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Lifestyle vs Documentary - what are they, how do they differ and which is better?

So what is Lifestyle Photography? And Documentary Photography - two fairly new terms and styles when it comes to family photography in the UK.

They're both alternatives to the more posed, stiff smiling shots taken in studios. I consider myself a documentary-lifestyle family photographer based in Sussex although available anywhere in the UK. These types of photos are taken with a real backdrop, be it in your own home or out & about somewhere you love, it's not just a blank or stylised space behind you, it's the places that matter to you the most. The places you'll want to remember and look back on years from now and see how you really lived and loved. I think you can tell I'm passionate about this style of family photography, it has my heart!

There's no "better" option, the fact there are so many options these days mean there's something for everyone but it can be confusing. There will be people who know they prefer the posed, perfect looking portraits that can be achieved in a studio setting, others will crave something different or just dread the thought of all the lights, trying to keep everyone happy and smiling and sitting still.

The alternative is the beauty of real life with a little bit of styling thrown in to look your absolute best - the lifestyle approach - or there is the entirely unscripted way to truly tell your story in your photos but with a professional touch - the documentary approach.

As the LSPA (Lifestyle Photography Association, of which I'm a charter member) puts it: "Lifestyle photography is an updated approach to the stiff, dated portrait sessions that used to take place in the studios. Instead of corralling the subjects into an environment they are not familiar with and placing a paper backdrop behind them, the lifestyle photographer goes to the location of your choice with you to create authentic and artistic portraits that you will treasure forever."

The FPJA (Family Photojournalist Association) states: "get the most authentic, the most beautiful and the most original images of your family, friends and fun."

I fall into both the lifestyle and documentary categories as I see it on a sliding scale.

Some lifestyle photographers will come to your home and set everything up to give you gorgeous shots in certain poses, perhaps with props and plenty of direction. Family documentary or photojournalists will literally come along and be a fly on the wall, watching you get on with your life while they snap away catching little moments of realness with no interference or direction. Each have their merits which is why I prefer a combination of both. All of the examples in this blog post were taken in clients' own homes.

Lifestyle - everyone posed on the sofa following my direction.

Documentary - Mama comforting her baby as I captured it over her shoulder at the same session.

I will never ask you to smile and look at my camera (except perhaps for one shot to please the grannies!), but I will give a little direction at times in where I'd like you to sit or stand, perhaps asking someone to move to a different spot or tilt a certain way. This enables me to capture the best light and moments but my heart really does lie in catching you unawares, being you in your family unit. I might pose you all on the sofa but then I'll back off and let you relax and capture what unfolds, snuggles, cuddles, I might prompt your kids with some ideas to get them giggling or snuggling into you but essentially I want to freeze your everyday life for you, to tell your story in pictures doing what you do.

Certain sessions lend themselves to a more lifestyle approach such as a solo maternity session but the whole family together doesn't need much direction to get interesting and beautiful photos showing your emotions, the fun and the chaos of life with kids. You don't even need to tidy up!!!

The main advantage of this approach is that no-one needs to feel awkward or stiff, I am there to have fun with you, make you laugh, get your kids dancing and also to step back and observe the love, preserving THAT in an image (or 100) is what I do for you. That's what you're paying me for.

Here are some examples of how my sessions can differ but they all lay on that scale of lifestyle-documentary...

In these examples, I asked the family to sit on the sofa, we got the "Granny shot" and then I asked them to tickle their daughter - an easy trick that works every time for natural smiles and laughter! While sitting there, they naturally snuggled together and held hands, I climbed up onto the sofa to catch it from a different perspective, I love details like this, especially with the scuffed toddler knee! Sienna wanted Daddy to read her a story and I captured a few close-ups of this sweet moment before backing off and catching it from a very different angle in the mirror.

When we went upstairs, I positioned Mum & Dad on the bed and asked Sienna to bounce, it wasn't long before she turned to aim for her parents and I got their reactions as she launched herself at them! After some more unprompted tickling, Mum scooped her up for an embrace and I got this gorgeous image of them rubbing noses.

Similarly with bath time, this generally takes a more documentary approach and given the small bathroom in this example, I climbed up onto the toilet to grab shots from above and asked Dad to pour water down to get Sienna looking up into the light. He then splashed her from the side too, so again, a mixture of lifestyle with some direction and then let things happen naturally while I document and step back as I did when they got her out of the bath ready for bed with snuggles and a bed time story, I then stepped back in and suggested a bedtime kiss while they were all snuggled on the bed together and yet more climbing to get them from above - I warn my clients I will be climbing up all over their furniture!

For this maternity session above, my client was extremely nervous and doesn't really like having photos taken of herself (you can read her testimonial and see more from this session here), so I took the lead in directing her, laughing with her and giving her specific poses with how to sit or stand, where to look and place her hands. This made it easy for her to forget about feeling awkward and focus on herself and her bump while I snapped away.

We ended up with a combination of beautiful bump shots, some natural laughter and some more wistful looking "gaze out of the window" photos of her looking more glamorous as well as just a cosy mama enjoying a cuppa. I'm always on the lookout for meaningful details too and captured the baby books on the shelf and parents-to-be card next to her eldest child's first day at school card. I also provided the wardrobe for this session.

Oh this newborn session, where do I start, I have so many examples and I love them all! When I arrived the two eldest girls were excited and eager so I asked if they liked to dance - cue all the dance moves and the middle child flinging herself around on the gym ball! Awesome candid moments I love! The eldest was keen to hold her new baby sister so I asked her to sit in the patch of light I had my eye on before the other sister joined in and I was able to capture the cuddles and connection between them.

For baby's bath, I gave very little direction also, just placed the bath in the light and asked them to carry on bathing their sister, eldest was more keen but I managed to get them all to huddle round, asking Dad to move to my left so he didn't block the light and asked everyone to help with the bath to get all those hands loving on the new baby.

The girls were keen to show me their tepee so I have a fair few portraits as they decided to pose for me inside but I managed a few more candid shots like this one of them looking at each other too. I set them up on the bed lying down and asked Mum to place baby in between - this led to a fair few funny shots of baby punching big sisters in the head and their reactions but also some sweet moments like this when they kissed her (as I directed). I also set up the more creative shot with the slow shutter as I asked Mum and Dad to sit very still holding baby and then let the sisters loose running like mad around the living room!

Finally I got everyone settled on the sofa again as they'd all loosened up by now and were well used to me as I climbed above them and asked everyone to place a hand welcoming their new addition. And of course, back to documenting as my swaddle was removed (she clearly liked it) and Dad stepped in to comfort his newest daughter. I always keep shooting through any tears, it's all part of this life and deserves to be documented too.

I have many more examples but I realise I've rambled on long enough for one blog post! Perhaps I'll share some more another day. I hope this has helped people understand exactly what is meant by both Lifestyle and Documentary photography. Of course, if you want to find out in person with your own session, please get in touch via my contact page!

Here's what one client had to say about my approach, you can read more on my testimonials page:

"My biggest fear was just that the photos wouldn't look good because my home isn't a "magazine house" but it worked so well. Bex put my mind at rest, reassured me that the house didn't need to be perfect at all, she would turn up, take shots as we did normal family things and we are so happy with how they have turned out.

My favourite bit about working with Bex was just how laid back she was throughout the whole experience..."

I definitely lean more towards the documentary side when photographing my own kids these days too with my first "day in the life" here, when I started toilet training the twins and their recent birthday here.


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