What is the difference between lifestyle and documentary photos?

I am a documentary photographer.

However, being a previous creator of lifestyle images allows me to effectively discuss the differences between lifestyle and documentary imagery.

Let me start at the beginning.

When I was finding my photographic voice, I realized the images I was creating leaned towards the lifestyle spectrum. Posed portraits and I were just not meant to be. A quick foray into posing a newborn baby in a vintage basket during a session, and feeling all kinds of awkward and rookie about it, sealed the deal for me.

It was not a surprise really – nothing about me says polished and perfect. A quick snapshot of my office will confirm that.

Instead, I wanted to create images that were moment-driven for the happy and the quiet, with a touch of candid. I was obsessed with focal length and lenses that would offer me the best bokeh, and times of day that would provide the creamiest light. I would move things around to achieve a clutter-free frame. I would ask my girls to sit in an area of my choosing, with their coordinating outfits, and engage in something they were interested in. I would then prompt them with cues to get the desired expression I was looking for to match the predetermined artistic mood and vision I had in mind.

family photo on a rock by the water by Felicia Chang

For two years, I created lots and lots of lifestyle photos for myself and for clients. They mirrored what I thought a happy and content life could look like, which also happened to be well received by many. I am grateful for it – this lifestyle approach fueled my photography business well. It allowed families to look their best, their most happy, their most together.

It is not that the moments are not real, because they are. They simply had to be guided into place for brevity’s sake because of the availability of the families’ time and type of light. In essence, lifestyle photography is a curated approach to capturing life and is well-suited for delivering the overarching statement that life is good. It is the artistic vehicle for conveying life through rose-coloured glasses, like a good fiction book with a happy ending. For that reason, it compliments the editorial and commercial uses of stock image companies.

black and white portrait of mom and daughter by Felicia Chang

black and white portrait of mom and daughter by Felicia Chang

Then something shifted in me.

I recognized this disconnect between my real life and my artistic voice and I needed to narrow that gap. I started feeling the urge to create something that reflected the personal struggles I was experiencing. Most days, the theme surrounded my own uncertainty with self-identity and where motherhood fit into that. When I first learned about documentary photography, I knew it could provide the means to marry my reality with my art.

The current industry approach to documentary photography is built upon some core principles of photojournalism. It is expected that nothing is moved or touched in the scene, the subjects are not directed, the light not altered, and the post-production not be heavy-handed (particularly with the addition or removal of elements in the image).

picture of mom holding newborn in the hospital and feeding son by Felicia Chang

This may seem like a lot to manage, and you may initially feel restricted trying out this approach, but let me share with you what it has afforded me.

With no room to manipulate the scene before me, I am left to tell the story as it is.

Without the need to control my subjects, the light, or the environment, I am free to focus on the moments unfolding before me, and support it with ambient light and physical elements within my frame. All these components – the moment, the light, the composition – they come together to create a story with depth. For me, it stopped becoming about achieving an aesthetic, and instead placed priority on telling the story with all its subtle nuances – what is happening now and how it fits into the larger context and fuller spectrum of life.

family photo on a rock by the water by Felicia Chang

Because of the way it accurately represents the world, documentary images have the power to serve as platforms for honest conversation about all facets of life. Within the framework of family photography, along with the happy and hilarious moments, sometimes it means images that reflect frustration, pain, shame, or vulnerability.

All of it is real, and all of it deserving of artistic representation that, despite the gritty subject matter, can still be beautiful. Although we may use the phrase, “the ugly or messy side of life”, it is far from being about how it looks, and more about the freedom to document what is happening without control or manipulation. If that includes items that may be considered as clutter in a lifestyle image, a good documentary photographer will have included them in the frame with intent because they somehow add to the story that is being told.

black and white photo of mom doing dishes by Felicia Chang

dad and son playing while walking down the street by Felicia Chang

I am not here to convince you that one way is better than the other.

Photographic expression has room for both, and so much more. Only you can determine what suits your artistic voice, and like me, your preference may evolve over time. Even as a documentary photographer, some days, I still find the need to create a soulful portrait and do away with the environmental one for now.

Pick what inspires you, and choose the approach that will help you carry out your creative voice.

I am a documentary photographer. However, being a previous creator of lifestyle images allows me to effectively discuss the differences between lifestyle and documentary imagery. Let me start at the beginning...

About the Author:

Felicia Chang is a documentary family photographer and Click Photo School instructor who believes everyone’s version of reality is camera-worthy. Connections are important, normal is relative, and crustier versions of life definitely deserve visual space in family photos. She lives in beautiful and wet North Vancouver, Canada, in a creaky 104-yr old house with two of the best girls who make Motherhood a challenge, a husband who argues and supports equally, and a Schnoodle dog that licks his bum more than she would like. When not working, she spends her kid-free time drinking copious amounts of hipster coffee, running in the trails with her dog, and spending way too much time on social media meme-ing with her favourite people.


  1. Courtney Sep 16 2016 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. I myself have been shifting from lifestyle into documentary as I narrow into my passion. I just wasn’t sure I was ready to give it a name. 🙂 Thank you.

    • Felicia Sep 18 2016 at 4:58 pm - Reply

      Hi Courtney! I’m so glad it helped you. It does take time to transition, as making a strictly documentary photograph takes a lot of practice and letting go of many factors that you used to be able to control. Please share your lifestyle-documentary comparisons on the forum!

  2. Bridget Eldridge Sep 19 2016 at 5:08 pm - Reply

    Hi Felicia! Thank you so much for writing this article and pointing out the differences between lifestyle photography and documentary photography. I think they both have their special place and I am happy to see photographers helping define what documentary family really is all about.

  3. Cynthia Sep 21 2016 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    This is so me, however I like doing both. Thanks for clarifying! 🙂

  4. Joyce Oct 05 2016 at 10:20 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the great article; it was very helpful.

  5. Amy Little Oct 07 2016 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    FELICIA!!! Yes. Just a huge fat yes. This is why I started photography and then I got lost. This is why photography matters to me. Life. As. It. Is. I’m devouring your website and I feel myself being reborn. This is what I want.

  6. Veronica Francis Oct 21 2016 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I have been so frustrated with my photography lately. I don’t fit into a lot of the photography I see around me because for me life is not perfect, and I feel like I am not being truthful if I keep trying to stage events. I have taken a few perfectly beautiful images and then refused to upload them to my Instagram because they just didn’t feel authentic. This is what I was searching for.

  7. Isabelle Sanderson May 31 2017 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    LOVE THIS! I’m a mom and an English and Film teacher. I’m a lover of photography and storytelling. I am currently trying to find my photographic voice and this article just resonated with me. I definitely feel connected to documentary photography. I’m learning how to tell my family stories in images.

  8. Kate E Nazif Jan 17 2019 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    THIS!!! THIS is everything. This describes the artistic break through I had this morning after years of struggling to find my voice/consistency/passion. I began to realize it was emerging in documentary, although I offere(d) many types of photography to clients. I would love to know what you all think of color versus black and white images for documentary?

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