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. I usually shoot at 10 am if I have north facing light. 

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!

Finding Indoor Light for Portraits

When I do an indoor shoot (such as for my newborn sessions), I always wander around the location looking for the best light.  I know many people aren’t sure what “great light” really means, so I hope this post helps!

When I do an indoor shoot I always shoot right next to a window or glass door if possible.  Most photographers love huge north-facing windows (one of the first things I learned about photography when I was about 15, thanks mom!).  North-facing is so great because you never get harsh, direct sunlight.

The pictures below are all from my own apartment, which has east-facing windows.  In the morning the sun goes directly into the windows and creates what we call “hot-spots.”  Hot-spots are terrible for taking photographs.  In this first shot, you can see the the light is slightly diffused by the blinds, but it still creates bright light with many funky shadows.

As the day progresses, this hot-spot will move closer and closer to the window/door until it’s gone.  This next picture was taken at about 10 am and the bright spots are almost gone!  You can see that to properly expose for the light, the rest of the room looks very dark.  Bright light like this creates harsh shadows on faces and causes people to squint.

Ah, isn’t this better?  The blinds are still down, but the light is much softer.  You can just barely see the shadows the blinds leave on the floor.  You may also notice that this area is decently sized and uncluttered.  I often move furniture around to get a big enough space to work with!

This is much better!  The blinds are up, allowing for the most light.  I also removed the screen outside to bring in more light, which is soft and pretty.  This is the type of light you’d get from north or south-facing windows all day.  If the window is east-facing, you’d get this light in the late morning/afternoon.  If the window is west-facing you’d get this light in the morning/early afternoon.

You can see that there’s still a shadow by the wall at the bottom of the window, which is okay, but I would move my subject out of that shadow and into the light.  The best light will come from windows/doors that reach all the way to the floor (I love sliding glass doors for this reason), but you can still get good light next to a window that’s higher up as long as raise your subject somehow or move them over out of the shadow.

Here are some shots of my hands (I’m jealous right now of people with children; insta-models!).  This is in harsh light found in the first two pictures.  The blinds are up and the shadows from the window pane are harsh and dark.  The light is super bright and the kind that would make a person squint.

Doesn’t my hand (and the background!) look so much lovelier?  This is in the light from the afternoon.  No harsh shadows, no bright lights, and no squinting :)!

And now for a real live (small) person.  This picture was taken in the exact same spot in the afternoon.

Another thing to consider when looking for good light is to look for things outside the window that could possible block a large portion of that good light from making it through, such as a tree or several bushes.  The best light comes from a window that doesn’t have anything like a porch or other overhang outside of it (though mine does have a balcony right outside, so it’s not awful, just not the best).

Happy light-hunting!


Okay, I know, I’m finally getting around to doing this! The more questions I get, the more often I’ll try to do things like this :). Let me know what you think! Oh, there IS one thing, I want to make sure it’s okay for me to use your first name if you asked a question, so this time I’ll keep it anonymous. Let me know in the future!

First up, what type of camera do you use? I have two camera bodies that I take shooting, one as a main body and one as a back-up. I’ve been to two weddings where one of my cameras failed for no apparent reason (one right in the middle of the cake-cutting) so it is so absolutely necessary to bring back-up gear with you to important events! My main body is the Canon 5D Mark II and my back-up is my “old” Canon 40D. If you have specific questions about what camera YOU should get, email me. While I’ve always been a Canon shooter I have no qualms recommending a Nikon or Canon camera, both are great options and have different strengths and weaknesses.

Do you save the RAW file and the final version? And how are you organizing your backup? When I upload pictures from a shoot they immediately go into a program called Adobe Lightroom. All my files start out as RAW images and are .CR2’s instead of .JPEG’s (ie image_0001.CR2). When I upload to Lightroom they all get converted to .DNG files. DNG’s are like a universal lossless compact RAW file. In 10 years Photoshop and other programs probably won’t carry support for the type of file that my current camera shoots, but it will always support a DNG file. I always delete the CR2 files and save the DNG’s. I don’t save JPEG’s as I can easily export them later, but I do save any JPEG’s that I’ve edited and retouched. I organize all my pictures by year and month and I’m lucky enough to have my own built-in IT guy who made me a server for back-up. I didn’t even ask. In my actual desktop I have two 1-TB drives (one that backs-up automatically) and then I transfer to the server in a separate location for additional back-up. Before this system I owned about 13 external hard drives (I still have most of those actually…) and I just made sure I had at least two copies of everything.

