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Concept of Documentary Photography Essay

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Updated: Aug 12th, 2019

A Composition

A composition can be defined as the arrangement of different elements of a subject to make the theme complete in such a way that it instils sense to the person reading it or looking at it.

It is the act of putting different elements together for coming up with a relationship between elements in a way that logic is made out of it. However, at the end of the day, its function remains the same in that it defines the elements of a subject that make it a whole. Composition in visual arts can be described as the act of putting together graphic elements for creating a visual structure.

The purpose of composition in this case is to bring out a distinction between the different elements of a work that is being portrayed in such a manner that the elements of the work that the artist is trying to bring out are easily identifiable to the eye by the viewer. Composition is crucial in arts because it secures the subject matter from being lost among the many elements of the work, which may mostly be playing a supporting role to the main elements.

Composition guides the artists in making their decision on how they want their work to appear. Thus, they are able to first identify the elements that would be used to create the main image, which will in a way contrast with other elements that make up the whole work. It will also enable the artist to identify elements that would be used with the main elements to create a contrast that will be in relation with the main work.

Composition will then guide the artist in the organisation of the different elements of the work so that everything is put in the right place for achieving the purpose the work it is supposed to accomplish. According to Berger (1972), “…the photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject” (p. 9). The placement of the elements making up the work in the right way enables the artist to communicate the specific message to the viewer because different arrangements communicate different meanings.

The purpose of the artist is to communicate a specific meaning to the viewer of the work. If the viewer gets the wrong meaning of the work, the purpose of the work will be lost. Composition is important because it is used to eliminate confusion in the viewers’ mind. When the different elements are being viewed by the viewer, the viewers tend to digest what they are seeing to give a meaning to it. Berger reiterates, “Images are more precise and richer than literature” (p. 12).

Therefore, the artist will always try to be in accord with the viewer of the work in that when the viewer sees the work, he or she is able to get the point the artist was trying to put across without so much explanation. This therefore makes composition a very important element of visual arts because of the role it plays.

Composition Skills

Composition skills in photography are the main difference between a photograph and a snapshot. Composition skills enable the cinematographers to see the object captured in the viewfinder the same way the camera they are using is viewing it. A camera is not like a human being who can be blind to some things and fail to notice them: it simply captures everything that comes within the vision of the viewfinder.

Therefore, photography composition skills enable the person seeing through the viewfinder to see what the camera is seeing and therefore choose what to take and what not to take (Freeman, 2007, p. 78). The difference between a snapshot and photograph is brought about by the composition skills of the camera operator. Composition skills come in different ways that can be grouped as either formal composition or accidental.

Formal composition skills

Formal composition skills are the skills that one needs to follow in a guided manner when taking a photograph. Two skills in this case are the golden section rule and the rule of thirds.

Golden section rule

When a picture or a photo is viewed, certain specific points of the picture or photo will be the greatest attraction to the viewer of the photograph or picture. This case also happens to different types of objects as viewed by the viewer whether they are manmade or natural.

The viewer of the items will be attracted to specific areas the moment he or she sets eyes on the image before them because of some elements of the image that catch the viewer attention. The golden section rule works in a way that the image is divided into nine unequal parts using four lines. The golden rule says that the most important parts of the image should be found at the bottom right corner of the image, which should be the place the viewer of the image should look for when looking at an image (Freeman, 2007, p. 45).

Therefore, when taking a photograph of painting an image while being guided by the golden rule, one should concentrate the elements he or she wishes the viewer to see around this place as an easy way to capture the attention of the viewer as well as convey the elements he or she wishes to capture. The golden section came about from the fact that most people read books from left to right. This tactic is the same format photographers employ when looking at photographs and pictures.

One therefore tends to pause around this area while looking at the photograph. When he or she paused around this area, he or she tends to concentrate a lot on the elements that are found in this area and hence a good opportunity to capture the viewer’s concentration. Therefore, the photographers should concentrate the elements they wish the viewer to see most around this area to maximise the purpose of the image.

The rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the formal rules to place and locate the elements that the photographer wishes the viewer to see. This qualifies as a composition skill that directs the photographers on the way they concentrate the elements on the image as well as directing the viewer where to find the main elements of the photograph. The rule of thirds requires one to “divide an image into three equal parts in a bid to compose the image in thirds with the dominant elements in the photograph being placed on one third of the image” (Sontag, 1977, p. 175).

