A month ago our son Max came into our lives, and I became a father. As I am very passionate about all kinds of photography, I of course saw this as an opportunity, if not a duty, to practice my portrait skills.
A few weeks later, I have now performed a couple of cheap, ad hoc photoshoots of Max at home in our livingroom. I have learned a few things first hand about baby photography, and I thought that I should compile my most important learnings along with some illustrative photos. For even more samples and explanation, you should watch the video at the top of this article.
1. Use a flash and an octabox
A serious speedlight or two, with an octabox (one of these big umbrellas with shiny interior), is the best way to consistently create professional looking portraits. Sure, it is possible with just natural light as well, but you have to be more patient and wait for the right light, which might come at a time when the baby is not in the mood. With speedlights, you can always create good light circumstances, and they will not go away as the sun passes behind a cloud, or moves across the sky.
You might think to yourself that this kind of equipment is too expensive to purchase just to take some photos of your baby. And I did agree with this sentiment, until I found that you can actually find mindboggingly cheap equiment built to very high quality standards. One such brand that I have come to love for its incredible value for money is Godox. In all the example photos in this article, I used one or two Godox TT685S, which can be had as a pair in a kit with a wireless transmitter for only around $270. I remember unboxing these flashes, expecting a plasic, flimsy feel to them, cheap and Chinese-built as they are, but instead becoming pleasantly surprised by the extremely high-quality feel they have to them.
I also use one Godox Octabox, which I bought in a kit with a stand for only $50 on eBay. Also incredible value for money.
2. Make use of as much ambient natural light as possible
The first time we did a photoshoot with Max was at night. It was dark outside, and our livingroom was dimly lit. So basically the only lightsource was the one Godox flash that we had in the octabox, and the other flash that we set up as a secondary, weaker, lightsource. The lack of ambient daylight resulted in deep, very dark, shadows, that messed up the photos.
So the next session we did in the middle of the day, so that a lot of natural ambient light from the windows could lift the dark shadows. The difference was astounding. So if you rely primarily on one big octabox flash, make sure that there is plenty of ambient light as a secondary lightsource, so that the dark side of your subject doesn't go too dark. Try to aim the octabox from the front and slightly from above.
3. Prepare all poses in detail before involving the baby
It cannot be understated how precious time is when you have placed your infant in front of the camera and begin shooting. The baby will quickly get uncomfortable and start grunting or crying, or throw up, or just burrow its head into the pillow. When you have posed the baby in front of the camera, it is not the right time to setup or adjust the lighting, or to find the right angle of view or lens to use on the camera.
So you prepare the posing, the background, and the lighting in advance. I recommend image-googling phrases such as "baby photography" or "newborn photography," to get heaps of inspiration and ideas for poses.
I find it helpful to place a dummy in place of the baby, in my case a cuddly toy, to fine tune the lighting and background. Then, when everything is perfect and tested, bring the baby and you will be ready to take perfect photos immediately while the baby is still in a good mood and has energy to lift its head.
4. Prepare blankets and pillows in different colors beforehand
For the popular pose where the baby is looking into the camera, it is easiest to place a pillow on a sofa, and then just let a blanket cover both the pillow and the background behind, to create a smooth and even framing of the photo.
Prepare a few different coloured blankets to use as backdrops and surfaces for the baby to lay on. The reason for this, is that you want to find the right color contrast between your baby’s skin tones, your baby’s clothing, and the background – and my experience is that it is hard to know what works best before you have tried a few different combinations. So be ready with a few different blankets to use as backdrops.
5. Make sure the baby has a full stomach
When you have done all the preparations, which is like 70% of the work, you are ready to bring in the baby and take the photos. Or are you? Make sure that the baby has a full stomach and is in a good mood, otherwise you will just cause frustration for yourself and for the baby. You should expect to have to wait an hour or two after preparing everything for the shoot, until the baby is truly ready. Trying to proceed with the shoot despite the baby being hungry or just in a bad mood, never ends well.
6. Use a small aperture
When we shoot portraits, we often tend to use large apertures like f/1.4 or f/2.0. This creates a nice shallow depth of field and background separation, and it also allows us to use fast shutter speeds. A mistake that I did when photographing my baby was to use the same large aperture there as well. The depth of field became miniscule and most of my baby’s face was out of focus. Why? The closer you focus a lens, the shorter the depth of field, and in order to fill the frame with a newborn infant, you need to go a lot closer than if you are looking to fill the frame with a grown person. So shoot at f/5.6 or smaller aperture, when photographing a newborn child!
About the author
Micael Widell is a photography enthusiast based in Stockholm, Sweden. He loves photography, and runs a YouTube channel with tutorials, lens reviews and photography inspiration. You can also find him as @mwroll on Instagram and 500px.