Baby Sessions on a Shoe String

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DPS_Baby5

As photographers (or budding photographers) we may increasingly find ourselves being asked for impromptu photo shoots.  This often means having to improvise with borrowed gear and a bit of “shooting from the hip”.   As a consequence, when this occurs weare pushed out of our comfort zone and must learn to make the best of it.  I’ve often been guilty of the, “If only I had” syndrome when it comes to creating images.  It’s situations like these that remind me even the most basic gear along with what can be found around the house is often more than required to get great shots.  The last couple months I had two occasions where I was caught without my camera or any of my personal lighting when unplanned photo sessions were requested.  Hopefully my quick and easy tips will illustrate that it’s often more about being creative with your resources than it is about how nice your equipment is.  As the old adage goes, a craftsman never blames his tools.

Lighting Baby Gianna

DPS_Baby2

My wife and I were staying at a cabin with family when her sister said, “Hey, you’re photographers. Let’s take some cute baby pictures.” Of course in their minds eye they’re picturing those premeditated pics on Pinterest with amazing props and perfect lighting, neither of which I had.   Babies are naturally photogenic and the truth is you don’t need that stuff.  So when the pressure is on, take a step back and relax. Let’s dig in and talk about a couple quick and easy tips that will get you photos anyone would like with very little preparations.

Think lighting first.

First, find the location that has the most light. The cabin where we were staying was very rustic and pretty dark even with every light on. Natural light was hard to come by. It was chilly so outside shots with a newborn weren’t an option. For us the brightest place was on the island in the kitchen underneath a row of hanging lights. The light was bright but all light coming from a single direction above was a bit to heavy. I found a few desk lamps in the other rooms and set them up on either side to soften the shadows.  Note here that it’s critical you don’t mix and match light types.  Florescent lights have a greenish hue and incandescent bulbs have a golden one.  While you can always increase exposure of an image that is too dark in postproduction, it’s difficult to correct for a babythat is half green and half yellow.  It may look ok to your eye because our mind is constantly doing white balance correction so take my word for it that white balancing will be of no use if the lighting is not consistent.  This also goes for your flash and is the reason many photographers carry orange and green flash gels in their camera bag.  If you need to use the camera flash along with external lighting, try bouncing it off something that will distribute its hue. Cardboard or a wall can do the trick while also decreasing the intensity of such a small light source.

Because it wasn’t my camera I gave myself some time to playwith the setup.  In retrospect, there is a lot I would have done differently with the camera settings, but live and learn.  Try to remember that the basic balancing act is always the same.

  • DPS_Baby1If you’re not trying to blur the background, keep your aperture as small as lighting will allow for a sharp crisp image.  This is particularly important for keeping the detail in the eyes.  If you really want to soften things up you can do it in postproduction.
  • Eliminate noise by keeping the ISO as low as possible for the given lighting conditions.  This is becoming less of an issue on the newest model cameras but low ISO is almost always the goal. The more light you have the lower you can set the ISO.
  • Since you most likely won’t have a tripod, make sure the shutter speed isn’t dropping too low, which is more likely to catch some of your hand jitters.  Some go by the rule, no lower than 1 over your focal length. (e.g. 1/50)

Before putting the baby down and blasting her with light, I found a huge pinecone and a squash to practice with until I felt like the light was as smooth as I could get– the pinecone didn’t make a peep and the squash held his pose nicely. Be sure to have all the setup ready right after the baby eats and has had a little nap. Their awake time is so short and if you test the lighting beforehand and get all prepared you will be able to maximize your happy baby time for some great shots.  In the end, we got a few images we liked, and that’s probably all you need.

Baby Colette and her background

DPS_Baby3Next up, I was hanging out with my brother recently one Saturday morning when he said, “Hey, I brought my camera. Can we do some quick 6 month baby pics?” His camera was a Micro 4/3rds Panasonic. Fortunately, he was geeky enough to have purchased one of the inexpensive wireless flash transmitters ($25), a used flash and a solid prime “pancake” lens.  They also had brought a few ideas and some tutus and headbands to the table. Unlike the last baby shoot, we had a room with tons of windows and natural light to work with and the soft king size bed was a nice upgrade from a butchers block island.   He also had a Gorillapod for his flash that allowed us to place the remote flash anywhere in the room until we achieved the best balance of light.  So with light not such an issue this time it was on to the background.

Everyone looks fresh and happy on white.

