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What is Documentary Family Photography? (Tips to Get Started)

Last updated: November 12, 2023 - 5 min read
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Have you ever created family photos and felt underwhelmed by the results?

Read on to find out how you can use documentary family photography to revitalise your images by capturing real life moments.

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What Is Documentary Family Photography?

Documentary family photography has a photojournalism style with a focus on storytelling.

The results are images that depict families in scenes that are specific to them. The portraits are original and intimate.
documentary family photography of kids playing outdoors

Why Is Documentary Family Photography Important?

Our day-to-day activities and relationships tell a thousand stories about us.

Documentary family photography provides a chance to capture some of these stories.

These stories become more meaningful as time passes. We glimpse fleeting emotions and meaningful connections that we don’t often see.

Think forward a hundred years. Descendants will learn more from documentary-style photos, than from formal family pictures!

documentary family photography of a kid dancing on a family holiday
An impromptu dance on a family holiday.

Documentary Photography Portrait Ideas

Unsure where to start as a documentary family photographer? Be inspired by some of my favourite themes:

This list demonstrates the ‘ordinariness’ of the documentary photography genre. They are universal ‘real life’ themes that people can get involved in and relate to.

Plan a photo project with a family you know (use your own if you like). Spend half a day with them and get practising!

documentary family photography of kids playing outdoors

Documentary Photography Tips for Great Family Portraits

You can borrow techniques from the photojournalism documentary genre. These tips will help you get the best out of your documentary family photos.

Research Your Subjects and Their Stories

Learn if any family members have special needs or accessibility requirements.

How comfortable are they with a camera around? Is there a time of day that is dynamic/relaxing/eventful for them?

Photographing small children? Find out what their interests or favourite animals are before you meet. Have some fun facts up your sleeve to help break the ice.

Build Trust to Capture Intimate Moments

For excellent documentary family portraits, your subjects have to feel comfortable. Building trust is essential.

You can meet the family a couple of times before a photo shoot. Be open about your photographic style, so they know what to expect.

You’ll see families at vulnerable and intimate moments during photo shoots. Keep all the details of the session in strict confidence.

Don’t Direct Your Subjects to Get Genuine Shots

This tip is super important. Let your subjects do their thing without any direction from you. Don’t tell them what to play with or how to stand.

If you’re used to a formal portrait photography style, this lifestyle approach can be a challenge! Move around the space and subjects to get the best light and angles. Be patient and quiet, and wait for the decisive moment.

Use Your Environment to Tell a Story

Your documentary family photo session is unlikely to be in ideal studio conditions.

Is the kitchen messy? The garden covered in weeds? Would the light work better in springtime? Ignore the perfectionist voice in your head.

Understand the manual settings of your camera and know how to use them fast. Your role as a documentary family photographer is to capture the family life, their relationship and their stories. Their environment in that moment is part of their story.

a close up of a childs feet beside a toy truck
Get close for interesting details in your documentary family photography.

Editing and Curating Documentary Family Photography

Minimise post-production on any documentary photograph. Don’t add or remove anything.

Keep the highlights, shadows and contrast realistic.

I like to review my photos within 24 hours of the documentary family sessions when my memory is fresh. The adjustments I sometimes use are:

Curating your documentary family photos can be a challenge.

How do you know which pictures to use? Be strict with yourself. Only use pictures that tell the story and depict the family’s personality. Choose images that you and the family will be proud of.

I like to use my ‘smile impact gauge’. If I smile the moment I see the photo on my computer screen, I flag it for potential use. The more you practice curating your photos, the better you’ll get at decision-making.

monotone family lifestyle portrait in documentary family photography style
Post production for this photo involved conversion into black and white, and application of split toning (blue and brown).


My family portraits that get the best reactions are documentary-style photographs.

People love how this style allows personalities to shine through.

Next time you’re heading to a family event, make it a photographic occasion. Take your camera, and document a real-life slice of family history.

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