As photographers, it’s easy for us to get caught up in our own lingo and sometimes we forget that you as our customer might not be aware of the tiny differences between services and products that are being offered. So I decided to shed some light on some big questions around family photography, starting with…

Lifestyle vs Documentary Family Photography – What’s the difference?

Documentary and lifestyle family photography both aim to capture candid moments as opposed to obviously posed photographs. But that’s exactly where it can get confusing for an outsider. So let’s look at the two genres in detail…

Lifestyle family photography

What is it?

When family photography became popular, there really only was one option: A studio, big flashes and a photographer with a camera on a tripod. Families wearing their Sunday best were posed and draped around a set and each other, asked to smile on command and that was it. These types of photographs have shaped our early understanding of what family photographs looks like.

Since then a lot has changed. A number of years ago, photographers started to take the portrait aspect less literal, moved out of their studios and used nature or client homes as their shooting locations. Stiff posing was replaced by prompts and activities, aiming to evoke natural reactions that would create more genuine looking images.

So in essence, lifestyle family photography captures a family in any space, taking advantage of the light in a way that creates stunning and most flattering results. It’s a mixture of authentic and staged interaction. The resulting photos give the impression of the portraits happening naturally and organically while still being prompted, directed and sometimes even posed.

Lifestyle family photography is often also referred to natural and relaxed family photography because that’s the aim of the session and the resulting photos.

Who is it for?

Lifestyle family photos are for people who like to be posed without wanting to look like they’ve been posed. Does that make sense?

It’s for families who want some natural-looking shots with the guidance from a photographer and someone who can animate their family in a way that will result in beautiful images that still look candid. It’s for families who see the appeal in dressing up, going to a gorgeous (but mostly random) location and having some fun together for an hour or so.

A good lifestyle photographer will be able to create stunning photos that look natural and highlight everyone’s best features.

When is the best time and where is the best place?

Lifestyle family photography session will usually happen during the “best”  time of day, which photographically speaking is a couple of hours before sunset, the so-called golden hour. Sunrise is also great for these sessions because the rising sun has a beautiful golden glow and can look pretty magical. Sessions midday are meant to be avoided due to harsh light which can create unflattering shadows on people’s faces.

As far as locations, pretty much anything goes but most lifestyle sessions will be taken at a park or stunning location that has gorgeous light and works as a non-distracting backdrop. Some photographers like to shoot in people’s homes as well, using the places that are best-lit in the house. They might go as far as rearranging furniture to make use of some pockets of lights that will enhance the images.

What about posing?

The posing during a lifestyle session varies from photographer to photographer as well as each client. Most photos are slightly directed by giving the family an action or a prompt that will then naturally develop into genuine reactions. That’s how lifestyle photographs can look authentic without being purely documentary. Most images are prompted with direction towards how to stand, how to move and what to do.

CreativeLive, a creative online learning platform published an article by the popular Seattle-based photographer Elena Blair about this topic: The truth about Lifestyle Photography

How long does a session last?

Lifestyle family portraits can be created in as little as 20minutes (usually advertised as mini sessions), most photographers spend about an hour with their families to get a variety of images, poses and moments.

How much does it cost?

Pricing for lifestyle photography varies vastly throughout the genre. Oftentimes the session fees are kept rather low with the expectation to buy physical products and digitals once you’ve seen the beautiful images and have built a connection to the memory of them being taken. In most cases, you’ll be able to buy prints, wall art, albums and digital files individually or through packages.

Please bear in mind, that every photographer operates differently in how they price and sell their work and services.

Documentary family photography

What is it?

It can be difficult for people to really get the concept of documentary family photography because we’re so used to be looking at the camera, wait for instructions or expect to be posed in a way that’ll look the most flattering.

Documentary family photography builds on principles established by photojournalists and reporters documenting the happenings of the world – there is no altering of the scene or choosing a backdrop to get the shot. In documentary photography, there is no “typical image” or even a “typical session” to match up with.

Documentary family sessions aren’t meant to be pretty or tidy, they’re meant to tell stories. These stories are about relationships in a family, connections and honesty. Choosing a documentary family photo session means not worrying about what you’re wearing, whether your kids are behaving and or how clean your kitchen looks. It’s about real life and not the perfect version of who your family might be if everything was staged and prepped.

I wrote an article about all the reasons why I personally think that documentary family photo sessions are the best way to portray your family.

Who is it for?

On a first glance, it could seem that documentary family photography is for “the brave”. The ones that don’t care how they look on camera. The ones that are ok with not getting any direction. The ones that don’t mind about a messy room in the background of a photo. But actually, you don’t need to be brave to let someone document your everyday, you just need to be open to the experience. It won’t feel like a photo session because there’ll be no direction or posing, instead imagine having a friend over who happens to bring their camera. And best of all, you don’t need to be perfect or have the perfect family. You don’t even need to pretend.