They can be placed on “one third of the upper side of the image or on one third of the lower side of the image though the elements can be placed on one third of the right side of the image or they can be placed on one third of the left side of the image” (Sontag, 1977, p. 175). The areas described above are where the lines run or meet. This way of composing a photograph enables photographers to take the best angles from where they can concentrate the main elements of the photograph.

Accidental composition

Accidental composition can be described as a situation when elements fall in place on their own in a conjunction that is not planned into a kind of group that has a reflection of balance, energy, and meaning.

Whereas the elements can be captured through the effort of the photographer to position in an angle that will bring the main elements into a certain position in the formal composition, accidental composition has the elements somewhat in place on their own. This strategy is viewed as accidental because the photographer did not put an effort to organise the elements before taking the shot.

Comparison between good composition and bad composition

The comparison between a good composition and a bad composition can be found in the location of the main elements in the photograph. When the main elements are easily located in the photograph, the photograph is said to be a good composition because it easily conveys the message it is intended. A bad composition is one that has the main elements of the photograph lost among the other elements thus making it difficult for the viewer to see them instantly.

A good composition is one that has the main element of the photograph standing out of the background of the image. A bad composition has the main object lost among the many elements of the image thus making it difficult for the viewer of the image to point out what exactly the image is wishing to portray. A good image has all the symmetrical features in the right position while a bad composition will have its symmetrical features not being balanced in the image.

Social documentary photography

The features of documentary photography

Social documentary photography is a type of photography that tends to focus on issues affecting society by providing images of the same. It has a purpose in advancing certain causes in society for alleviating the suffering that victims in the case go through. It tends to record human beings in their natural settings that might not be the very best standards for human beings to live in.

The theme of universal social

A theme in a photograph is what the photograph is meant to achieve and communicate as well. In documentary photography, the pictures are supposed to convey a certain message that should be common in the given documentary. Sontag 1977) finds, “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened” (p. 175).

The theme of universal social is meant to portray the social issues that affect the society in the world as a whole. These themes portray the human being in a mode of suffering or discomfort that the photographer wishes to show to the other side of the world for changing the situation for the suffering group. The theme of universal social is simply a theme that can be easily identified and understood by the viewer as to be portraying a message from the society.

The theme of universal social is meant to send a message to the viewer of the image and convince the viewer of the social situation the persons in the image are going through (Rothstein, 1986, p. 45). In documentary photography, the picture is supposed to speak for itself. In fact, the pictures in the given documentary are supposed to support each other in an effort to bring out the theme and the overall message of the photograph.

Reality of the style

Style can be realised in social documentary photography by the photographers taking their time to find out in what form an image will achieve its intended objective. The reality of the style can happen when the photographer is able to take images in a certain way that he or she can communicate a meaningful theme or themes to the viewer.

The images should be taken in a certain sequence that can allow the audience to piece them together and come up with a message that the images a conveying or a message closer to what the photographer wanted to communicate. The realisation of style can happen when there is consistency in the photographs or images being viewed. If the images are not consistent, they should be related in a way.

Reality of style can be achieved over a long period by the photographer staying in an area for a long time for them to capture the best elements of the theme that happen over a period (Sontag, 1977, p. 175). Style can be achieved in social documentary photography by portraying the images anonymously without a commentary so that the viewers of the image take time to create different scenarios in their minds.

The strong sense of form

Form as an element of art is the three dimensional feature that an image is portrayed in. Documentary photography tends to bring out form as its strong point as part of its composition. Form enables one to view an image from a three dimensional point of view thus capturing all the surrounding elements as they appeared when the image was being taken.

Form therefore gives the photographer an opportunity to capture other minor elements around the image, which when viewed with the image enable the image to communicate a wider message to the viewer.

Sontag (1977) states, “from the start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects; paintings never had so imperial a scope” (p. 175). Form enables the viewer of the image to see the reality as portrayed by the image because social documentary photography is all about sending a message that should be convincing to the viewer of the image without so much persuading.

