What's the difference between Lifestyle and Documentary Photography?

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What's the difference between lifestyle and documentary photography?

Ever ask yourself what's so different about those buzzwords- "Lifestyle photography" and "documentary photography?"

How do you know what you actually want or what to ask a photographer when you're looking to book a session? 

These terms are often used interchangeably, because on a surface level, both are used to describe images that look relaxed and natural. But there's really a lot more to it than that.

Let's actually pull these terms apart and break down the difference between the two. 


Lifestyle is: 

Lifestyle sessions produce photos through directing light, location, space, and wardrobe, in an effort to set a beautiful scene for capturing connection. They allow families to look their best and demonstrate a family dynamic when they are their most happy and their most "together."

They are not traditionally posed or placed, as in the studio experience of "stand here, tilt your chin a bit, dip your shoulder..." but subjects are simply guided into place and given prompts/direction to inspired interaction.

One common misconception is that simply because a session takes place outside, it's "lifestyle." But it's not a prerequisite to be outside- in fact, my newborn sessions are typically lifestyle in nature, but all take place in the home. It's all about the casual approach and direction over posing.

To be clear, it is not that the moments are fake, because they're not- a good lifestyle session shows personality, connection, and genuine expression.

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Documentary is: 

Rooted in the methods of photojournalism, documentary sessions produce photos with little to no photographer interference. The subjects are not directed, the light not altered, and the post-production is minimal (no skin retouching, objects removed in photoshop, etc.).

The photographer focuses solely on the moments unfolding and capturing them artistically by using angles, composition, and focus to tell a particular story with detail and depth.

Where objects may have been considered "clutter" and moved, or light considered too dark in a lifestyle session, documentary photography includes and utilizes these aspects intentionally because they add to the authentic story. 

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These sessions focus on the emotion over appearance. They feature meaningful environments and details that often go overlooked but are iconic for documenting a time/place/or stage in life.

The blankie before it was torn to shreds, the pancake recipe you used every Saturday morning, the way you made your coffee, tickled a child, the games you played and stores you visited.

While a series of activities is  planned, the subjects aren't being directed in any way to achieve a particular result or emotion. 

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The type of session that's best for you is completely based on A. Your preferences B. Why you want them C. What you want to do with them. 

Check out some more examples of my sessions in each style to get a better idea of what you like most!