Photography Tips: Soothing and Photographing Newborns
Throughout my journey in becoming a photographer, I can't tell you how many online articles I've read that have helped me along. The internet is a wonderful world of knowledge, right at your fingertips!
While admittedly there are still things I'm learning or improving upon, there are few things that I do feel confident in sharing because they work so well for me. So with that being said, I'm going to introduce a few photography tip-related articles to my blog, as a way of "giving back", if you will. After all, had none of the super-talented photographers out there not shared a few tips with me, I wouldn't be doing what I do today.
I absolutely ADORE new babies, with their tiny bodies and wise look upon their faces. It is a personal belief of mine that newborn babies are the closest thing you'll experience to Heaven while you're here on this Earth (Okay, newborns AND Lindt Lindor White Chocolate Truffles - YUM!). Though I don't do as many newborn sessions as I'd like to, it is a goal of mine to focus more time pulling newborns into my business.
I remember my first newborn sessions, when I was chuck full of raw nerves and energy. The baby would cry and I would be a nervous wreck, trying to soothe them. (Thank God I had some very patient clients in that first year or two!) I'm not sure at what point this changed, but I now feel completely at ease working with fresh guys 'n gals, and what a difference this has made! The last few sessions I've done have gone so well, I was mentally fist-bumping myself and thinking I was the new Baby Whisperer in town!
Don't get me wrong, though - newborns can be T-O-U-G-H, and they are all different, so what works for some might not work for others. You can't just decide that "these five things" are going to work with every little one and find yourself incredibly stumped when they don't. When it comes to children of ANY age, you must always have a sackful of different ideas and stay on your toes.
Below are some of my tips for photographing, in no particular order. If you are a photographer reading this article, you very well may have already seen some of these, but hopefully I'll be able to add a few new things to your stockpile of tricks!
(These are a combination of things I've discovered, or things I've learned from other photographers. I wish I could remember which person I picked up which tip from so I could give credit where it is due, but unfortunately I don't!)
1. SAFETY FIRST!
This goes without saying really, but with so many photographers out there trying to raise the bar in creativity, a reminder doesn't hurt.
NEVER leave the baby alone on a prop, even one that you think they won't roll off of. ALWAYS have a parent or your assistant seated directly next to the baby and ask them to not take their eyes off of him or her. As long as the session is rolling, that baby needs a bodyguard.
If there is ANY chance of a prop tipping while baby is in it, be proactive and place a small hand weight in the bottom to prevent this from happening.
NEVER force a baby into a prop. Babies come in all sizes, and just because you fit the last newborn into that cute little suitcase, doesn't mean this guy is going to fit. The baby won't appreciate it, and the mother will certainly not want to see you squeezing her sweet child into a too-small bucket.
ALWAYS inspect your props before using them with any child. I like to use a lot of vintage props in my work, and sometimes my crates and such can have rough edges. I always make sure to over ANYTHING that could scratch or otherwise harm the baby with many super-soft blankets.
If you're using a heating pad and/or heater (You should be, and we'll talk about that in a minute!), be sure to periodically check the baby's skin to ensure he's not becoming too hot.
Also, if you don't already know, all of those adorable photos with the baby striking a pose, tiny hands on their chin, holding their perfect head upright? They are done via composites. I personally do not use this method, but if you do a search for "newborn composite", one of the many talented folks on the web will walk you through them, step-by-step. The gist is, these images actually two or three photos that have been combined in a digital editing program, and in each one, an adult is holding the baby's arms, head, etc. in place.
2. Confidence is key.
Remember what I said earlier about being a nervous wreck during my first few newborn sessions? Well, guess what? Children of ANY age can sense it. This is why your toddler may decide to throw a hissy fit in the middle of Rite Aid when you're already at your wit's end - they soak up your tension like little telepathic sponges. Also, if you're nervous enough, the parents may sense it, too. And frankly, their confidence in you is going to take a nose dive. New moms and dads most certainly do not want anyone handling their most treasured family member who doesn't know what they're doing.