A strong sense of form brings out the image as the main element thus catching the attention of the viewer as early as possible. Form is achieved through such elements like dimensions, lines, mass, and colour among many others. Their strong uses in varying levels are meant to enable the viewer to catch the most important elements of the image that communicate the message of the image.

Emotional expression

Social documentary photography is meant to attract the emotional attention of the viewers as a way of making them move into the action and do something about what they have seen. Social documentary photography is mostly used by people campaigning for a certain cause therefore seeking the help of others in their campaign to change a situation in a certain social setting. Most social causes are meant to alleviate the suffering of people in those social settings.

The best way to do this is to get other people in better conditions to sympathise with them and come to their rescue. This stands out is the reason behind the use of emotional expression in most social documentary photography. Emotional expression is captured in this case as an element of the image. It is supposed to be very visible so much that the viewers of the image are touched by what they are seeing until they are moved into action.

Sontag further finds, “Photographs furnish evidence, something we hear about but seem proven when we are shown a photograph” (p. 175). Most social documentary photography images are of people suffering in one way or the other. The photographers tend to capture images that look sad without any form of happiness as a way of maintaining the consistency of the theme.

The relationship between the composition and features of documentary photography

The relationship between the composition and features of a documentary is realised in the images that the photographer comes up with for the purpose of the social documentary. In this case, the composition of the image should capture the image of the person in a mode of suffering by capturing most elements of the person and elements around the person portraying an image of suffering.

Composition is about capturing the right elements in the right position. Thus, when applied to documentary photography, the right image is brought out (Rothstein, 1986, p. 45). In documentary photography, signs of suffering are the right elements that make up the image for the purpose of communication. Thus, the images of people in social settings that are not right make up the composition of the photograph.

The attitude of taking documentary photography

The attitude of taking documentary photography can also be described as the drive for doing the same. This qualifies as the reason behind the photographer taking the said photographs. Different people have different reasons for taking photographs. They therefore tend to concentrate in specific areas that will bring out the message that they want to capture by making sure that the right elements are in place.

This case also applies to documentary photography. Different documentary photographers prepare documentaries for different reasons as well as intentions thus the questioning of the attitude of taking a documentary photograph. Therefore, the attitude of taking a documentary photograph should be in line with the intended purpose the photograph is meant to achieve.

Discovery: find out the question and respect the fact

One purpose of documentary photography lies in the fact that a documentary is made to provide evidence of something that is in existence, and that should be looked into by interested parties. A documentary is meant to create a form of awareness that will lead to further questions to find out the final truth about something to provide answers to questions raised before.

Therefore, the photographer is supposed to go into the field with a blank mind that will discover new facts or with information that he or she will be coming out to prove to be either true or false. The purpose of documentary photography is discovery. In this case, the photographer goes out to discover a situation that is vague in most cases and in need to have proof or needs clear information.

The photographers will then go ahead to find out the questions about the situation and move to the ground to find information with regard to the question that they need to answer. Documentary photography relies on evidence of collected on the ground as a way of answering the questions that have been raised thus not relying on hearsay. The photographer will prepare a presentation that will follow a certain sequence. It can be accompanied by captions that highlight what the picture is all about.

The photographer is supposed to approach the question with an open mind so that the discovery they make is not influenced any form of bias that might distort the answers to the question. The photographer should capture so many images that are relevant to the question so that there is a close relationship that can be followed by a viewer of the images (Sontag, 1977, p. 175).

The photographers should be honest in such a way that they present all the facts as they appear. In some instances, the photographers might be having their own opinion while taking the photographs though this should not be used to influence the outcome of the documentary. Any facts found to be outside the photographer’s mind frame should not be left out because it will negatively affect the outcome of the documentary.

Therefore, the photographer should respect the facts when compiling the documentary and in a way become neutral as much as the documentary is meant to prove a certain point. Respect of facts will make the documentary realise its purpose to deliver information that will be used by the viewer to make the right decisions. Biased facts will mislead the viewer into making wrong conclusions.

Creation: Base on the fact and add a personal idea or concept

Creativity in documentary photography adds a different angle to the whole work thus presenting it in a manner that will capture the attention of the viewer of the work. Creativity is the difference that separates different artists and photographers because the cameras are almost the same largely. If photographers were to take pictures, they would take the same photographs.

