What's the difference between Lifestyle and Documentary Photography?

  (pssst: pin this to save for reference!)

(pssst: pin this to save for reference!)


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 orchestrated light, location, space, wardrobe, and engagement to capture a beautiful, candid moment. They allow families to look their best and demonstrate a family dynamic when they are their most happy and their most "together."

The biggest differentiating factor to lifestyle photos is that they demonstrate that the photographer has given some direction along the way. 

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 facilitate movement and 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.


Documentary is: 

Rooted in the methods of photojournalism, documentary sessions produce photos with no photographer interference. Nothing is moved or touched in the scene, 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, a good documentary photographer includes and utilize these aspects in the frame intentionally because they add to the authentic story. 


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. 


The verdict: 

Neither type is better than the other. I shoot for both and believe there is a place for both. It all depends on your goals for the images and personal preference.

Often people assume they want a lifestyle session -- it's what we see all over Pinterest and what's most popular right now for showing joy, laughter, happiness, and overall, just your family at their best in a certain stage of life (clean, smiling, happy!) Who doesn't love that?!

But I also believe that in 30 years when our kids are graduating high school, getting jobs,  moving on to start families of their own-- they'll long for images that show them the intricacies of their childhood. Images beyond the selfie or the obligatory first day of school on the front porch photo, but the kind that act as a reminder of the reality that shaped them. 

What's holding you back from a lifestyle or documentary session? What kinds of images really draw you in? Start a convo the comments below!