All types of lifestyle photography, from photojournalism and travel photography to portraits and street photography, allow us to examine our lives from new perspectives. Each subgenre requires its own particular skills, and many photographers dabble in different techniques and styles before settling into a specialty. Here, we’ll dig deeper into a few more specific avenues, but first we must examine the purpose and breadth of lifestyle photography itself.
What is lifestyle photography?
Lifestyle photography is a broad category: In its most general form, it captures a particular aspect of our collective existence. But we can further describe it with a few central points.
- Lifestyle photography should reflect on the human experience. A photograph in this genre needs to tell us something about the way people live and experience the world around them. This doesn’t mean all lifestyle photographs must have humans in them—if the way the picture is taken (presumably by a human) says something about how that person is interacting with their surroundings, it could still fall into this category.
- When capturing people, the scene shouldn’t be (too) staged. By “staged,” we’re talking what comes to mind when you think of wedding photography poses or a carefully orchestrated model portrait. If you’re snapping pictures of trendsetters on the street—even if you have them pose for you—you’re capturing a lifestyle moment. Ultimately, lifestyle photography aims to portray something real.
- The genre can prepare you to excel in any type of photography. Lifestyle photography requires you to prepare for the unexpected. Once-in-a-lifetime shots happen well outside of “golden hour,” and frame-worthy moments might occur when you’ve left your high-end camera equipment at home. Adapting to tricky situations prepares lifestyle photographers for plenty of other photographic realms, from professional wedding photography to corporate headshots or product shots.
30-Day Photo Challenge
Gain hands-on experience with Photograph Your Days In 30 Different Ways: A 30-Day Lifestyle Photography Challenge.
The Right Gear for Lifestyle Photography
When it comes to choosing the right photography gear—especially if you’re purchasing your very first camera—the number of choices can feel overwhelming. It’s challenging to tell whether you’re getting a good deal. You may not know what terms like “ISO sensitivity” mean and how they can (and should) impact your camera choice. You may not have any idea what types of cameras and lenses work better for certain types of shots. Do you buy a Canon or a Nikon—and what else is there?
Luckily, there’s a wealth of information available to help you make informed decisions about your camera gear.
For starters, play with your phone camera.
To gain a baseline level of camera knowledge, start with the camera on your phone. After all, plenty of well-respected photographers use their iPhones regularly to take breathtaking shots. Try taking photos on your iPhone or Android at different times of the day, experimenting with different levels of light and getting a sense of your favorite subject matter to shoot. The more you practice, the more you’ll figure out about what you need .
Your phone allows you to experiment with photo editing, too: Apps like SKWRT, Afterlight, TouchRetouch, and Photoshop Express are go-to tools for many Instagram photographers. You can learn the ins and outs of these apps here.
Next, upgrade to basic digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera.
Once you’ve taken some pictures on your phone and gotten comfortable with lighting and angles, it’s time for a real camera. Any digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera under $1,000 will get you started and offer a lot of flexibility. You can focus the camera manually, or you can opt for automatic focus. These cameras often include “mode dials” to let you shift settings depending on whether you’re shooting a portrait, a landscape, a well-lit scene, or a silhouette. And, of course, they offer interchangeable lenses, which are small, portable, and can enhance the picture quality of your DSLR.
Some camera companies make lenses that fit into just their cameras, while the offerings from independent lens makers may work with a number of different lens mounts. There are a wide variety of lens types to choose from, too: lenses with a single focal length; zoom lenses that let you hone in on a close-up from far away; wide angle lenses that can fit a vast landscape into a single picture plane; and macro lenses that can capture minute, nearby details. Having multiple lenses is often the key to seizing a prime photographic moment. Regardless of which you choose, you’ll be able to get all kinds of shots using just your DSLR.
Learn DSLR Photography
Get acquainted with your camera and learn photography basics with photographer Justin Bridges in the Skillshare Original course Fundamentals of DSLR Photography.
