I love photographing faces, and I’ve been doing it for more than a decade.
When I started out, all my photos were traditional portraits. As my skills improved and I had some experience behind me, I posed my subjects less and less. I became confident in my abilities to produce a professional portrait without controlling all.the.things (black backdrop anyone?).
As time went on my family sessions became more and more relaxed as I began to explore lifestyle photography, and more recently, documentary photography.
Portrait… lifestyle… documentary… so what’s the difference?
I’m so glad you asked! Essentially it’s all down to the photographer, and how they approach portraits.
Quite simply, portrait photography is a photo of a person or group of people which is posed, and the primary focus of the shot is their expression, mood, or personality.
Nutshell? A traditional portrait is a people photo where they’re not doing anything.
Whether natural or artificial light is used in a traditional portrait, it’s entirely controlled. As in, the light strength and position in relation to the subject is planned with purpose.
Traditional portraits can be shot anywhere, but the subjects tend to be very well isolated from the environment. For example, in a studio, with a backdrop, a plain wall or the background blurred into insignificance.
That’s not to say you wouldn’t see a traditional portrait in the natural environment, or anywhere without a backdrop. They key element is that they’d be quite traditionally posed.
More often than not, traditional portraits has everyone looking at camera but this isn’t a ‘rule’.
The photographer directs the subject in terms of whether to sit or stand, how to angle their body in relation to the camera, where to place their hands or feet. Directing can be as specific as how to tilt their head, where to look, whether or not to smile.
Traditional portraits are a great way to showcase and record how someone looked at a specific time in their life, without any distractions. They’re an easy way to convey mood, expressions, and personality.
Also, we can create some really gorgeous, dramatic effects with light, including sculpting their features.
Also, grandparents love them!
Lifestyle photography is a much more relaxed type of portrait.
Lifestyle photography uses natural light and the photographer would ensure it all unfolds in the good light.
Artificial light wouldn’t be used, with the exception of a speedlight used as fill light only when absolutely necessary. However, this isn’t a ‘rule’ of lifestyle photography, artificial light is simply not conducive to the relaxed nature of this genre.
It’s shot in a natural environment – in other words, in the subject’s own home or the outdoors as opposed to a studio, and you wouldn’t use backdrops.
You might set up games, activities or situations, but the big difference between traditional portraits and lifestyle photography is subjects are prompted more than directed, only in order to draw out natural interactions and the emotions that follow.
Prompts might include suggesting an action, eg. kiss your wife on the cheek; or a pose, eg. stand behind your wife with your arms around her waist.
Related: 20 Poses for Natural Photos
So how is that different to directing a traditional portrait?
It’s looser, and open to interpretation. It’s one prompt, leaving other decisions up to the couple.
So you might tell your subject to stand behind his wife and put his arm around her waist. You’ll stop short of directing them where to put their head, how to tilt their chin, what to do with their hands, such as you would in traditional portrait photography. You let them do what they would naturally do… the focus is on capturing connections and emotion.
You won’t even tell them what to do next (until you’re ready for the next pose or prompt). Presumably (being human and all) your subject might then put his head on her shoulder, or nuzzle her hair, or whisper to her. She will naturally respond, and you will capture it all.
So it’s a small difference in the directing that gives a much different feel compared to traditional portraiture.
Lifestyle photography is a way to capture connections and emotion between family and loved ones, in portraits that are relaxed, but a big step above snapshots.
Through the emotion that comes naturally when subjects connect through gentle prompting, there’s potential to create really beautiful imagery that will be cherished forever.
Documentary photography involves no posing, directing or prompting at all.
Documentary photography occurs in whatever light the action is happening in. Scary huh?! Well, it doesn’t have to be…
A good understanding of light is essential. As you can’t control your subject’s position in relation to the light, you need to understand light quality, how it falls, and how to make the best of what you’ve got.
It’s fair to say documentary photography won’t be technically perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s about the moments. So don’t be too hard on yourself!
In documentary photography you shoot whatever is happening, however it’s happening, in whatever light it happens to be in.
The only thing you control is your own position, perspective, settings and focal length.
As I said, documentary photography involves no posing, directing or prompting whatsoever.
This can make composing a little tricky.
For that reason, an understanding of lens distortion – specifically, the ways in which different focal lengths affect the look of your images – is an asset when it comes to creating interesting compositions when you can’t control where and how you place your subjects.
The documentary approach is a very authentic style of portrait photography.
For the photographer it offers an irresistible challenge to create something special when you can’t fully control the light and surroundings.
And for your subjects, it’s a wonderful way tell the story of a family’s everyday life. The lack of direction leaves room for organic moments to unfold unprompted, and results in a true representation of a family.
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