Understanding Photography Styles: Portrait, Lifestyle, and Documentary

There are actually lots of options when it comes to family photography, and I don’t just mean picking the photographer!  Sometimes you know you want family pictures, but you might not be sure what kind you want or how to go about getting the kind of pictures you have in mind.   Read on to learn about the different styles, the pros and cons of each style, and to see examples.

One of way of describing family photography styles is to use a continuum, with documentary photography, aka photojournalism, on one end of the spectrum and portrait photography on the other end.  As you move along the continuum you change the level of photographer control (e.g., directing and posing).  In any of these styles, the photographer is an artist who is creating an image using lighting, composition, etc.

Graphic explaining the different family photography styles

Portrait Photography

Portraits are usually taken in fairly controlled environments, like in a studio or a photographer-chosen outside location during the golden hour.  The photographer is heavily involved in directing the family during a portrait session, telling the family where to sit or stand, how to position their arms and legs, and where to look.   The family usually dresses in a very intentional manner.  The resulting images are beautiful, with everyone looking just right, hopefully!  These images are traditionally the kinds used for Christmas cards, wedding announcements, and wall displays.

Pros: Creates beautiful, balanced images with everyone looking at the camera; creates stand-alone images with all family members together

Cons:  Can be less fun for young kids and husbands; can be costly

Here are some examples:

Lifestyle Photography

When a family is looking for something a bit more relaxed, with less posing and more interaction, a lifestyle session can be a good choice.  Lifestyle photography is stylized to create beautiful images of families interacting and doing real activities together, either in their homes or in a familiar place outside.  The photographer helps plan the session based on the family’s interests and family dynamics.  The photographer might pose the family and then let them interact, or might make just suggestions about positioning of activities on the lighting and background.  The resulting images are more candid, can have a greater range of emotions, and capture moments that are more true-to-life.

Pros:  Creates images that make you feel something instead of just seeing the people; captures more authentic moments of interaction; involves the photographer in making decisions; more fun!

Cons:  Doesn’t create “Look at me and smile at me!” images; can be harder to find a photographer near you

Here are some examples:

Documentary Photography

In true documentary photography the photographer does not change or influence the environment.  Think of the images you used to see in National Geographic Magazines – documentary photography and photojournalism tell stories without interfering in the action.  They capture what is going on, as it unfolds.  In documentary family photography, the photographer interacts with the family but doesn’t tell them what to do, how to do it, or where to do it.  The photographer watches the lighting, the composition and the family moments in order to take meaningful pictures, all while making decisions about how to photograph the scene to tell the story.

Pros:  Captures family life in all its glory; tells your story and captures your real moments; captures real emotions as they unfold, creates images for photo books and picture collections

Cons:  Can capture all the messiness of life with kids; might not capture all the family members in one purposeful shot; can be harder to find a photographer near you

Here are some examples:


Hopefully you can see that these styles (Portrait, Lifestyle, and Documentary) are just descriptions of things that in reality are flexible and can co-exist, to some extent.  You can take a beautiful portrait shot within a lifestyle or documentary session.  You can get a great spontaneous moment with real emotion and interaction within a lifestyle session.

What’s your favorite style?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s