Camera equipment for travel
Many lifestyle photographers frequently change location on their search for inspiration, but large amounts of travel can raise concerns about your equipment. You’ll want to pack light to avoid being weighed down as you trek through unfamiliar terrain or cross crowded city streets. But you will also want to make sure you have all the equipment necessary to get your best shot.
In addition to your camera, you’ll want to at least carry a device that you can use to back up the photographs you take on your trip. While a thin, sleek hard drive is probably the most portable option, there’s a good chance it’ll wind up cracked at the bottom of your bag. Instead, opt for a thick, padded hard drive like the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt. If you do choose a smaller harddrive, consider purchasing a portable hard drive case.
Getting a quality case for all of your camera supplies, especially the pricier ones, is also key when traveling. Other preparatory gear, like extra chargers (and outlet adapters, if you’re traveling to a different country) can prevent an array of frustrating situations.
Lastly, consider investing in a portable tripod. Travel tripods, in addition to weighing less and folding up into compact shapes, also tend to cost less than their standard counterparts—and you can use them at home, too. Tripods come in handy for a variety of circumstances, but are especially essential when you’re shooting sequence photographs. For instance, you might want to capture a person as they walk in front of a static background. To make sure all of these shots frame the same exact background view, you’ll need to tick your camera on a tripod and shoot from there. Or, you may want to capture a time-lapse image of stars over your campsite throughout the night. Just establish your camera settings, set up your tripod, and go to sleep.
Street style and Photojournalism
There are many kinds of photography that fall under the lifestyle umbrella. First, let’s talk about capturing candid moments in the city by exploring the realms of street photography and photojournalism.
Telling a Story with Street Photography
All photographs should tell stories, but some photographers put a higher priority on the story of the subject they’re capturing than others. Take Humans of New York, a photography project that features exactly what the name implies—different people who live and work in New York City. The photographs are expressive and situate the subjects in spots around the city where you might actually find them. The project involves both images and text: Next to each photograph, there’s a blurb providing some key information about the human pictured. The interaction between the image and the text offers viewers a multi-faceted understanding of each subject. This bolsters Humans of New York’s underlying mission: to get busy New Yorkers to stop and consider their fellow inhabitants as human, not just another inconvenience to brush past on the way to work.
Of course, telling a photographic story on the street comes with plenty of technical challenges. You’ll need to understand how to incorporate unexpected colors and shapes into your work, how to shoot with scale, and how to take advantage of natural light sources.
Pairing colors in unusual ways can be an influential element of street photography. Sometimes, cityscapes provide little variety when it comes to color, so you’ll have to learn to grab onto the bright hues when they reveal themselves. If you spot a little French Bulldog waddling down the street wearing a shocking pink jacket, snap the picture and see what a little photo editing can do to highlight that burst of color. Other times, you might look for a more vibrant background—a mural or some graffiti—to show a different side of the city. Whatever your goal, it may require more location scouting than you think, so be patient.
Another important aspect of street photography is shooting with scale, which requires finding optimal vantage points. If you shoot from up high—from the roof of a building, for example—you’ll find that you can capture the scene below in a variety of different ways. You may also want to shoot from below to capture a tall building or statue from the ground, or make normal-sized people appear to tower over the viewer. By getting on the ground and pointing your lens up, you’ll capture scale in a dramatic, and often unseen, way. “I envision shots, and I envision stories sometimes where they go along with my shot,” says Steve Sweatpants, who explains the finer points of shooting with scale in his street photography tutorial. “It gives me more of a vision of what I want to shoot instead of just shooting stuff randomly.”
Light sources in a city can vary dramatically depending on the time of day and where in the city you are. At night, you have the sparkling streetlights and pockets of indoor lighting reaching outward from occupied apartments and office buildings. During the day, you may have the sun shining through gaps in towering buildings. Either can provide interesting shadows that reflect the shapes of people, goods, and architecture. Shooting in natural light is optimal in the morning, when the sun is rising, and in the evening during “golden hour.” Unfortunately, those times don’t tend to be when a city is the most bustling, and you may miss some great subjects if you stick rigidly to that schedule. The more you practice and experiment with taking photos in the city, the better you’ll understand how to make lighting work for you.
