During every run of my Capturing Joy workshop, a topic seems to come up repeatedly…

  • How much should the photographer interfere with what is going on in a lifestyle session?
  • If we are asking our subjects to do something for us, is that cheating?
  • Should we catch joy when it happens organically, or is it okay to make it happen?

To me, these questions all come down to how we define “lifestyle photography”.

I’m not pretentious enough to declare that I have THE definition of it. However, I do think that if you call yourself a lifestyle photographer, you should have a very clear idea of what that means for you, even if it’s not exactly the same definition for everyone.

My purpose here is to give my own take on what lifestyle photography means when photographing children and families, in hope that it might help you refine your own definition – whether you agree with mine or not.

Lifestyle photography lies somewhere in between documentary photography on the one hand, and classic portraiture on the other hand. A documentary photographer will have a “fly on the wall” approach, catching life as it is without trying to interfere with what is going on. He or she will tell the story of real life, as it happens, while trying to be as transparent as possible for his/her subjects.

A photographer specialized in classic portraiture will try to have full control over what is in the frame: light, backgrounds, clothes, poses, props. He or she will be in charge of how their subjects position their bodies, move (or not) and will control everything up to the angle of their head or how their hand is laying on their lap.

For me, lifestyle photography lies somewhere in between documentary photography and classic portraiture. Let me explain further...
For me, lifestyle photography lies somewhere in between documentary photography and classic portraiture. Let me explain further...

My own take on lifestyle photography is a mix of authentic and staged. What I am shooting could actually happen in real life (this is the core definition of “lifestyle” in my opinion), however I would never have captured such a variety of images in such a short amount of time if I had not interfered. During a session, I create a diversity of opportunities that will generate real-life type of images which might not have spontaneously happened at that specific moment if I hadn’t been there to jump-start them.

The images in the collage below were taken during a one hour time frame. Every single one of these moments could have happened in the life of this family, what I am showing here is basically a family having fun on a bed, as they probably do on a lazy Sunday morning. However, I am pretty sure that they wouldn’t have played so intensively over the course of one hour if I hadn’t been there to encourage them.

For me, lifestyle photography lies somewhere in between documentary photography and classic portraiture. Let me explain further...

Like in classic portraiture, I try to control a few things: light is the main one (I choose where I shoot to get the best light possible), location (I might move items or furniture to get a better shooting environment), and action. Like a documentary photographer, I won’t pose my subjects. I will give them something to do, or a game to play together, and then will let them BE. I want them to act as naturally as possible, and interact with each other as they always do.

Let’s try to sum it up by a quick list of DOs and DON’Ts.

What I do:

  1. Always stay true to life, by photographing situations that could have happened organically.
  2. Suggest starting points (games, situations) and let the magic happen!
  3. Help families find photogenic clothes, while staying true to what they really wear everyday. They have everything they need in their closet!
  4. Choose the best rooms/places in a client’s home (or on location if we are shooting outdoors) to control the light and get professional looking images.

What I don’t do:

  1. Pose my subjects (I will never say: please bend your head that way).
  2. Give shopping advice. I want them to wear what is already in their wardrobe, not something that will make them say 10 years from now: “Oh look, this is the dress I had bought for the photo session!” I want them to be able to say: “Haha! I can’t believe we were actually wearing this 10 years ago!”. This is what lifestyle memories are for!
  3. Ask them to look at me or smile on demand. I want them to interact with each other. If they happen to look at the camera, it’s because I was interacting with them and said something funny, not because I asked them to do so.
  4. Bring props. The only props that are allowed in the frame are those that are already in the family’s everyday environment, like a child’s favorite toy. I will sometimes use soap bubbles or balloons because they are naturally part of childhood, but to be honest, I really prefer a session without any prop, to fully focus on the emotion.
For me, lifestyle photography lies somewhere in between documentary photography and classic portraiture. Let me explain further...

So, what is your own definition of lifestyle? Do you interpret it differently? Share your experience with me in the comments below!