These are the days you will look back on years from now and wonder where they went. Remember them vividly with artful and authentic pictures.

Family Photojournalism

What is Documentary Family Photography & Why It Rocks

09/12/2023

There are many categories of family photography. Each has its own perspective and expected outcome. A traditional family photography session is focused on capturing some nice “smile for the camera” poses where everyone is looking at the camera with a grin. These sessions have evolved quite a bit from the early days of the JC Penney studio shots, but they still have a similar goal: the picture of the family for the holiday cards, for the ‘Gram (Instagram or grandma – whichever really), or for over the mantle in the living room.

Certainly these photos are wonderful to have for yourself and I love creating them. But these pictures are not your typical experience of life, right? You don’t always dress up in coordinating outfits, wander around a beautiful park or sit together in a pristine studio, and smile at someone holding a camera. These pictures are a lovely display of your family, but they’re not your real life.

Enter documentary family photography. Or as I like to call it, family photojournalism.

What is documentary family photography?

Documentary family photography is a journalistic style of photography that is completely unscripted and undirected which captures the beauty of your ordinary moments as a family. It is real life, your real life.

Think of it as photojournalism that is specific to telling your family’s unique story. These pictures answer the questions of who, what, when, why, and how. Who your family is. What is your family like on a daily basis. They capture a specific “when” in your life together. It will even show why and how your family is the way that it is.

Picture demonstrating the artful and authentic nature of documentary family photography.
Black and white picture of father reading to toddler son demonstrating the artful and authentic nature of documentary family photography.

How does it differ from more traditional style family portraits?

This style of family photography is wildly different from the traditional family portrait session I laid out in the opening of this post. Here are 3 key differences.

1) Documentary family photography takes place on home turf.

Typically, a traditional family portrait session is taken somewhere with beautiful backgrounds and lots of space to wander around. Places like parks and arboretums, the mountains or beach, or possibly somewhere fun and adventurous like an amusement park or local fair.

Conversely, documentary family photography sessions take place at home, or along the well-worn routes of your normal routine. Family photojournalism is meant to capture the ordinary life you live, while showing you just how beautiful it is. To do that, we need to photograph your family in the places you spend your time.

2) Family photojournalism is unscripted, unposed, and undirected.

When I photograph a traditional family portrait session, I give a fair bit of direction to everyone. I’ll place people a certain way, ask for smiles, call to someone who may be looking elsewhere, and give more active poses to encourage genuine interaction. The result is lovely images that show off your family in a more polished way.

With documentary family photography, I do my utmost to fade into the background of your day. I won’t ask you to move, I won’t direct you to look at me, I won’t make suggestions or ask you to do things that are out of the ordinary. I’m a fly on the wall during these sessions, and that’s the way they work best.

Black and white picture collage of mom and dad with their toddler daughter demonstrating the artful and authentic nature of documentary family photography.

3) Documentary family photography produces more artistic images.

This is not to say that a traditional family photography session doesn’t create artistic images. However, I have found in my experience, the images created in a traditional family session are more utilitarian in their purpose. They are lovely to look at, don’t get me wrong. There is plenty of beauty in the images. A stunning background, great smiles, lovely light, etc… But they tend to not be truly artful photographs.

In a documentary family photography session, the whole point is to create artful images that showcase the extraordinary beauty of your ordinary moments. If I just brought my camera and took some pictures of your family throughout your day, that’s not art. Those are snapshots, and you have plenty of them on your phone.

With documentary family photography, it’s my job to create arresting images that are totally authentic to your family. I use my knowledge and experience to see the light, the composition, and the emotional punch of what’s happening to create artful images that are entirely unique. No one else will have pictures like your family does with a documentary family photography session, because no one else is your family.

Black and white picture of mom and daughter lying on the floor demonstrating the artful and authentic nature of documentary family photography.
Black and white picture of father with baby while toddler comes through the gate demonstrating the artful and authentic nature of documentary family photography.

Why documentary family photography fires me up.

We live in a world of curated Instagram feeds, filters on filters, and the call to embrace imperfection from influencers whose lives look curiously perfect. It’s a world where once-in-a-lifetime experiences are held out as the standard and the truth of real life is obscured. Our personal world is fraught with the temptation to compare and find ourselves wanting. It can be oh so easy to look at our lives and see only the mundane, the mess, and the myriad imperfections.

Documentary family photography takes aim squarely at the idea that your normal life is icky and boring. It is not.

Read that again.

Your ordinary, everyday life is not icky or boring.

As a photographer, I create art in pictures. As a person, my heart aches to show people that their lives are immensely beautiful and valuable.

Documentary family photography allows me to marry these two things, and the result is a passionate belief that each family should have incredible pictures that really shows off your extraordinary ordinary life.

I can show you the extraordinary beauty of your ordinary experiences.

Think of the beauty of your everyday life a bit like your nose. You can always see your nose. You’re probably now noticing that that is true – yes I can see the nose on my face. The reason that you don’t usually notice your nose unless you actively think about it is that your brain filters out this information as unimportant and mundane.

It’s always there, and so you no longer see it.

The same is true of our lives. The typical experiences of our lives are normal, mundane, and can be relegated to an “unimportant” status in our minds. My goal as a documentary family photographer is to call your attention to these moments, creating artful and authentic pictures that you will treasure forever.

What could a documentary family photography session do for you?

What incredible beauty could I find for your family? And don’t say “none”, because that is absolutely false. There is a treasure to be unearthed in your family’s extraordinary ordinary moments, and I’ve got the shovel. Why would you let this treasure stay buried? Don’t allow your family’s precious moments and memories to be hidden by the mundane. Let me show you your stunning life for the true beauty it is. Inquire today and get ready to be blown away by the gorgeous life you live.

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  1. Jamie Elcock says:

    My husband tends to cringe at typical posed photo shoots. I think this style would be great for us!

  2. Elizabeth Leach says:

    Beautifully written!!

  3. Erin Norris says:

    Ugh, I just love watching these “normal” moments look extraordinary and poetic. Congrats on the launch!

  4. I love all these moments in between and do my best to capture them of Rhys regularly, but I do wish that I could be present in them alongside him more often. Documentary photography of our lives is a true treasure and I love the work you are doing!

BEHIND THE LENS

I'm Rachel

A whole-hearted believer in the incredible power of photographs.
Especially of family.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a journalist. I relished the idea of telling the stories of people and places. As I neared graduation, my love for photography took over and I began my career as a photographer.

When I became a mom, I realized that the picture perfect Instagram families didn't map onto my own life. It seemed boring and inauthentic. I found that I craved authenticity and connection. I needed to know I wasn't the only one with wildness and chaos running around my house.

I picked up my camera and began to photograph it. Maybe someone else could relate.

It was then that I discovered my true passion: telling the stories of every day family experience through beautiful images. Also known as family photojournalism. A perfect blend of my journalism dreams in high school and my life as a professional photographer & mom.

Now I get to live out that passion by serving families like yours in San Jose and the Bay Area by creating artful yet authentic images you'll love forever!