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Docu-Photography: What is it and Why is it Making a Comeback?

Man in a skateboard

There are a number of photography trends that fall in and out of fashion every year. One of the trends that has had a significant impact in 2022, however, is docu-photography. 

Technically, this is one of the oldest photography trends in existence. Starting in the nineteenth century, docu-photography shoved aside the staged portraits that were popular at the time and replaced them with something a bit more real. 

After fizzling out a little at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it has now returned with a bang, taking over social media pages and becoming a way for people to get an accurate idea of the lived-experiences of its subjects. 

But What Is Docu-Photography?

Despite preconceptions that you might have, docu-photography doesn’t necessarily involve going abroad and capturing world news for the masses. Instead, it is simply about going out and photographing candid moments in their rawest form. It is a method of simplification, unfilteration, so the picture does the talking and the culture is accurately portrayed. 

If you are an Instagram lover, or if you’ve recently converted some pictures into an Instagram photo book, the chances are you may even have a docu-photography portfolio on your hands. Or, at least, you have portions of one. 

Say, for instance, you live in a city and you travel to your nearest skate park. Taking a picture of a group of skaters can be accurately referred to as docu-photography, as you are taking a snapshot of real, everyday life that is unstaged and untouched. 

It may sound easy, but there are rules to it. You need to have a story – something to say – and you need to communicate this story as candidly as possible. Human emotion needs to be at the forefront of the picture. For instance, if you are taking a photograph of these skaters finding a release through their activities, you need to understand them better to capture the “why” of the photo as well as the “what”.  

Why Did Docu-Photography Die And Why Has It Returned?

Docu-photography never really died, but it did take a back seat for a number of years. In many ways, social media can be both to blame and to credit. When social media first took off back in the late noughties, it became common to post accentuated and “elevated” versions of life, complete with filters and staged scenes to make a portfolio look good and stand out. With Instagram setting the precedent for photography trends, this became a common theme worldwide.

In the last decade, however, the landscape has somewhat warped. With the rise of “fake news” and propogandorist media, the appetite for real photography and true depictions of life around us has become strong once again. Today, there is a real emphasis on capturing raw moments and true stories that can enlighten and educate, revealing the context behind our culture and showing a raw beauty in our reality.

How Do You Take Docu-Photography?

As mentioned previously, docu-photography is about seeking out stories and displaying them in a candid, beautiful way. If you are an Instagram user who wants to bump up their portfolio – or if you want a different kind of subject for your next Instagram photo book – then it is easy enough to understand and put into practice:

  • First Off, Make The Insignificant Significant

Docu-photography is often about portraying seemingly insignificant moments in everyday life, and giving it the gravitas that it deserves. There should be a power beneath the surface of what you’re shooting, and that power should elevate the feel of the photograph itself.

  • Communication Is A Must

Being raw and candid photography, you will have to ask people to get on board. Going back to that skating park, you can’t just turn up and start snapping away. You need to remember the etiquette, ask permission, communicate what you’re doing and maybe even get some ideas to really elevate the details of the scene.

  • It’s Not Just About The Faces

If you are capturing a scene of people, it can be easy to assume you need to capture faces in order to tell the story. But faces are not the only way to convey an emotion. There are a number of things that you might be overlooking that might end up elevating the photograph even more. Experimentation is key here. Try different options when it comes to focus, close-ups, angles and subjects.

  •  Understand The Subject To Garner The Details

In order to really capture the details of a moment, you need to know what you’re shooting. For instance, if your subject is a skater, focus on low-angles which accentuate their sneakers. If you’re focusing on a protest that is happening in the streets, focus on the hands gripping onto placards. Be creative and understand your scene to know your details.

  • Gain Inspiration To Tell The Story

If you’re struggling to really get a hand on what docu-photography is, then take a venture online and look up some examples. There is inspiration to be found everywhere, and it is never an issue to use some of it to really get the practice in. Take a look around, figure out what you want to capture and then go out there and tell the story. 


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