Documentary Tips

According to the dictionary,  ‘documentary’ means ‘based on re-creating an actual event, era, life story, etc., that purports to be factually accurate and contains no fictional elements.

In the 1930s documentary photographs and films were produced with the specific aim to educate the public about poverty, hardship and injustice. Complimented by a move across literature, radio and art to do the same gave the impression that they were simply portraying reliable facts from an impartial.

Not everyone liked this style of photography, Ansel Adams wasn’t a fan and said about it “What you’ve got are not photographers. They’re a bunch of sociologists with cameras.” (cited Marien:2002)

Today the term ‘documentary photography’ photography is used a little more loosely. It isn’t just about hardship and injustice now, but includes any factual story.

In thinking about my documentary project I have found the following pointers and tips.

Define the story

What is the point of what I am doing and what am I trying to say through my photographs? In working with KCFM I simply want to show what happens at a radio station. In a previous job I spent a lot of time planning and booking radio adverts and campaigns, I also booked presenters to appear at events that I was hosting. It just looked like such a fun place to work, with a great atmosphere which was the complete opposite to the pressurised environment of my own place of work.

I didn’t really know how things worked at a radio station so when the opportunity arose to photograph with KCFM I jumped at the chance.

Research the topic and other photographers

I have spent some time talking with the staff at KCFM talking about what they do and how things operate. I was surprised at how much work each of the presenters has to do apart from planning and presenting their own programmes.

I have looked at some other documentary photographers that you can find elsewhere on this blog.

I’ve also looked at some other photographs of radio stations in order to get some inspiration for my own work.

Finally, I have also discussed with the staff at KCFM whether there are any restrictions or permissions I need to have in order to take the photographs that I want. So long as I liaise with my contact at the radio station everything should be fine. I won’t be photographing a feature that they run called ‘small talk’ as we have not been able to get permission from the school where the recordings would be held. Other photos will be taken in public where it is polite but not legally necessary for me to ask permission to photograph anyone.


I aim to try to get a range of photographs, some of which are of details and some of which include the bigger picture.

I aim to try to represent reality and not let pre-conceived ideas get in the way of the photographs.

Be Prepared

To appear professional I need to know my camera and lenses very well and ensure that everything is not only in good working order but that I have with me all the equipment I need. I mostly plan to use my 18-200mm lens that will allow me to take both close up and wide angle photographs without the need to keep swapping lenses.

I need to be prepared to try new things, to think on my feet and to quickly make adjustments to my plans if situations change.


It is better to be patient and take time to spot and frame my photos rather than to rush about and take lots of snaps.

It is also good to take time and talk to those that are being photographed. As I have photographed the staff at KCFM I have learned about how the station operates and at the same time achieved shots of the presenters at their most relaxed. All of the staff have been very generous with their time, explaining to me what all the buttons are for, who does what and even how the software works and I have taken a genuine interest in it all.

Post Production

I need to decide how I want the finished photographs to look. As it is a documentary style I don’t plan to do a lot of post production work to my images. However I will need to remove or obscure any sensitive or business information that I have photographed on the walls or computer screens. I plan to do this in Lightroom and or Photoshop.

I currently plan to leave all my images in colour rather than black and white because I will be taking photos of Christmas lights as well as within the station I think they will look better in colour.


On this occasion I plan to include the photographs in a self published book. I haven’t decided whether I will use captions or not yet or whether I will use some headings in the book to give it some structure.