For a photographer, inspiration is very important. Without it, the work will not be enjoyable and may not be as effective as any other work that requires creativity.

Every author has his or her own source of inspiration but is it impossible to call such a source as studying the biographies of legendary photographers, how they thought and their work universal? In the review, I will tell you about the 10 best photography documentary films. I hope you can find inspiration in them for yourself.

1. Blow Up

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The photo documentary is about Thomas, a fashionable British professional photographer who accidentally captures on camera a murder in a city park. He discovers it when he develops the film in his lab: magnification allows him to see what the naked eye cannot see. For the rest of the film, Thomas scurries around the screen, looking for evidence that the crime really happened and was not an optical illusion or a figment of his raging imagination.

This parable, based on Julio Cortázar's short story "Devil's Drool," was made almost half a century ago, but to this day it remains one of the most iconic films about photography.

The prototype of the main character of this documentary about photographers is believed to be the famous 1960s photographer David Bailey. Another version is that of Bert Stern, the author of Marilyn Monroe's last photo shoot. In any case, Antonioni portrayed the era of the sixties, when photography was a cult as if it were presented under the lens of a magnifier. You can watch it here.

What we love about it:

  • A beautiful narrative;
  • The message of the film is clearly understood.

2. Salvador

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The hero of one of the best photo documentaries is the cynical American journalist Richard Boyle, an expert on "hot spots", who was in Vietnam and Cambodia. But now he is experiencing a crisis of the genre: because of addiction to alcohol, Boyle lost his job, money, and wife. Learning that there will be trouble in El Salvador, the reporter together with his carefree friend decides to go there – and gets into the thick of the coup in 1980.

Oliver Stone has made a tough, energetic, and realistic movie. Not for nothing was the script of Salvador together with the director wrote a real war photographer Rick Boyle. Red partisans, corrupt politicians, noble nuns saving wounded children – all these characters are so convincing in the frame that you feel like watching a documentary film, not a feature film. One of the best photo documentaries' main actors, the two Jameses, Woods and Belushi, also performed powerfully. One of the strongest scenes of "Salvador" is the one where a machine-gun burst kills Boyle's colleague, a photographer searching for the cherished shot that would convey the essence of war. You can find the film on YouTube.

What we love about it:

  • The film shows the events in a realistic and unvarnished way;
  • An energetic and dynamic presentation.

3. The Public Eye

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The characteristic of this one of the best photography documentaries is quite good. Italian-American actor Joe Pesci is super at playing mobsters, killers, and gangsters, but in this film, he is finally on the "right" side of the law. His hero Leon Bernstein, nicknamed The Great Bernzini, is a weasel reporter with an enviable instinct for breaking news. He and his camera are there as soon as they appear. He manages to outrun even the police and, being the first on the scene, takes sensational shots. 

Bernstein is the only one who photographed the kings of the criminal world of the 1940s. It would seem, what else would a reporter dream? But the Great Bernzini is haunted by his fame as a "scandal-catcher." He dreams of publishing an album of the author's photos and opening people's eyes to the filth and horror of America at that time. However, these plans threaten to fail after he photographs an episode of a Mafia showdown.

Bernstein has a prototype: reporter Arthur Fellig, master of the New York crime story. Fellig was the first to listen to police radio and was often on the scene before the police. He created a special genre of documentary photography depicting the New York night of the 1930s and 1950s and influenced many prominent photographers of the 20th century, including Andy Warhol. You can watch this photography documentary here.

What we love about it:

  • Shows the horrors of America in the 1930s and 1950s;
  • The atmosphere of that time is beautifully portrayed.

4. The Impassioned Eye

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A detailed photographer documentary about the patriarch of this genre is made with an already elderly Cartier-Bresson, who comments on the pictures he took in different years, selecting his most favorite and successful ones. Bresson talks about the life he saw in different countries in the crucial 50s and 60s, photography as a search for accidents, and reveals all the secrets of the essence of the "decisive moment" in observing the world around us. Minimalist in its visual choices and very simple in its composition, the film, meanwhile, leaves a profound mark. When the genius is reasoning in front of the camera, the rest seems completely superfluous. You can watch this film here.

