What is lifestyle vs. portrait photography?

Lifestyle photography

The difference between lifestyle and portrait photography

If you are getting into photography in any way, you have probably wondered what the difference is between lifestyle and portrait photography.

I myself, had this question when I was looking into how to describe the type of photography sessions I’d like to offer in my business.

While there does not seem to be a textbook definition of one versus the other, I can give you my experience regarding the characteristics, and examples on the differences between the two and how they can also work together.

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Lifestyle photography

First, let’s define lifestyle photography.

Family walking in nature lifestyle photo

It is a type of photography that focuses on capturing natural, real-life actions and activities for photographic purposes. You are capturing life in style.

Its intent is candid photos as opposed to posed photos.

Lifestyle photography centers around catching people in their element, being themselves… as much as possible.

You can read more about lifestyle photography here. I love this blog’s breakdown of this style of photography and reading it can give you a clearer idea of lifestyle photography.

Portrait photography

Portrait photos center around a posed subject.

Bishop sitting portrait photography

You want to capture the essence of the individual as best as you can with a photo. This takes into account their facial expression, posture, demeanor, attire, and yes, even the setting of the photo.

To quickly compare the two, you can think of lifestyle versus portrait in the following manner:

  • Natural versus unnatural
  • Candid versus posed
  • Movement versus still shots

Personally, when it comes to my style of photography, I would call it a combination of both with the emphasis more lifestyle-oriented. And I honestly think most photographers fall into this category.

So let’s talk how you do one versus the other.

How to do Lifestyle vs. Portrait photography

Lifestyle is a form of photography that has gained in popularity throughout the years. Portrait photography is what most people think of when it comes to professional business photos.

Let’s get into a little more detail about one versus the other.

SETTING

For lifestyle photography, this is where most consider being out and about. Whether that be in nature, like a park or hill country type of setting but also includes being at home, for an everyday-life type of photo session.

For portrait photography, the concept has broadened now but has come from a background of being in studio. The photographer has a lot of control on the lighting, aesthetics of the subject, and thus the environment and its effect on the picture of the subject.

What is confusing is that people use the terms “portrait” and “lifestyle” interchangeably, when there actually is a difference between the two. However, the concept of portrait photography has also changed and broadened in both its definition and application which overlaps with that of lifestyle photography.

In the case of setting, portrait photography now can be done everywhere. It is not limited to studio settings or even corporate settings. Similar to lifestyle photography, it can literally happen anywhere, like outside in nature or inside in a facility.

It all depends on the preference of the subject.

SUBJECTS

For lifestyle photography, your “subject” can be single or multiple. I’m sticking with human beings here, so let’s avoid getting into wildlife photography or other creature-type of photography. This is why you can see lifestyle photography sessions for couples, families, newborn and the list goes on.

Portrait photography is usually singular with the focus being on a single individual. Now, some have described group portrait photos, such as for businesses and families so this also can overlap.

ACTION

When we discuss action in lifestyle versus portrait photography, this is potentially the biggest difference between the two.

Lifestyle photography incorporates action into the sessions. The subjects are doing some sort of action or are instructed to perform some sort of action to portray real-life activities, movements or behaviors.

For example, having a couple walk down a path with their child, and then stop and kiss. Or having a family of four high-five each other.

Or having a family of four high-five each other.

Family high-fiving lifestyle photosession

The intent is to capture their movement. Capture their life together.

Portrait photography is about still poses. For example, having a corporate owner pose for a headshot, or a group of office employees pose for a business shot. Or having family portraits done where the subjects are positioned a certain way and instructed to hold that pose.

But this has also evolved to include still shots of individuals outside, in nature. The clear emphasis though, focuses on the individual with the environment as an artistic prop to enhance the individual’s personality, physical features, and person.

How can these overlap?

These terms reflect styles of photography that easily overlap as you can see from the already described areas above.

I have seen this play out in my own photo sessions.

What I have found is that most people feel awkward in photo sessions. Which is actually great, and something I can easily relate to. This has has helped me as a photographer to connect with my clients in a way that eases any discomfort in our sessions. You can read more about this in my upcoming blog on tips for posing your subjects.

I say this because most people tend to react towards photo sessions with a portrait type of mindset.

For example, they come prepared to “pose” as opposed to move.

I will use my parents’ photo shoot as an example. Every time I would instruct them to perform an action, they would do it quickly and then freeze in spot, for a “still” shot. So I would bounce back and forth to having them perform an action slowly and then stand still in a portrait-style pose.

This helped me to quickly realize that what made them more comfortable was doing posed shots as opposed to movement. However because I prefer lifestyle-oriented shots when I would instruct them to move I would have them do an action they were comfortable doing or was natural to them.

Walking down steps lifestyle photo

For example, my father likes to wear hats so I had him bring his hat to the photo shoot for several reasons. It would help vary up the shots, give him a “prop” during the shoot, and allow me to incorporate some movement.

For portrait style shots, I simply had him sit or stand and look in different directions. He would look away from the camera and towards the camera. He would smile or not smile. These shots came out absolutely gorgeous as a result.

Bishop standing with hat portrait photo
Bishop sitting with hat portrait photo

For lifestyle shots I had him put his hat on. And though I didn’t have many of these shots, the ones I did obtain ended up being some of the favorites.

Bishop putting hat on portrait photo

In another scenario, I worked with a family of three. Their reason for booking was to obtain one-year-old photos of their son. And yes, automatically, the expectation from their end was do static, posed shots. So right away, we got some of those expected family photo poses out of the way.

Family of 3 posed photo

And while those were beautiful, they didn’t quite reach the potential of the unique stunning qualities of once-in-a-lifetime shots we could obtain.

So we started doing some activities, like encouraging their son to throw leaves in the air. 

1 year-old toddler lifestyle photo

Or putting him down a few feet from his tent so he could walk to it. And one of the favorites you’ve already seen earlier in this post, was having him walk with his parents down a path, and having them stop and kiss while they were holding hands.

By incorporating real-life activities into the sessions, this made the clients more comfortable which led to natural lifestyle type of results.

However, from my observation, it appears that when most photographers describe themselves as lifestyle photographers, they do a combination of lifestyle and portrait but the emphasis is more so on lifestyle.

Bottomline, regardless of which one you prefer, both can easily overlap and can be incorporated into the same photo session.

The differences between lifestyle and portrait photography overlap.

So if you have had questions regarding the difference between lifestyle and portrait photography, hopefully this has given you the clarity you were looking for.

And do keep in mind that both have their place in the photography world. It really is up to you as the photographer to deem what is best for your style and your clients.

Now go out there and take some photos! Cheers!

~Ruth Elaine

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