Have you heard the saying, "Fake it 'til you make it?" Well, if you are a new photographer, you will find that you'll need to work on your calm voice and "not freaking out" face, as it will serve you well in this industry. Even if you are falling apart inside because your strobe suddenly stopped firing mid-session and the baby has peed on three of the four sets you wanted to use, Dad looks irritated and the baby is getting cranky, you've got to keep it together. Try to take some slow, deep breaths with your eyes closed and back to your clients and tell yourself it will be okay. Remember to just do your best, and try to do it with a smile on your face. Keep up the 'small talk' with Mom and Dad. Ask them questions about Junior; they can't help but smile when they talk about their new little one.
3. Wash your hands!
Newborns obviously have not been exposed to much in the world, and now is not the time to start testing their susceptible immune systems. Also keep a bottle of hand sanitizer nearby and use it several times during the session, in plain view of Mom and Dad. This is a simple, wordless way of showing your clients that you care about their family.
4. Bring on the heat.
DISCLAIMER: I have had many new parents comment on how much their baby likes the heating pad, etc. Please know that I IN NO WAY encourage the unsupervised use of any of these products with a newborn. These tips are meant for the sole purpose of the photography session. (In other words, please do not put a heating pad under your baby's crib sheet just so you can get a good night's sleep. I know you're desperate, but this is not safe! Sorry! Please try the soothing tips outlined in #7 instead.)
Babies are used to a cozy 98.6 degrees and no drafts. The best way to keep them happy is to mimic the womb, and you can warm things upin these four ways:
1) Turn up the heat in your home/studio or if shooting on location, make sure the client turns up their heat a few degrees.
2) Get yourself a small space heater that does not get hot to the touch. Keep this just outside the frame, blowing warm air on the baby.
3) Use a heating pad on its lowest setting (SAFETY FIRST! Remember?) under the blanket the baby will lay on. Depending on the thickness of the blanket, you may want to add a towel or something as an additional barrier. Again, remember to place your hand on the baby's skin every so often to ensure his or her safety.
4) Here's a tip that you don't see "everywhere" just yet: Keep a blow dryer handy during the session. Before you move the baby onto a prop/set, put the dryer on low and use it to warm the area where you're going to move the baby. As an added bonus, babies like"white noise", so don't be afraid that it will wake them if they're resting peacefully.
5. Set expectations with the parents.
This is a good tip for ANY portrait session, but especially true for newborn sessions. Make sure to let them know well before the date of their session that you will all need to be very patient and you could end up spending a few hours together. I usually tell my clients to plan for 3 hours to accommodate diaper changes, getting the baby to settle/sleep, and feedings. Although I do like having clients visit my studio, I actually prefer to bring the studio to them for newborn sessions, so Mom and Dad are able to relax in the comfort of their own home while I capture these precious moments.
The baby should be well fed before the start of their session. I usually tell my clients who are coming to the studio to feed the baby just before leaving the house, or if I am coming to their home, to feed just after I arrive, while I'm setting everything up. Parents should be sure to burp the baby well, also. (As a side note to this, be sure YOU are fed and remind Mom & Dad to eat before the session. No one needs to get hangry! )
I also usually have the parents remove all of the baby's clothing except for the diaper so that he or she is ready to go when it's time. I tend to use diaper covers for newborn sessions, but if I have any bare bottom shots in mind, I also request that they put the diaper on somewhat loosely. (Not too loosely, mind you! I've seen firsthand what can come out of the top of a diaper!)
Be sure your clients have looked through a gallery of your images and know what sort of poses/sets to expect, and communicate anything new to them before using them as "guinea pigs". Remember, they have chosen you because your styles mesh. If you decide to throw in a curve ball, just let them know what you're up to.
6. Buy yourself a pair of super-soft gloves.
My hands are usually cold, and sometimes they are rough - especially in the Winter. Heck, even on the best of days, they are no where near as smooth as the bare skin of a baby. One of the best tricks I've ever learned is to wear a pair of really soft gloves so that I don't startle the baby with my cold, rough hands. I think I paid $3 for mine at Wal-Mart, so it was a cheap investment. A word of caution - make sure they don't impede your grip, which may cause a safety concern for your tiny client.