Most people, but especially babies, look light and happy on a bright white background.  When we did the kitchen shoot, we had to recruit family members to hold up different sides of a white blanket the baby was sitting on to hide the cluttered background of the kitchen.  For this shoot, we opted for a better solution.  We took a stapler and a nice white sheet and literally just stapled it right to the wall at the head of the bed.  A little rudimentary, I know, but it gave the same effect you get with a seamless paper backdrop setup and we didn’t have to hold it.  Because fabric has texture and shadows you may not want, a quick fix is to us the de-vignette tool in the editor of your choice.  Crank up intensity of it until it just reaches the subject.  This mimics that eternal white background you find done with professional seamless paper backdrops.

The next key component was figuring out how to support the baby in a more natural way than just lying flat on a bed.  Under the sheet we used a Boppy which is often found in homes with infants or small children. It is an excellent support for babies who need a little help to stay up in the sitting position or to elevate their upper bodies for the belly shots.

Try using a three-person team.

First is, of course, the photographer. They are the most valuable player in the photography team and should direct the actions of others.  If this is you, look at poses and angles you like for babies. Notice the way the angle can skew the proportions of the subject. This is especially important for babies. Their proportions are changing all the time as they grow.

Second chair is the baby maneuverer. This person, usually the mother will adjust the baby when they fall or wiggle and need to get back into the desired pose. Keep the parent involved by having them fix falling headbands and falling babies.  Don’t be afraid to ask for their input, what angles they like and prod them on what they are hoping for. The third player is the happy outsider. They need to be able to charm that baby into cooing and ahhing over and over again. Any object can be used to capture the attention of a baby and induce a smile.  Try rattling some keys or a sock puppet.  The entertainer will need to get as close to the camera as possible so the babies expressions and eyes appear directed at the lens.  However, make sure you also get shots of them drawing the baby’s focus away from the lens looking off to one side.

In the end, try to use these impromptu photo shoots as learning experiences.  They probably aren’t paying customers so don’t let stress ruin a fun shoot.   Take note of what didn’t work and move on.  If you have any interesting experiences being caught unprepared for a photo-shoot and things did (or did not) work out please share below.  Happy shooting.

DPS_Baby4

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Chas Elliott

is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

  • Michelle

    Great article except I’m really not understanding this foreign concept of being somewhere and not having my camera with me. Lights, sure, backgrounds, sure, even extra lenses, sure. But no camera?!? *shudder* That’s just wrong. LOL!

  • I’m often in this position since I have a lot of nieces and nephews under the age of 5. I’ll have to recall some of these tips the next time I’m asking impromptu to do a photo session.

    One thing though:

    “Note here that it’s critical you don’t mix and match light types. … try bouncing it off something that will distribute its hue.”

    Since we are talking about improvisation, most likely the photographer won’t have control over that. What’s your advice?

    “Be sure to have all the setup ready right after the baby eats and has had a little nap.”

    Lighting conditions can change in between nap times.

    “Unlike the last baby shoot, we had a room with tons of windows and natural light to work with and the soft king size bed was a nice upgrade from a butchers block island. ”

    You didn’t show us the probably less than ideal conditions photos. Let’s see how bad it was. Don’t just show the best case, show us the worst as well. I can’t learn by seeing how everything went right.

    At which point do you simply say, “It can’t be done properly under these conditions”.

  • Great tips! Although I am more of a nature and fine art photographer, I do encounter situations like this. People think that just because one is a photography enthusiast, one can photograph anything! Hahaha!
    Thanks again for sharing!

  • Wow thanks for this! I’ve never shot a baby shoot before and this will be great when I do shoot a baby shoot!

    Photography: http://preciouss2photo.blogspot.com/
    Lifestyle & Mix: http://sprinkleorainbow.wordpress.com/

  • I JUST did this last weekend. I did a little preplanning but realize how babies’ moods can change instantly and you must always improvise. It was fun and I got excellent shots, but I did have to do post production work to crop out furniture or electric outlets, etc., when the light wasn’t cooperating!

  • Kelly Rae

    I am having my first shoot with at baby this weekend (2 month old) along with family members….They want the park setting… so we’ll see how it goes… but your tips are always a HUGE help to me and I love your site! Thank you so much for sharing so much with us.

  • Great article and a situation many enthusiast photographers find themselves in. As well a more serious baby photographers when they go to do a shoot at someone’s home having been told there’s plenty of great light. And the background clutter!!!
    Just want to stress the baby safety is critical. Many of those sitting up, resting on hands and on kitchen benches are composite shots to remove the hands that are holding the babies.
    A very cute baby in those lovely images too!

  • Maggie Michael

    Had a lot of time but terrible light photographing my grandson 3 years ago. We used a black and a white throw and got great photos. 3 years later my daughter had twins. It was hard enough trying to get them both set up – pillows and bobby but if I turned my head, the 3 year old grabbed the camera! Still got some good shots.