I have my Mom’s nice camera…is there a setting that’s best for doing indoor shots? Either I don’t use the flash and my pictures are blurry, or I end up using it, and then they look, well, like I’ve flashed a bright light at my kids right before taking the picture (not good). …what would be your advice for getting good shots indoors? For instance, my two boys were snuggling with each other in bed tonight, and I wanted to get a cute picture of them, but there’s not much lighting in that room, what would you have done? It sounds like you have a dSLR? This is a bit of a tricky question, as every indoor setting will be different and there are several things that could be done, based on the equipment you own. The first thing, however, is to take it off of auto so you can be in control. In a dark situation without flash you’ll first need to raise the ISO. Check your manual (you should be able to find them online) if you don’t know where these buttons are! The higher the ISO the more “noisy” or “grainy” the picture will look, but it’s better than blurry. There should be a few different semi-manual settings, two of which are called AV and TV (on Canon, A or S on Nikon I believe). AV lets you choose the aperture and the camera chooses the shutter speed, while TV (or S) lets you choose the shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture. In this situation you would want to choose the shutter speed. The rule of thumb for choosing a shutter speed that results in a sharp picture is to take the length of the lens and stick it in the denominator of a 1/X fraction. SO, if you have a lens that is 100mm you would try to keep the shutter speed at 1/100th second or faster. You can experiment to see what you’re able to hand-hold. I once hand-held a 200mm lens at 1/15th sec, but I had to be super steady! I typically don’t shoot below 1/200th sec if I can help it. As far as using the flash, the best option is to get a flash that doesn’t pop-up from the camera.
This is what
I would do in your situation: Take a flash that sits on top of the camera and point it either to the ceiling or a wall (as long as the wall is a neutral light color like white, grey, or even light yellow). The flash will bounce off of the wall and land softly and nicely on your children :). When you use a flash the shutter speed rule doesn’t typically apply. You can use longer shutter speeds if you have a flash. This is an example of a picture where it was too dark inside and I bounced my flash off a wall:
This is how the flash will look:
Or like this:

What actions do you use?
I nearly exclusively use Totally Rad Actions. The only exception to that rule are actions that I made myself. When I’m editing a picture I’ll generally create anywhere from 5 to 20 different layers with somewhere around 3 to 8 different actions used. I alter the opacity of different actions and layers. Some good actions if you can’t afford it or don’t want to spend the money are Pioneer Woman’s actions. I highly recommend downloading them! Here’s one example of one of my pictures before and after action use:
(this one is SOOC – Straight out of Camera)
Actions used: Lux (soft) at 60%, Oh Snap! at 46%, Yin (from Yin/Yang) on select areas at a low opacity, Green With Envy on select areas at a low opacity, one of my own that just affects some color toning, Antique Tone at 30%, and Select-O-Sharp on select areas at different opacities. I know there’s not a huge difference (and I think it’s even less noticeable on the blog), but I don’t like to over-process. Every picture on this blog has been edited in photoshop, most of them with TRA. Let me know if you’d like to see more examples!

What I was bummed about in my photos was the sun. In some of the photos the faces turned out too dark or too light. Maybe you can spend some time on the proper usage of light. I could talk about light all day! I will probably come back to this at a later time and discuss it more, but I’ll touch on it lightly today. The most important thing is to take your camera off of the auto-mode (it looks like you use a Nikon so I don’t know exactly what your camera looks like, but it will probably be on the dial on the top left of your camera). From your description it sounds like some of your pictures were back-lit (the sun was behind them) and in others the sun was probably directly on them, making them too light. In these situations it’s important to make sure you expose (your use of putting together the aperture and the shutter speed) for their faces and not the whole scene. You can do this by shooting on manual and choosing both the aperture and the shutter speed based on what your light meter tells you. I’m only going to touch on one way to fix this for now. The section I marked below “Light Meter/Exposure compensation” is very useful for manual or semi-manual (AV, TV, or P on Canon; A, S, or P on Nikon). As I said above, AV (A) lets you choose the aperture, TV (S) lets you choose the shutter speed, and P (program) is basically an auto-mode, but lest you use some of the other features on the camera (oh, and M is for completely manual). If your subject is back-lit by the sun and you’re in one of the semi-manual modes you can use the exposure compensation to your advantage. When the little line is in the middle (it goes from -2 to +2) it basically means it’s properly exposed according to the camera. By dialing it up to +1 or so, the faces will be lighter and by dialing it down to -1 they’ll be darker. On my camera I dial it up by using the wheel on the back after pressing the third button on the top. The picture below is a good example. If I had let the camera do all the thinking the couple would be really dark and the background would look properly exposed. But I did it the way I wanted to do things and I don’t care that the background isn’t exposed correctly because the people are. I have some more questions to answer, but I just realized how long this is getting! I’m sure I bored most of you to death, so I’ll try to get better at being more concise!

Monthly Tutorials?

Hi to all of my friends, family, and nameless blog stalkers (no hating, I am a total self-proclaimed blog stalker). For the last several months I’ve been considering doing a bimonthly or monthly post with tutorials and/or a question/answer section. I get lots of emails and phone calls from old friends and strangers (or new friends :)) asking questions and I would love to start getting those answers out to more people and let people know they don’t need to be afraid to ask questions!

Most of what I know I learned from asking questions and looking to other photographers and I really think that I’d be selfish to not help out other people as I’ve been helped. I know a lot of photographers like to keep their “secrets” as far as locations and work flow etc, but that’s their way of doing things. I truly think networking and sharing are the best ways for building businesses and friendships and there’s no need to be cut-throat or believe “every man for himself” in this business.

Believe me, I know I’m not an expert in the industry, but they DID force us to learn a few things during those 4 pesky years at college as well as these years with personal experience and I would especially love questions about how to do certain things that I’m already doing (this probably means I’m lazy). Topics can range from basic camera use (exposure, aperture, white balance) to business questions or what kind of gear I buy/software I use as well as photoshop…stuff. If I don’t know an answer I’ll do my best to figure it out!

I have no idea if I’m being self-delusional or not, so answer my poll and let me know if you think this is a good idea and will participate or if it’s really just a waste of time :).

If you have specific questions you’d like to be answered in a post or a tutorial you’d like to see me do feel free to leave a comment at any time and I’ll save them up or email me at kelli (at) kellinicolephotography.com with the subject line “blog post tutorial (or blog post question).” Thanks everyone!