7. Don't rush the settling part. (And some awesome soothing tips!)
This is one thing that I used to be quite guilty of. I would put the sleeping baby into position and rush to grab my camera. 3 times out of 5, the time that I'd just spent settling the baby would be a waste because I didn't give him an extra minute or two to really relax. The best way I've learned for settling is this:
You or whomever is holding the baby puts them into position. Using your gloved hands (see # 6), place one hand gently on the top of baby's head. Use your opposite hand to cup the baby's feet and scoot their legs up toward their bottom. Hold both ends gently but firmly. The gentle pressure on his top & bottom ends reminds baby of his time nuzzled up in Mom's womb. At the same time, make shushing sounds. I actually prefer, instead of "shhhhhh", to do more of a "Shoo-shoo-shoo-shoo" sound. If you have ever heard a prenatal heartbeat, it's sort of a swooshing sound, and this is what I'm trying to mimic.
Now, the IMPORTANT part is, once the baby looks comfortable, HOLD THIS POSITION for a few moments (1-2 minutes). Babies startle easily and are more apt to stay in position if you give them a couple of minutes of this "security".
More soothing tips....
Okay, this one always makes me look and feel like an idiot, but you do what you have to do. I have to give credit to my father-in-law Ron, who comes from a large family and learned this technique from his older sisters. The first time I saw him do this, I thought he'd lost his mind, but I soon learned that this maneuver does indeed work. Place the baby on your chest, holding them gently yet firmly against your body. Bounce your upper body up and down, being careful to support the baby's head. Use one hand to firmly pat the baby's back. NOT the "fingertip pat", and obviously not hard enough to hurt the little guy, but firmly. By now you must be wondering why I said I feel like an idiot doing this. It's because we haven't gotten to the best part, yet - the noise! You take in a nice deep breath, and as you exhale it, you say, "Uuuh-uuuh-uuuh-uuuh". It's sort of one, long, drawn-out sound, and between each "uuuh", your voice is up or down. Hopefully that makes some sense, as this is very difficult to describe in written form. If not, you are welcome to call me and I'll demonstrate. However, a YouTube video of me making this sound will never be on the Web. Ha!
Babies also seem to like to have their bottoms patted gently.
I have read that white noise machines help. I personally have not invested in one, because I have found that the hum of the heater I use works okay for this.
Swaddling works for some babies. My style of photography doesn't currently involve a ton of wraps/swaddling, but other photographers have said this works well for them.
Rock the baby back and forth in your arms while holding a pacifier in place.
Bounce up and down on an exercise ball while holding the baby gently on your arms.
If the baby is not upset, but simply awake, you can always try to get in a few awake shots in the meantime. If none of the above works, make sure the baby doesn't need to be fed, burped, or changed. Sometimes he simply wants to be held by Mom or Dad. If so, this may be a good time to take a few photos of Mom or Dad holding the baby, or family shots. If you have a really fussy little one, have already done the Mom, Dad, and family shots, and need more solo images, try having Mom or Dad sit down, cover themselves from shoulder to knees with a blanket, (black is a good choice because it will not be easy to tell there is a body behind your backdrop!) and place the baby on their legs. They may also try lying down, covering their chest with a blanket, and lying the baby on top of their chest. (Babies are a lot smarter than we think! They know when Mom or Dad is not around!)
8. My general newborn session workflow....
(NOTE: The one exception to the below is if siblings are involved. Depends on the age of the sibling(s), but 99% of the time, I will get the family and sibling shots out of the way first, then focus on the baby. The 1% comes in to play if the sibling is cranky, scared, or generally doesn't want to participate just yet. Then I would let them play and explore and re-visit the sibling/family shots later.)
