Documentary vs. Lifestyle photography

Documentary family photography
Documentary family adventure session

A concept I get asked about often is Documentary vs. Lifestyle photography. What’s the difference? One of the first questions I tend to get asked by both photographers who choose me as a mentor and families who choose me as their photographer is “What’s the difference between a lifestyle family session and a documentary family session?” I can see where the line is a bit blurry. Both of these styles of photography technically use an “unposed” approach, but there are a few key differences which I’ll point out below.

1. Lifestyle photography uses prompts / Documentary photography lets moments unfold

In a lifestyle session interactions are often prompted. For example, the photographer may say something like “Ok kids, chase each other in a circle around mom and dad!”. In a documentary session we simply let genuine moments unfold organically. The kids typically understand the assignment and will gladly lead the way.

2. Lifestyle stages the scene / Documentary tells the story

A lifestyle session will often include staged scenes. The photographer might set up a scene by saying something such as “Everyone come snuggle on the bed!”. Though this isn’t posed, it still isn’t something that the family did on their own. A documentary session tells the authentic story of a family. This might include things like bath time, dancing in the living room, or snuggling on the bed! As long as it’s something the family already does in their daily life, not something the photographer has suggested they do.

3. Lifestyle has a lot of photographer interaction / Documentary photographers are “a fly on the wall”.

In a lifestyle session the photographer typically has a lot of interaction with the clients. Planning out scenes, initiating connection, making silly noises at the toddler so he’ll smile, saying things like “hey, who farted?!” to make the grade school kids laugh. In a documentary session the photographer is more like a fly on the wall, literally documenting the family as they’re doing their thing, and this is only awkward if your client doesn’t know what to expect ahead of time!

4. Documentary vs. Lifestyle photography in summary

To sum it all up, lifestyle sessions involve a lot more orchestrating and participation on the part of the photographer. They are creating moments and connection through their interaction with the people they are photographing. Documentary sessions involve a lot more listening and observing. They don’t manipulate the scene or initiate interactions, the job of a documentary photographer is to tell it as it is in an artistic way. The goal being to truly capture the personality and unique dynamic of the family they’re working with.

To learn more about documentary vs. lifestyle photography or for more information on one on one mentoring reach out to me HERE!

My online course, “Documentary Storytelling-the art of observation” is set to release in November! Join me on instagram if you don’t want to miss it!

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    Documenting authenticity in Southern Louisiana and beyond.

    Jess Lagrange



    (913) 579-8005

    Madisonville, LA