According to Wikipedia 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." Photographers every day are advertising sessions as lifestyle photography, but in reality, are totally missing the mark.
I'm going to come at this from the point of family and couples photography. I am not well versed in the fashion point of lifestyle photography at the moment, so we'll save that for a later date.
Day after day I see photos of couples sitting in a park laughing and a photographer will tag it as "lifestyle." Is that really lifestyle? It's a moment but it's not a real life event. On any given day are you going to walk through this park and see them sitting there? Probably not and frankly, it's probably a park they've never been to before. Is the couple or family participating in something they would typically do?
Below is a typical photo that some would label lifestyle photography, but it's not. They're having fun, joking around and laughing, but they're not doing something they typically do. I caught a moment, I didn't catch a "lifestyle session." Little do you know they're right in front of a giant construction site that had this tent housing all their construction equipment. Do they hang out in front of construction sites on typical days? Nope. It was a location I drove by and they trusted my vision.
So where do we cross the line into lifestyle? You hit the nail on the head with lifestyle sessions when you incorporate things that they would typically do. This can be hanging out at home, going to their favorite coffee shop, or record stores or bookstores they frequent. It is incorporating their "real-life events" into their session. Lifestyle locations should always be chosen by clients. You can throw out ideas to ask them what they like to do, but the final choice should be theirs. If you choose the location, it clearly isn't somewhere they hold as memorable. Below, we went to a local donut shop where they frequent and the kids LOVE to watch through the window. That's something that they'll remember.
Most of the time lifestyle is incorporated into the home, but just because it's in the home doesn't mean it's a lifestyle session. Below is a photo from an in-home session, but it wasn't lifestyle. I dictated almost everything we did in their house. Do they typically all hang out on their bed and have a tickle-fest? Negatory Ghost Rider. But, it makes for a great natural and meaningful moment because it was their home. That doesn't mean that the rest of the session can't be lifestyle. Finding the balance between directing and natural events comes with time.
So how can you achieve the perfect lifestyle session? Here's a couple tips.
1: Plan, plan, plan. No, really. As much as a lifestyle session is unscripted, you need to discuss with the couple or family what they typically do. Do they love to bake cookies, do they have family game night or make homemade pizzas? They need to have a game plan.
2: Entertain the kids. As much as their doing their family things during your session, kids will get bored. Make jokes with them. Kids love when you tell them things that aren't true. Say, "you're pizza looks like a monkey!" Naturally they're going to say "NUH-UH!" and joke and laugh and this will allow you to get more moments.
3: Find the perfect balance. You need to find the perfect balance between being a fly on the wall and directing. This is different for each family and couple. Some will need more directing, some less.
So in the end, what is lifestyle photography supposed to accomplish? Most likely you're going to capture moments and activities that they're going to remember forever. It's a different feeling than an engagement session. It's something that goes into a scrapbook, that gets showed to kids and grandkids. If you're in need of some lifestyle inspiration feel free to check out Logan Cole, Jenny Jimenez, and Tara Whitney.