Today starts a five part series I’ve put together to help you take great photos of your newborn baby. I want to make a few disclaimers before we begin. I don’t claim to be a pro, and following the steps I’m outlining here isn’t going to make you a pro either. There’s a lot more to photography than props and poses. If you want amazing portraits of your newborn, your best bet is to invest in professional photos.
However, if you don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on a newborn photo session, there are things YOU can do to get great photos of your newborn, and that’s the point of this blog series. Here’s what you can look forward to in the next few weeks:
Part 1: The Basics
When my first son was born, I had no clue as to what made a good baby picture. I ended up with a lot of shots that look like this:
Yes, this was back before digital photography, so we didn’t have the chance to take a billion pictures and keep only the good ones – we just kind of had to take what we got. But still, it’s kind of sad that I only have pictures like this when I could have had photos that are so much better if only I’d known what I was doing.
By the time my fourth son was born, I was doing a little bit better. I had figured out a few things: 1) don’t shoot up the baby’s nose, 2) find a solid colored background to eliminate distractions, and 3) focus on the face and zoom in a bit. Using my newfound knowledge, I got a few photos like this one:
However, I didn’t have any idea how to best post a newborn, which meant I got a lot more photos that look like this one:
Also, this baby was born in June, so I was able to take these pictures outside and get pretty nice light, but I still had no idea how to find good light for indoor baby pictures.
By the time our fifth baby (and only girl!) was born, I’d figured a few more things out, and was able to take photos like this:
Better, right? I only wish I knew eleven years ago what I know now. Hopefully what I share in this series will help you avoid portraits that look like that first one, and learn to take photos you love.
In today’s post we’ll cover lighting, setup, and general tips for a newborn photo shoot. Part 2 will cover simple poses for your baby. Part 3 will show you how to photograph your baby with other people. Part 4 will show my go-to editing techniques for newborn photos. And part 5 will be a fun “how to get this shot” start to finish discussion.
Ready to begin?
Most people recommend holding a newborn photo shoot within the first ten days of your baby’s life. When babies are this young they are generally very sleepy, which is a good thing for photos. Why? Because a sleeping baby isn’t crying, doesn’t have crossed eyes, doesn’t have a huge pacifier in her mouth, and isn’t flailing her arms about uncontrollably (all of which happen quite regularly when she’s awake). Sleeping newborns look sweet and peaceful, while awake newborns can look a little awkward. If you start your photoshoot while the baby is asleep you can get lots of sweet sleepy pictures, and then a few more when she wakes up.
Another reason to hold a newborn photo shoot soon after birth is because babies change so quickly the first few months, and you don’t want to miss the chance to photograph that uber tiny newborn look. Does this mean you can’t get good pictures when your baby is three weeks old instead of seven days? Of course not. But earlier can be simpler, which is always a good thing.
Plan to set up everything you need for your photoshoot early in the day. Then keep your baby active and awake for a while, then feed her, then get ready to take pictures when she starts to fall asleep.
Plan on spending at least an hour to get some good shots. I generally spend two hours when I photograph a newborn (some pros spend twice that much time). If you’re taking pictures of your own baby, you could also plan to spend just half an hour but try once a day for the first week. Figure out what will work best for your schedule, but realize this won’t be a quick process. Also, the photoshoot will be much easier if you have someone to help you, so rope your husband/mom/friend into being your assistant.
I think newborns look best photographed naked, or in just a diaper, or in a plain white onesie. Most baby clothes are way too big for newborns and just don’t photograph very well. Keeping the clothes extremely simple keeps the focus on the baby. However, naked babies are cold babies, so keep a space heater going right next to your baby the whole time you are photographing him. You’ll end up covered in sweat, but your baby will stay comfortable.
For good portraits you must turn off your flash. Your camera’s pop-up flash does more harm than good in most photography situations, so make sure you aren’t using it when you try to photograph your newborn. Instead, find a good source of natural light, like a large window or glass door, and set up close to it. If you have enough light coming in you won’t need either your flash or your overhead lights (which are also not a good plan when taking portraits). If it’s warm enough you can even set up in your garage with the door up to allow lots of light in. Start paying attention to the light in the room in yourself with the largest window – notice when the room is bright, but you can’t see the shadow of the window on the floor in front of it (see this post for more explanation of this). That’s the time of day when you want to plan your newborn photo shoot.
