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8 Ways to Weave Intentional Design Into Documentary Photography
Composition, Photography Ideas
8 Ways to Weave Intentional Design Into Documentary Photography

Design helps bring order to documentary photography which isn’t meant to be perfect or planned by any means. I love the documentary process because it encourages authenticity. It inspires people to embrace what makes their lives worth sharing beyond the perfect smiles and posed occasions.

When I walk into a home or shoot my own children – I tend to look at the scenes I photograph in the following order:
1. Using the environment to piece together effective design.
2. Light versus Shadows.
3. Client Interaction.

I've always wondered how documentary photographers are able to create so much consistency in what seems like unplanned images. Read " 8 Ways to Weave Intentional Design into Documentary Photography"

What I lack in posing – I make up for in storytelling and design. That is what documentary means to me. I’ve always felt like the environment should play a serious role in making an image mean something to the viewer. So, without further ado – here are 8 simple ways we can achieve that.

  • No.
    Lines and Shapes

    Lines and shapes can be used together to create visual interest via scale, emphasis, and pattern. A great place to start is to look for horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines from any edge of your frame and lead the viewer into the subject. You can also look for repeating shapes to create a similar effect.



  • No.
    Repetition and Rhythm

    Repetition is a great way to create unity and visual rhythm – a visual echo, if you will. Repetition oftentimes helps to reinforce the story behind an image as well. Repeating shapes or objects can lead our eyes into an image or serve as an interesting backdrop.


  • No.

    Motion is something we consistently think about in photography. Even when we aren’t thinking about it in design terms – we are thinking about it technically when we adjust our camera settings. There are so many ways to capture motion in our images and for a variety of different reasons.

    Freezing action or intentional blur are a couple of common things I see across the industry. Motion doesn’t particularly have to be dramatic – it can be still. It can be impending. Motion adds life to our imagery.



  • No.

    Framing your subject with the environment is a great way to hide behind stuff and stay back. I love working like a “fly on the wall.” In some instances, framing can translate the space and really add to the story while at other times it merely adds depth and dimension.



  • No.

    I love symmetry. Symmetry and balance make my heart – oh so very happy. No matter what I am photographing – I look for a sense of balance between my subjects and their environment. Symmetry is all about balance.

    You can create a sense of symmetry or asymmetry by utilizing color, eye direction, lines, pattern, shapes, texture, and value. Symmetry may prove to be the biggest unifier of all design basics. When several of these pieces co-join – you experience exceptional and functional design.


  • No.
    Value as Emphasis

    Value is the measure of light and dark. Look at your environment in “value” or “light vs. dark” and you’ll begin to see more opportunities for creative control of the light.

    Silhouettes are the perfect example of “value as emphasis.” They are another favorite technique of mine. I also love using pockets of light to create emphasis in my imagery.



  • No.
    Color as Emphasis

    The basics of color as emphasis include understanding how colors work together and noticing when they work together or against each other in an image. A huge benefit of documentary photography is that we as photographers get to let go of a lot of the control when it comes to wardrobe.

    Color still evokes a response from our viewers so it’s important to take notice of its qualities, values, and dominance in an image.

    documentary photography

  • No.

    It is my opinion that perspective is a key element to creating interesting imagery in documentary photography. It’s how we translate what we see in real life into two dimensions for our viewers.

    Learning to do this effectively while overlapping some or many other design elements is how we can master design and composition in our everyday work. There are so many ways to spin perspective and while I say it’s the most important element – it is also very personal.

    How I see the world may not be the same way you see the world. I generally shoot from an environmental perspective by overlapping objects, framing my subjects or shooting from a place that makes my subjects appear a certain way in contrast to their surroundings.

Below you will find two different images from two different families – photographed months apart. You’ll find some consistencies. I work toward similar design aesthetics in all of my photographs.

If you were to pull together similar images from several sessions – what would the consistencies say about your eye for design? How do you see the world?


I guess what I’m trying to say is that while you look to document the “moments” – try to stop and utilize your surroundings too. Use everything around you to add to the story in a frame. Don’t be afraid to document the dirty dishes, dramatic shadows or a floor full of toys. These sorts of things add dimension and depth. They cater to the design and take documentary to the next level when you embrace them.