Street Photography Basics
Join photographer Steve Sweatpants for a how-to on color, composition, and more in his Skillshare Original.
Fashion Photography on the Street
The classically relaxed approach of street style photography can garner as much attention as the runway. But only someone skilled in casual outdoor portraits can capture these looks in ways that both honor the wearer and show them in their low-key contexts.
Capturing what fashionable people are wearing in real life can be a great way to showcase certain products. Street shots advertise how garments appear in familiar contexts, allowing viewers to imagine themselves wearing them. While these photographs consist of “real” moments, it’s okay—even preferable—to stage your shot. When street photographer Trashhand photographs his subjects, he puts them in iconic or intriguing city locations and plays with multiple poses. He offers excellent advice on planning your shoot, prepping the clothing, and finding a stellar location in his Skillshare Original Class on how to create a lookbook. Fashion brands use lookbooks to showcase their freshest designs, and to make a great one you’ll need to choose a model who will feel comfortable posing in loud, distracting outdoor places. You’ll also need to consider your overall color palette. What city locations can you use as a backdrop for the products you’re attempting to showcase? Do you want the fashion brand’s designs to starkly contrast with the background you find, or are you going for a clever, blending effect?
As for location scouting, look for a spot that’s architecturally interesting, with intriguing lines (like between the street and the sidewalk, or a wall and the rectangular building behind it) or a unique city element (like a passing train). Ideally, you’ll find a place where the architectural lines all end up pointing toward your subject: the model you’re shooting, but more specifically, their clothing. Pay attention to vanishing points, like where the lines from the street, sidewalk, and surrounding buildings converge in the distance.
Getting the Glamour Shot
Even if you decide to focus more on a model’s visual appeal than on their clothes or their outdoor surroundings, don’t let your setting be an afterthought. Emphasizing the model means allowing them to get comfortable within their environment.
“I want to take in the setting, the surroundings, and the model together,” says photographer Van Styles, who explains his process in the Skillshare Original Outdoor Model Photography: Capturing Subjects with Landscapes. “I think sometimes people focus more so on one or the other, and it misses. It’s really looking at composure, looking at framing.”
You can’t be above traveling rough terrain right alongside the models you’re photographing, either. Get in that uncomfortable environment right there with them. Plenty of photographers stick to their comfort zones, but you can get an edge by taking creative risks and pushing yourself to try new things as you shoot. “Is the location fitting? What wardrobe would be a little bit more fitting for that setting? Be observant of your surroundings and make the most of it,” Styles says. “Certain rules that I have when I’m looking for a possible landscape location to work with the model are, ‘Does it have a feeling? Does it have a mood there?’ Emptiness, vastness, can also play a big role in that. It is a lot easier when you can shoot and you’re not distracted.”
Documentary photography is about capturing people, places, and events honestly more so than artfully. That doesn’t mean you should leave artfulness behind—rather, you’ll need to be able to incorporate it seamlessly into your shots, expressing yourself without obscuring the truth of the subject you’re sharing with viewers.
This is no easy feat. To get great, informative shots, you’ll sometimes need to travel to dangerous or just plain disagreeable places. National Geographic photographer Amy Vitale knows this well. She’s waded hip-deep through opaque water and stood inches from raging fires to share strangers’ daily realities with others around the world. And while documentary photography may seem like a non-stop pursuit of action, Vitale actually recommends that aspiring photographers start by being still. “Plant yourself in one place and be there for one hour,” she suggests in Documentary Photography: Capturing Places and People, a Skillshare Original. “Don’t move. Just look around, and let the life come to you instead of running and trying to find everything.”
