How to shoot documentary photography with Lensbaby

Foto: Linsey Davis

As a parent, I desperately wanted a way to pause time, a way to remember the big and little events that would be my kids' childhood. As a creative, I also needed an outlet that wouldn't require a lot of extra time away from my family. Documentary photography became both of those things for me.

Documentary photography is about real life, the chaos, the mundane, and everything in between. It's more of an approach and less of an aesthetic. As the photographer, you may not alter or interfere with the scene in any way. This includes adjusting the lights, moving objects, posing or directing your subject. Pixel manipulation is also not allowed.

Lensbaby Sol 45 | 1/320 | SO: 160 | Camera body: Sony A7III

What can you control if you can't control the scene or the subject?

These 4 elements can be influenced:

  • Composition
  • The way light enters the camera
  • The precise moment you click the shutter
  • Camera settings

Lensbaby Trio 28 | 1/4000 | ISO: 800 | Camera body: Sony A7III

The composition allows you to elevate a candid snapshot to an intentional documentary work of art. Composition is essential in all photography genres, especially in documentary photography.

A quick tip!: Get eye level with your subject. This helps the viewer feel as if they are in the frame with your subject.

My favorite way to compose a shot if by following these key rules...

Rule of thirds: mentally dividing the frame with 3 vertical and 3 horizontal lines and placing your subject in the frame where the lines intersect.
Leading lines: using the lines in a scene to lead the viewer's eye to your subject
Filling the frame: get close and fill the frame edge to edge with your subject.
Symmetry: an equal balance of weight within your frame
Framing: anything in the frame that can create a borderer frame around your subject to draw the viewer's eye
Layering: adding depth to your image by maximizing the foreground, middle-ground, and background of the scene.

Lens: 24mm | 1/80 | F/2.8 | ISO: 320 | Camera body: Canon Mark III

"Documentary photography is about real life, the chaos, the mundane, and everything in between."

Harness the light

Learning how to utilize and harness the light available to you is a huge part of documentary photography. Life is happening in harsh light, artificial light, low light, and golden light.


The precise moment you click the shutter is also known as the decisive moment. This phrase was coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson. If you don't know his work, I highly recommend studying his images. Moment driven photos are images where the moment is the most crucial element in the frame. Once you begin shooting for the moment, you will start to anticipate your subject's next move.

A quick tip: Don't be afraid to increase your ISO to capture a moment in a dimly lit room.

Lensbaby Trio 28 | 1/80 | ISO: 800 | Camera body: Sony A7III

Check out Linsey's video on documentary photography here!

Camera settings

Like learning compositional elements and how to harness light, learning your camera settings is an essential part of documentary photography.

Shutter speed

A minimum of 1/250 second if photographing moving subjects and you want to freeze the action. Slowing the shutter is another option if you're going to show the blur of moving subjects.


The background is essential in documentary photography. Narrowing your aperture from 3.0 to 5.6 or even higher ensures that the background is focused.

Lensbaby Edge 35 | 1/80 | F/5.6 | ISO: 1000 | Camera body: Sony A7III

There are many different genres of documentary photography, such as family documentary, street photography, photojournalism, or found still life.

We live in a fast-changing world, I would like to encourage you to document what your life looks like. There is so much beauty in the imperfection of your day to day life!

A quick tip: When composing your shot, ask yourself, "What is most interesting here?"

Lensbaby Sol 45 | 1/2000 | ISO: 640 | Camera body: Sony A7III


About the photographer Linsey Davis

Linsey Davis is an artist from Florida who captures her life in an honest & unique way. Through her photos, she will inspire you to treasure life's ordinary moments. She is a Lensbaby ambassador, Clickin Moms mentor, Click Pro, and a photography educator. When she is not taking photos, you can find her homeschooling her five kids or planning their next family road trip.

Foto: Stephanie Defranco

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