Lifestyle vs. Documentary Family Photography

If you’re in the market for family photography, you may have seen these words to describe sessions. But what exactly is the difference, and which one is right for you?

Technically speaking, there are defined rules to documentary photography (unlike lifestyle). Documentary photography refers to photos where the photographer does not interfere at all. This is “fly on the wall” photography, where the photographer sits back, observes, and photographs your family without interrupting or altering the scene. While documentary photographs are still edited, the goal is to leave the scene as close to real life as possible. Documentary sessions are incredibly easy and casual; you don’t have to dress up, you don’t have to worry about your kids cooperating, and you receive photographs of your family that are incredibly genuine and authentic memories. While these sessions are often in your home, they don’t have to be! I can tag along to the park, the beach, your favorite ice cream shop, etc.

Lifestyle photography, on the other hand, is a more “dressed up” version of documentary photography. There aren’t strict rules, but there is less posing, directing, and staging of scenes than in traditional portrait (“everyone look at me and smile!”) photography. During lifestyle sessions, you may be “prompted” into an interaction, such as to hold your child and sway. While you were directed what to do, the moments and interactions are still real and genuine. A lifestyle photoshoot is more controlled than a documentary session, but the photos still elicit real emotions and connection.

Let’s dive in to what a documentary session looks like, and some of the frequent concerns I hear from people who are thinking about trying it.





Why might I want a documentary session?

While I love shooting all kinds of family sessions, it’s no secret that documentary has my heart. I’m a sentimental mom. I get emotional about milestones, I cry just thinking about sending my baby off to school, and I cherish our family memories and photographs.

If you’re like me – you get emotional about kids growing up too fast – you might want a documentary session. If you are looking for something a little more REAL than your traditional session, something that really documents your life as it is right in this very moment – documentary is a great choice. A documentary family session is about the real, honest details of your every day life. Let’s face it – someday these days will be hard to remember. The days can feel so long while we’re living them, and yet we look back and they’ve passed in the blink of an eye. If you want to hold onto that, to have those photos and those stories to remember – documentary is for you.

Why might I want lifestyle instead?

If you like to dress up, plan special outfits, and find a beautiful location, lifestyle is the way to go. If you feel like you couldn’t relax and be yourself in front of the camera and want more direction and prompting, you’ll be much happier with a lifestyle session!

What if I’m interested, but I’m nervous about photographing my family’s not so pretty moments?

Your toddler will probably have a tantrum. You might lose your cool. Your kids might fight and cry. That is 100% okay. The thing is, while you might be embarrassed about that, or worried that you won’t get great photos, this is just part of life. These moments can be just as beautiful as the happy ones – sometimes more so. Have you ever had the chance to see yourself while you’re comforting your child? It’s such a powerful, beautiful thing, the way you instinctively care for them, the way their little fingers curl around your arm or they lay their head on your shoulder. This is when it all gets real. This is your life – it’s sometimes messy and chaotic and loud and someday you’re going to miss it. So I will photograph those moments, and you may be surprised by how much you love seeing those little details that make up your day to day life.

My house is WAY too messy to have a photographer in my house!

I will send you some photos of my house. My daughter is a human hurricane, and I have surrendered myself to this lest I lose my mind. Of course, you’re welcome to clean and tidy up before your session if that’s what you prefer! But a mess is okay. A mess is real. The mess shows the little details of your life, like your kid’s favorite stuffed animal or the book they’ve made you read them 100 times.

What do we actually DO during a session?

Whatever you want! Depending on the length of the session, I recommend having a couple of simple activities planned. There is no need to make it complicated – it should be something your family would usually do together. Great activities are reading books with your kids, picking fruit, cooking, playing in the backyard – regular, simple moments that make up your family’s routine.

There might be some downtime during your session. Children napping, playing in different rooms – that’s perfectly fine. I’ll document those moments, too.



How do I get my family to act natural with a photographer hanging around?

It may take your kids a little time to warm up, but they usually start to ignore the camera and be themselves pretty early on. Truthfully, it MAY feel awkward at first having me there taking photos. We can make it a little easier by chatting before your session, so I’m not a total stranger, and I promise it gets easier as you relax and go about your life.

What do I do with the pictures after?

You are still going to have wall quality art to print, and pictures from a documentary session are wonderful to display in your home, to show your children how much they are loved and how special your unique family is. Since these photos document your real life, I find they are also wonderful for creating photo books and memory boxes. After your session, I am happy to guide you through ideas for displaying and preserving your photos.



Are you ready to do this? I’d love to chat with you and begin planning your best photo session ever! Click here to get started.