Tutorial: Photographing Newborns

For photographers who want to take better newborn pictures or moms who want to take their own, here are some tips for a successful newborn session!

Photograph the baby early!  I like to photograph newborns between 4-10 days.  With preemies you can obviously stretch that out, depending on how early they were born. After about 10 days most newborns start having longer awake periods and are harder to get into that deep sleep where they let you pose them naked.  They start getting baby acne, their skin peels, and many lose their hair (usually, right on top so they get that nice old man look).  If the baby is a little older (over 2 weeks) try to keep him awake for at least 90 minutes right before the session.

Keep it warm.  Newborns are used to very warm temperatures after spending so much time inside their mamas and they have difficultly regulating their body temperature, so if you want to keep them happy while naked you have to turn the temperature up!  I use a space heater to help warm up the area where I’m shooting.  Shut any doors to the room you’re in, close a/c vents, and if it’s hot outside you can just open the window.  Somewhere between 80 and 90 degrees is ideal.

White noise.  I use a white noise machine to help drown out the sound of the camera shutter and talking.  It usually also helps babies to sleep as they’re used to constant noise and they might not stay asleep if it’s too quiet.  The womb is not a very quiet place.

Make sure baby has a full belly.  Before you start the session undress the baby so he’s in only a diaper and wrap him loosely in a blanket before you give him a good feeding.  If you need to take a feeding break at any point during the session, take it!  Some babies will want to eat again after 45 minutes and some take 45 minutes to eat.  Don’t try to cut the baby off early.  Patience is key.

Bounce, rock, shush, pat.  There are different ways to soothe a newborn, and these usually work really well.  Do you have a yoga ball?  If I’m working with a baby that won’t go to sleep I hold the baby close to me, park my butt on a yoga ball, and gently bounce.  It mimics the motion of the mother walking when the baby was in the womb and if the baby is ready to go to sleep he’ll usually be out in about 5 minutes or so.   I also use the vibrating piece from a bouncy seat to help keep babies sleeping during posing when they start fussing and it works really well!

In this shot I’m using the vibrating thing (I’ve since removed those bars) to help keep the baby asleep.  I always put a blanket or burp cloth between the baby and the vibrating thing so the cold plastic doesn’t rub against the baby.

After I removed it she stayed asleep!

The beanbag.  You can now purchase bean bags specifically for photographing newborns, but you can also just purchase a regular child’s bean bag and over-stuff it.  I have one from overstock.com (similar to this one), but I also used to use one from Target (I bought two and took a lot of the filling from one and put it in the other).  You can probably buy filling or make your own as well.

When I photographed one of my nieces (where many of the following pictures are coming from…she’s 3 now :P), I couldn’t bring a bean bag on the plane, so my sister got this kid-sized $20 one from Target (which her other kids loved) and we tied off one section with a rubber band so it would be tight and give the appearance of being overstuffed.

I  always layer several blankets so it looks smoother…

and then place a puppy pad on the top one to catch any accidents and make sure there’s no leakage to the blankets below.

I then layer all the blankets that I’m going to use, with a puppy pad between each one.  If you have a holey blanket on top make sure you have something underneath that you don’t mind showing through a bit (a similar color if you can).  I also have a backdrop stand that I use to pull the blanket tight (when I don’t have access to one I use a chair or something that I can clip the blankets to, such as in this case).

Light.  You can see a post I did on indoor light here.  Basically, look for a large source of bright light without hot spots (and turn off all indoor lights as they’re a different color than outside light).  North facing or south facing windows are best.  East-facing windows work in the afternoon, and west-facing windows work in the morning.  You typically get more/better light on a floor higher than the 1st, but not always.  Removing screens lets in more light.  Sliding glass doors are perfect.

These are shots of a set-up in a client’s home (take note of how low the windows are and where the beanbag/prop lay in relation to the window):

These are resulting shots from the set-ups above:

The way you face the baby is very important.

You can see in this next shot how the baby is positioned facing away from the window.  Don’t do that.

Facing the baby this way creates unpleasant and unnatural shadows (the nose shadow should always be below or beside the nose, not above it).

Facing the baby towards the window, like this, is much prettier.

Here’s another example of how to angle the light.  In this first shot the light is coming from the bottom of the baby and it makes all these weird shadows.

The next two angles are much better.

This next angle is my favorite.

Don’t shoot up the nose.  I see this all the time on facebook and most of the time it’s very unflattering (even for a baby).

We don’t need to see up her nose.  This next shot is much nicer.

Here’s my actual setup in my studio (a spare bedroom).  The rest of the pictures (with the exception of a couple of the siblings shots) were taken in this room.

Here are a few shots taken at my studio.  Note that when the babies are naked they are often on their bellies.  They’re much more likely to stay asleep when you’re posing them and moving them around when they’re on their bellies.

You can see that when I photograph the baby on her belly I pretty much always pull out her hand underneath her cheek.  It helps you to see the baby’s whole face so she’s not burrowed into the blanket.

When I setup a shot with the parents I often pose with their baby so they know what to do and I put their hands into position before I hand over the baby (below).  Take note of the puppy pads underneath the mom so if the baby has an accident it doesn’t get all over the carpet.

Then I place the baby and remove the diaper!  This is sometimes disconcerting :).

I get everything just right with the baby’s arms and legs and then I hop on my step-stool and shoot away (I’m really short and the most flattering angle to photograph other people is from above).

