How To/Techniques: The documentary portrait

Documentary photography is all about spending time out in the world, photographing people in their environments.


It’s about telling stories through photographs, getting to the heart of what makes people who they are and exploring the diversity, excitement and challenges of everyday life. Because it’s about people, portraiture is a fundamental part of documentary photography.

We’ve created three different exercises to introduce you to some key techniques in documentary photography.

© Lewis Bush

Technique No.1– The Documentary Portrait

In documentary photography the photographer often plays a very minimal role, not directing events but photographing them as they unfold. Because of this, it requires a different set of skills to working in a studio. A documentary photographer needs to be aware of how to use natural (available) lighting which is out of their control to produce strong photographs.

For this assignment, the aim is to produce a simple head and shoulders portrait of your subject using available light in your immediate environment.

Using natural light for a simple head and shoulder shot.
What you will need
  1. A subject – ideally the same person so you can see how different situations change their photograph. Better still use another person who is interested in photography and take turns in the role of photographer and subject.
  2. You can use any type of camera, from an iPhone to a Digital SLR. You can even try repeating the same assignments with different cameras to see what different effects are possible.
Things to think about:
  1. How will you direct them to position themselves? Will they be looking at you or away? Standing front on, at an angle, or in profile?
  2. Look at what light is available. Will you use shade or bright light, natural daylight or artificial lighting?
  3. You’ll need to think about what sort of background you want- is it simple or complicated?
  4. How will this alter the mood or atmosphere of the photograph?
Exploring atmosphere with light levels. Creative backgrounds can help you to bring out the character of the person you’re photographing.


Lewis Bush is a documentary photographer and writer. You can see more of his photography on his website