Understand The Difference Between Documentary Photography vs. Photojournalism

When you want to become a passionate photographer and your goal is to tell stories through your pictures, then you might find it interesting to learn about photojournalism and documentary photography.

Essentially, both of these photographic styles are closely related and do share some similarities. However, each one has a different goal and sends a different message to the viewer. 

It’s often quite confusing to distinguish between documentary photography and photojournalism. And their small differences have been a debate among professional photographers for many years. 

If you want to understand the underlying difference between documentary photography and photojournalism, stay tuned as I explain the critical differences between these two photographic mediums in this comprehensive article.

What is Documentary Photography?

Briefly, documentary photography is a genre of Fine Art Photography that simply uses pictures to tell a stunning story of a particular event. In general, we often use the term ‘documentary’ to describe several different types of camerawork. 

Usually, the term ‘documentary’ in photography, describes the capture or recording of events in real-time to inform us of relevant and impactful events that are happening in various parts of the world.

Also, there are rarely staged scenes or posed portraits in documentary-style photography. The idea is usually to depict real-life situations in a more creative way. The reasons for pursuing this form of art photography may vary. 

Documentary photography
An example of documentary-style photography.

However, most documentary photographers often aim to address various issues, raise awareness, do more research, and of course, create fascinating pieces of work.

What is Photojournalism?

Just as the name suggests, photojournalism is a ‘journalism’ branch that involves using photographs to tell a story (usually a news story). In most cases, photojournalism often refers to still images. But it can also refer to journalism videos. 

Moreover, photojournalism differs from other closely related photography genres and subgenres. This includes documentary photography, war, street, and social documentary photography, to name a few. 

Unlike other photography branches, photojournalism tends to have a rigid ethical framework that demands an honest approach that tells stories in strict journalistic terms.

The Difference Between Documentary Photography vs. Photojournalism

In general, documentary photography usually relates to a lengthy project that has, or unfolds a more complex storyline. Meanwhile, photojournalism often concerns news or rather breaking news stories. Here are some critical differences between these two photography mediums:

The difference in pace of work

Time is basically the primary distinguishing factor between these two photographic mediums. And unlike documentary photographers who have plenty of time to cover and document their stories, photojournalists tend to work with limited time, and at a much faster pace.

Photojournalists often share their work on news outlets, social platforms, and websites within days—sometimes, even hours—of shooting. They usually share their subjects live to keep their work fresh and recently updated.

Meanwhile, documentaries work at a relatively slower pace because it takes time to investigate and raise awareness about an issue. And talking about time, we’re talking about weeks, or even months of investigation. Sometimes it even takes years depending on the complexity and breadth of the story.

The difference in ‘approach’ to storytelling

Given the fact that they have different goals and objectives, both documentary photography and photojournalism are likely to have their own unique approaches to storytelling.

And due to their fast-paced nature of work, photojournalists usually focus their attention on recording events objectively instead of turning them to a full-length feature. Their photographs usually tell a story about a place, an event, or a person, on their own.

Documentary photographs on another hand, are used to unfold or tell the underlying story. And to achieve this, documentary photographers usually shoot photos in series or as part of a huge project. 

The difference in communication or interaction time with their subjects

Because it emphasizes storytelling, documentary photographers often have plenty of time to spend and interact with their subjects and establish a solid relationship.

But this is not the same case with photojournalists. Their work usually demands speed. And even though photojournalists do often have time to interact, and talk to their subjects, their sessions are likely to be shorter compared to those of documentary photographers.

Verdict: Both documentary photography vs. photojournalism has the same goal

Photojournalism photographs are only focussed on short-term involvement (they are more or less like breaking news), while documentary-style photographs are stored for longer term involvement or study.

Both documentary photography and photojournalism are about recording or capturing circumstances and facts. And every given photograph should be able to reveal the truth and show reality.

The main goal of both branches of journalistic photography is to inform viewers on specific events or stories.

6 Main Types of Documentary-Style Photography

We usually see documentary photography in some of the earliest black and white photographs. Some of the records even date back to 1861 during the American Civil War. The following are some of the most common types of documentary photography that started long before Digital SLR cameras arrived: 

01. War Documentary Photography

Wars and conflicts—and their effects on people and the land—are all included in war documentary photography. Historically, war photography uncovered dozens of armed conflicts to the civilian, spurring up reactions and increasing insight from ordinary people.

Also, throughout history, war documentary photography has been a powerful tool for photographers and journalists to alert, or increase the public awareness of conflict injustices. 

Nowadays, journalists and photographers are still using war photography to show the world what is happening to their brothers in other areas of the world. Take the Russian – Ukraine War, for example. The world would have never known what our brothers in those two nations are experiencing. 

Think about the constant violence against innocent children, women, and ordinary men. The hunger and shortage of food supply to the army, civilians, and even animals. The internally displaced persons. And don’t forget about the wildlife.

Anyway, behind the camera lens, stand the war documentary photographers who are usually the unsung heroes. If this is the path you have chosen for a career, be advised that you’ll always be exposed to armed warfare. And because of that, your safety is, therefore, highly encouraged.

02. Conservation Documentary Photography

Conservation documentary photography tends to promote environmental preservation through still photographs and video footage. The main subjects of this type of documentary photography include beautiful landscapes, wildlife, toxic wastes, and endangered animal species. 

These photographs or videos are often meant to evoke a reaction from whoever is viewing them. As such, viewers can direct their feelings and/or emotions towards a better and worthy cause.

03. Street Documentary Photography

In brief, street photography is a branch of candid documentary photography that involves real-life reportage of daily street life and events. 

Street photography was not considered part of documentary photography, until people learned that images of the street life do acquire some values of documentary photographs. This is because street photographs can provide a glimpse into a scene from the past, and thus forming pieces of social history.