Example: Parents split up, kids live in two homes and ultimately get to spend less time with each of their parents as they have to divide their time. Read about how family photos can look and feel as a single parent here.

Sometimes you can hear documentary photographers talking about their approach to be like a fly on the wall – but really that’s a creepy thought. Nobody wants to be spied on. The way I work is a lot more organic: I talk to you and your kids, I interact. You should feel comfortable around me so when I do hold my camera up to my face, you’re not getting all shy and wonder what’s happening.

Also, even though it might not seem that way, but documentary family photography is perfect for introverts and shy people – adults as well as children. These kind of sessions usually last longer than lifestyle sessions. This is in order to capture a real reflection of what your family life looks like. You can’t really get a feel for that in 20minutes. Documentary family photo sessions take at least 1 hour, mostly longer, and can last up to a whole day to create so-called day in the life stories. Knowing that I will spend quite a bit of time with you, means you can get more comfortable around me which in turn will be visible in the photos that I can create for you.

When is the best time and where is the best place?

Documentary photography aims to do what it says – document. In its purest form, it can take place anywhere, any time. A documentary photographer will not arrange the scenery or room, place their subjects in the best light or direct in any way. There’ll be no direction that would influence what happens in front of the camera.

Therefore, the location or time of the day only matters in a sense of what part of your life should be documented. There’s no right or wrong time or place but most of these sessions happen at home because that’s where most of your family life takes place.

These sessions are about capturing your chaotic, beautiful, unique, flawed, loving family. That’s your reality. There’ll come a time when your kids will have grown up and you’ll want to look back and see the messy living room floor or the paint stains all over your children’s bedroom when they discovered that their walls are better canvasses than their notebooks. You’ll see those images and laugh about the chaos in your life “back then.” Reliving your life through images is so powerful.

What about posing?

The aim of documentary family photography is to capture the essence of life – the ordinary, the everyday events that shape our lives – and create impactful photographs to reflect reality. That means there’ll be no posing at all. No direction where to move to, where to stand, how to do anything. It’s not about making you look your best but make you remember how your life was – including the fun, the love and the hard and testing times.

While this can be challenging for people at first, it will result in the most genuine and real photos. You’ll do whatever you would normally do, just imagine you’re having a friend over with a camera to share that family time with.

How long does a session last?

Documentary photo sessions can be done in a relatively short time but to get a real feel for your family dynamics and capture your true connections, that takes time. That’s why most photographers only offer sessions that are at least 2 hours and up to a whole day.

The results of these sessions are honest and often emotional. That’s because documentary family photography is about showing the truth and the beauty behind your family’s personalities and relationships.

How much does it cost?

How photographers price their work vastly differs all over the world. It’s hard to really put a number on images that tell your family story. As opposed to lifestyle sessions, the outcome is not a few single images to hang on your walls – although that is absolutely part of the plan – the idea is to create a documentation of how your family feels right now and that is often best displayed through a collection, a series of images. Those, for example, can be collected in an album to flick through whenever you want to remember your life as it was “back then”.

The photos that are captured during such a session, should make you laugh or cry or feel nostalgic because the photographer has captured something that is unique about you. How do you really put a price tag on that?


Lifestyle photography is celebrating the idea of a perfect life. Documentary photography is celebrating the idea of real life.
Which one you prefer is totally up to you. There’s no right or wrong choice.

So what is "Natural Family Photography" then?

While Natural Family Photography can be used to describe both styles, it’s mainly used as another term for Lifestyle Family Photography. The idea is to highlight how the images look candid, relaxed and natural as opposed to formal and posed. I personally don’t think that there is any more “natural” way of portraying a family than through documentary images. However, I can understand that those real and “unfiltered” scenes might look less natural to some than a candid, happy but staged shot which creates an almost perfect version of the subject.

What I offer

The work you see on my website is purely documentary when it comes to family photography. I’m literally addicted to documenting life and while I can appreciate altering surroundings and details in a photo to make them look perfect, it’s the imperfection of life that really gets me. I’ve been on my own journey to accept that life isn’t perfect and that the image we’re all striving for is an illusion so it only makes sense to translate that into my photography work.

My photography goal is pretty simple: I want to show you how you love and how you are loved by others. We can’t compose and orchestrate real emotions and connections. The images I want to create for you, are you and your loved ones caught in moments of laughter and togetherness – however that looks for you.


If you’d like to learn more about Documentary Family Photography, “This is Reportage Family”, a collection of international family photographers, collected some thoughts around why this genre and approach to family photography is so important. Read the full article here.

Interested in maybe having your own family life documented? Get in touch with me to start a conversation:

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worthing family photos family by the beach in Hove, UK

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