photographing newborns your own way / by jamie atlas

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I'm not saying there's anything wrong with stuffing a newborn baby into a flowering can...

...but do we all have to shoot newborns that way? There seems to be a trend of propping babies up in jaunty poses, everyone wrapping them in the same nude gauze and holding up their heads or curling them up in baskets. If that highly propped and posed look is your thing, go for it! But there's nothing saying you have to photograph newborns in that style. 

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Finding your newborn style. Photographing newborns should be an extension of of your photographic style overall. For me, that means candid lifestyle moments. I aim to catch glimpses of the moments between "the moments" - not posed and premeditated, but hints of real life when families are just being together. Regardless of your style, you don't have to approach newborn photography any differently than you approach any subject - there is no right or wrong way to do it. If someone chooses you to capture this time for them, just make sure that they're familiar with your style and have the right expectations for the type of photography you shoot.

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9 universal tips for shooting newborns. Regardless of your photographic style, here are a few tips to help any newborn session go smoothly:

  • Be a force of calm. When you enter a home with a newborn in it, you are walking into a sacred, sensitive - and sleepy - place. Take your cue for the mood of the room when you get there. Wash your hands right away, talk in a hushed tone, and take the family's lead for how chatty or loud to be. Sometimes a mom is weepy for no reason, or is self-conscious about how she looks for photos, or is nervous about the baby "behaving" for a session - be as calmly encouraging and complimentary as you can to help put everyone at ease. The white noise from a sound machine can be helpful for covering up the noise of your camera shutter or your chatting while the baby is sleeping - most newborn households have one, or you can pop a little travel one like this into your camera bag to take with you.
  • Follow cues for feeding and sleep times. More than ever, you should bend to the natural family rhythm of what's going on during your time there. If the baby starts getting a little fussy, don't push through to get the shot you want - encourage mom to stop whenever she needs to, and to step in and comfort the little one whenever she wants to. If they stop to nurse, I often ask if they'd like me to capture some of that moment as well, explaining that I can shoot details of breastfeeding without showing anything explicitly, if they prefer. Or if you get the sense that a mother is more private, you can leave the room for a few minutes. You can create an intimate photo by shooting into the room from a hallway, to set the scene of what newborn days are like without being right on top of them while they feed.
  • Keep the shooting area warm. Especially if the you plan to shoot the baby naked or in a diaper, keep room temperature (and your hand temperature) in mind. If you shoot with available light, the sunny spot by a window is a great place to set up anyway. 
  • Bring a blanket or surface you like to shoot on. I've never walked into the home of a baby that doesn't have a surplus of blankets and swaddles around, but I always take a neutral, textured blanket and a plain white swaddle with me, just in case.
  • Don't forget the tiny parts. Once you've covered a shot, get in close and capture the little details - hands, feet, lips, even the tops of their fuzzy little heads, 
  • When in doubt, swaddle. I say this with a mother's love: newborn babies can look like funny little aliens! I love those smooshy little newborn faces, but the lack of neck control or fat rolls of older babies and those spindly arms and legs can make it hard to arrange them in a graceful way. Swaddling makes babies calm and comforted and makes them look like adorable baby burritos - it's a win win.
  • Shoot as much as you can in each pose. Don't disrupt a happy baby if you don't need to - once you've gotten the baby settled in a position, try to milk it before moving on and changing outfits or poses. You do the moving instead - get the shot you have in mind, then walk around and look at the baby from other angles. Changing your position and angle can make for an entirely different shot. Try shooting back lit instead, pull back and get it wide, or get close and grab some of those baby details.
  • Be flexible. The parents may have hired you, but the baby is your boss! More than any type of photo session, newborn sessions have a way of taking their own direction. It's good to prepare and have a general plan of action, but be ready for the day to go differently than your plan...babies do not always nap on cue, for example, and you may not have a chance to get all those peaceful resting photos you had in mind. The best plan to have is to just keep shooting. If they have to change onesies three times because of diaper blow outs, or are frantically pacing back and forth trying to shush a screaming baby, change your plan of action and capture these moments instead. 
  • Get mama in the frame. A new mother is often self conscious about having her picture taken. Her body feels foreign to her, she might still even be in pain, and she probably hasn't worn make-up or done her normal beauty routine in the last week or so. But a mother is the real rock star of those newborn days. Her life and identity have changed in an instant, as she experiences a new and all-consuming love, and she has had to dig deep to tap into more strength and energy than she's ever found before. This, more than anything, deserves to be documented. So, be gentle as you encourage her to get in the frame - and whatever you ask of her, keep it simple - but make an effort to include at least a few photos that capture the bond between mother and baby. Dad and siblings, too, of course!
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Happy shooting!