Whether you’re an expert DSLR holder or a beginner photographer, you’ve probably experienced a “photographer’s block” before.
Like with any other creative professions, being a photographer means putting all your passion and creativity into it. One effective way to get inspired to create your own masterpiece is to learn from someone else’s story.
Where to Find Inspiration?
Luckily, almost every successful photographer documents their journey and, in many cases, the footage is now available online. Among those documentaries, you can find anything from first-person war investigations to street fashion photography.
I’ve picked some of the finest examples of documentary films that every photographer should watch when in need of inspiration or a fresh breeze of ideas. Some of them are full-length films while others are just a few minutes long.
1. The Salt of the Earth
Running Time: 100 mins.
Jump straight in with The Salt of the Earth, a film that is often referred to as not just the best photography documentary but one of the best documentaries ever made.
The Salt of the Earth is the story of the life and work of a Brazillian photographer Sebastião Salgado. The photographer has 40 years worth of travels to some of the most hidden corners of the world, and the film contains stories of the tribes and communities he visited — the stories of the people. Because, after all, people are the “salt of the Earth.”
2. 5 Broken Cameras
Running Time: 94 mins.
My next choice is for those interested in filmmaking and political activism. An Academy Award nominee in 2013, 5 Broken Cameras features footage of the violent Israeli and Palestinian conflict captured by Emad Brunat, a Palestinian farmer, in his own village.
This documentary offers you a chance to see the historical events of non-violent resistance in a West Bank village during Israeli Occupation.
Running Time: 190 mins.
A series of stunning aerial shots of deserts, hidden forest lakes, as well as mountains made of garbage and random crowds of people, all mixed with the first-person stories told into the camera. Human is a great example of innovative filmmaking that will inspire you to get out there and do something meaningful, be a positive change to the world.
The series provides an extensive coverage of topics such as love, family, religion, ambition, war, and poverty. The brutal honesty of the people’s stories, the director’s artistic approach, the contrast between nature shots, people, and color are guaranteed to leave you breathless and feeling humbled.
4. Search for the Afghan Girl
Running Time: 53 mins.
Every photography lover around the world has heard of the picture simply known as the Afghan Girl. It was taken by Steve Mccurry in 1984 and later appeared on the cover of National Geographic.
Although the girl has now become world famous, until recently her identity remained unknown. Search for the Afghan Girl is the National Geographic documentary that tells the story of finding Sharbat Gula, the girl who became a symbol of refugee struggle and hope.
Running Time: 86 mins.
A story of yet another iconic image in the history of photography: a portrait of Guerrillero Heroico is taken by famous Cuban photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez.
The documentary explores the story of how the picture gained its popularity, as well as the multiple meanings and interpretations it has gained since. The main themes of Chevolution are the history of communism and capitalism. It delves into the way art and business can interact and influence one another.
6. Richard Avedon: Darkness & Light
Running Time: 90 mins.
Darkness & Light is a documentary of fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon. His work has been sold for over one million dollars at art auctions, making him one of the most successful photographers of the last century.
The documentary follows Avedon’s life and career, showing how and why his photography “helped define America’s image of style, beauty, and culture for the last half-century” (The New York Times, 2004).
7. Smash His Camera
Running Time: 90 mins.
Ron Galella, an American paparazzi photographer is regarded by the press as “the most controversial photographer of all time” and “the Godfather of the U.S. paparazzi culture”.
Galella’s behaviors and methods are those demonized in modern society. He was sued by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Marlon Brando broke his jaw. Nevertheless, his work has become iconic. Smash His Camera tackles important issues such as the right to privacy, freedom of the press, and an American cult of celebrity.
8. The Many Lives of William Klein
Running Time: 59 mins.
A pioneer in the art of street photography, William Klein is a true legend and an inspiration. His works are raw, up close, and have a personal feel to them. He has created over 20 films including the first ever documentary about Muhammad Ali.
You’ll find The Many Lives of William Klein as brilliant as the photographer’s masterpieces themselves. It delves into what makes Klein stand out and gives the audience a unique insight into what is impossible to catch in his pictures at first glance.
9. Bill Cunningham New York
Running Time: 84 mins.
While Ron Galella is the Godfather of the paparazzi culture, Bill Cunningham is the Godfather of the street fashion photography.
The documentary portrays his life and work, his dedication to the profession and his niche as well. Cunningham has been recording street fashion throughout his entire career, which is over five decades.
On top of his unquestionable professionalism, Bill Cunningham has an extremely cheerful personality. It’s very likely that you’ll find yourself a new hero after watching the film.
10. The President’s Photographer
Running Time: 55 mins.
The President’s Photographer follows the story of Pete Souza, an American photojournalist, the former Chief Official White House Photographer for President Barack Obama and the director of the White House Photography Office.
This documentary by National Geographic also features some of the works of previous White House Photographers showing the audience both public and intimate moments in the lives of Presidents from an inside perspective.
Online Shorts to Learn From
Not everyone knows that documentaries, just like movies of other genres, come in all forms and sizes. The films listed below come in a perfect bite size to pick your brain about photography and give you something to think about.
11. Dark Side of the Lens
Running Time: 6 mins.
Watch Mickey Smith, a surf photographer, goes through terrifying waves and straight into deep water in order to get some of the most astounding pictures of the wild ocean.
12. The Decisive Moment
Running Time: 18 mins.
A short documentary film on the life and work of Henri Cartier-Bresson written by Henri himself. Get a quick but deep insight into some of the photographer’s most important works in only 18 mins.
13. David Alan Harvey in Rio De Janeiro
Running Time: 3 mins.
Watch a short dialogue with a photographer David Alan Harvey about what it means to be a photographer and how to succeed in the challenging profession. (Hint: Be passionate about what you shoot!)
Why Watch Documentaries?
If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what impact a thousand pictures in film can have. Watching a documentary film about photography can not only be a source of inspiration for your future work, but also help you learn something new or learn from another photographer’s past mistakes.
Are documentary films your favorite genre? Check out some of these other articles:
- 8 Must-Watch Documentaries for Artists & Designers
- 10 Best Documentaries for Foodies
- 5 Top Documentaries About Hacking and Hackers
- 10 Documentaries About the Universe and Space
You’ll find plenty more to watch on our list of places to watch free documentaries, too!