Lifestyle or Documentary?

Lifestyle and documentary are categories used to describe approaches to family photography. Most photographers choose one but I choose both.

Lifestyle tends to mean an artfully composed photograph taken outside with at least some amount of direction given by the photographer.

Documentary tends to refer to unscripted photos of a family in action, going about their daily lives with little to no discernible interference from the photographer.

As a portrait artist I have been made to feel that I must choose one or the other. If I chose lifestyle, every detail must be perfect. If I chose documentary, it must not be poisoned with my direction. The former felt idealized, inauthentic and forced. The later was often dull to look at. I began to wonder if I was imposing rules that mattered more to other photographers than the families I served.

So I decided to embrace both and do both my way.

Families come in many forms. Some need more direction, some less. Some know exactly what they want, some have no idea. Some want to wear coordinating outfits in scenic places, some want to wear pajamas at home or sports jerseys while playing flag football.

If the goal is to get an artful, personal and authentic capture of your family as you are right now, I will meet you where you are.

My approach is always casual and interactive. Maintaining a distinction between lifestyle and documentary at booking helps us set the scene. It helps me know what you want out of your session.

I give direction as needed for both, I add action to both, I consider light and background in both. I’m going to bend the rules regardless and serendipity is always invited to come play.

Which portfolio feels more like the story you want to display in your home and give to your children as a gift: documentary or lifestyle?

Do you want to be outside, dressed in nice clothes? Do you want prompting, at least the first time? Do you want to get through it quickly? Choose a lifestyle mini session. You can personalize it with your location.

Do you hate posed pictures? Do you love snapshots and candid moments? Is there something happening right now that you always want to remember? Are you OK with having a photographer hang around a little longer? Do you have a baby or young child and spend a lot of time in your home together? Consider documentary.

Questions and Answers….

Q: I like both! How do I choose?

A: Many of my clients commission both! Maybe you want cherry blossom pics in the spring (lifestyle mini) but you would also like me to tag along to the tree lot when the fam chooses the Christmas tree (documentary session). Or maybe you need a quick update for holiday cards one year (lifestyle mini) but decide on pics during the new baby’s first birthday cake smash the following year (documentary session). You can switch back and forth, you can have it all.

Q: I love the idea of documentary but we don’t know what to do… Should we just do lifestyle?

A: Not necessarily! Let’s talk, I like asking questions and I’ll bet I can eek the perfect idea out of you.

Q: Do you do retouch?

A: I do editing and image optimization but I do not make any changes to the appearance of a person’s body unless it has been requested. If there’s an adjustment you need to help you love your photos more, just ask.

Q: If I choose lifestyle, how much “finessing” do you do?

A: Awesome question. What I’m going for is the warm feeling of togetherness. I’m going to try and make the kids laugh. I’m not going to adjust your jewelry. If I see something embarrassing or glaring I’ll mention it but I’m not going for for everything in its right place. I don’t care even if everyone is looking at the camera. I hope you’ll look at your photos and feel your heart swell with immense gratitude for the gift of love you have. If you want to feel “look at us, we are so perfect!” I’m definitely not your girl.

Q: What are some things families have done for documentary sessions?

A: This list includes, but is not limited to: making Sunday morning pancakes, playing Guitar Hero, going to the pumpkin patch, building Lego, attending a sporting event and cheering loudly, bowling, letting the kids play dress up, having a tea party, building a pillow fort, going for ice cream, launching stomp rockets, picking apples or berries, picking snap peas from the community garden, going to the pool, running through sprinklers, taking a walk to the playground, building a sandcastle, eating popsicles, pajama party time, family game night, family couch time, first birthday cake smashes, family jam session.

Q: What if I want a session with my extended family?

A: For the whole fam, I recommend full sessions over mini sessions to make sure we have adequate time built in. I still recommend lifestyle in most cases but if you are participating in something like a a color run together, let’s go documentary!

Q: How should we dress?

A: However you like. My advice in this arena is terrible so thank goodness for Pinterest! Oh – I do have this – if you have a newborn, find a simple onesie that shows off their tiny limbs and keeps the focus on that sweet face. No ruffles or collars or text, please. There’s a whole lifetime ahead for cute clothes, just keep this one simple.

Q: Is documentary just for babies or younger kids? Does this work with older kids?

A: Documentary celebrates the beauty of family life and life is always happening. Documentary with older children can be really exciting when you give them ownership in designing the shoot. If the kids are willing but are having trouble coming up with ideas, try asking each member of the family, “what does our life as a family look like to you?” or “what do you want to remember about us?” or “what’s your favorite thing we do together?” It’s never too late, I will document my own family for as long as they let me.

A Story for You….

This is my second favorite photo of my son. (The first is the opener for Mel’s Story, you can’t beat that one ever.)

For families grappling with the value of a documentary approach, I thought this story might help.

M has a stuffed cat named Fudgy. His full name is actually “Fudgy the Lice Cat” since he joined our family during a most unfortunate episode where all stuffed friends were banished to trash bag quarantine, leaving a kindergartner facing bed time very sad and sending a tired mom to the nearest open toy store with very slim pickings.

Fudgy has been the most loved stuffy ever since, the closest of them all to Velveteen status, the one that will ride his love into the afterlife. And every night at bed time we have a routine. My husband says what his parents said to him at night, which is “sweet beans”: an adaption of toddler Sam’s mispronunciation of “sweet dreams” that his parents would say to him. But I say “dream of angels”, which has its origins in my mother’s parents’ bed time wishes and what my parents said to me before bed.

In return M will say, every night to this very tween-hood day of my writing, “Sweet beans, good night, and all those other things we say at night!!!” There’s a sing-song lilt to his voice when he says it and it nicely covers the gamut of angels, sleeping tight and bed bugs that don’t bite.

And then my husband will throw the cat at his face. Not always gently.

I can’t explain why, I only know that random-acts-of-Sam are one of the many things I fell in love with and are part of my son’s genetic composition…. M just loves it. He won’t easily fall asleep without someone throwing Fudgy at his face.

No other parent in the world will have this portrait. I’ve never posted it to Facebook, its ours, its his, and I am so glad I thought to take it one night. As much as I would like to believe that he will ask his college roommate or domestic partner to throw Fudgy at him before bed when he moves out of our home, the more likely scenario is that one night, any given night from now, he will say “Stop, that’s not funny anymore.” Just like he stopped fitting into the sling, just like he stopped wearing super hero costumes, just like I stopped being able to pick him up.

I use documentary photos to hold things I know I can’t stop. He has to grow up and photos like this make it just a little easier for me to let him.