Wonderful Machine defines lifestyle photography as “the depiction of an idealized, aspirational version of real life, usually showing happy, attractive people in nice clothing doing fun things in beautiful places.”
For the most part, we try to define specialties according to the subject matter. However, reality frequently butts in its ugly head, complicating matters by pointing out that the subject matter changes in respect of the type of client seeking it. Happily, that is not the case for lifestyle photography. It is lifestyle photography both in the cases of the brands that seek it as well as that of the publications.
Among the major lifestyle photography brands that immediately come to mind are Williams Sonoma, Wayfair, and Patagonia, to name just a few. Those come to mind directly because they sell goods that we might identify with everyday middle class life.
Yet in fact almost all brands that advertise themselves to middle class consumers would fall into this category. In this article we’ve include tearsheets from companies as diverse as Coca-Cola, Infiniti, and Enbridge (an energy company). In other words, lifestyle photography might be so encompassing that the real question is what doesn’t belong to it.
When one thinks of publications that need lifestyle photography, magazines such as Food & Wine, Real Simple, and Good Housekeeping pop up. Yet lifestyle photography is so broad that all kinds of publications are included, from Alabama Living to Surfer magazine to Sew Daily to Playboy magazine. In short, if you’re a great lifestyle photographer, the publications seeking you are legion.
Sounds great, but how do you make this happen in a shot? As with most projects, the approach to a lifestyle shoot is split into two parts: the planning and the shooting. It might sound obvious, but making beautiful imagery of everyday life does not mean showing up on the day and seeing what happens. The real-life look can be deceiving. These images require careful planning and a capable crew. Unlike brand narrative shoots, lifestyle photography usually needs the help of hair stylists and make-up artists, professional models, wardrobe, props and more. The photographer strives to make it all come together and look authentic.
When getting ready for a lifestyle shoot, Los Angeles-based photographer Ren Fuller tries to do as much planning as possible. She likes to scout the location for the right light in advance and plan how the scene will look on the shoot. “There are lots of creative meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page to meet expectations,” Ren says.
I try to have as much figured out and dialed in so that I don’t have to think about these things on the day that I’m shooting. It allows me to be more present and creative, and confident. I know exactly what I need to do to get the shots that the client wants. But it also leaves me the mental space to play and get the shots that come from in the moment inspiration.
Ren has adopted this approach on projects for Cobra Beer, Progressive Insurance, and Ruby Ribbon, among others.
To shoot successfully, the skills required go well beyond a technical understanding of photography. Being able to interact with the hired talent (models) successfully is crucial. Unlike when working with normal people, models usually know how to act in front of the camera. This means less worry about them looking stiff and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, like the rest of the crew, they will need direction. The ability to share the project’s vision is essential for a successful collaboration.
When asked about the skills he had to develop, Vancouver, Canada-based Mackenzie Duncan agrees:
The technical know-how to run the camera and capture what you want, whether with natural light or artificial light, is, of course, a must. At the same time, an understanding of how to run a set makes a huge difference if you’re working with larger clients. People skills and knowing how to work with the talent, put them at ease to evoke the types of emotions you are looking to capture. The ability to tell a story, whether with one frame or a collection of frames, is a very valuable addition.
Mackenzie has shot campaigns for Deus Ex Machina, Equinox, Puma, Starbucks and other clients and has recently launched a video series on lifestyle photography.
Whatever the shoot, problem-solving is the best attitude to bring on set. Something is bound to go differently than planned, and the client will value the ability to think quickly and find a solution rather than give up. According to London-based photo editor Shin Miura, instead of saying you cannot do something, it is best to show your client why it cannot be done. “I need the photographer to be confident and quick on his/her feet. I need a problem solver and somebody that knows when he/she got the shot instead of shooting endlessly”.
When asked what else he looks for when commissioning a lifestyle job, Shin says,
unlike reportage, these jobs need the extra help of artificial lighting to give that ‘desirable’ feel to the photograph. I am looking for somebody with perfect control of natural and artificial light. […] people skills are also crucial. How ‘natural’ the set-up image will look can often depend on it.
As with other photography styles, lifestyle photography requires skills well beyond a technical understanding of the equipment. To create the best artificial version of real life, photography’s collaborative process is vital.
But once you’ve got that under your belt, you’re good to go!