The touch in terms of the angle, the background, the lighting, and other factors that the photographer employs are the ones that will differentiate their work from one another (Freeman, 2007, p. 16). In the application of creation, the photographers should not lose the main point by diverting their attention to other things that can be referred to as secondary. The photographers should base their attention on the fact of the matter at hand to which they wish to use to communicate their message to their audience.

The fact that is being put across in this case should be packaged in such a way that will make it more appealing to the audience through the addition of personal ideas. Personal ideas range depending on the creativity of the individual who will be producing the documentary. They can include the background of the documentary, the captions used on the photographs, and the arrangement of the photographs.

Personal ideas in the concept can also involve the form in which the photographers wish to present their work to the audience as well as the location of the work, which adds to the theme of the work thus making the presentation more attractive. A point that should be noted in this case is that personal ideas should simply be used to reinforce the presentation of the work to support the composition so that the main idea is achieved at the end of the day.

The relationship between the composition and attitude of taking documentary photography

The relationship between composition and attitude of taking documentary photography can be found in the need for proof that documentary photographs tend to convey. The attitude of documentary photography is to find answers to questions and queries that society should deal with.

On the other hand, the purpose of composition is to capture the intended image and package it in a form that will be visible and presentable to the viewer of the photograph. Composition takes into account the elements that need to be captured in the photograph, their position in the picture, and their visibility to the viewer of the photographs. Therefore, with this in mind, the photographer is able take photographs that capture the specific elements he or she wishes them to capture.

The value of Documentary photography

Documentary photography is done by different people in different fields for different purposes. Thus, they all give it different values depending on what they wish to achieve.

Reveal the truth to promote social development

Documentary photography has been used in many occasions to find out the truth about the social situation of some members of the society, reveal the truth about their situation and encourage others to support them. Most people in society tend to depend on media for information about different places they have not been to or different situations affecting different parts of society that is not in contact with them. A good example of this is the poor and the rich people.

Although these two groups of society might be living in the same city or not very far away from each other, they cannot easily come in touch with the issues affecting the opposite groups unless they visit them. This case is not easy. Therefore, documentaries are one of the few ways that the plight of the disadvantaged in society can be highlighted on and attract development from incentives from the other groups of society. Documentary photography goes to the ground to collect raw evidence.

When presented to either authorities or donors, it can attract funding or different types of intervention from either authorities or development partners (Sontag, 1977, p. 175). In most cases, the truth of the situation on the ground is not known to the concerned authorities. The documentary serves like a wakeup call for them to take action.

Historical value can be of benefit to scientific research

Documentary photography offers a valuable collection of photographs that form a sort of narrative that can be used for future research. The whole collection of photographs taken over a long period can be used to show the difference between the past as compared the present situation of a place.

This information can be used to do research in areas like geography, which study things like erosion of land and sea. Photographic evidence of how the area used to look like previously can be used to measure the extent of the changes that have occurred in the given period also providing a glimpse of the solution to the problem.

Photographs offer undisputed evidence that can be used by generations to come in the conduct of research in areas like marine life on species of marine life that are endangered or have drastically reduced in number (Sontag, 1977, p. 178) . They can also be used to trace animals that used to be there though presently not easily sighted as they used to before. Most importantly, historical evidence gives prove for comparison between two different situations that are a subject for studying.

The record of the reality reflects the humanity

The record of reality reflects humanity in such a way that it exposes the different images of a human life that makes it real. Documentary photography takes into account different situations that human beings live their life and the different variances that the human life is. On one hand, records of reality show how there are so many different societies in one society that the human kind lives in. Documentary photography goes to the ground to collect information and evidence.

When put together, the true picture of humanity comes out (Rothstein, 1986, p. 34). Under humanity, there is a good life as well as suffering. There are different classes of humanity spanning the world with some sharing the same suffering while others having their own form of suffering. Under the social umbrella, there are the rich and the poor, war and peace, and diseases and good health.

Photographic documentary tends to expose the situation as it is on the ground to members of society who are not aware of it a make them develop feelings that would make them move into action to correct the situation. Documentary photography is a source of information that can be used to activate the human masses into action.

