The Authenticity Trend: How to Find and Shoot the Best Documentary-style Images

This month we’re taking a closer look at authentic photography—everything from photojournalism to stock images that capture natural, slice-of-life scenes. We think these images are part of a bigger visual trend that eschews posed and cliché images in favor of genuine, real-life moments. So we talked to experts to find out what’s driving the trend, how designers can choose good documentary-style images, and what photographers need to do to shoot them.

What’s driving demand for authentic stock?

We asked Brianna Wettlaufer, CEO and Co-founder of Stocksy — a curated collection of distinctive, royalty-free images with a focus on visual storytelling — why consumers’ tastes for images are changing. “As photography has become more accessible over the last decades, people’s savvy as to what makes a good photo has raised the bar on expectations,” she explains. “When we founded Stocksy, the world was a bit stuck in a moment, surrounded by images that were overly recognizable as a ‘ stock photos.’ At the end of the day, this isn’t what any designer or client wants.”

According to designer Kervin Brisseaux, quality authentic stock is also important for a design project’s bottom line. “In a practical sense, having good stock can help keep costs down on projects. If there isn’t enough budget for a photo shoot, authentic-looking stock can be a good substitute.”

How do you spot the best documentary stock?

When it comes to finding the perfect authentic image for a project, designers should consider some key aesthetic parameters. As Kervin explains, “For images of people or lifestyle, some baseline factors to consider are lighting and, more importantly, the models used. Often I’ll compare stock to professional photo shoots done for various magazines. Does the lighting achieve what I’m looking for? Is it washed out or does it have enough contrast? How do the models compare? Do their poses and expressions feel authentic or acted? Asking simple questions like that can help in choosing good stock.”

At Stocksy, Nuno Silva, Vice President of Product, has a view into what designers are looking for. “We’ve found clients are still searching for trusted subjects in categories common to stock, but they want an updated look and feel. They want to relate and trust the realness of the people in the photos. The focus is on experience, connection, and people who are relatable in an inspiring way. People want images that feel like a custom editorial shoot.”

What’s the secret to capturing authentic images?

Eugenio Marongiu comes from the world of photojournalism, and as an Adobe Stock Contributor, he’s known for his intimate, contemporary portraits. We asked him how he captures compelling, realistic moments that work for stock. “Never let the models pose,” he explains. “Try to make them as natural as possible by recreating situations of daily life. Taking advantage of natural light makes everything more immediate and spontaneous.”

Capturing a good documentary-style photograph, says Eugenio, also demands the photographer’s emotional commitment: “Creating an empathetic relationship with models is essential to obtaining good images.”

Nuno adds that it’s important for authentic stock to tell a story, just as a custom photo shoot would do: “We want to highlight experience and connection, and celebrate the untold stories of people and places. We want our photographers to shoot like a cinematographer who takes you on a journey through a moment, with a complete set, not just one-off compositions from multiple angles.”

For more on authentic images, check out this month’s dedicated gallery of documentary stock, and read up on how photojournalism shapes our relationship to current events.