary photography needs to be based on truth.

There are probably hundreds of other documentary projects that explore the same subject, so you’ll need to find a different angle, gather new facts, and search for interesting characters and possible storylines. Don’t forget to:

  • Take notes during your research
  • Ensure accuracy
  • Conduct initial interviews
  • Check out similar documentary projects
  • Go for an interesting, emotional, and/or inspiring angle
  • Include key points that will resonate with your audience

2. Select Essential Camera Equipment for Making Documentary

Before you can start working on your documentary project, you’ll need to assemble your camera equipment. Your kit can get as complex as you’d like, but you can use DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and even smartphones to shoot footage. For the best versatility, pick a camera that lets you change lenses and settings.

3. Plan The Production and Story Structure

This is the part where you can create a more detailed plan for shooting your documentary. With all the necessary information at hand, think about how you’re going to present your story. Determine your core story points, compelling elements in your story, primary characters, storytelling structure, and general storyline.

4. Schedule the Shoot

With some factors involved in the process of documentary photography, you’ll need to make plans that will help eliminate unexpected problems that can delay your production.

Here are some things to consider when scheduling the shoot:

  • Arrangement of travel plans for on-location shoots
  • Scheduling of interviews with respondents
  • Obtaining permission to film existing materials and documents
  • Coming up with backup plans
  • Post Processing

6. Start Shooting

When deciding on the photography equipment to use for your documentary, consider how you want your photos to be viewed. Establishing shots, for example, are crucial to put your scenes into context and avoid confusing your audience with regard to the story’s timeline. With that said, you may also want to figure out what sequences to use in order to achieve your desired result.

During (or before) photographing, don’t forget to conduct interviews with relevant respondents to provide credible support for your message.

7. Share Your Documentary

After long hours of planning, photographing, and editing, it’s finally time to show off the amazing result of your hard work and creativity. The next good problem that you will have to face is the choice of where you will be showcasing your work. If your final output is fairly high in quality, you’ll have more options, but it may also depend on your budget.

You can start by doing a “free screening” for your closest friends and family. Get their reactions and have those with a wide social reach write online reviews for your documentary project. You can then start marketing some photos of your project to relevant blogs and magazines (both on and offline) and via word-of-mouth. Making a book would be ideal after you have gained a fair amount of traction.

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