Lifestyle or documentary family photography—how to choose the right style for your family?
I know why you’ve landed here! You’re interested in a style of photography that looks and feels natural. You’ve heard of lifestyle and documentary family photography, but you don’t know how to choose the right style for your family. What’s the difference between the two genres? Both give you candid photos of your family, but they’re done differently. The main difference lies in the level of intervention you get from your photographer. Let me help you out by walking you through both styles and describing who they’re perfect for.
Lifestyle family photography
What it is and how it works
Lifestyle photography creates the appearance of reality. Although it looks like a scene from real life, it’s partially or entirely planned, prompted, or directed by your photographer.
For instance, you get some guidance in terms of what to wear, where and when the session should be done, and what to do during the session.
Best time and location
Not sure where to have your session? Your lifestyle photographer knows plenty of beautiful outdoor locations! They’re usually selected for their natural beauty, unique features, and dreamy lighting conditions. For example, most sessions happen in a park or gorgeous field, at the beach, in an interesting urban or rural setting, or at any stunning location that creates a non-distracting, complementary and idealistic backdrop.
As for when the session should be done, the golden hour, or the last couple of hours after sunrise or before sunset, is a favourite amongst photographers. It’s praised for its magical qualities, warm tones, and soft shadows.
When it comes to at-home indoor sessions, photographers pick the rooms with the best lighting conditions. They make sure no distracting elements enter the frame. They may even move objects or rearrange furniture to create the most visually appealing images.
How to pose and what to do
During the session, lifestyle photographers give you directions to act a certain way and get you to interact with each other. They prompt you to laugh, kiss, play, walk and sometimes use props to keep you busy. Some photographers also guide you into taking different poses.
What you get
Lifestyle photography gives breathtaking images that feel natural and look unposed. They scream “life is beautiful” and present the best version of your family, where love and happiness are palpable.
You get flawless and flattering family photos. Your photographer edits out any undesirable or distracting element, whether on your person or in the backdrop.
Who lifestyle family photography is right for
Lifestyle family photography is great if you want candid photos of your family that look unposed and prefer to have some guidance and direction from your photographer.
It’s perfect if you want to look your best, love to dress up in coordinated outfits, and dream of styled, magazine-worthy images of your family in a beautiful setting with gorgeous light.
A lifestyle photo session is also a good choice if you want something short and sweet. You usually only need to pose and be in front of the camera for about 20 to 90 minutes.
To see examples of lifestyle family photo sessions, visit this LOOKSLIKEFILM gallery of family photographers. Not all featured photographers are lifestyle, but many are.
Documentary family photography
What it is and how it works
Documentary family photography is all about real life. It’s an authentic, unpredictable, unscripted, and unaltered story of your life. It’s inspired by photojournalism, where the photographer documents a subject, scene, or event in the most objective way without interfering with it.
How to pose and what to do
Unlike a lifestyle photographer, your documentary photographer doesn’t plan your session for you or guide you into doing certain things or posing a specific way in front of the camera. There’s no posing whatsoever! Your life is photographed as it is, in all its glory and chaos. In other words, you lead your session by simply doing what you’d normally do if a photographer wasn’t there with you. The less you pay attention to the camera, the better and more interesting your photos will be.
Does it sound scary to know there’s no guidance from your photographer? Maybe. But it doesn’t have to be!
Here’s how I approach it. We meet before your session and I get you to think about what matters the most to you at this time of your life. We sort of plan your story without making a definite plan. I guide you by asking you a few questions and by getting to know you. With a little musing, you’ll know exactly what to do to keep busy during your session and you’ll most likely end up running out of time to do it all!
If you want some inspiration on what can be photographed in your everyday life, download The Time-Stopper Guide—Tips to photograph and relive this stage of your child’s life. It’s a great starting point to get you thinking!
Although some documentary family photographers describe themselves as a fly on the wall, I’m no fly and I’d rather interact with you and the kids! When I’m with you, we talk and get to know each other so everyone feels comfortable. It doesn’t even feel like a photo session!
What about time and location?
The location of your documentary family photography session is entirely up to you. Your home or back yard are wonderful because that’s where you spend the greatest part of your life and feel the most at ease. You can also pick any other location that has a special meaning to you.
Any time of day works for a documentary photo session. Allow one hour to an entire day depending on the story you want to document. Because of the unpredictable nature of the session, documentary family photographers work with any lighting condition at any given location. They compose their stories around your family and the environment you’re in while creating visually interesting and appealing images.
