What is Documentary Photography for Clients (is it the same as Lifestyle)? | Fearless and Framed

What is Documentary Photography for Clients (is it the same as Lifestyle)?

Whether you’ve heard it from Fearless and Framed or through the grapevine, documentary family photography is becoming all the buzz. It gets confused with lifestyle photography and sounds kind of boring. Documentary photography yields some intense photos and also some that appear like ‘nothing special’ to many, but pack an emotion punch to some. They may not be the most re-pinned photos on Pinterest, but they are the photos that transcend any planned, posed photo or session any day. Let’s rid any confusion and talk about the style.

documentary style photography

What is documentary family photography?

Documentary photography – photos that have been created with no photographer interaction. It often overlaps with photojournalism. Traditionally, I think documentary photography tends to be in regards to longer projects, where photojournalism pertains to shorter projects (news stories).

So often, these are the powerful photos you see from travel photographers documenting culture and creating images on political and social topics. But seriously, why the hell not use this same shooting style for your family photos (or your clients)? We do it with wedding photography, but for some reason, people tend to write off this shooting style so easily when it comes to photographing seniors, family, etc.

Example: Photos of connection between a dad and child building a gingerbread house together. Yes, the session was planned, but the clients aren’t being directed into any movement. The photographer isn’t intruding with direction to yield a particular result – such as laughter. The photographer is simply there, present, and ready to photograph what is unfolding.

(Click to see Wikipedia’s definition)

in-home documentary photos


What is lifestyle photography?

Lifestyle photography – photos that have been orchestrated in perfect harmony for a candid moment.

Lifestyle is how I described my sessions when I first started shooting anything unposed, because, well, it just sounded pretty. Most lifestyle sessions I have seen are similar to documentary photography in that they are not traditional posed or placed. However, it’s apparent in the photos that the photographer is giving some guidance along the way.

Example: Photos of laughter when mom tickles her child or mom and dad gazing down at baby in the nursery. The photographer is directing clients into movement to create these images.

(Click to see Wikipedia’s definition)

newborn photography


Which is better?

Let’s be clear – neither is better! Both yield totally different results.

Fearless and Framed was born, because I fell into the documentary style by nature and never found a solid resource for this shooting style for modern day photo sessions. I love the idea of working with families for long, lifetime shooting experiences. Imagine having clients that you work with years on end, documenting their stories, their life, and ultimately leaving their legacy in a tangible state for future generations. I enjoy being that stealthy shooter instead of directing and simply people-watching.

Your clients will love both styles. In my own belief, today they will love the lifestyle photos – the ones that immediately show love, laughter, smiles, and happiness. The ones that are similar to what they see on Pinterest and in their Facebook newsfeeds. But in 30 years, it is the documentary style, photojournalistic images that are true memories in a tangible state that clients will cling to. The images where you followed them on their routine Wednesday trip to the library, weekend getaway up north to their family cottage, or the everyday, mundane in their home.

The documentary-style photos are the photos they will relate to and be the best conversation starters evermore.


How do I shoot with a documentary approach?

It’s all about anticipating and observation of people and the environment around you. You shoot elements from a scene that move you. When it comes to a client session, you let them go about their day (or whatever you guys have planned for the session) and follow along. Think of it as being your clients’ personal paparazzi.

I recommend doing a 365 Day Photo Project to start practicing. I’m in my third year of my own 365 project and, let me tell you, the transformation from the technical aspect to discovering my style is almost completely attributed to this project. You can also pick up a copy of our free Goodbye, Posing Guide ebook, which describes in-depth shooting techniques for how I photograph children (I use the same shooting techniques with adults).


Does it mean I did something wrong if I directed part of my session or edited my photos?

Let’s set the record straight.

Fearless and Framed encourages documentary-inspired sessions. We love to see photographers step into the world of their clients rather than seeing clients being pulled out of their world and placed in a beautiful, park-like setting and being asked to tickle, hug, and kiss throughout the session. We love to see the sessions where the photographer is simply a part of the client’s day and a story is told rather than seeing images of folks appearing to look candid. We encourage photographers to challenge themselves to pull techniques from the documentary world; meaning, allowing your clients to be unposed and undirected.

For years, there has been a debate in the documentary photography world. One that I have a very small, unimportant voice in. One that I am not here to say you are doing something right or wrong in, in fact, I think you should do whatever the hell you want. If you browse the internet about documentary photography and what it means, you will find critics which disagree that any type of direction given during shooting or editing photos in anyway are not then considered documentary photos. Documentaryshooters.com says ‘posing for an accurate record’ is a valid-style. I’ve also seen articles on other sites that argue over editing – what’s allowable and what’s not. You will see debates on the fact that no image can 100% be known to be documentary, especially now in the digital world, because only the photographer really knows.

What is valid documentary photography or not is a debate we aren’t going to get into.

This is where you, as the artist, can decide for yourself.

We aren’t out to change the face of documentary photography. We are not the label-makers of this style. We don’t make rules.

We simply promote drawing from shooting in a documentary state with your clients, because allowing them to be in front of the camera, unposed, undirected will yield photos far different than lifestyle shooting or traditional portraits. You will deliver memories of a real day in their life. Whether you’ve taken a water bottle out of a scene that was a distraction in a photo, ask them to kiss for the sake of getting a shot that tells who they are, or enhance your image’s color in Photoshop is not something we can tell you is right or wrong.

We promote using documentary photography and techniques from photojournalism to infuse sessions with real client stories.

We promote giving clients an photography experience that allows them to return to moments otherwise forgotten.

We like to think of ourselves a couple notches away from full-documentary photography. When I shoot, if my story is lacking an element discussed in our consultation (an element which is key in the story or personality) and I need to step in with some soft direction, I will. If my photo needs a little editing love… then I will.

For example, if my clients tell me that they are usually very affectionate, they always pass each other by with a kiss, an embrace, or a soft touch, yet when I’m shooting, I don’t see this. I may say something to let them know it’s okay to feel comfortable to do so in order to portray their story correctly. I will ask them to kiss for the sake of adding an image to their gallery that is an accurate story of the description of who they are. I’m not going to start pulling out a pose book, but a hint of direction can help me develop the story.

If I am able to draw out a detail in a scene and eliminate background noise with editing, I will.

Does this mean that I’m taking away from the images being 100% documentary. Yes, I guess so according to what some critics will say. However, the session as a whole is always about documenting my clients as they are, using primarily shooting techniques with no direction, no posing, and letting their little truths shine.

At the end of the day, giving your clients their story is what matters most when you are striving to shoot with this style. Using documentary-inspired techniques will be the key to preserving their memories and history.

Decide for yourself what your style is from start to finish and be sure to set your clients’ expectations correctly from the get go.

What can I shoot with this style?

Anything and everything!! Lots of details aid in storytelling. Think milestones and the ups and downs in life… and even the “nothin'” everyday, same ‘ol, same ‘ol routine. My favorite photos are the ones that let me relive a time in my life that made me happy.

For more documentary style photo session ideas and inspiration, you need to buy a our most popular ebook, Session Sparks. This book hosts over 160 ideas for sessions on hot topics including: maternity, baby, toddler, children, teens, adults, connection, love, seasons, locations, and holiday inspiration.

Stick around with Fearless and Framed – it’s our mission to teach photographers to encourage our clients not to neglect to document the most important elements of their lives!

Disclaimer: I am not a dictionary creator. These defitintions are my opinion… obviously… it’s my blog.

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