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8 Tips For Baby Photography Using Natural Light

Babies. Do you find them a challenge to photograph?

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!

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.

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Ruby, 3 months – ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/250th

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.

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?

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?

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Cody, 2 months – ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/200th

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.

The formula to successfully capturing babies within a limited time frame, one camera and no additional equipment, comes in eight tips total:

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Eliette, 9 months – ISO 1000, f/5, 1/160th

Part 1 Planning

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:

Step #1 Timing

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.

Step #2 Lighting

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.

Step #3 Clothing

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.

Step #4 Schedule

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Anna, 8 months – ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/200th

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.

Part 2 On the Day

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:

Step #1 Look for the light

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.

Step #2 Compose for the background

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.

Step #3 Set up your shoot flow

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).

Step #4 Time to shoot

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.

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Olivier, one month – ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/160th

What to do with a sleeping baby?

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!

  • 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.

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.

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Bent, newborn – ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/160th

Technical tips for successful baby photography

Have a look at the technical settings for all of the pictures in this article.

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).

Aperture – isolating the beautiful child from the background is the perfect approach if you want to make your pictures about their gorgeous details.

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.

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Rupert, 1 year – ISO 1000, f/4, 1/160th

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?.

How do these three elements come together in each photograph?

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.

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Beth Jennings
Beth Jennings

is a photographer who captures real-life journeys. She believes that your life runs like a movie in real time, and photography gives you the power to hit ‘pause’ on the best bits. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to confidently set up a solid foundation for a lifetime of digital photography enjoyment with her book, online workshop and courses. To find out how Beth can help with your digital photography visit her website.

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