As long as the baby is in a cooperative mood, I ALWAYS begin the session with the baby on a large, blanket-covered beanbag with a boppy pillow on it (also under the blanket). I have found that while Moms and Dads do like the cute sets, the majority end up ordering the simple shots. I usually begin with the baby on his side, supported from behind by the beanbag, wearing a diaper cover and no hats or headbands. Once I get several shots from different angles, then add a couple of different hats/bands. The beanbag I use is large enough to comfortably and safely hold the baby, but small enough that I can gently turn the beanbag for different angles without picking the baby up to move him or her. This is also when I take a few detail shots, such as hands and feet. I might move the baby onto his or her belly after the side-propped shots, or we might just move on to another set.
While I'm taking the shots described above, I have a second heating pad readying the next set. I leave baby on the bean bag if he/she is comfortably snoozing, and just slide the bag off to the side (still having a spotter next to him/her at all times). I ready the next set, and if it's not warm enough, I put the hair dryer on it for a minute or two. As soon as the set is ready, I use my fuzzy gloved hands to position the baby onto the set, holding them in place and soothing them for a moment longer than I think I need to.
I continue the above, saving the family shots for last OR interjecting them during those times when the baby is fussy and wants to be held by a parent. Or, I will do them when the baby is awake and just won't settle into a good position.
9. Move around a lot.
Shoot from above, at eye level, off to the side, a low perspective, etc.; make use of any time the baby is in a comfortable position! This especially goes for babies who are having a hard time getting settled. If you finally get the baby comfortable and quiet, take shots from as many different angles as you can. If you think you have shot the baby from every possible angle, this is a good time to add various hats/headbands or small props to achieve variety without waking up the little one again. Also, don't forget to include both close-ups AND full-body shots.
10. Be prepared and have a back-up plan.
I ALWAYS have more sets ready to go than what I actually plan to use. After all, babies come in all sizes, and some props might not work as well with some babies and vice versa. I usually have in mind, the standard beanbag/no prop photos, add in a few headbands, and 3 or 4 different sets. I usually plan to do a couple of different angles, etc. while they're on the various sets as well; adding or removing some of the props, or going in for close-ups while the baby is in a different position. If I can use all of the sets, great! If not, I've used a couple of different sets and have gotten a variety of images.
11. Do your own thing.
Sometimes I feel like I really get caught up in what 'everybody else' is doing. Everybody else is doing bare-bottom shots. Everybody else is offering composites of precious little ones propping their head up in a variety of adorable poses. Everybody else wraps and swaddles. Everybody takes family photos in a bed. Everybody else uses natural light (which, while I agree is best, is not always an option for me.).
Here's the thing: I don't want to be like everybody else. Not that I don't admire their work; I most certainly do! But at the end of the day, I've found...
- I like to use diaper covers. While I adore tiny baby bottoms, it is really hard to manage these shots without poo or pee getting on someone or something. Time is not a luxury you have when working with newborns, and I would rather focus my attention on the baby and his or her parents than worrying about pee.
- While composites, when done correctly and realistically, are downright ADORABLE and I have seriously thought about learning how to offer them to my clients, in the end I decided against it. I personally feel that this may be a style that will eventually "date" photos, and I want to maintain a very timeless approach to my photography. I could be wrong; perhaps this style will evolve into even more. But for now, I prefer babies in a more natural state. I really hesitated on this decision. I thought perhaps expecting parents would not choose me because I don't offer this service. But truthfully, I hope that any client of mine, for any category of photography, will look at my gallery and see what I DO have to offer and decide they like what they see.
- I loved wrapped/swaddled baby images, with the little toes peeking out. I just like to see more skin! Again, personal preference.
- I don't have a bed in my studio, and I'll be up front about this: I actually feel a little weird suggesting to any of my clients that we shoot in their bedroom! If they wanted to suggest that, I am all for it, but until then, we'll work in another area of their house.
The point is, don't feel like you have to do exactly what is popular. Find your own style and be consistent with it. Just because you're not doing things like everybody else, doesn't mean you're doing it "wrong".
