Tutorial: Photographing Newborns in Natural Light

UPDATE: I switched to studio lighting last year and recently created a blog post about my lighting setup here and a new post about photographing newborns with studio lighting here. Continue on for good information about natural light photography, though :). 

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 6-14 days.  With preemies you can obviously stretch that out, depending on how early they were born. I’ve done newborn sessions on babies several months old! However, around 3 weeks many start getting baby acne, peeling skin, cradle cap and often lose their hair (usually, right on top so they get that nice old man look).  

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 around 80 degrees or so 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 a feeding undress the baby so he’s in only a diaper and wrap him loosely in a blanket (if you swaddle too tightly he may fall asleep too quickly and won’t be full enough).  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. If baby is exclusively breastfed make sure mama has a good supply and no feeding issues or it will be too stressful for mama and baby. I often wait until at least 10 days old, but sometimes longer may be necessary.

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 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. (update: I currently use a lullavibe vibrating pad)

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. (Update: I currently use a large dog bed, but you can use many things besides a beanbag! A large couch cushion could work as well in a pinch, just make sure to cover it with pee pads :)). 

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. Also, this shot would be better if I was able to get her hand under her cheek! Sometimes I’ll take a “safe shot” first in case the baby freaks out when I try to move their hand. 

Here’s my actual setup in my current 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.

This next photo is a favorite and can be a little difficult at times! Make sure the baby’s butt is lower than their head and their head/arms have a more firm support. Something like a boppy is too soft, but you can use a rolled-up bath towel underneath a few blankets. 

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. You want to make sure we can see both eyes!

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 :). With many poses you can place a disposable breast-pad where the diaper would normally go, and it can help soak up little accidents!

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 (a pacifier works great too!).  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.

Don’t forget to leave enough space for the baby’s body! Make sure there’s a big hole for the body to rest in and have a support for the head under the blanket (like a rolled up hand towel). 

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.

I often get the best smiles right after a feeding when they’re swaddled!

Embrace awakeness.  Everyone loves to see your newborn’s eyes.  Go ahead and shoot away if your little one’s eyes are open.  If her arms are flailing around swaddle her to keep her hands down.  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. Make sure there’s a lot of light or the movement will cause blurry body parts!

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’s head down on the sibling’s lap with her butt/legs on the side for younger children (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 push the baby off.

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. This pose can often be difficult with children under about 3. Sometimes showing them a photo of what you want them to do will help! This pose is much easier to do when the baby is swaddled. 

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. If the sibling still doesn’t want to get close I’ll try hiding something small and fun (like a coin or a fruit snack) behind the baby and encourage the toddler to go find it. 

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 accidentally wiggle off. Often, in my own photos I’ve photoshopped parents out of the image!  Never leave the baby unattended!

I hope this helps!  Happy photographing!

53 thoughts on “Tutorial: Photographing Newborns in Natural Light

  1. AJ says:

    Thanks for all these great tips Kelli! I’m expecting my fourth and really want to capture some cute photos of my new little one. I took pictures of the others but none that I really like. Definitely going to put your tips into practice! Love the tip of tying off the bean bag with a rubber band to make it tighter. Thanks again!

  2. SL says:

    God blessed you. awesome reading. good explanations. amazed with the amount of knowledge you have shared… thank you so much.

  3. Konstantin Shvaykovskiy says:

    Hi Kelli, thank you so much for the fantastic article. Very informative and discussing a lot of basics that I was struggling with. I was sad at first once I realized that you didn’t share the settings, but someone asked in the comments and you were not hesitant to reply. What a spirit! What a desire to help people! Wish your business the best.

    • Kelli Nicole says:

      Aw, thank you so much!! I’m so sorry I didn’t see your comment sooner!! It’s a good idea to update the post with settings! This was so long ago, though, I’m not sure I’ll be able to find them, haha. I’m shooting studio lighting now, so I’ll try to do a new post in the next few months!

  4. Nish says:

    amazing work 🙂 Bookmarked 🙂 24-70 f2.8 II with 5d Mark 4? Will it do the job well? And do we by any chance require TTL flash lighting? Can you post the page using flash with babies?

    • Kelli Nicole says:

      I’m so sorry I never saw your comment! I hear great things about the 24-70 II, but I haven’t personally used it. That’s a great idea to do a post with using a speedlight! I do have often during newborn sessions at people’s homes, so I’ll try to do a post about it in the near future!

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 :).

  11. 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!

  12. 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,

  13. 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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