How can we get great newborn photographs?
July 28, 2008 10:35 AM   Subscribe

What are the tricks/tip to getting great newborn photographs?

There is a photographer in town that does lovely newborn photos but she charges $650 and you get a book and a few 3X5s!

How could we with our Nikon D40x take photos like this? Or, perhaps a better choice, could we try to hire a student from the local photography school to take photos like this?

If we go with the photography student, what is a fair rate to pay him/her?
posted by k8t to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Just use your own camera and click away. Staged photos are boring. Real life shots are the way to go.
posted by ducktape at 10:45 AM on July 28, 2008

Response by poster: I did find this list of hints, but we were looking more specifically to emulate this style.
posted by k8t at 10:49 AM on July 28, 2008

I saw a blog post a while back from a pro photographer that had 8 - 10 really awesome shots from an aquarium. Somebody in the comments asked how he got such great results in low light taking pictures through thick glass and he pointed out that we were seeing the 8-10 he posted, not the 200 he didn't post.

Take a lot of pictures and you'll end up with some good ones.
posted by COD at 11:03 AM on July 28, 2008

I'm very much for the DIY mentality, so I'd suggest that you take the photos yourself. Take lots and lots of pictures. It might take hundreds of pictures for you to get one perfect picture, but I think it'll be worth it once you have it.

As a bonus, you'll get better with your camera and you'll be able to continue taking pictures as your child grows up. A hired photographer is only going to be around for a tiny amount of time compared to you.

Also, if you use the D40x, think about taking the photos in RAW and maybe having someone post-process the photos for you later. With some photoshop magic, maybe an average picture can be made into a perfect picture. YMMV.
posted by Cog at 11:15 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Looking at those photos, most of the impact is in the composition. Occasionally there's a great facial expression, but more often is in how the photo composed/cropped. The photographer has a good sense of shape and perspective, giving you adult sized hands to contrast the baby sized feet. Also, there's the obvious high contrast black background.

My advice would be to take a lot of photos in very high res. Then get arty in your cropping.

But hey, they're baby photos. Baby photos are usually adorable - except for the Anne Geddes ones which give me the creeps.
posted by 26.2 at 11:22 AM on July 28, 2008

Best answer: If you've got time before the baby is born, try out those tips using your D40 and a baby doll. From looking at the pro photographer's site, it looks like she's using soft diffused natural daylight (just like in the window-light suggested on that tips page), a black velvet background (also mentioned on the tips page), and a shallow depth-of-field. The only difference between the pro shots and those on the tips page is that the pro shots have been contrast-adjusted to have a softer gradient and look retouched, which is just post-processing. By testing it out, you'll also discover whether it feels fun or like too many hours of work to do with a newborn around.

The pro attended Brooks, so a final-year student from there would probably work out fine. Although, for 2-3 hours of shooting with a difficult subject, arranging to show you proofs, you choosing your selects, plus a few hours of post-processing, arranging to get them printed... I think a fair price would be at least $300, if not $500. It would be taking the student longer than it'd take the pro.

If you love the pro's work, consider asking her for a discount, which she might do if business is slow. Or maybe she'd give you a discount if you get both the package of newborn photos and the 3-month shoot.
posted by xo at 11:27 AM on July 28, 2008

Best answer: How could we with our Nikon D40x take photos like this?

This is not meant to sound snarky, honest, but

-You'd need equivalent years of experience and training
-You'd need the same artistic sensibility to see like the camera sees, and compose the elements of the image in a pleasing way
-You'd need the knowledge and experience with lighting techniques (and possibly more investment in lighting equipment than in the camera itself, although I have no idea what equipment was used in those shots)

It's somewhat like wanting to paint like [fill in artist name] because you have canvases, brushes, and paint. (Yes, I know that's an exaggeration, but still.)

I have no idea what your actual photographic knowledge and experience is. The D40x is a great camera (I have a D40), but it's easy to use on the Auto setting and just point and shoot. And like any tool, it's only as bad or good as the person using it.

In any case, I want to be helpful, so here are my tips. Maybe not to emulate those pictures, but to take something beyond "snapshots." Others will come along with theirs. The great thing about digital, you can try what you want and see the results, and keep shooting until you get something you like.