What you get
Documentary family photography gives you images that are exclusive to your family. They tell your unique story and become a part of your history. You get a genuine representation of your family with its flaws, love, chaos, joy, and struggles. It’s a celebration of everyone’s unique personality and features—the best way to stay true to yourselves and gain a little self-confidence!
Admittedly, your photos won’t always be the most flattering, but they’ll be full of character, emotions, honesty, meaning, and humour. They’ll surprise you and look awesome on your walls even if they’re not staged.
Who documentary family photography is right for
Documentary family photography is perfect for you if:
- Your family experiences are more important to you than your appearance. You see the beauty in your everyday life and don’t feel the need to dress up or look your best to have photos worth hanging up on your walls.
- You want to remember it all and create a legacy for your children. When they’re older, you want to look back at your life and smile at the messy rooms full of toys and the fingerprint stains lining the walls from the kitchen to the washroom sink. Those will be “the good old days!”
- You want to be seen for who you are and everything you do for your family.
- You want your kids to feel confident with who they are and know you love them no matter how they behave or what they look like.
- The thought of posing or having your photo taken makes you cringe. I have good news for you! With documentary family photography, you spend more time with your photographer so you don’t need to do anything specific for the camera. You can relax, go on with your day and forget someone’s taking photos of you.
- Disrupting your kids’ schedule with an evening photo session bugs you.
- You want something that’s kid-friendly and doesn’t feel like a chore.
- A ketchup stain on your kids’ clothes and a little dirt on their face couldn’t bother you less.
- You’re busy and don’t have much time to dedicate to a photo session. In fact, as strange as it may sound, a long documentary photo session like a “day in the life” doesn’t even feel like a time commitment. Your photographer takes part in your daily routine and follows you everywhere you go, navigating through mealtimes, grocery shopping, soccer practice, school pick up, nap time…
- You have a good sense of humour and like to have some fun.
- You have an open mind and are ready to try something new.
Who it‘s not right for
Documentary family photography is not a good option if you want your photographer to pick a pretty location for you or give you suggestions on what to wear. It’s about you, what you feel comfortable wearing, where you like to hang out and what’s meaningful to you.
It’s not good either if you expect your photographer to tell you what to do and how to act or pose during the session. Again, a documentary family photo session is about your real life and what makes it unique to you. It’s about your personal experiences, your family dynamics, your connection with one another, your routine…
Lastly, you better forget about documentary family photography if you want the most flattering photos of yourself! You will get beautiful and emotionally powerful photos… along with funny ones of facial expressions you didn’t even know you were capable of making! Remember, documentary photography is a great way to let your personality shine and be seen for who you truly are. It’s a way for you to remember life as it is, to embrace your imperfections, to relive your emotions and experiences…
Take a look at a few sessions I’ve photographed, from short story to half day and full day in the life, or head to This is Reportage Family to find out why 35 photographers from all over the world find documentary family photography so important.
The right style of photography for your family
In summary, lifestyle and documentary family photography are similar and different in a variety of ways. They’re right for diverse occasions, families, or at various times of your life.
For example, I started with lifestyle photography and slowly moved towards documentary photography over the years. The first time I hired a family photographer, there’s no way I could’ve been convinced to have a documentary family photography session! My photographer mentioned the possibility of photographing us at our campsite instead of the mountain-view setting I had carefully picked. I thought “No way! What kind of photos would we get from that?” I had my mind set on having beautiful photos in the best location with the best light.
Today, I value real-life moments and experiences and I think I’m sold on documentary photography for the long run.
No matter what style you prefer, there’s no right or wrong choice. It all goes down to who you are and what you want at a given time of your life.
Why not try both genres and decide which one was the best for your family after the fact?
Working with me
If you’re interested in documentary family photography, know that I’m not always super strict at following the rules. Don’t tell anyone, but I like to cheat once in a while!
Let’s pretend your kids did something really cool and I missed the shot. I might ask them for a retake if it was worth it. But one thing’s for sure, I won’t ask you to pose for me and I won’t guide you any other way. Why? Because I like to keep it real and I’m not a fan of posing people! So if you prefer lifestyle photography, you’re better off with a real pro in that genre. And if you book a documentary photo session with me and really want a photo where everyone looks at the camera, I’ll be happy to take it for you!
Want to chat about your family story?
Not quite ready yet but interested in the documentary family photography genre? Download The Time-Stopper Guide to learn how to be more intentional when you photograph your own family.
I'm Marie-Pierre, an easygoing mother of two and a documentary family photographer. I believe we can all learn and grow from other people's experiences. Real life stories help us relate to each other, open our minds and feel better about ourselves.
this blog is a collection of featured client stories, tips, and articles on various family related topics. I hope you will find some inspiration!