As a documentary photographer, sometimes you’re going to want to put yourself right in the midst of the action, and sometimes you’re going to want to capture a scene from afar to display its scope. Honing on in facial expressions during a public protest can say just as much as capturing the magnitude of the crowd. On the other hand, sometimes the story you’ll want to tell lies in the number. If thousands of people showed up at an event that was expecting crowds in the hundreds, then a far-away shot of people gathering as the movement grows could be the best way to depict the event.
Other times, you’ll find yourself documenting a conflict by presenting a scene that contrasts with it. In one photograph, Vitale captures a beautiful bride dancing at her wedding with her new husband—even though the wedding happened in a time and place of great turmoil. Even those lucky enough to have avoided social or political unrest where they live will be able to see Vitale’s photograph and identify with the notion of being human and falling in love, even when the world appears to be falling apart around you.
Finding Simplicity in Still Life Photography
Your everyday routine can provide you with great material for low-key lifestyle photography shots. If you open yourself up to the possibility, you’ll find that the most mundane items can inspire you, from the crumbs left over after you slice a piece of bread to the clothing you toss on the floor before crawling into bed.
Once you start paying attention to seemingly inconsequential items, you can begin to create stories around inanimate objects. As you’ve learned, lifestyle photography can include people or the places and things that people engage with. By capturing objects as they are, you’re telling a story about the humans who last touched them. You’ll find that you don’t need to find a dramatic scene to tell a story that others will want to experience.
Telling a Story with Inanimate Objects
Even if you’re just photographing objects in your own home, try to do some inspirational research to help you set the scene and figure out how to best showcase those objects. You can start by looking at home, food, and fashion magazines for a sense of how to best display color, shape, and light in a professional composition. These days, it’s also smart to look to Instagram for lifestyle photography inspiration—so many people use the platform to post pictures of their meals, makeup, and other miscellaneous items in creative and eye-catching ways.
Once you’ve done your research, set up your shot—and keep simplicity in mind. A great rule to help you do this is the “rule of three:” Create clean, balanced compositions by sticking to three main items per image. Noisy backgrounds can also clutter your frame. If you’re working at home, try fashioning a dark or monotone backdrop to place over a busy wall. This keeps the viewer’s focus on the central objects in the foreground, and it can also bring a certain mood to your photograph.
Next, find your angle. Start by taking pictures of a single object to see where shadows will fall and how they appear on camera before photographing items in a group. Of course, lighting will factor largely into your angle choice. To depict a sunny breakfast scene, freshly prepared by someone to enjoy with their delighted family, you’ll likely want the image awash in yellow sunshine streaming in through an open window. But if you’re displaying sad, cold leftovers next to a candle burnt low—a meal waiting for a guest that never came—you may want it shrouded in shadow to show the waning hours and the mystery around where they are and why they didn’t show up. Photo editing can always add to the drama, too, by letting you up the contrast for darker shadows or brighter light.
Consider height when you’re shooting, too. Just because you’re not shooting from the roof or at the base of a large building, as we discussed when going over street photography, doesn’t mean you can’t alter your angle in dramatic ways for a still life in your own home. The height in these shots depends on who you anticipate your viewer to be. If you want to create the impression of taking part in a meal, for example, you’ll most likely shoot from table level. For a more magazine-like showcase, you may want to capture a bird’s eye view, appealing to the viewer who’s going to be setting the table.
“Define three words that help to describe the scene so that you can tell the visual story based on those three words,” suggests Marte Marie Forsberg, who offers lessons on still life photography in her Skillshare Original Lifestyle Photography: Capturing Inspiring Visual Stories. “When you open up the doors to this cafe, what meets you? Is it the sound of the buzz of the people? Is it the light? Is it the smell? Then, [consider] how can you find a way of harnessing all that in your shot to tell that story of that experience better.”
Tell Stories With Still Life Photography
Capture an engaging breakfast scene in Lifestyle Photography: Capturing Inspiring Visual Stories.