  • Thanks Chas. These are some great tips. I’m working on breaking into the portrait side of photography myself. My first paying client was the mother of a 3 month old girl. I ended up making some mistakes but got a “money” shot out of the shoot. I don’t yet have the funding for some of the fancy equipment that could make life easier. Information like this can come in handy for me. Thanks for sharing.

  • Good lord. I love my camera and I love what I do. But I do it seven days a week most of the time, so anytime I can not have my camera with me, I enjoy it to the fullest extent. No worries. It’s safe and sound, I don’t need to be checking where my bag is constantly…

  • Sharmon Lebby

    great article!

  • A little while ago i went out to a local live gig. I had messaged all 6 bands weeks prior to the event saying that they could hire me to take photos and videos. None of them replied in time so i only took my small mirrorless camera and a small set of lenses for doing fun candid stuff with mates. One of the bands approached me on the day and asked me to shoot their band! I was able to borrow my friend’s monopod and use another friend as my second shooter for my videos! I still got all of the photos and videos i needed/wanted and got payed! Thanks friends 🙂

Some Older Comments

  • Joseph April 27, 2013 04:39 am

    Good lord. I love my camera and I love what I do. But I do it seven days a week most of the time, so anytime I can not have my camera with me, I enjoy it to the fullest extent. No worries. It's safe and sound, I don't need to be checking where my bag is constantly...

  • Cramer Imaging April 26, 2013 01:07 pm

    Thanks Chas. These are some great tips. I’m working on breaking into the portrait side of photography myself. My first paying client was the mother of a 3 month old girl. I ended up making some mistakes but got a “money” shot out of the shoot. I don’t yet have the funding for some of the fancy equipment that could make life easier. Information like this can come in handy for me. Thanks for sharing.

  • Maggie Michael April 26, 2013 11:43 am

    Had a lot of time but terrible light photographing my grandson 3 years ago. We used a black and a white throw and got great photos. 3 years later my daughter had twins. It was hard enough trying to get them both set up - pillows and bobby but if I turned my head, the 3 year old grabbed the camera! Still got some good shots.

  • Judith Conning April 26, 2013 06:45 am

    Great article and a situation many enthusiast photographers find themselves in. As well a more serious baby photographers when they go to do a shoot at someone's home having been told there's plenty of great light. And the background clutter!!!
    Just want to stress the baby safety is critical. Many of those sitting up, resting on hands and on kitchen benches are composite shots to remove the hands that are holding the babies.
    A very cute baby in those lovely images too!

  • Kelly Rae April 26, 2013 02:08 am

    I am having my first shoot with at baby this weekend (2 month old) along with family members....They want the park setting... so we'll see how it goes... but your tips are always a HUGE help to me and I love your site! Thank you so much for sharing so much with us.

  • christina April 26, 2013 02:05 am

    I JUST did this last weekend. I did a little preplanning but realize how babies' moods can change instantly and you must always improvise. It was fun and I got excellent shots, but I did have to do post production work to crop out furniture or electric outlets, etc., when the light wasn't cooperating!

  • Sita April 24, 2013 08:06 pm

    Wow thanks for this! I've never shot a baby shoot before and this will be great when I do shoot a baby shoot!

    Photography: http://preciouss2photo.blogspot.com/
    Lifestyle & Mix: http://sprinkleorainbow.wordpress.com/

  • Salvacion April 23, 2013 12:43 pm

    Great tips! Although I am more of a nature and fine art photographer, I do encounter situations like this. People think that just because one is a photography enthusiast, one can photograph anything! Hahaha!
    Thanks again for sharing!

  • Khürt Williams April 23, 2013 05:39 am

    I'm often in this position since I have a lot of nieces and nephews under the age of 5. I'll have to recall some of these tips the next time I'm asking impromptu to do a photo session.

    One thing though:

    "Note here that it’s critical you don’t mix and match light types. ... try bouncing it off something that will distribute its hue."

    Since we are talking about improvisation, most likely the photographer won't have control over that. What's your advice?

    "Be sure to have all the setup ready right after the baby eats and has had a little nap."

    Lighting conditions can change in between nap times.

    "Unlike the last baby shoot, we had a room with tons of windows and natural light to work with and the soft king size bed was a nice upgrade from a butchers block island. "

    You didn't show us the probably less than ideal conditions photos. Let's see how bad it was. Don't just show the best case, show us the worst as well. I can't learn by seeing how everything went right.

    At which point do you simply say, "It can't be done properly under these conditions".

  • Michelle April 23, 2013 04:07 am

    Great article except I'm really not understanding this foreign concept of being somewhere and not having my camera with me. Lights, sure, backgrounds, sure, even extra lenses, sure. But no camera?!? *shudder* That's just wrong. LOL!

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