Laura Griffin Documentary Family Photographer & Filmmaker, Ireland

If the thought of researching and booking a family photographer sounds a bit daunting and time consuming, I hear you. There are pages and pages of photographer websites out there to sift through so where do you even start? To help make it a little easier and less time consuming for yourself, it helps if you can answer this one question. 

How do you want this part of your life story documented?

While each professional family photographers has their own unique vision for their images, they often fall into or are an overlap of a portrait, lifestyle or documentary style. Each has its strengths and beauty so it’s just a matter of taking a few moments to decide what style fits your family. 

Before I delve into the breakdown of these different styles of family photography, I just want to note that how they are defined can vary depending on ones school of thought,  and there can definitely be an overlap between different styles (rarely between portrait and documentary style, but more so with lifestyle). 

Okay, let’s get into it! 

Mom colouring with her son
Boy colouring over a penyy

Family Portrait Photography

Common search terms: posed family portraits, traditional family photos, classic family photos, editorial family photography, family studio photography, traditional studio portraits

Overview. A traditional family portrait photo session often takes place in a controlled environment such as a studio. Family members are posed in a very intentional way by the photographer and usually are all smiling and looking directly at the camera. 

Level of Photographer’s Guidance. Very high. Your photographer will tell you where to look, how to stand, what angle to tilt your head, when to smile, where to put your hands, etc… By doing this they can place you in a way to bring out certain features and achieve their specific vision.

Location. Traditionally these types of sessions were done primarily in studios but now can often take place outdoors or in your home as well. Wherever it is, the background tends to be very clean with very little distraction making sure you and your family members fill the frame and are the main focus. 

Lighting. The photographer usually has complete control over the lighting allowing them to make necessary adjustments and placements of their artificial lights (studio strobes, speedlights, etc…) to achieve their desired look. Having said that, there are some that may use natural light or a mix of the two. Often their goal is to make sure everyone is evenly lit and there aren’t any harsh shadows appearing. 

Length of session.  It depends. Sessions can be as short as 15 minutes (often called mini sessions), while others can last up to an hour or more. This often depends on where the session is taking place, if there are outfit changes, how many members there are, etc…

Benefits of this type of session. 

  • You receive perfectly lit images of you and your loved ones smiling at the camera. 
  • It isn’t weather dependent as they usually take place in a studio. 
  • You can do it any time of day as the lighting is artificial and is all controlled.
  • They take place in a private setting with no distractions. 

Lifestyle Family Photography

Common search terms: lifestyle photography, candid family portraits, life-inspired family portraits, natural family photos

Summary. A lifestyle family photo session is more relaxed than a portrait session and often takes place outdoors or at home. The photographer gives prompts to the family with the goal of capturing  natural responses from that interaction (usually photographing positive moments of beauty, love, joy, happiness that are happening within the family).  

Level of Photographer’s Guidance. Medium. This depends on both the photographer and client. Rather than telling you exactly where to place your hands or how to stand, the photographer might tell you to do an action, such as “Walk towards me while looking at each other” or “Whisper a secret to your brother”. These are very real moments with genuine emotions, but the initial action is often prompted by the photographer.

Similar to portrait family photos, the photographer might move you in a position where the lighting is better or move any unwanted items from the scene either during the session itself or when editing in post. 

Location. The location for lifestyle family photo sessions can take place really anywhere but are often done outdoors or in-home. If outdoors, the photographer will have scouted out an ideal location for the shoot ahead of time such as woodlands, beaches, open fields, etc…

Lighting. Again, this depends. Some photographers will use only use natural light. Others may also add in an artificial light such as a speedlight (the flash that attaches to the camera) as a fill light but we won’t go too in-depth about the technical side.

These outdoor lifestyle sessions often take place around “golden hour” or “magic hour” which is a few hours before sunrise or sunset when the sun isn’t as harsh and won’t leave strong shadows. 

Length of session. Similar to studio sessions, these can be anywhere from 20 minutes or shorter to an hour or two. It depends on the number of family members involved, number of locations you want to cover, and how large of a selection of photos you discussed with your photographer.  

Benefits of this type of session. 

  • This is a great happy medium between traditional portraits & documentary style as it’s still curated to some extent by the photographer but there are also genuine and authentic moments and movements that are captured. 
  • Lifestyle photography involves paying closer attention to details such as wardrobe, props and styling which can make the images look more cohesive and visually appealing.
  • The photographer may be willing to edit out distracting elements on people or in the background. This would be the same for portrait photographers but not for documentary family photographers. 
Girl sitting in caravan and smirking

Documentary Family Photography

Common search terms: real life family photography, natural family photos, unposed/nonposed family photos, authentic family photography, photojournalistic family photography, authentic family photography

Summary. Documentary family sessions aim to capture your life and moments as they naturally unfold without any direction or interference from the photographer. Nothing is added or taken away from the scene during the session or the edit. 

Level of Photographer’s Guidance. None. There is no posing, prompting or directing at all. Some documentary family photographers take a complete fly on the wall approach with minimal interaction with the family, while others will include a bit more interaction with you.

Location. This type of session is often done in your family home as it’s a familiar space where everyone feels comfortable which allows more natural and everyday life to unfold.

Having said that though, these sessions can really take place anywhere (hanging out at your favourite beach spot, in the car while out doing errands, etc…).

Lighting. The photographer does not bring, add or alter any additional lighting. They only use whatever lighting is already in that space be it natural light or artificial light.

Length of session. Because everyone needs time to first feel comfortable in order for authentic moments and interactions to naturally occur within the family, these sessions tend to be much longer than portrait or lifestyle photoshoots.

These sessions can run from a minimum of an hour up to a full day which is often referred to as Day in the Life sessions. 

Some of the benefits of this type of session. 

  • The focus isn’t on making everyone look their best but on creating images that will make you remember how life was; love, fun, tantrums and tears all included.
  • You don’t have to stress about holding a pose, smiling or getting your child to laugh on cue.
  • It can capture beautiful, unpredictable moments that you might not even know are happening. 
Girl eating a crepe on the beach
Sisters playing together outside

If you’ve seen my work, you know my love for documentary family photography. There is something beautiful about capturing not only the ebbs and flows of family life, but how your home environment adds to the bigger picture and adds another dimension to your family story. 

Lifestyle and portrait family photos can capture your family beautifully in a curated way creating a perhaps more polished version of your family but what I want to do is tell and celebrate your family life just as you are. I look to capture these moments that can never be recreated exactly as they are happening now. Happy, loving and gentle moments but also the messy, chaotic, imperfect moments that are just as worthy of capturing. All honest, true, and real. All part of your unique and complex personal story. 

There is no right or wrong type of family photography session to have.  It is just a matter of considering what type of images would you enjoy  looking back on? What images do you want to have created for your children or grandchildren to enjoy flipping through in 20, 30 years time? 


If you are interested in learning more about my documentary family photography sessions, you can read about it here. 

Laura Griffin is a documentary-style family photographer and filmmaker based in Ireland. If you are interested in documenting your family’s story either in film or images, you can book your session here.