Street Photography vs Documentary Photography

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Street photography vs documentary photography, what’s the difference? Here’s my take on it using my images to illustrate what I mean.

I guess it all stems from the fact that I enjoy photography and people watching. Put those together and that is how my passion for street photography was born.

That said, it might be documentary photography instead? I’m suggesting that street photography and documentary photography are, or at least can be, complimentary genres.

Let’s discuss these genres and see where they might crossover or fuse. There are lots of definitions out there but detailed analysis can add to the confusion.

Here’s my take on it, I’ll simplify how I see the differences:

Street Photography

Street photography “captures a moment”.

Famously defined by the Father of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who coined the phrase “The Decisive Moment”.

Street photography can also incorporate creative dynamic elements such as:

  • Motion blur
  • Use of wide angle lenses
  • Abstraction
  • Shooting from unusual angles

Documentary Photography

Documentary photography “tells a story”.

In this case we are looking for an image or series of images that tell a story.

So documentary photography is all about storytelling through photographic images. In fact, it’s similar to reportage photography.

Fusion of Genres

Many of my images are a fusion of both the street and documentary genres.

Here are some examples illustrating the differences:

1. Pure Street Photography

These images are pure street photography and capture a moment. I used a standard focal length lens without using any dynamic techniques whatsoever:

Pure Street Photography - 1 of 3
Pure Street Photography 3 of 3

2. Street Photography – Dynamic Elements

Here are some more street photography images but now I am incorporating dynamic elements.

For the first two examples I used an ultra wide angle lens shot from a very close distance and from low on the ground. This creates a dynamic perspective.

The third image is an abstract, which is another form of street photography:

Street Photography - Dynamic Elements - 1 of 3
Street Photography - Dynamic Elements - 2 of 3
Street Photography - Dynamic Elements - 3 of 3

3. Street and Documentary Fusion

These images document a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest I attended in Brighton.

The images certainly qualify as documentary photography because they tell a story about the protest.

But they also qualify as street photography images because they capture a moment on the streets.

So here we have an example of the street photography and documentary photography genres fusing:

Street Photography and Documentary Photography Fusion - 1 of 3
Street Photography and Documentary Photography Fusion - 2 of 3
Street Photography and Documentary Photography Fusion - 3 of 3

4. Cultural and Geographic Fusion

The next two images were created in Hanoi, Vietnam. If you live in Vietnam or South East Asia this is street photography. They capture a moment of everyday life.

However, if you live in Europe or the West they tell a different story. You will not find this level of Health and Safety or a guy sharpening a big blade on the streets in the West!

Therefore I’m telling a story about societal and cultural differences. That is why there is a documentary aspect to these images, depending upon your geographical location, culture or point of view.

Furthermore, if Vietnam’s safety standards change in the future these images will take on a historical context over time. In fact, that’s exactly what’s happened with all manner of street photography from years gone by. This type of photography can become a time capsule, so to speak.

So this is another example of the documentary and street photography genres fusing:

Hanoi - Cultural and Geographic Fusion - 1 of 2
Hanoi - Cultural and Geographic Fusion - 2 of 2

5. Pure Documentary Photography

To complete the story here are some images that are pure documentary photography.

They are part of a series I created to tell a story about life in rural Cambodia:

Cambodia - Pure Documentary Photography - 1 of 4
Cambodia - Pure Documentary Photography - 2 of 4
Cambodia - Pure Documentary Photography - 3 of 4
Cambodia - Pure Documentary Photography - 4 of 4


I hope this article helps to demonstrate the differences between street photography and documentary photography whilst highlighting where the genres can crossover or fuse.

Does any of this really matter? You could argue that is does not really matter at all.

When I started out I would go on a walkabout with my camera without a fixed plan or idea in my head. Which is fine, up to a point.

For me personally I found that my photography improved by better understanding the genres I am shooting. It gives me a clearer understanding of what I am setting out to achieve. Or the story I am trying to tell.

Related Topics

You might be interested in more of my photography tutorials and tips here. Alternatively, you can learn more about my work as a street and travel photographer here or my work locally as a Brighton street photographer here. I also post about my events and documentary photography here.

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