Camera and equipment
You can get good photos of your baby using any camera, even if you shoot on auto. I find that most photos taken on auto tend to be underexposed, so if you are going to shoot on auto, read my post on brightening photos in post processing.
If you have a dSLR and any lenses with wide aperture capabilities (like a 28-70 2.8 or even a 50 1.8) I’d recommend using one of those lenses and keeping your aperture open fairly wide, around 2.8. That will help to blur the background and make the photographs look a little more professional. If not, don’t sweat it – turning off your flash will force your camera to use the widest aperture it’s got (using the portrait setting will also help here). Your camera may have a harder time keeping the shutter speed high if it’s not very bright in your house, so consider using a tripod if you have one. Better equipment sometimes makes for better photos, but knowing how to use what you have is really more important. If you have a few months before your baby is born, spend a little time getting to know your camera. If you don’t have time to practice, following my tips will still help you improve your photos.
Here’s a photo of where I take newborn photos (in my dining room – please excuse the missing baseboards, we’re doing some updating). Let’s look at the important parts.
1. Large window. A window that goes all the way to the floor would be even better, but I don’t have one, so I make do with what I do have.
2. Backdrop board. I have a couple DIY backdrop boards that I made for about $10 each (full instructions in this post). I stand one up against the backs of two of my kitchen chairs. The backdrop boards can be used alone for a solid colored background, or can be used to drape blankets from for more background options. The background should be angled so it faces the right or left side of the window, not the middle of it, as you can see in the photo above. This will allow the baby’s head to be a little closer to the window than her feet, allowing the light to hit her forehead first, causing gentle shadows just under her nose and chin. If you don’t have a backdrop board, stand two kitchen chairs backwards here anyway so you can drape a blanket from them.
3. Couch cushions. You want the baby up off the ground so you can photograph her from all angles, not just from above. (Occasionally I do put the baby all the way down on the ground to photograph her from directly above – I’ll discuss that tomorrow.)
4. Pillow, boppie, or beanbag. It’s nice to have something a little bit soft you can lay the baby on and then move around to help position him. A small bean bag would be perfect, but I don’t have one, so I use a pillow or boppie.
5. Protective plastic (not shown). This is only necessary if you plan to photograph the baby without a diaper on. He will go to the bathroom sometime during the photo shoot (it always happens) so protect your pillow and cushions.
Here’s how the set-up looks when you sit down in front of it (as noted in the photo above):
Once you have the basics set up, you can drape a solid colored blanket over it all. Use clamps to attach the blanket to the backdrop boards (if you don’t have a backdrop board just attach the blanket to the tops of the chairs). Let it drape down the board until it is level with the pillows, then lay it over the pillows. You want to minimize wrinkles as much as possible, because they will be very distracting in the final picture, so use more clamps on the sides if you need to. Additionally, you might want to clamp the background board to the chairs it’s resting against to be sure it won’t fall during the photoshoot. It should look like this:
And then you can take a photo that looks like this:
Other newborn photoshoot necessities:
Wipes/burp rags. Chances are you’ll have to clean up something during the shoot, so keep wipes and burp rags handy.
Blankets or fabric to use as backdrops. If you are going to invest in one thing, I’d say go buy a few yards of the cheapest black stretch velvet you can find (use a coupon at Joanns!). Black velvet works really well as a backdrop because it doesn’t show wrinkles and generally shows up as solid black in photos. Otherwise, walk through the house looking for any blankets you might have. Blankets with lots of texture also do a good job hiding wrinkles, like this one:
Extra blankets. In between poses it’s nice to have a few extra blankets to swaddle the baby in to keep her happy.
Pacifier. Keep one within arm’s reach at all times. Often when trying to pose a sleeping baby he’ll start to wake up, but a quick pacifier stuffed in his mouth will send him right back to sleep. Then you can ease the pacifier back out and take your photo.
Any other props or accessories you think you might like to use (hats, headbands, etc.) You want everything ready to go before you start taking photos. Remember, though, that you don’t need lots of props. I think newborn photos look best with fewer accessories and props and more focus on the baby herself. I’ll talk more about this in Part 2: Posing.
I hope that was helpful! It’s a lot of information, so it’s probably worth reviewing a few times. It’s also worth trying out your setup before you plan to take pictures – even before the baby arrives if possible.
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