What we love about it:

5. William Eggleston in a Real World

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The following is one of the best photography documentaries at the moment. Color in photography was invented long before William Eggleston, but looking at his photographs from the 60s and 70s it seems as if he invented color film. The myth of the titular Eggleston is dispelled in this documentary, where an unjuvenile man with a simple camera appears in the lens of a shaky camera, sitting in diners, walking around gas stations, wandering without much to do on suburban streets and unremarkable houses. Photography as a reflection of the blatant ordinariness of what a man with greedy eyes looks at is exactly the kind of art this film is about. You can watch this film here.

What we love about it:

  • Beautiful moments of ordinary life.

6. Contacts

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It is a documentary about photographers who began as artisans and ended their careers in contemporary art museums. Capa, Salgado, Goldin, Tillmans, photography as reportage, photography as a concept – the series covers the most important things that have happened in the history of photography over the past 60 years. Contact sheets professionals call the printing of all film frames in miniature on a large sheet to select the most successful from a list of images. The name, in this case, is literal: the viewer can see the whole kitchen of a single photographer by looking at his contact sheets, and more often than not hear the voice or text of the author of the photographs himself explaining the story of the picture and the motivation for his own choice. You can watch this film on YouTube.

What we love about it:

  • An illustration of the history of the development of photography;
  • An interesting visual presentation of the story.

7. What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann

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Next, we will tell you about another documentary on photographers' topics. Sally Mann, who has spent her life photographing only the people closest to her own family-tells in a documentary about what it's like to shoot what you love and know best. The camera follows the photographer around her family farm in Virginia, where Sally drives a truck with an old large-format camera, dilutes chemicals in the darkroom, and puts her usual models in the frame. From portraits to landscapes and still lifes, the film recounts her more than 20-year career as a photographer and concludes with details of one of her last projects, What Remains, about mortality and disappearance. Unfortunately, you can't find the full version of the film on YouTube, but here is a trailer.

What we love about it:

  • Excellent visual presentation of the story;
  • Virginia's inspiring landscapes.

8. War Photographer 

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Christian Frey's documentary about photographers (one of the main characters is Nachtwey) is a difficult, sad, and powerful story of how a professional works with tragedy and its participants. Nachtwey's images show cutthroats, disabled people, burnt-out houses, and scarred faces, and behind almost every character is a story of military conflict, popular tragedy, or humanitarian disaster. The camera just behind a viewfinder captures the way he chooses and shoots his shots, following the photographer from war to war and from corpse to corpse. Ethics, professionalism, fearlessness, and the price of a snapshot of a tragedy-all these controversial issues are raised much more boldly and sharply in the film than in journalistic discussions. You can find the film on YouTube.

What we love about it:

  • It beautifully demonstrates the tragedy of the situation;
  • High-quality footage.

9. Visual Acoustics

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It is one of the best photography documentary films by Dustin Hoffman. It shows a huge selection of inspiring interiors and tells the story of the most famous interior and architecture photographer, Julius Schulman, who, according to many Americans, visualized the essence of Los Angeles and another side of American life. Shulman's pictures include villas, swimming pools, and suburban landscapes in California, which the photographer shot not as objects, but as the embodiment of the anti-New York way of life and aesthetics. You can watch one of the best photography documentary films here.

What we love about it:

10. Capa in Love and War

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Another great photography documentary to watch. Robert Capa, the romantic ideal of the reportage photographer, a man of incredible courage and author of canonical war reports, appears in this film in every detail, in love, and at war. His short and fast life, his pseudonym instead of his real Hungarian name, his romance with Ingrid Bergman, and the dangers he exposed himself to in World War II are exhaustively described in this film about a man for whom adrenaline and work were the main passion of life. You can watch this documentary on the photographer's topic here.

What we love about it:

  • Beautifully shows the horrors of warfare;
  • Attention to detail.


The following is an answer to questions frequently asked by users.

How Do You Make a Good Photography Documentary Film?

Well, you should start by researching your chosen topic, and after that, you should make a plan. Include your chosen topic and go over it in detail. Then, with some preliminary preparation, start shooting, and don't forget the post-processing.

Can a Documentary Be 2 Minutes Long?

Yes, as amazing as it sounds. It all depends on what the story is about. So, the best photography documentaries can be quite short.

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