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Lifestyle Photography Explained

Updated: Aug 16, 2018

Read here about the difference between Styled, Documentary and Lifestyle photography and make informed choices when hiring a photographer.

You can just go with your gut and blindly hope that what a photographer creates, is something that's kind of in the right direction. But if you want to communicate clearly with a photographer about the images you require, this could help you & your photographer discuss your requirements in more detail.

The definition of lifestyle photography is “the art of everyday life”. In every image that a photographer takes they decide what they will show and what they leave out.

Documentary photography is blatantly honest and candid, while Styled photography is totally recreated. What lies between these is a genre that is perhaps a little idealistic with roots in reality, but always showing us the beautiful side of things. They tell a positive story about everyday life and capture atmosphere.

That’s my description of Lifestyle Photography. Let me give you some examples to give you more clarity:

Documentary Photography

Documentary photography is not always just the journalist's black and white news photography, but it shows reality as it is, without any interference from the photographer's side. These photos of the Joburg Symphony Orchestra, were taken during the dress rehearsal, just before the main performance. There was no posing or direction from my part whatsoever. If the moment was missed, it couldn't be re-done. It was a record of a real moment. It is fast and requires a lot of quick thinking and instinctive shooting on the photographer's side. A lot is left to chance.

Styled Photography

Styled photography is created from scratch. The photographer has full control over every little detail and shooting can sometimes be painstakingly perfectionistic and slow.

For this client, I recreated the process of making chocolate and nougat. These photos were fully styled, but made to look like lifestyle images. In the small factory the chocolate and nougat are not created in this way, but we tried to capture the hand-made essence of the original product.

This means that I had to create the backgrounds, source the correct props and create the atmosphere of what it would have been like in a home kitchen environment, where this product might have been produced. I carefully chose each and every element that was even just a hint in the background to subtly tell a story. The lighting had to feel like light coming through the window in an old country kitchen, rather than industrial or commercial lighting, so it was important to have darker areas, with the light falling softly and naturally on the product. The subtle dark blue in the background of the nougat and honey shot was chosen to remind you of the new dark blue packaging – to reinforce the new branding.  This was all artificially and intentionally created.

Here the photographer is an absolute perfectionist. A millimetre can make a difference to the shot. Crumbs can be moved to lead the eye into the photo. The photographer takes her time and tries to create exactly what was envisioned in the planning phases. She might be told to leave an area “blank” so that text can fit in and she will know whether the image needs to be horizontal or vertical. It’s a painfully slow process to some and very few photos are taken, but there’s a guarantee that you’ll get exactly what is required, for a specific purpose.

This is not lifestyle photography. It is bespoke, styled photography that looks and feels like lifestyle photography. With this kind of photography a business can project a visual identity by controlling every element in the photo.

Lifestyle Photography

The Bread Images that I took at Babette’s Bread, last year, were true lifestyle photography images. I did choose to remove the bottle of dishwashing liquid in the background and I did ask Babette to wear her striped shirt. I even asked her to repeat certain movements in her bread-baking process, until I had captured the image that I was looking for. But in essence it’s all real life. It’s what she does personally, every day.

We took the images in her bakery – which has huge windows looking out over the Maboning Precinct, Johannesburg. This gave us lots of light to work with. The first morning I went there to watch and take notes. I watched the light change and I sat with her for an entire morning learning about her process and talking about the important steps we’d need to capture.

The second morning, I returned to take the photos. We didn’t need my lights or my tripod, which freed me up to move around and document what she was doing. Making artisanal bread is a true art form.  It’s like watching a ceramicist at work. And it takes time. I was there throughout the whole process. She didn’t set up steps for me ahead of time and I think the calmness of watching and waiting for the bread to rise comes across in my photos and enhances the authentic feel. During those waiting times, I was able to photograph and play around with the tools she used and some loaves that had been baked, earlier in the morning.

During the shoot it started to rain outside. The light became very soft and moody. I chose to continue using the available light and make use of the atmosphere.

In this type of photography, the photographer needs to be very skilled at capturing real life as it is happening, without disturbing the process too much. The photographer needs to work fast and recognise which angles, compositions, lighting will work to create the images you’re looking for. There’s an element of skill and an element of luck. The photographer tends to take 100’s of images and then selects the few gems that might come out of the photography frenzy.

The overall effect is a true and authentic lifestyle shoot of the process of baking artisanal bread.

Does that explain it all better?

I guess in a portrait situation – it’s the difference between

a) dressing people up and telling them exactly where to sit, how to sit and smile or pose in a certain way to get the best shot (Styled Photography or Fashion Photography)

b) walking on the street or other public places and taking photos of people or recording an event without interfering in whatever's happening (Documentary)

c) dressing people up and letting them chat and be themselves, with minimal guidance from the photographer (Lifestyle Photography)

So before you book a shoot – make sure you’ve decided whether you would prefer a styled, documentary or a lifestyle shoot and make sure that the photographer is skilled at that type of photography.

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