The Small But Major Difference Between Lifestyle And Documentary Photography

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Photography is a lot like music in the sense there’s many, many different styles and genres. (And that’s not including all the sub-styles and niche genres.) In photography, two popular styles include lifestyle photography and documentary. The two are similar in concept. So much, in fact, they often blur the lines between which is which. It’s not uncommon for a documentary photographer to be inaccurately labeled as a lifestyle photographer or the other way around.

So, what is the difference between the two?


Lifestyle vs. Documentary Photography

The reality is, there’s an often-unnoticed dissimilarity that makes a world of a difference between defining the documentary photography vs. lifestyle photography. That difference is staging, or the role the photographer plays in what is being photographed.

While documentary photographers capture events as they are unfolding, without influencing or having any say whatsoever in the event itself, lifestyle photographers tend to take a different approach. Lifestyle photographers often influence, if not completely stage a photograph (think stock photography).

Here are the definitions of the two, according to Wikipedia:

  • Documentary photography: used to chronicle events or environments both significant and relevant to history and historical events as well as everyday life.
  • Lifestyle photography: aims to capture portrait/people in situations, real-life events or milestones in an artistic manner and the art of the everyday. The primary goal is to tell stories about people’s life or to inspire people in different times.

There’s a Bit Of An Unspoken Rule

While those definitions don’t include specific rules, documentary photography tends to follow the journalistic rules of photography, which strongly frown upon the photographer having any influence on the situation. Because documentary photography is often used as a method of capturing history, documentary photographers follow the journalistic moral code of capturing in the most historically accurate manner.

In this documentary style photo, the boy was unprompted by the photographer.

In this documentary style photo, the boy was unprompted by the photographer.

Lifestyle photographers, however, have a little more freedom than documentary photographers. Additionally, there are different purposes for lifestyle photography. Professional stock photographers may choose to have complete creative control and conceptualize the entire photograph, then hire professional models to enact the concept and create the image. Whereas, some photographers will simply photograph their friends and family in a candid way, but ask questions or prompt their subjects to do a certain thing that would look great on camera.

In the last example, you can see how lifestyle photography is easily confused with documentary photography.

So, Which Is Best?

The short answer: neither.

The beautiful thing about art, is there truly is no right and wrong. Art boils down to personal preference and choosing whether to be a documentary photographer or a lifestyle photographer is completely up to your personal preference. The point of this article was to open a discussion and impart a little perspective on these two very similar, yet very different styles of photography.

Lifestyle shots show what appear to be candid photos, but quite often, they are planned out.

Lifestyle shots show what appear to be candid photos, but quite often, they are planned out.

A great documentary photographer will still be able to exercise their artistic muscles without having to influence his protagonists. Further, the fact a lifestyle photographer plays a directorial role in their photography doesn’t mean their work has any less integrity.  They are simply two different things.

And, all that being said, there’s no rule saying you can’t dabble in both styles!