Documentary photography vs. photojournalism: what’s the difference?

Learn more about the similarities and differences between documentary photography and photojournalism, and the role each plays.

If you’re a photographer who enjoys the art of storytelling through photos, you may be drawn to both documentary photography and photojournalism. While these genres are closely related, there is a key difference between the two. Let’s dive into what each means and what differences set them apart.

Similarities of documentary photography and photojournalism.

In both genres, photographers set out with the same goal: to capture facts and reality. When photographing events, your job as the photographer is to be a neutral observer who documents a scene without interrupting or influencing it in any way.

Both genres require patience in order to capture the natural unfolding of events. You can expect to photograph in many different locations, unlike studio photographers, perhaps with suboptimal lighting or positioning, sometimes under stressful —or even dangerous — conditions.

Different approaches.

The main difference between the two genres is time.

If you’re interested in trying your hand at photojournalism, you can expect to work at a much quicker pace than in documentary photography. Photos from events will often be shared on news channels, social media, or websites within a day or two, or sometimes the same day — maybe even within the hour. This genre frequently shares events as they are unfolding in real or near-real time.

Documentary photography, by contrast, involves more complex storytelling, which you may capture over a few weeks or even a few years. This type of photography typically aims to raise awareness about a particular event or subject, often in the course of investigating larger issues. Environmental and social issues are among the most common topics.

Whether you’re interested in photojournalism or documentary photography, discover photography tips and techniques you can use to capture stories as they unfold.

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