How Documentary Family Photography Differs From Lifestyle Sessions


As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve decided to only book documentary family photography sessions from here on out. To inspire you and me, I asked some family photojournalists from around the globe to answer a few questions about the work they do – here’s the first question in the series:

How would you explain the difference between lifestyle family sessions and what you do?



I would say that documentary photography is a bit more hard core than lifestyle photography. Lifestyle photography is celebrating the idea of a perfect life. Documentary photography is celebrating the idea of real life. 

The way I see it, a lifestyle shooter is always looking to capture the visual beauty of life and family –  the happiness of family life, the joy and the love!

While the documentary family photographer wants to capture the beauty of real family life, which includes more than just happiness, love and joy. Besides from happiness and love it also include chaos, tantrums and tears.

A documentary photographers mission is not to make people look their best – the mission is to make people remember how their life was, including the fun, the love, the hard times and the chaos. 

Documentary family photographers are also trying to get the bigger picture since the environment plays a big roll in this kind of photography. It is important were you are; the environment can not just serve as a backdrop. It has to make sense to the picture, because it adds another deeper dimension. 

The lifestyle photographer captures the beauty of a family in a directed way, she can pose the family and arrange situations to create beautiful emotions and expressions. 

The documentary photographer lets the moment evolve by itself and there is never any posing or acting in front of the camera so all expressions and emotions and captured naturally, without any direction from the photographer. And all emotions are welcome. Sometimes I hear people talk about documentary family photography as “candid photography”, but to me that is wrong. I think that candid photography is taking photos without permission and the documentary family photographers are very involved in the process, but not through directions and posing, but trough observing, waiting and anticipating the right moment to shoot.



For me, the difference between lifestyle family sessions and my style, the documentary approach, lies in the beauty of the observer. Well, the lifestyle pictures are often wonderful, show beautiful light, beautiful smiles… The perfect situation full of happiness. For me, the beauty of a family has a deeper meaning. In my case, I am shooting only documentary sessions, I think THESE are the real pictures, and they are full of beauty and LIFE. Personally for me, the lifestyle pictures has a lack of REAL life. They are not genuine – for me.

The love between the parents and the kids, the meltdowns of the kids AND the parents – I want to show this in a real and authentic way.

Ok, each year I send some christmas cards of my family and me, and we need the posed pictures for this purpose. 



I am a documentary photographer, but I did “lifestyle” for a short period, so I’ll explain how, in my experience, these two approaches differ. Both usually take place (for some part) in the client’s home, with the aim of creating images that capture connections between family members. Lifestyle is directed, that is the activities are directed to take place in a certain place (usually a tidied-up lounge or bedroom) next to a nice big window so that the photographer has easy light to work with. The look is clean and light and airy (all wires and distracting elements removed from the scene or photoshopped out) and dare I say, sanitized? It’s the kind of stuff you see on Pinterest. Beautiful families smiling in beautiful uncluttered homes. Documentary photography is very different. It is entirely undirected and unposed. You spend a longer amount of time with the family to capture the true essence of what family life looks like. You stick to photojournalistic principles which means no directing, no telling anyone to go over into that nice light by the window, no turning on lights, or opening curtains, no moving furniture or wires or tidying things out of the way. Why make life so difficult? Well for two reasons:

(1) everything that is in the scene belongs exactly there and as a documentary photographer, I decide with how I choose to compose the scene if I will use those elements or not – it is not my job to change how their life and home looks, but rather to capture, in the most beautiful way possible how their life feels; and

(2) when you mess around with the scene, people are aware that they are “on a photo shoot”. By leaving everything as it is, not only are you sending the message “you and your family are perfect, just as you are”, but you also allow them to forget the presence of the camera, be themselves and that is when you get to capture truly authentic moments.

To my mind, the difference is that with lifestyle, it is about trying to get everything to look all nice and perfect, whereas documentary is about authenticity; capturing the whole of what is encompassed in family life, so that when we look back at the pictures in 20/30/40 years time, we can remember exactly what it was really like; our kids can see the hard work and love that went into it all, the fun and chaos of it, and they can relive the memories of their actual childhood instead of looking at some sanitized version of what we were told by Pinterest that family life should look like.