04. Social Documentary Photography

Also known as, concerned photography, social documentary photography typically aims to evoke social change in the society. It captures what the world looks like, with an environmental or social focus. 

Social documentary photography may as well refer to a social critical type of photography dedicated to showing the lives of unprivileged people. It simply records everyday life, but with an underlying theme or in other words, an important message. 

Most photographers in this genre create different stories with their pictures. And they achieve this by closely following their subjects (people) over time.

05. Family Documentary Photography

Simply put, family documentary photography preserves the story of a given family in the present time. There are no posing or directed shots (for example, move here, stand there, or smile at the camera, kinda stuff.), just honest moments and memories, beautifully captured on camera.

Family documentary photography has a photojournalism approach with a focus on telling a story. The results are usually photographs that portray the subject in scenes that are very specific and dear to them. Our daily activities and relationships tell so many stories about us. 

And family documentary photography is our best chance of capturing some of these unique stories, which as time flies, they become even more meaningful to us. It provides us the chance to see the essential connections and fleeting emotions that we don’t usually see or notice.

06. Wedding Documentary Photography

This one is more or less of a candid style of wedding photography where every picture is captured without the wedding photographer setting it up. Wedding documentary photography is just so perfect for people who want a series of photographs that accurately portray the special day.

Most couples today enjoy the organic approach offered by wedding documentary photography. It simply just captures the intimate moments, casual encounters, and unexpected events, better. 

I’m not sure about you, but to me, good wedding documentary photographs are the ones that show what things felt like and not just how they looked.

4 Frequently Asked Questions [and Answers] About Documentary-style Photography

Do people really need to be included in documentary-style photography?

Although people are usually included in some of the most vivid documentary-style photographs, not all photographs require human subjects to raise awareness of a specific subject or an event.

Documentary-style images should be captured with a goal to elicit emotion from the viewer. And this can be achieved with a variety of different subjects. Furthermore, sub-genres such as conservation documentary photography, for instance, focus mainly on promoting the conservation of nature and wildlife, and the world’s ecosystem.

What does the term “documentary” stand for in documentary-style photography?

Simply put, the term ‘documentary’ is used to define or explain anything that relates to ‘documenting’ real-life information. Think of it as a significant word that is loosely used to describe anything that’s captured, registered, and/or achieved.

Any form of documentary-style art or photography aims to capture real events and people, and contain footage that is factually correct and that doesn’t contain any fictional parts. All the different types of documentary photography images are used primarily to reveal info about interesting and/or unknown topics of actual situations, people, and places. 

In most instances, documentary photographs are made up of people who think that a specific story or a viewpoint isn’t getting enough exposure from the mainstream media outlets. Furthermore, documentary photography provides a crucial lens into a new experience, or a new world, by using photographs to help shed light on a fascinating and informative matter. 

Lastly, even though the factual parts of documentary art can help establish a piece, the creative perspective of the photographer behind the camera lens is usually what actually defines the entire thing and helps to press or promote a viewership. 

What’s the most critical aspect of documentary-style photography?

Documentary-style photography serves as a creative form of art and a way of raising awareness regarding specific issues in society. As such, instead of achieving an aesthetic goal, its the most critical aspect is that it tells stories with sympathy and purpose.

Likewise, documentary photographers usually help to raise awareness of environmental issues, including people and animals, by photographing or filming natural events and providing them with a voice and a place. The goal of these images is to engage their viewers and inspire them to push for, or make a change. 

If you are considering working in documentary photography, you will need to first identify the situations, people, or issues that interests you the most. What types of events or stories do you think deserves an action or gain more attention? Or Which causes or situations mostly excite you? This will certainly help you decide what you want to pursue.

What makes a good documentary-style photograph?

All documentary-style photographs often represent subjects as accurately as possible. A good documentary-style photograph, however, is one that portrays the subjects through the photographer’s sharp and creative mind, and a fascinating story to share through intended photography.

Some of the key things you need to consider if you want to capture good (or perfect) documentary photographs, include, but are not limited to: 

  • interacting with your subjects ahead of shooting
  • capturing or recording scenes naturally 
  • using the correct style and equipment

I) Interacting with your subjects ahead of shooting

Interacting with, or getting to know your subjects ahead of shooting, often guarantees the best results in documentary-style photography. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to interview people. 

You can simply just approach and talk to your subjects beforehand. Doing so will help you establish a bond and create emotional documentary imagery. Spending a few days with your subjects will enable you to better understand them and their situations.

II) Capturing or recording scenes naturally

There is certainly no doubt about it—original and fascinating images are achieved when scenes are captured or recorded naturally. Therefore, always remember to approach every shooting session with an open mind. 

It also helps to always be prepared and ready to anticipate moments, and keep your camera and equipment ready. This simply means drawing contexts to every moment without actually staging them. It also means you are creatively taking charge of the scenes to capture what you want (or at least something close to it).

III) Using the correct style and equipment

Although any camera can shoot documentary photographs just fine, it is essential to consider the breadth of your project and get the right equipment that can help you achieve the best look. 

This will enable you to shoot and capture documentary-style photographs from different perspectives. Just make sure that you know your camera so well that you don’t have problems with adjusting ISO, shutter speed, and/or exposure to match the motion and the lighting of the scene.

Wrapping Up

From understanding the difference between documentary photography and photojournalism to exploring the different types of documentary-style photography, we’ve noticed that there are certainly some critical differences and similarities. 

Both photojournalism and documentary photography are very crucial in the world of photography. Just like most photographers who pursue either of these, you are also likely to try out the other if, let’s assume, you are practicing one of these two photography genres.