They gurgle, spit, vomit, laugh, cry, smack their hands together… They do a whole lotta things that we don’t need to see forever in a photograph!
It’s the reason why, in the whirl-wind madness of baby’s first year, that your friend or family member may call on you to ask you to photograph their beloved treasure.
I hadn’t yet grasped that the direction of the light, when hitting the subject is very important! Angling thing beanbag set-up and positioning the baby at an angle to the light source creates soft shadows which add critical depth to an attractive portrait. Also, I most often keep the baby’s head toward the light, to achieve shadowing I prefer.
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While the parent is still preparing their baby to be photographed, get your technicals for ISO, shutter speed and aperture established with a test shot, and quick histogram check, to ensure you are achieving technically beautiful captures. Once in place, they are unlikely to change much because the light is constant, and baby won’t move much unassisted. (Shoot Flow is my seven step process for setting up your camera correctly in manual mode).
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See where it is coming from, and where it is falling. For each of the baby pictures in today’s lesson, take note of the light source. Look at the shadows, as they indicate where the light source is positioned. Also observe the catch light (the little reflected glint) in the baby’s eyes which gives life and character. Notice that the pictures here are all created inside by window light, or outside in shaded areas.
Sometimes you don’t have the luxury to control all the set-up elements. See baby Bent (it’s a German name) below? He was already placed in the stroller and sleeping beautifully, and it would have been cruel to wake him!
Let’s assume you don’t have the studio lighting and equipment to set up in the parent’s home. All you have is you, and your camera, and you’ll work with natural, available lighting. It may sound like it’s not enough, but actually, it’s more than enough if you know how to make do with what you’ve got.
And then again a day or so before the session, send reminders for what the parents can do to prepare for their experience and what they can to to ensure it is the best experience possible.
Aperture – isolating the beautiful child from the background is the perfect approach if you want to make your pictures about their gorgeous details.
The formula to successfully capturing babies within a limited time frame, one camera and no additional equipment, comes in eight tips total:
It’s special for the parents to have you there to photograph their baby because it’s something they can’t actually do themselves. Advise them on having their baby’s preferred outfit clean and ready in advance, and a back-up in case of accidents. In order to feel safe and warm, babies also do well with accompanying blankets, bottles, beanies and soft toys. Check that the items all marry well together in terms of colours. If you have some clashes on the day and can’t change it, then shoot anyway and consider black and white for post-production to help strip it back a notch.
Where is the light coming from? Is the light play pleasing? Yes it is. It’s soft and softly coats the baby’s face – so the moment is worth capturing.
But personally sending them details about the age range you prefer for the newborn, where the session will take place, the length of the session, environment temperature, and your hope for the parents during the session, starts your trek toward accomplishing the shared goal on the right foot.
Also, explain why you suggest these things … why is a pacifier helpful at the session? Why should the baby be given a very full feeding right before, kept awake for a bit prior, and then photographed in an 85 degree room? A well informed client is a trusting, relaxed client and that goes a long way toward a successful session.
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In regards to blankets, I have learned how much I benefit from layering many blankets on my beanbag, in the order I want to use them and clasping the entire stack to the backdrop stand. I benefit during the session from doing this because it makes the transition from one blanket to the next extremely quick and fluid, and during post-processing because the layering helps make the blankets a lot smoother.
As best you can, plan the order of mini-events that the parent would like captured. For example, at noon baby will wake up, so you’ll be there from 11:45 and be quietly ready. That will be followed by feeding in the kitchen, and then tummy time in the backyard. If it all comes undone on the day, that’s okay. Just go with the flow of what is presented to you in the natural order that it happens.
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Maybe on one hand you feel honoured to be asked, but also that dreadful, pit-of-the-stomach feeling – do you worry they expect you to swaddle their baby up Anne Geddes style, and photograph him or her with stunning studio lighting and an elaborate set? Do you feel the pressure to create something amazing in the small window of only a couple of hours that you’ll have with them? How are you going to maximize on the time you’re given, while baby goes through his sleep-awake-feeding cycle?
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Having been a Newborn Photographer for 2.5 years now, I know that there is so much to know in order to have a successful session. And I should mention; a successful session, to me, isn’t just a beautiful gallery. It is a session in which the baby sleeps well, the parents are relaxed, and we all leave the session feeling excited about the entire process.
But in between all that uncontrollable baby-behaviour are those moments that parents see every day and would love to keep alive forever in beautiful photos – the big eyes, cute smiles, tiny fingers, soft skin, and round cheeks – all those wondrous little details that only come with brand new life. Those are the things that connect to a parent’s heart in the moment, they happen and what they long for once their children have grown up.
I can’t emphasis enough how important this is, even though it seems so obvious. Your goal for the session is the same as theirs, but they don’t often know what it takes to accomplish that goal. Right from the point of their first inquiry, inform them of your approach to your sessions. Likely, this information is readily available on your website or blog.
Shutter speed – for easy mobility you will likely be hand held when photographing babies, so make sure you are at least using your safe shutter speed of 1/125. Remember that children move quickly, so a faster shutter speed like 1/200 is recommended if they’re up and actively moving around.
I hope that some (or all!) of these tips will help you toward your goal of successful newborn sessions, as much as they’ve helped me!
More little details that make a huge differences in my sessions! We all know that heating the space you’re working in is crucial … I have my space heater going the whole time and if I’m not sweating, I know the baby isn’t warm enough.
