Newborn photography: labour of love
At a glance, it may seem that much newborn photography appears the same. But those who look a little more closely will note diversity, well-developed styles, and amazing images. Photographing newborns comes with unique challenges and safety concerns. So, what do you need to be successful in this niche, and how do you set yourself apart while keeping your subjects safe at all times? Sophia Hawkes finds out.
A special set of skills
To be successful as a newborn photographer, Tiffany Selzer from Tiny & Brave believes that patience is paramount. She allows four hours for sessions at her natural-light studio in Melbourne. A lot of this time is spent settling the baby, sipping tea, chatting to parents, changing nappies, or simply cuddling the baby. Her aim is to provide a calming experience for everyone. In fact, she says that it’s not unusual for parents to also fall asleep during her photoshoots. Another crucial ingredient for success is stellar customer service and experience. “Look after your clients; treat them like royalty. They feed your kids, and put a roof over your family’s head; they deserve the best, because without them you wouldn’t be here,” she says.
Perth-based family photographer Erin Hoskins agrees with Selzer. Patience is most important as babies are unpredictable, she says. “Sometimes newborns don’t like a certain position, want to eat every 45 minutes, or are just plain having a rough day. It’s my job to stop the session whenever they need a feed or break, and then coax them as gently as I can to create beautiful galleries for my clients so that they can remember this beautiful time.”
With years of experience behind her, Selzer has developed a kind of second sight she uses to make the unpredictable in newborns more predictable. She has learnt to read a baby’s facial expressions and body language to anticipate what they’ll do next. “The most vital skill for me is reading the baby and understanding who they are. For example, fluttering eye-lids often preludes a smile,” she says. She also continuously touches the newborn’s torso to see if they’re tense or relaxed in order to ensure their wellbeing and predict what they need next in order for her to get the most natural shots.
Deborah Muir also understands the needs of both newborns and parents and never rushes a shoot, allowing time for cuddles and feeds at her studio in Bowen Mountain, outside Sydney. It’s important to her that no parent feels as though they’re failing just because their newborn is crying, and at times it takes half an hour, or more, until the baby settles. Muir says it’s important to remember that the photoshoot may well be the first trip outside with a new baby, which is a big deal, and can be quite stressful for new parents, making them feel anxious. Therefore, it’s vital to help support parents as well during the session.
Jade Gao, who works from her boutique studio in Sydney, is an internationally acclaimed newborn photographer. She draws attention to the fact that a baby will behave differently at the photoshoot compared to home, and also the fact that considerable time is spent feeding a newborn during a session “As newborns move and burn energy, they require more milk. When they move, if they are not full yet, they will look for more milk. If these details are not covered beforehand, parents will worry and doubt the process, and might not be willing to feed the baby. A hungry baby will simply not pose for you.” Over the years, Gao has learnt how to read a baby’s body language to tell the difference between a hungry and a gassy cry.
Selzer talks about a different type of patience and need for flexibility. She often hovers over the baby with camera in hand, stuck in a position, which would make osteopaths cringe, for thirty minutes waiting for a smile, only to have a cry appear instead. Indeed, newborns are unpredictable. As such, Selzer has learnt to go with the flow of each individual shoot. “A baby isn’t going to smile, sneeze, or yawn on cue when the light is ready; they’re just going to do it. I can plan so much, but I love the unexpected.” There’s little point trying to control what’s out of your hands. Instead, learn how to quickly adjust to what’s unfolding, and always be ready to capture the unexpected.
Setting yourself apart
Finding your signature style is, in this genre as in others, key when it comes to attracting clients. Also, to attract clients you’ve got to understand the needs of parents and newborns and then cater to those needs as you would super-stars. Make sure the studio is a place to unwind in and that your clients leave feeling special. If you succeed in this, and deliver images showcasing your unique eye, parents showing off their baby, and your work, on social media will help drive new clients to you.
Gao remembers the confusion along the road of discovering a signature style. For her, it at times seemed like an impossible task. “Ultimately, everyone is different and has a different style and taste. It reflects on the colours you choose, the textures you combine, your understanding of the subject and clients, as well as your overall vision. As long as you stay true to yourself, the style comes through with ease.” Gao also suggests to proceed with caution when it comes to trying too hard to please, and relinquishing control to clients as this will deter you from finding your unique eye.
It’s a balancing act between clients’ wishes, your creativity, and style. “Once your work is consistent with a uniform look, you attract those clients who like and appreciate your look. There’s only a certain percentage of control you would want to give to clients,” Gao explains. However, she does allow clients to choose some of the colours, and certain props from her own image gallery to get a sense of what they like.
“Yes, we all use the same elements at every shoot, so it’s even more important to jump outside the box. When everyone was talking about how it would always work using monochrome colours, I got so inspired by pink flowers and green stalks and how much it makes sense with them being together. So, I try to break the rules by bringing in opposite colour elements to get a new look,” says Gao. She evolves and keeps her creativity intact by looking at nature, and window-shopping to discover current trends and how fashion designers mix colours and textures.
Hoskins says newborn photography is constantly evolving. “We go through prop, style, and teaching fads, florals, then simple, then elaborate, then colourful, then neutrals…it’s never-ending!” Gao agrees. “It’s come a long way. From the very original Anne Geddes, to black-and-white contrasty newborn looks, to cheesy cartoon/animal outfits, to more natural, organic, and soft looks.”
Selzer is aware of the importance of having one’s own unique style. “I don’t want to fit into the cookie-cutter mould, and my work doesn’t. I’m natural light and don’t use many props, or put babies in baskets. When we are working in the studio on a cloudy day, the shadows are a lot darker than they would be on a sunny day as there is less natural light available. The black and whites will be moodier, maybe a bit more raw. While a sunny day would bring out harsh light and more prominent shadow lines, a cloudy day darkens the entire room deepening the shadows.”