How to “find your simple”
Still life photographs certainly don’t have to concentrate on food. You can take pictures of any objects, from clothes crumpled up on your bedroom floor to a sink with a single utensil in it. Anything that gives the impression of a human element will work.
Photographer and illustrator Maria Popanopulo suggests that you “find your simple” in still life photography. When she started, she says her biggest problem was overcomplicating things—incorporating too many colors and objects in the pursuit of creating something interesting. She quickly learned that the best pictures start with the essentials—after all, you can always add more details if necessary.
“Simple” often means embracing the empty space in your composition. It may be tempting to fill your frame with more and more items, but try to resist that urge. This will help command your viewer’s focus.
Maria suggests relying on the “rule of thirds”—yes, different from the “rule of three” we previously discussed—by putting objects straight in the middle of your compositions, lining objects up, or placing them partially out of the frame.
- The rule of thirds is huge in photography. If you’ve ever taken a course on digital photography for beginners, you’ve likely come across it already. The rule of thirds entails splitting your image into a grid of nine equal parts. The resulting lines are where it’s best to place your images.
- Straight-in-the-middle compositions are exactly what they sound like. They consist of a single item that lives “straight in the middle” of your photograph. This technique creates a symmetry that’s pleasing to the eye and extremely easy to focus on.
- Straight line compositions, whether they’re made up of horizontal or vertical lines, include multiple objects. Wherever those objects fall in the picture plane, they have to form a single straight line. The objects can be both animate and inanimate, like a human hand reaching out toward a cup, and it’s often best if the objects are positioned along one of the lines created when imposing the rule of thirds.
- Partially out-of-the-frame compositions hide part of the element(s) in your photograph. This adds a bit of mystery to your composition, and forces your viewers to ask questions about what they’re unable to see.
What’s so great about simplicity?
Creating a story around small or easy-to-miss objects can double as a meditative practice for photographers. As a viewer, looking at a single object can prove restful. Many of us lead lives of clutter—we have too many things we don’t need, or pencil in too many meetings and dinner dates.
If just looking at a lone object on a plain background can calm our brains as viewers, imagine what it’s like to focus only on that object as the photographer. The practice can become a kind of meditation around an uncluttered idea. The stillness and peace of the image can evolve to become a stillness and peace within the photographer capturing that image.
It may sound corny, but finding inner peace isn’t just important for your emotional well-being. It’s also good for your career. Calming activities like meditation can widen your perspective (which often narrows with stress) and can make you a better collaborator. If minor setbacks set you off, clients will pass over you when thinking about future gigs, opting instead for a photographer who can stay calm and collected in the face of pressure. Ultimately, you’ll enjoy your work more if you can manage to keep daily stressors at bay.
The beauty is that you can cultivate this attitude by simply taking pictures—doing your job and fulfilling the need to create.
Get started with lifestyle photography
Preparing for your new career or hobby in lifestyle photography by researching and taking classes is only part of what it takes to get started—the other part is jumping in. As we discussed earlier, all you need these days is a good quality phone camera and the passion to reveal humanity through pictures.
As you embark on your journey as a lifestyle photographer, try to find your niche. Being a jack-of-all-trades has its value, but supplementing your wide breadth of skills with one particular area of expertise will put you in high demand. Are you the photographer who’s mastered food photography and still life? Or, are you the photographer who’s not afraid to immerse yourself in conflict in order to reveal unsettling truths? The only way to find out is to take lots of pictures with a variety of subject matter.
While photography is certainly a hobby worth having for personal fulfillment, it can also be a rewarding job or side hustle. Once you ‘ve built a solid foundation, create a professional website showcasing your skills and reach out to businesses and publications for assignments. Or go the route of selling stock photography—pictures of harried office workers, or families watching TV—that can be disseminated across corporate websites. Here is a list of platforms where photographers can share and sell their work online.
You have all the tools you need to get started. Now it’s time to take action. Grab your cell phone camera or your DSLR and get out on the streets—or amble over to your kitchen—today.