What is Lifestyle Photography?

By Jennifer Tonetti-Spellman /

When I set out on my journey and took my photography from a hobby to a business five years ago, no one was really talking about lifestyle photography. These days, lifestyle photography is trending. The desire to capture natural, relaxed images is being embraced now more than ever.

Before I even knew what lifestyle photography meant, I would go into people’s homes and film them as naturally as possible. By having conversations with people, I discovered that I could make them almost ‘forget’ the camera and think of me more like a friend, sister or play date.  My goal of every session was to tell a story from start to finish – their story.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014

According to wikipedia, the definition of lifestyle photography is “a style of portrait/people photography which aims to capture and document real-life events, situations, or milestones in an artistic manner and the art of the everyday”.

If you re-read that definition, the goal of a lifestyle shoot is to document real-life events in an artistic manner.  The goal is not to recreate life events or stage lifestyle images but to document life as it happens.

This goal goes beyond capturing genuine emotion. Because, quite frankly, if you pull a velvet couch out onto some grass and people are smiling and laughing with genuine intent, that isn’t a lifestyle image. Unless, of course, you are in the process of moving and have all your furniture on the front lawn.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014

To get to the bottom of what lifestyle means, here are three things that will help you hone your organic, lifestyle photography skills:


When I walk into a home, the first thing I want to do is hang out in the child/children’s rooms. Why? Because this is their sanctuary. It’s where they feel most comfortable. It’s what is natural to them. And children LOVE showing off their room. And, you get what you get in a child’s room. I always tell parents to leave the rooms as is. The socks, the books scattered, lego pieces by the miles. It’s them. As they are. At this exact moment. THAT is lifestyle.

In addition to not staging, there are no outside props brought in. Everything I use in a shoot is found in the home and organic to the folks that live there.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014


Planning for this type of photography is a prescription for disappointment. I’m the first to say that before a session, send out a questionnaire to the family to find out about what makes them tick. Find out about the personalities of the children. What they listen to, what shows they watch. Learn about your subjects.

Then, let them know what to expect from you. You are present to document them as a family. So, if Dad wants to get up and make coffee in the kitchen and little Sam needs a snack – go for it! The more you just let a family ‘be’ the more lifestyle /documentary your images will be. But, if you try to make the family ‘have fun’ and throw them all on a bed and say ‘act naturally’ you will illicit strange (and strained!) looks and the opposite of ‘lifestyle’ images will be produced.  Truly try and be a fly on the wall.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014


My favorite shots are kids on the move from one place to another, up/down stairs, down hallways with just a sliver of light coming from their bedroom. Life is movement. Life is not STATIC. So when they move,  that is the best time to film them and it garners you raw documentary moments.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014

Now, you may say ‘Jenn, are you at client’s homes for 4 hours to catch life unfolding?’ Not at all. I’m actually with a client for about 1 hour total (after saying hello and getting a feel for the house and the light it presents). But in the beginning, yes, you may be there longer. Stay as long as you think you need to get the story of their family, their child, or whatever it is they hired you to capture.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014

The more I did this over the past years, the quicker I was at recognizing opportunity and moments that were about to unfold before they even did. That comes with TIME. So, take that pressure off yourself and realize the more time you clock doing lifestyle/documentary shooting, the more aware you will become and the more you can anticipate what will unfold.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014

Want to start honing your lifestyle/documentary skills? The best way to do this is in your own home by doing a Day in the Life.

From the minute your family awakes with bed head, through breakfast, activities, quiet time, meals, bath time etc. just keep filming. By doing this exercise, you will already start to anticipate what will happen during these types of shoots. And even better, NOT anticipate it and capture moments that make your heart sing because of their raw, un-staged nature.

It is in these moments that life is lived. And you will be there to capture it.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014

About the Author

Jennifer Tonetti Spellman is a New York–based children’s photographer, blogger, and mommy of two girls. She’s a contributor at Womeninstreet.com and teaches photography courses at Illuminate Classes, “a photography education community focused on bringing meaningful insight to your art and your business.”

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