In my opinion, lifestyle sessions are a mix of preplanned events happening during a session. It’s when the photographer and the family set up an activity for everyone to be doing, rather than just letting the day go on as it would. It adds a little bit of personality into family sessions, rather than just being posed photos somewhere, but everyone is still on their best behavior in their planned outfits.

What I prefer to do is be a fly on the wall:

Be in the home with the family and capture the mundane, not necessarily exciting, but memorable moments. It’s the kids playing with their favorite toys, the way they wrestle and argue and cuddle and cry. It’s the way a brother rolls his eyes and Mom catches a sneeze. It’s the diaper changes, the meal prepping, the Wednesday night dinners at the table together, parts of childhood that we all remember growing up.



To be honest, I can only talk about lifestyle photography by looking at the work of the people who call themselves “lifestyle photographers”. Lifestyle photography has always seemed to me like an “acting as if” approach to capturing children and families. Photographing the moments as if it is actually happening in “real life”. Bouncing up and down on the bed, or playing hide and seek between the sheets, or reading books to the children, playing with their toys, dancing to their favorite song… “as if” they always do on a typical day.

Lifestyle photography tries to stay true to life itself by generating/recreating the scenes and emotions that could actually happen in real life. By trying to make a copy of life itself. By replicating a sample of life. It’s like a stage setting. And when there is a “stage”, there is always some kind of an effort to direct or manipulate and to polish or gloss the center of attention. An effort to gain control of the scene (in terms of light, background, action, clothes, etc.). Both in the photographer’s and client’s end. Also, it is like a curated approach to capturing life. Like a more “cleaned up” version of life. So,  to me, it lacks the diversity that life itself brings. And I think, that’s the reason why almost all lifestyle photographs are so stereotypical.

On the other hand, what I do is simply capture the real life moments that I would like to preserve for a lifetime. Taking photos that are “evidence” of “this is what is”. Photos that will remind me not only what my life looked like, but what it felt like. To capture what is already there without interfering with what is going on, without altering the reality of situation, directing my subjects, and calling attention to myself. To tell and celebrate the stories of real life using the principles of documentary photography and photojournalism.

The thing I like most about documentary approach is it’s honesty and it’s ability to tell THE story. There is no copy or reproduction of moments. There is only moments themselves, that actually happened at that time and quite possibly might not happen again in the exact same way. I think, “storytelling” is a distinguishing word in documentary work.

I walk around with a heart that is always slightly broken because of the transient nature of time. I can always feel tears in my eyes ready to fall down any second and a twinge of sadness knowing that “this moment will just be another story some day”. So my heart always thunders with this crazy need to keep all those precious stories.

Sam Abell says, “A photo is like a short story where the page is about to be turned…” and I always take photos of my family with the idea that I would look back on them one day, years from now, and remember, retell and cherish those little things and stories from that particular time of my life, so dear to me, that would have otherwise slipped by.



I really think the main difference is that I capture a moment that would have otherwise happened no matter if I had my camera with me or not. Basically, I do not alter the scene, move my kids in pretty light or ask them to stop or repeat an action for the sake of a photo. I just let them be and capture them in a moment. I will typically find a frame and composition I like and wait for the perfect moment to happen. Also, in post processing I will not clone and remove unwanted items. I do crop and straighten my images and sometimes enhance some colors here and there, but we all have rules we break right? 



Lifestyle photography is directed in some way – either subjects are placed in certain light, or asked to do some sort of activity; they are posed in some way. They are styled be it in clothing, location and time of day.

What I do, documentary work, is the complete opposite.

There is no direction at all, I ask that my subjects don’t do anything special. I blend in as an extra member of the family and photograph people as they are behind closed doors.

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Documentary newborn and family photographer serving San francisco Bay Area, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and surrounding areas