The Difference Between Lifestyle and Documentary Photography

Lifestyle and documentary photography can be very similar. So much so, that when you put an example of each style side by side, you may never know which is which. That is, of course, unless you spoke to the person who took the photographs.

So what is the critical difference between lifestyle photography and documentary photography?

Wikipedia defines the two as follows:

  • Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle events or environments, both significant and relevant to history and historical events, as well as everyday life.
  • Lifestyle photography is a kind of photography that mainly aims to capture a portrait of people in situations, real-life events, milestones, and the art of daily living in an artistic manner. The primary goal is to tell stories about people's lives or to inspire people at different times. Thus, it covers multidisciplinary types of photography.

To state the difference in the most simple terms, it comes down to the intent, influence, and staging done or not done by the photographer.

Breakdown of Documentary Photography:

Strictly speaking, there are rules to what constitutes a "true" documentary photograph. The generally accepted guideline is to follow the same rules laid out for journalists in the Journalists Code of Ethics.

The NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) lists the following within their Code of Ethics:

  • Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
  • Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
  • Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one's own biases in the work.
  • While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
  • Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate.

What does all of this mean?

It means that if you're trying to truly capture a documentary image, you are a fly on the wall. You're a photo ninja. You aim to be as invisible as possible and to have absolutely no influence on or presence within the photographs you're creating.

Examples of Documentary Styles and Images:

  • News or press photography
  • Street photography
  • Live music photography
  • The ceremony during a wedding
  • Photographing your kids while playing
  • War-time photography
  • Nature Photography

All of these examples are times where the above code of ethics is either applied or can be. Any time that the photographer influences the image, it becomes something else. Photographing a wedding is an excellent example of displaying the differences.

When you're photographing the ceremony, you're doing nothing more than putting yourself in the best possible place you can to get the shot, and you don't dare try to pose the happy couple during that time.

When it comes time to photograph the families, it's an entirely different matter. You're placing the bride, groom, mom, dad, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, and their friend, Larry, and his pug all into one shot and trying not to go crazy while you coordinate and pose them all. It's no longer a documentary image, strictly speaking. You've had a significant influence on the outcome.

Okay, so what about lifestyle photography?

Breakdown of Lifestyle Photography:

All of those rules we talked about earlier, throw the book out the window. None of that applies when it comes to the lifestyle genre.

As the Wikipedia definition above states, "the primary goal is to tell stories…" and, often, to sell stories.

Lifestyle photography is all about specifically making the viewer feel something and creating a narrative. A lot of work can go into that and a lot of influence, too. As the photographer, you can take all of the liberties and control you'd like. You can even work with a stylist to help you do so. You can pose people any way you like, and when you're photographing that scenic picnic, you can reposition that perfect-looking apple pie as many times as you want before the shot is juuuussst right.

Common Examples of Lifestyle Images:

  • Product advertising
  • Food photography
  • Adventure photography
  • Sports photography
  • Travel photography
  • Tourism photography

As long as you're photographing with the intent of creating a narrative, the sub-genres are endless.

The end result may look like it was a moment caught in time, similar to a documentary photograph, which is why the two genres are so often and easily confused. You can even have "documentary moments" within a lifestyle shoot, but the lines showing where that moment begins and ends can be quite blurry.

So there you have it: documentary and lifestyle photography defined once and for all. The majority of us are not going to try to stick to the hard rules displayed by the NPPA, and there's no need to unless we decide on being photojournalists. If you're photographing your kids playing outside, and then you decide that you want to pose them in a weird and specific way, who cares? Do it! Have fun!

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