12. Be sensitive to Mom's needs.
I don't think any woman ever truly imagines how her body will have changed just after giving birth. And even though she is normally a practical, realistic person; sleepless nights, endless hours of care-taking and surging hormones are enough to send her into a fit of tears every time she attempts to find public-appropriate attire that will fit. (I'm speaking from experience here!) I personally hate the photos of myself after I had each of my three children. But then, I didn't have an in-the-know photographer who would position me in the best light, at a flattering angle, and only include parts of me that I was comfortable having included. Moms are phenomenal creatures - do everything in your power to help them feel good about themselves again. A few tips are:
- Pre-shoot, advise Mom and Dad to wear solid colors. Black is a good, classic color and will help conceal some areas Mom might not be feeling so great about just yet.
- Shoot from above. A flattering angle for everyone, and if you position the baby right, his or her face will be in plain view also.
- Shoot above Mom's belly. Even the tiniest of women will have a "pooch" after giving birth. And 99.9% of them, even though they know it's normal, are self-conscious about it. I've seen women in my studio that, to me, look FANTASTIC after just having had a baby, but I'm not so sure they feel that way, so I try to frame them so the "pooch" isn't included.
- Go for side-by-side closeups of Mom & Baby's face, or Mom/Baby facing each other.
13. Be patient!
Like I said, there may be times you'll have to stop shooting so the baby can be fed or changed. You'll also really want to jump up and grab your camera as soon as the baby seems settled. Don't; just wait another moment or two and let them really settle. It will be worth your while. Just be patient. If you are at your client's home and they are taking a feeding break, use that time to pack away items you're finished with, use the rest room, or review the images on your camera.
14. Use what's available.
If you are shooting on location, ask your client to show you each room of the house, so you can decide where the light is best. As you take the tour, be on the lookout for items or places that you could include to customize your client's images a bit more:
15. Get in there early.
I always let my clients know that the best newborn photographs happen within the first two weeks of the baby's life (Ideally, 5-10 days is BEST). After this stage, most babies won't stay settled into positions long enough and stretch out when you attempt to pose them. They are also a little sleepier during this time.
16. My list
Here is a general list of items I bring with me to an on-location newborn shoot. (I'll skip the part about camera/lens/etc, as that's quite obvious. And don't forget backups of the important stuff, too!):
Clips for backdrop stand
1-2 backdrops (I try to keep it simple here and not change it a lot)
1 backdrop for the floor (I use this one; it is the perfect size and I love the pattern.)
Studio lights (& stands, etc) or off-camera flash, light stand, and soft box
Small stool to lift heater up a bit so it can blow directly on the baby
2 Extension cords with multiple outlets, to plug in heater, hair dryer, heating pads, lights, etc.
Small bottle of hand sanitizer
Super soft gloves
2 heating pads (one in use; the other one warming the next set)
2-3 super soft blankets (I like to buy mine at TJ Maxx for $15-30/ea; they are almost a faux fur. Babies love them. I also sometimes bring the faux fur rug as seen in the sibling photo above, as it works well for baby & big brother or sister. But a blanket would work fine, too.)
2-3 plain white towels (for use as fillers in baskets, etc. or to add another layer of protection between baby & the heating pad)
"Puppy Pee Pads" if I intend to do bare-bottom shots. Though, I don't do this much anymore, and if I do, it's typically in the studio, so I don't have to pack additional blankets, etc. to replace the ones that will inevitably be peed on. Oh, and if you intend to try bare-bottom with the baby, bring a change of clothes for yourself and thank me later! :)
3-4 sets (I typically choose items I can use in multiple ways, are easy to pack/carry, and that I can pack other stuff inside of. I.e. Baskets or wooden crates/trunks.)
3-4 diaper covers that coordinate with the chosen sets
Fun props, such as headbands, neck ties, bow ties, suspenders, hats, etc. I buy 99% of mine on Etsy.
Baby wipes and burp cloths for wiping up spills
I hope these tips will help further your confidence. If you have questions, feel free to ask below!
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