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 felt I had to choose between the two but neither really fit me. I found the perfection and idealization of the lifestyle too forced and inauthentic. And documentary completely unscripted was visually boring. I began to wonder if I was imposing rules that mattered more to other photographers than to 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 gift to your children: 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 but 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 and wiggly kids are a-OK. My hope is that 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.