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When I first started doing professional photography, newborn babies were the coveted prize. An adorable sleeping creature that would look cute no matter what? Sign me up! Let’s put that baby in a stockpot! In a basket! Wait! –A headband that looks like a flower! In a field of flowers! With butterflies! And maybe a big gift box bow!
Then I realized that Anne Geddes is the landlord of that entire market. And that it’s rare for a portrait client to actually want a picture of their baby in a stockpot. What people do want is a picture of their baby, that looks like their baby. Because in about 5 minutes their baby isn’t going to look like this anymore.
In an ideal situation, you are photographing a newborn that is less than two weeks old (when they tend to be more “mold-able”), in the morning (when they tend to be a more willing participant), just after being fed (when they tend to be a little more tolerant), and in a warm room (where they tend to be a little more comfortable).
Having everything ready to go before shooting a single shot is taken will serve you well: various blankets for background and warmth, cloth diapers for when someone pees on you (let’s hope it’s the baby), any clothing you plan to use and back-ups of every possible thing. I prefer minimal clothing on newborns, but this is just personal preference. Amble natural light is important because even if you do usually shoot flash, it’s often disruptive enough to wake a newborn and rule number one in photography, parenting, and life is: Never wake a sleeping baby. If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s that.
Be prepared to work fast because babies can be ticking time bombs, but slowly because they are delicate ticking time bombs. You are methodical. You are confident. You are patient. You are the baby whisperer. Because we are speaking in ideals. And if you’re me and we are still speaking in ideals, you also have on your cute jeans and are having a great hair day. Because, why not?
Photographing newborns is one of the few times I make a point of asking clients what they are planning on doing with the end result. Often it’s for use in a baby announcement or just as “baby pictures” documenting this time. But if it’s going to end-up as a 24″x36″ canvas above a fireplace, I want to know beforehand. Or if I’m going to need negative space to create an announcement card, I’d rather shoot with that in mind then trying to backtrack later in post.
Another thing to think about is the ratio of images of the baby alone and the baby with parents or siblings; there is no right or wrong answer here but knowing what you or your client is wanting in advance is key. Newborn shoots are not (usually) guided by a free-spirited toddler and therefore require more of a plan from you than shoots with older children. And you never know when a baby will decide that pictures are just not what he wants to do today and let’s you know this in a very unsubtle and loud way.
The only thing I always bring to a newborn shoot is a large piece of black cloth. I have had it for nearly a decade and more babies have peed on it than I wish to think about. I have hung it on walls and used it on floors and beds as a back-drop. I use it every single time because it simplifies everything and allows the focus to be completely on the baby. Lots of photographers do a version of a black background of some sort and I’ve found that there is no need to get fancy.
Many photographers use a velvet, but mine is about 2 yards of a stretchy thick cloth that I bought at a fabric store for ten dollars. It washes well (luckily) and the light sheen of it makes editing out any wrinkles in post extremely easy. I carry thumbtacks and painters tape to hang it with if I need to and it’s thick enough to hang over about anything and not have backlight shine through. I cannot stress having a way to simplify a newborn shoot enough. If a black background isn’t your style, find what is that will clean-up everything and let the newborn to be the focus, and allow it to become your key piece for baby photography.
And why shouldn’t it be? Baby details are sorta amazing. I mean have you seen a baby toe recently? Talk about something I’d like to dip in butter and call a snack. We have all seen baby parts photographed in the same boring ways: wedding rings on toes, close-ups of belly buttons and umbilical cords (ew), tops of bald heads in big grown-up hands. I am guilty of doing every one of these, multiple times over. I now see that the shots that will stand the test of time will be very simple close-ups that highlight just how small newborns are: tiny hands holding a parent’s finger, brand new feet that have yet to see wear, yawns and other adorable expressions that only look adorable on a baby.
Oh sure, we all know they are adorable, but what are you supposed to do with them? They are flimsy and tiny and often naked. This is where I think we get into trouble and put them in baskets and stockpots. Because we can. Instead of creating scenes, it’s better to just think of “positions”. Babies can only do about two positions unassisted—laying down this way or that way. Work with that.
They may just lay there, but the beauty in this is that they often let you adjust them however you want. Tuck legs up under bodies, pull flailing arms into blankets, curl them up into someone’s hands. The baby is the star of this show and is plenty cute to pull off this role without a big supporting cast of props. A key to getting the position you want and having it stay that way long enough to get the shot you want is to keep your hands on the baby longer than needed after positioning them.
Think of it as long hug—you don’t need that extra ten seconds at the end, but it feels nice. Get the baby settled and then stay there for a bit longer. The warmth of your hands and the consistency and reassurance is often exactly what the baby needs to “hold” the position you are seeking.
I like to include siblings as often as I can, no matter the age. This gets tricky because the very definition of tricky is a two year old holding a newborn while exhausted parents watch the situation go down. Enough pillows and promises of lollipops though will get you a shot or two and a little variation in the final images. Interaction is the name of the game here—look for whatever the emotion is that’s happening and play on it. If it’s pride, comment on it to instill confidence and document a sweet moment in sibling history. If it’s indifference, engage the older child so they forget there is even a new addition in the photograph and are happy to be your star for a moment.
I love a good worry and consider myself to be quite good at it. But as jobs go, photographing newborns is about as close to shooting fish in a barrel as you are likely to get. It’s easy to feel the pressure given that babies are so fragile and grow every single second. The truth is any picture you take of a newborn is a gift. Just as any time spent getting to photograph a newborn. I don’t get sappy often, but newborn babies are pretty special. Enjoy it.
Especially if the newborn belongs to someone else and you get to walk out of there without a crying baby and go home to a bed where you’re permitted to sleep through the night.
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