It’s likely you won’t have much time with your subject, so follow these steps to be as prepared as possible before you actually start shooting:
Plan well, and it sets you up for your best chances of success on the day. Follow these steps in the one to two weeks before your shoot:
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To sooth the baby while posing, I have found that a very loud ‘SHHHHHH’ goes a long way! I hold my warm hands firmly on their body, often one on their head and the other on their tush, and say ‘SHHHHH’ in their ear. Sometimes I have to raise my ‘SHHHH’ to an awkwardly loud volume, but it helps greatly in calming when they start to stir. And speaking of ‘holding’ … when I mold the baby into a pose I don’t just get them there and then snap the shot. I will keep my hands on them as I feel them relax into the position.
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In addition, when stuffing rolled up cloth diapers under the blanket to properly pose the baby, it really helps to stuff them all the way under the bottom blanket for a very smooth, not lumpy, look. In between those blankets? Lay down a potty pad! And lastly regarding blankets … thick, textured blankets are just so much easier to work with in post-processing because they are not as prone to wrinkles.
Have a look at the technical settings for all of the pictures in this article.
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But I’ve also found that warming the spot on the beanbag where they will be posed is incredibly helpful too, particularly on the first blanket I’m working with. A heating pad works great for this!
Just seeing how she handled the baby opened my eyes to what was possible with posing a sound asleep newborn. I also observed a number of soothing techniques that have proved to be so helpful … so much so that I wish I knew of them with my own babies! True, there is nothing like true, hands on experience, but studying and watching other experienced photographers work can prove invaluable.
I started out working with a teardrop shaped beanbag that I cinched on the bottom with a rubber band to make it more full and solid feeling. But ever since I purchased a puck-style beanbag and filled it with a couple extra bags of bean my posing has become so much easier. The wide, flat work area lends itself perfectly to posing in order to see the baby well and working more easily with their legs, arms and face, rather than battling with them sinking into a too-soft, too-small, beanbag.
Will you be photographing at their home? If so, this can include where their baby sleeps in a dimly lit room, by a window in Mom’s arms, perhaps also out in the backyard through dappled light if your shoot will include play time. Stay out of direct sun and just work with soft, diffused lighting. Find out what time of day is best for available lighting in their home and backyard.
ISO – whatever the light gives you is what you’ll use for ISO. If you’re shooting indoors, place the child nearer to window light than away from it, watching all the time how the highlights are rendering (ie, keep the tones gentle and not too hot).
Once you’ve established where the best light is coming from, then think about your composition, building up from the background first. See the picture of Cody above? What surrounds him? The rug and white blanket, with small elements of his sister and mother protectively surrounding him.
I remember when I first began photographing newborns one of the very first errors I made was how I used my light. I was prepped with the blankets and heat and lessons on posing, but … I faced the beanbag and baby right at the window! What resulted were flat-light, very one-dimensional looking images.
Depending on the size of the window, intensity of light and distance of the window to floor, I generally keep my beanbag around 3 feet from the window and my set-up at about a 60 degree angle to the window.
How do these three elements come together in each photograph?
During this time I may be shushing into their ear, while still adjusting the pose slightly or smoothing a blanket with a free hand. But whether it is a finger that keeps wanting to curl under or a foot that wants to pop out, holding the newborn in place will comfort them a great deal and bring the pose into perfection.
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Have you ever had a friend or family member ask you to photograph their baby? Were you pleased to be asked, or hesitant? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments section below.
I am so thankful to Courtney for letting me write for her on this fabulous site! Especially because she said I can write about newborn photography! This is certainly a passion of mine, and I love to chat about this genre of photography any chance I can get. Mostly because with each conversation, new tips and bits of knowledge can be gained … for the photographer just starting in this specialization to the seasoned professional.
How are you going to interrupt that cycle to create something amazing, when the last thing you want to do is disturb the baby, wake him up, move him too much and make him cry? How the heck are you going to do it at all?
Then compose the image for what you want to say – in this one, it’s all about those gorgeous cheeks and button chin, as well as the nestling, safe space of the bassinet. So come in close and make your composition for that.
Once you’ve covered steps one to three, then position the baby (with the parent’s help) in the scene. Time is of the essence now, but it’s also the part you can’t control. All you need to do is be calm and observe what’s actually playing out in front of you in real time. Remember you can move, so keep yourself flexible and mobile. Compose your images, one by one, and keep your camera near your eye, finger at the shutter. When you see something worth capturing, be quick and go for it. One stunning capture is worth so much more than 10 average ones. Imagine your budget is $1 a shot and take your time.
I know you’re thinking “but doesn’t that only come with experience??” To a point, yes … but so much can also be achieved through watching videos, studying poses, taking classes or mentorships, and asking tons of questions on your favorite photography forum. I gained so much confidence before my very first session by watching a video of a well-known photographer working with a newborn.
I not only want this for each and every one of my own clients, but for every Newborn Photographers’. I’ve studied, practiced and learned a lot in the past several years and am excited to pass on to all of you, five tips that positively changed my newborn photography experience.
Three final notes for creative observations: Look for the light: Where is it coming from and travelling to? How does it illuminate the subject and where are the shadows?. Observe the composition: Close-up? Horizontal? Low camera angle? Why? The decisive moment of capture: What was happening at the exact moment that the shutter actually fired?.
Babies set their own criteria that rotates around a 1-2 hour schedule of sleeping, eating, crying, playing and nap time. Find out from the parents what that current cycle is, and build your plan from there.