The relationship between composition and value of taking documentary photography

Documentary photography has its value in informing society through the depiction of different photographs, which are meant to portray a certain image of a certain part of society and make members of society to take necessary action. For a documentary to make sense and capture the society’s attention, it has to be organised in such a way that the pictures on displays communicate the same theme that the documentary is after exposing.

Composition as defined earlier is meant to balance the elements on a photograph in such a manner that the elements would be captured to portray the message they are meant to portray. When a photographer has the ability to make a good composition, they will be in a position to place the relevant elements into the right position for capturing the viewer’s attention to the right place (Berger, 1972, p. 12).

Therefore, a documentary will be of value only if the right elements are placed properly onto the photograph and in such a manner that the viewer’s attention is captured instantly. A documentary usually has so many photographs that one will have to go through to come up with a conclusion. Thus, the photographs should be taken in such a way that they can deliver the image as well as the message within a single look. This therefore makes composition very important in this case.

Daido Moriyama

Daido Moriyama is a 74-year old Japanese photographer who is renowned all over the world for his post war works that show the differences that have been caused by timelines in Japanese society. Daido Moriyama’s works span five decades from around 1961 to present.

It tends to concentrate on the dark side of the Japanese urban society in his photography. Daido Moriyama also tends to focus his work on the underdeveloped side of the Japanese society that is away from the industrialised sectors of the Japanese cities. He produces his photographs in such a way that they are unique and different from others.

Work analysis


Daido Moriyama is motivated by the ability of the photographs he takes to speak for themselves. Moriyama is motivated in such a way that he believes the photographs will get a language wherever they go to. He is thus not obligated to give then a caption. Most of Moriyama’s photographs are taken randomly. When he develops the film into a photograph, each photograph will be given a meaning by the viewers who will see it repeatedly.


Moriyama’s style can be described as unique. Moriyama under exposes the images he takes heavily. He then overdevelops them in the dark room, making him come out with mostly black and white photographs that show the main image without other elements in the surrounding.

This strategy makes the photographs lose a lot of detail but again a lot in character. He kills off the other elements that can be found in the background of the image making the main element that he wanted to capture come out like an island. This aspect makes the viewer of the image remain with it their mind for a long time. His style is unique in a way that not many photographers can achieve it or develop interest in it.


Photography is an integral part of the human beings life that cannot be ignored or wished away as such. The purpose of photography is both to communicate to another person different from the photographer and relay a message the photographer wished the viewer to see. This communication can only be possible when the right elements that convey the message are included in the photograph whether naturally or artificially.

A good photograph is said to be worth a thousand words in a way that it is able to explain itself even without a caption or accompanying statement. This stands out as the point where composition of the photograph becomes an important element of an image because the composition incorporates all the important elements that make up the photograph and or arranges them in such a way that they will be able to capture the attention of the viewer on the first instance.

The ability of a photographer to include all the necessary elements is what qualifies one to be viewed as a good photographer or not. Social documentary photography has a purpose in society to capture the different situations that the society finds them in and marshal enough support for a given cause. This purpose is one of the powerful functions of photography that when applied can bring a lot of change to the society.

Social documentary photography is a media tool that can be used to rally the world to a certain cause that is worth the world’s attention and mobilise support that would make the world a better place. All these goals can only be achieved through proper conveying of the message contained in the photograph (Berger, 1972, p. 23). A photograph that cannot be understood is viewed to be useless because it serves no purpose.

While preparing a social documentary photography, people should have their objectives set out so that the cause is not lost along the way. A good social documentary photography should have questions that need answers or should be able to bring out information that the people who are intended on viewing it will find it as new information.

It does not make sense to prepare a documentary whose themes and the topics are common knowledge because it may not attract the viewership it is supposed to get. Viewership in this case should be in a position of the learner with the documentary providing the answers to what they did not know.

Therefore, the way a documentary is prepared will define it as either a good documentary or a bad documentary depending on the factors that have been named above. Therefore, photography at the end of the day is a medium of communication that should be able to pass a message form one party to the other without too much explanation.

Reference List

Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin Group.

Freeman, M. (2007). The Photographers Eye. New York: Focal Press.

Rothstein, A. (1986). Documentary Photography. New York: Focal Press.

Sontag, S. (1972). On Photography. New York: Picador.

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