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The Difference Between Lifestyle and Documentary Photography

What’s the difference between lifestyle and documentary photography, you ask? Well, there are all sorts of thoughts on this subject and some would even say it’s in the gray area, but I’ve formed my own beliefs about it and I’ll tell you what they mean to me and my business, and why I deeply love them both.

Lifestyle photography

During a lifestyle session, the photographer will be involved. She will help guide the subjects into poses that photograph well and may tidy up or set the scene to look the best in photographs. She may also direct the subjects in what to do, where to go, or give prompts to help create emotion or personal connection.

Documentary photography

During a documentary session, the photographer will not be in involved. She will work only in the background. She will not intervene with the subjects, the scene, or with the events unfolding (or very minimally so). She will only photograph real life as it happens.

© Kristine Elizabeth Photography. Please do not remove my logo, duplicate, or edit my images. Thank you!

The photo on the left is a lifestyle session. I had control; I made sure the subjects were sitting in a well lit room with natural light, positioned them with side light coming in from the window, and chose bright colored books for them to read, since the background was very neutral. I didn’t direct them on what to do, I just set the scene and let them go.

In the documentary photo on the right, I had no control over anything. The room was dim and poorly lit, there was a bright light shining up towards mom and baby, and the nurses were busily working in front of and around me. I stayed out of the action and snapped away, documenting the birth of this sweet little guy as it really was.

Both images are beautiful and both are amazing, but they’re very different.

I generally say I am a lifestyle photographer because I like to have some control over the subjects and the scene (mostly lighting), but the truth is, I am really both. While I love the gorgeous more curated look of lifestyle photography, I am equally drawn to the raw, honest emotion seen in documentary photography. If you asked me to choose one or the other, lifestyle or documentary, I don’t think I could. My passion for photography includes both.

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