The weather in Melbourne is as unpredictable as a newborn, often shifting between cloudy and sunny in the blink of an eye. “You can be set up in full sun, but when baby does that cute stretch it clouds over. Go with, instead of fight against, what’s present,” she advises. If a newborn comes to her studio constantly holding their fists against the face, that’s the photo Selzer wants to take. Because, that’s how the parents will remember those early days of their child’s life. “If he’s spent his whole week of life like that, I’m not going to try and change it. That’s the memory that you want, not these poses I’ve stuck the newborn in.” For Selzer, it’s about authenticity, but also about prioritising the baby’s needs before the so-called ‘perfect’ shot and she never put newborns in poses they can’t do themselves.
Muir’s signature style comes from her passion of telling each family’s unique story. Consequently, her approach requires more control than Selzer’s. It all starts with shooting the images in a similar way. “I shoot with the same or similar settings, and lighting is the same for all studio work.” She then keeps the story in focus while further controlling things by the use of lots of props, composite images, and Photoshop. She says the stories of many families, from conception to the birth their baby, is extraordinary. She is driven by a desire to show this in her images.
Hoskins, like Muir, uses the same workflow with each client. “Obviously, there’ll be differences, features of baby, exact setups, but my style doesn’t change. It perhaps grows over time, but my core style – what I truly love to do – will always be there.” Hoskins tries to avoid prop fads and advises photographers to find what they love to shoot, and to stick to it. “Not that you can’t grow! But I don’t agree with changing your style to meet the current fad every six months. If you stick to your style, your clients will hire you for your work – and not your prices. That’s the best place to be as a photographer moving forward in this ever-evolving industry.” Hoskins, like the others interviewed, only photographs newborns in her studio. She uses flash because it’s more consistent and leads to easier editing. “I used natural light for many years – the only reason I was able to get away with this for so long is that Australia has so much light! But once I started switching to flash for my overseas workshops, where they don’t have as much natural light, I was hooked. It’s gorgeous and far easier to work with,” she says.
Safety is, of course, the most important consideration when photographing newborns, and there’s a great deal to consider. “Everything we do we have to make sure it’s based on the comfort of the baby. And we don’t want to stress or overstimulate the baby,” Gao says. It all starts with safe posing. To achieve this, Photoshop often becomes a newborn photographer’s best friend.
Newborns should never be left unattended, and if a baby doesn’t go in a pose, they should never be forced. Gao explains that each newborn is different, and there’s variations to positioning in the womb. “We have to be able to read what the newborn wants. The poses closest to how they were in the womb makes them feel the most comfortable, so we observe and are guided by the baby.”
The newborn doesn’t only have to be safe, they’ll have to feel safe as well. Gao has a hot tip with regards to comfort, and how it relates to beautiful images. Make sure you book your clients within the first four weeks of the baby’s life, although they’ll be chubbier and perhaps a little cuter after this time. After this point, most babies begin to stretch out more. “I see a lot of photographers try to pose babies, especially full-term ones, when they are over a month old. They might not necessarily feel comfortable in those curled up newborn positions.” Also, Gao says newborns are more likely to stay asleep while touched and moved within the first four weeks of their life. From her experience, babies born prior to full-term, are slightly easier to pose.
Although it seems obvious, it needs to be stated that it’s not safe to have a baby posed in something hanging above the ground. Nevertheless, images depicting newborns posed in baskets, buckets, or slings hanging above the ground abound. So, how do these images get produced? “The shots in the buckets are done with someone sitting right beside baby at all times, and even with a hand on baby’s head. It’s worth the extra effort in Photoshop to remove the hand to ensure your baby is safe,” Muir says. “Compositing a baby into an image from a safe pose where baby is comfortable is easy, and while it can be fiddly, the shot is worth it,” she says. Hoskins does things differently. “I prefer not to shoot the more ‘dangerous’ poses that require a spotter. Every pose I shoot with newborns is a ‘natural’ position where they are comfortably sleeping and protected, the same goes for Selzer.
To tackle the hurdles more difficult positions can present, Gao uses a transition strategy. The strategy also moves things along more quickly – something that benefits everyone. Before developing her process, Gao often spent up to six hours per shoot. “I start from wrapped poses, which are the easiest, to allow time for the baby to fall into a deep sleep. Once they are in a deep sleep, I can move on to more difficult poses.” She adds that a newborn isn’t going to be comfortable sleeping naked for hours on end, so it’s not possible to shoot too many images during that time. It’s essential to talk to the clients well in advance of the session about likely scenarios and what to expect during the shoot. “Client communication, session preparation and a good workflow are crucial to ensure every session will go smoothly and fast,” says Gao.
Well balanced and easily adjustable room temperature is another pillar of safety as newborns can’t regulate their own body temperature. “They can become hypothermic in a cooler space or they can overheat. There is a course available that goes through all of this, teaching the signs to watch out for – changes in baby’s breathing, skin, behaviour, et cetera, to ensure baby is safe,” says Muir. Once you’ve educated yourself on newborn safety and worked on your style and approach, you can then focus on providing a beautiful experience with memories transcending generations.
If you have a genuine care and appreciation for newborns, there’s no reason to hold back. Dive into this genre and create your own ripples. “We’re creatives; we put our personalities into it. It’s not just the subject in front of us or the skills we have or the education that we’ve had, it’s us as well,” Selzer says. The newborn photographer is uniquely placed to give families life-long memories of a most precious, but fleeting moment in time. Being a newborn photographer is indeed a rare privileged.
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