There are dozens of great documentaries out there about photography, but a few films stand out as must-sees for anyone serious about photography. They range from stories about photographers themselves to a visually stunning barrage of images from around the world.
Whether you’re shooting with your iPhone camera or a fancy DSLR, watching these films can give you a new mindset and a new viewpoint as you document the world around you.
Check out the pros
First and foremost, look at the National Geographic documentary film The Photographers (1998). This engaging film documents the lives of National Geographic’s amazing photographers, including Jodi Cobb, Jim Stanfield, and Michael “Nick” Nichols, from how they live their lives to how they get the incredible shots that fill the magazine.
Coming in at just under an hour, this film explores the techniques behind some of National Geographic’s most memorable images, as well as the sacrifices the photographers made to get those shots.
Documenting the horrors
There are many films that explore the way individuals process conflict by documenting the horrors around them. The HBO documentary Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro (2016) retraces the fashion/magazine photographer’s World War II experiences.
Though he was assigned as an infantryman with the 83rd Infantry Division in Europe, Vaccaro took more than 8,000 photos in less than a year. His work presented a view of war that was unprecedented at the time. Sickened by the terrible events he chronicled, Vaccaro resolved to never photograph war and conflict. Follow along as Vaccaro discusses the nature of conflict photography from how he got his shots to the moral dilemma of being both a soldier and a reporter.
Check out these other films about conflict photography: McCullin (2012), War Photographer (2002), Five Broken Cameras (2011).
Other photographers focus on the people and places of the daily lives. Not for the fame and fortune of it, but simply because they feel compelled to do so. Finding Vivian Maier (2013) uncovers the mystery of an avid and talented street photographer who never really intended for her work to be shared.
The film recounts John Maloof’s quest to identify and research the fantastic street photographer he discovered when he purchased a lot of negatives at an auction. View the work of a nanny/caretaker whose street photography has been compared to some of the 20th century’s most critically-acclaimed photographers.
No story, just art
This last film is very different. It’s a visual record and nothing more, but it’s an utterly amazing visual record. Baraka (1992) follows none of the narratives of the other films, yet the lessons it can teach a photographer and observer are many watch this on Netflix.
From sweeping vistas to engaging portraiture, capturing stillness and motion, Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson take viewers on a tour of the world. They captured landscapes, people, wildlife, and more in 25 countries. After you watch the movie, take a look at the book of still photography put together by Magidson.