Lifestyle vs. Documentary Photography Sessions

Mom looking off into the distance while one of her children draws with chalk in the driveway and the other one is having a tantrum

Recently, I have been seeing a lot of photographers using the terms “documentary” and “lifestyle” interchangeably in regards to the type of photo sessions they offer. Being that documentary photography is a fairly new genre, I can understand why there might be some confusion. There is a distinct difference, however, between lifestyle and family documentary photography. So before lines are blurred further, I thought it would be helpful to explain the difference.

Lifestyle Photography

Most of the candid, natural sessions you will come across in your search for a photographer will fall under the “lifestyle” umbrella—they are a stylized version of real life—everyone’s outfits are coordinating, the background is clear of clutter, lighting is absolutely perfect, etc. … you get the idea. Lifestyle photographers tend to capture “real moments” within stylized scenarios they guided into place.

For example, your photographer will ask you to tickle your child and then capture the resulting giggles—the moment is real, but the way in which the moment came about is fabricated, or guided into place.  They may say “How about we go near this window and play?” which provides them with the perfect scene and lighting to capture whatever unfolds. They could also have you repeat something you did in the moment. This allows them the opportunity to capture a moment they may have missed or allow them to get a better composition or angle.

It’s a cleaned-up version of real life— nobody’s house or child is ever as clean as they are in these pictures in real life (if it is for you, please teach me your ways).

Documentary Photography


Documentary photography is all about capturing life as it unfolds—whether the photographer was there or not—the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. It is moment-driven, authentic, real, and unique to each family. They aren’t necessarily meant to always be “pretty;” they are meant to tell a story.

With documentary photography, the photographer has the ability to freely tell your story while it is unfolding in front of them. The images you see happened in the moment, with no guidance given. These sessions accurately depict a particular stage in your family’s life and the relationships you have with one another. It focuses more on emotion and ultimately provides you with a photographic time capsule of those moments in your life.

Family documentary photography is built upon the principles of photojournalism (documentary family photography is also often referred to as family photojournalism). With this particular type of photography, it is expected that nothing is moved or touched in the scene, subjects are not directed, light is not altered, and post-production is minimal.

I believe this type of photography is instrumental in fighting constant societal pressure to always be what it deemed as “perfect.”  Nobody is perfect,  life especially, and this gives us the opportunity to show the beauty within the imperfect parts of family life. Perfection is found in our life’s everyday moments—the good, bad, and everything in between.


Lifestyle or Documentary: No One Way is Better Than the Other

I don’t want you to believe I think one style of photography is necessarily better than the other. I believe each style has its place within the industry, yields totally different photographic results, and solves the needs of individual families. I do believe “knowledge is power” and hopefully now you have a better understanding of the differences between lifestyle and documentary family photography. Hopefully, this information can help you to better identify the type of session you would want for your family moving forward.

If you want to learn more about differences between these two styles, check out this blog post by Jenna Christina Photography. She interviewed family photojournalists from around the world to ask them what they believe the difference is between lifestyle and documentary photography. And of course, if you have any questions regarding the difference between these two genres, please feel free to contact me.


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