Gig Business

Is Documentary Photography Right for Your Event?

By Tessie Barnett

Article author, Becky Yee, is the founder and principal of Around Digital Media. She is an award winning photographer and was part of PDN’s Photo Annual.

When planning an event, it’s good to think about what you and your guests will take away from the experience. High-quality images are one of the best ways to remember—or even memorialize—an event. However, some events are milestone occasions in which you won’t want to be stuck behind a camera. That’s when you need to hire a photographer. But before you begin your quest to find the right professional, consider looking at different styles of photography. For special event photography, there are two main styles: traditional and documentary style. Knowing the difference between these two styles can help you convey your wants and needs, and ensure you get all the shots you desire.​

Documentary photography

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Traditional Photography

Traditional photography creates a posed look that’s carefully constructed by the photographer. They typically have a shot list, which defines the most important moments to be photographed. We’ve all seen wedding photos with a seemingly infinite combination of family members, guests, and friends. Each person is strategically positioned, looking directly at the camera and smiling. These are the photos we send with a card saying “Thank you for coming and sharing this special moment with us.” The shots are necessary and nearly always great, but there’s also risk of it being cookie cutter, predictable, and sometimes even fake-looking.

Documentary photography

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Documentary Photography​

Documentary photography, also referred to as photojournalism, is an authentic and creative way to get candid shots of your guests. The photographer maneuvers like a fly on the wall, documenting moments without his or her influence or manipulation. The advantage of this style of photography is that it captures genuine smiles, laughter, and emotions. The disadvantage is that you may not always look your best in every photo. Your mouth may be open or your expression askew. Perhaps only half of your face is visible in the shot. Documentary photography is unintrusive, but it’s also unpredictable.

Documentary photography

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Another element to consider is the use of flash or ambient light. Traditional photography for special events is shot with a flash. This is especially important for events taking place at night or in a dimly lit room. Flash is best for making the images clean and clear, and it can be very flattering. The disadvantage is that all the photos can appear very similar or have a clinical look to them.

Documentary photography is usually taken with ambient or available light. This is a great way to capture the atmosphere or—you guessed it—ambience of the event. Ambient lighting also creates unique, moody, and artistic imagery. The disadvantage is that you may get unflattering shadows across faces or the photographer has to use a very high ISO, making the pictures appear grainy and lower quality.

Documentary Photography

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For a special event, photography style doesn’t have to be “either this or that.” In fact, some photographers shoot both styles, carrying two cameras on them at all times. One camera comes equipped with a flash, and the other camera is setup to capture ambient light for documentary style photos. This can be an important factor as to why some photographers have higher rates than others. Whichever professional you choose for your event, be sure to come prepared with a solid understanding of photography styles and a list of questions you want answered.


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  1. Ines Pljakic January 12, 2017

    Tessie, I love how documentary photography shows no masks! It’s a real feel of the event, you can almost feel the vibe! Those kinds of photographs last forever.

    • Tessie Barnett January 16, 2017

      I agree, Ines! It captures the true essence of the event, with all its presence and authenticity. Thanks so much for reading!


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