The Difference in Portrait Styles: Traditional, Lifestyle, Documentary

I remember the first time I was asked, “Traditional or Documentary?”. My Husband-to-be and I were in the middle of wedding planning madness and a photographer we were interviewing asked me this question. “Traditional or Documentary? What do you like more?” This was a long time ago.. ahem we have been married for 11 years. I was working in a graphic design shop, fully immersed in logos and design, not well versed in the photography lingo. (the photography bug didn’t catch me until a couple years later)

“Well….I’m not sure?” I timidly said. “both?”

In the photography world, there are a lot of different ways to describe a portrait. Traditional, Candid, Lifestyle, Environmental, Fashion, Documentary, Photojournalism. They mainly describe the level of interaction and direction from the photographer. Let’s just focus on the three main (at least for me) styles; Traditional, Lifestyle and Documentary.

Imagine a line, add Traditional to one side, Documentary to the opposite side and Lifestyle in the middle slightly closer to documentary. (or see the awesome photography style line below.) The styles move from left to right by how much the photographer interacts with its subject.

Traditional – In this style, the photographer is actively involved in directing and posing their subjects. Everyone is usually looking at the camera. Usually this type of photography is in a studio. You might hear a photographer say, ” Put your feet here, turn your shoulders to me, chin down.” Lots of direction from the photographer.


Lifestyle – As we move down the line, the photographer directs less and less. Lifestyle is in the middle of the line (perhaps even a smidge closer to documentary in my opinion). The photographer will stage certain activities and do some gentle prompting. You might hear a Lifestyle photographer say, ” Okay now pick up your child and give them a big kiss, whisper a joke in her ear, now tickle fight!”


Documentary – At the end of the line is completely unposed and unprompted. The photographer does not pose the scene, they just capture what naturally happens.


This was a very brief and simplistic way to describe these different styles. I’m sure we could dive into more details into each one, but hopefully this gives you a little more insight.

So what photography style do I prefer? Honestly… all of them. I think they are all useful and beautiful. For families with young children I love lifestyle and documentary photography style. The children (and adults) seem to be able to relax more and enjoy the session. It’s very freeing not to worry about every detail and enjoy the beauty in everyday life. Adults and older children who can take direction and posing instructions usually enjoy portraits. There is usually a lot more emphasis on faces, clothing, accessories and focusing on the details. I really love how portraits can be as simple or complex as you make it. I’ll be continuing to create sessions designed for each individual family.