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What does a Documentary Photographer do?

By Donn Saylor
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A documentary photographer captures images, either digitally or on film, to present the reality of a true-life story. He or she commonly works as a freelance professional and is often hired by magazines, newspapers, or publishing companies to tell a specific story through photographs. A typical documentary photographer job assignment is not a quick-turnaround gig; the project usually entails significant amounts of preparation, research, and story development.

One of the fundamental duties in any documentary photographer job description is the ability to take effective photos. Those working in the field possess advanced knowledge of the technical side of photography: understanding how the camera functions, the role of proper lighting and positioning, and the workings of various digital imaging equipment and software applications. Equally important is the photographer's emotional sensitivity to his or her subject. Since the documentary photographer is capturing a specific place and time for posterity, he or she often has an innate ability to read people, gain their trust, and make them comfortable in front of the camera lens.

Documentary photographer jobs often take professionals into challenging environments. War zones, extreme weather conditions, or remote jungles could be considered just another day at the office for a documentary photographer. He or she is often the link between these far-off events and the rest of the world, offering a valuable service that stands as a record of an important incident.

Though the planning process for a story may take some time and footwork, the actual taking of photos is, by comparison, rather quick. Since a documentary photographer is typically walking into a challenging environment, he or she utilizes organizational skills and effective time management to get the best photos in the shortest amount of time. This requires an in-depth knowledge of and sensitivity to the scene in which he or she is entering, as well as an ability to stay on-guard and alert at all times.

A documentary photographer works side by side with journalists and other media professionals. The photographer rarely ventures into a story alone; there is typically a team of colleagues with various specialties who are also working on the story at hand. This partnership creates a fuller, more objective story, which is the goal of any documentary photographer.

To become a documentary photographer, most organizations look to hire individuals with both photography experience and education. While some employers might require an advanced degree in photography or journalism, others may be more interested in an applicant's portfolio of work. Possessing a powerful collection of work is an ideal way for a photographer to present his or her abilities, skill level, and areas of interest to a potential employer.

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