Here’s another image from that session.  You can see that I’m standing close to the window (the source of light) rather than in the middle of the room (though I occasionally do that for a back-lit shot).

And the resulting shot!  Their little heads are heavier than the rest of their bodies, so I often put a rolled-up towel underneath the blanket to prop up their heads (I did in this image).  You want to keep the head higher than the bum.

Often, I’ll put a baby in a prop and the baby fusses.  Instead of taking the baby out I try to calm her where she is.  Here, you can see that I’m patting the baby’s bum and cradling her head while the mom is letting her suck on her finger.  I’m probably also rocking her a little with my legs.

One more action shot!  You’ll see that I don’t have a hardwood floor in my studio so I use a bamboo mat underneath the prop pictures.

Get in close.  Don’t forget to capture those tiny baby parts!

If the baby is fussy and moving around swaddling is a good way to get some cute shots while helping him settle down.

Embrace awakeness.  Everyone loves to see your newborn’s eyes.  Go ahead and shoot away if your little one’s eyes are open.  Try swaddling her to keep her hands down if she’s flailing.  You’ll have to take A LOT and get rid of the bad ones.  They often move their eyes and lips so rapidly that you might not know what you’ve got until you’re looking at the images later.

Sibling shots!  Photographing a rambunctious toddler with a newborn is not always easy.  There are a few poses I usually try when I’m working with siblings.

The first one is when the older child is sitting in a chair, on the floor, or on a bed.  I lay the baby down on the sibling’s lap (on her back if she’s swaddled, on her belly if she’s naked) and I always keep a parent very close in case the big brother/sister decides to leave.

Another pose I try is laying the siblings down together on their backs.  Sometimes I have the older sibling hold the baby and sometimes I lay their heads next to each other.

If we can’t get one of those to work I’ll put the baby in a prop and try to get the older sibling to hug/kiss/look at the baby.

The most important thing to keep in mind during a newborn session is the safety of the baby.  Don’t do anything that will jeopardize the baby’s safety.  If you’re using a prop that’s high like this next one, make sure there’s always someone spotting the baby and making sure he doesn’t wiggle or jump off.

I hope this helps!  Happy shooting!

39 thoughts on “Tutorial: Photographing Newborns

  1. Jules says:

    Great post Kelli! Would you mind sharing some manual camera settings? I’m trying to improve my photography skills with little (no) budget and this post has been very interesting 🙂

    • Kelli Nicole says:

      Hi Jules! I’m so sorry I didn’t see this or respond until now. For indoor sessions I typically shoot at around 400 ISO (or more) and at least 1/200th/sec, but faster if possible. For newborns, if I’m shooting with a 50mm I shoot around 2.5 typically, but if it’s the 100mm or 135mm I usually shoot at 2.8-3.5.

  2. Shawnee says:

    So this article is the best one I have ever read about how to do newborn photo shoots! So detailed and helpful! While looking at the photos you took of all of the newborns, I was wondering where you happen to get your photo props? It would help me out a lot!

  3. Candace says:

    Awesome tips. I was wondering what kind of material was the black background? It looked silk? I am shopping around for a good black and white and I am not sure which is best. Thank you

    • Kelli Nicole says:

      Thank you! It’s not silk, but it is a silky material. I think I got it at a fabric store over ten years ago so I’m not sure what it is :/. It’s washable, but not super reflective, which is nice.

    • Kelli Nicole says:

      you! I’m so sorry I never responded. My comment section got overrun with thousands of spam comments, and I’m just now seeing all these messages! I primarily use the 50 1.2 and 100 2.8 macro.

  4. Barb says:

    Thanks Kelli, been collecting ideas for baby shoots, love what you have done and the advice. Really stunning shots.

    • Kelli Nicole says:

      you! I’m so sorry I never responded. My comment section got overrun with thousands of spam comments, and I’m just now seeing all these messages! I primarily use the 50 1.2 and 100 2.8 macro.

  5. Debbie says:

    This is one of the very best tutorials and tips I have found. Part time photographer still learning the ropes. Going to be doing 3 newborn sessions in the next 6 months. Thank you. Beautiful pictures.

  6. Trisha Ritter says:

    Great info! Where did you get your bamboo mat? That is an awesome idea because photo mats, etc are pretty pricey:(

    • Kelli Nicole says:

      Thank you! I’m so sorry I never responded. My comment section got overrun with thousands of spam comments, and I’m just now seeing all these messages! I got my bamboo mat at World Market, but I think they stopped selling them a few years ago :/. Now I use click lock hardwood flooring and just click it into place over my carpet :).

  7. Christy Clark says:

    FaNtAsTiC information! Thank you!!!! Just getting started and I’m not totally comfortable with babies – this helped a great deal… I have used a hair dryer in the past – have my assistant hold the dryer so you get the heat and the noise. Thanks again!

  8. Natausha Lusk says:

    Kelli … WOW! Thank you so much for your amazing tutorial!!! How generous of you to take the time to be so incredibly thorough. Your photography is absolutely beautiful. Thank you thank you!!!
    Warm Aloha & Many Blessings,
    Natausha
    Facebook.com/WrappedNL.com

  9. Ashley Nebeker says:

    Gracious Kelly, you are so amazing! Honored you shot our wedding. Just wish we lived closer so you could shoot our kids!

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