But, here are my tips to get some images that don't just look like snapshots.

-Use natural light and a shallow depth of field. If you have a decent sized window getting indirect sunlight, set up next to that and turn off your flash and room lights. Crank up your ISO to 400 or even 800 to allow for a fast shutter speed. Use aperture priority mode, and set the aperture to a low number. get close, focus on the eyes and take the photo. The shallow depth of field may allow the eyes to be sharp while the rest of the body and background goes soft. If the dept of field is too shallow, use a higher number and shoot some more. Your D40x will allow you to hold down the shutter button and shoot a series very quickly. Having someone hold the baby in a thick, flat-black cloth might be worth trying.

-You can make a black-and-white copy of any shot right in the camera. (See your owner's manual.)

-Try angles beyond where it's comfortable for you to stand or sit. Get on the floor and shoot up. Get on a ladder and shoot down. Shoot profile views, closeups of hands and feet, one eye, the back of the head. You may end up with a hundred shots you don't like to get one that you like. It doesn't cost any extra, so shoot away.

-Be patient patient patient. Wait for the right expression. Eye movement, smiles (as much as a newborn smiles anyway), crying, scowls, etc. are all interesting shots you will treasure.

-Keep shooting. Shoot some more later. Shoot some more tomorrow. Shoot some more in a few days.

As far as hiring a student. It's the same as hiring any photographer. You have to like their style. This is an artistic endeavor. It's not the same as hiring a student to change your spark plugs, where there's one basic way to do the job right. Even an experienced photographer with perfect technical understanding and technique may take photos you hate. (You wouldn't want me to shoot a wedding, even though I "know how.")

Good luck!
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:28 AM on July 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

I've been shooting newborns and babies for a year and a half now (self link to Flickr for examples), and I can tell you this:

1. You can get some decent shots yourself, but you'll never be able to completely emulate professional shots, as Fuzzy Skinner said. One thing Fuzzy didn't mention: most pros (though I'm not sure about the photographer you linked to; honestly, they didn't seem all that "pro" considering their fees) also do a fair amount of post work, particularly on newborn photos since lighting conditions are often less than ideal.

2. Taking LOTS of shots is definitely key. Is this YOUR newborn? If so, you'll have lots of opportunities to practice.

3. Consider at least paying for post-production help on your images. Many services offer this; you wouldn't even have to restrict yourself to local help. Google Photo Retouching Services for a start. They can help take your Good shots to Excellent with a little digital help.

4. When/if you DO decide to go with a pro, my suggestion would be to look at LOTS and lots and lots of photographers' web sites before deciding on one. There are many different styles for newborn photographers and frankly a HUGE range of talent and ability, from mediocre to great. If you're going to fork out cash for a pro, make sure you get as great a shooter as you can get for your dollars. :)

Good luck!
posted by twiki at 11:43 AM on July 28, 2008

I've been taking pictures of my daughter with an older D70 (and more recently a pocketable Panny DMC-TZ5) for the past year. Some are good, some are OK, some are bad (not posted).

Besides taking lots and lots of pics as others have suggested, the four most important things are:

1. Learning to use your camera, taking it beyond "Auto" mode
2. Use a good lens.
3. Have good, natural, lighting. For starters avoid shadows indoor and out, use reflected light indoors, and shoot at dusk or dawn when the sun is down outdoors.
4. Consider the background. A neutral background (like in your link) will help give your photos focus. Also learn about bokeh.

It's a great hobby once you get the hang of it. There's nothing like getting that one perfect picture, so have fun and shoot lots!
posted by spoons at 12:00 PM on July 28, 2008

Like others have said, you can do this yourself. The pictures you linked are B&W, so Shoot the highest res possible, in RAW.

Then do some color correction and contrast enhancement using channel blending. Given the subject matter involved (i.e. very pink babies), you could do well to blend the green channel into the red on a duplicate layer, set that layer to luminosity blending, and then correct the resulting image with curves. There are a lot of resources on the web and in print for doing this

Or you could get a student to do this for you if you don't have photoshop or feel like spending hours reading about this stuff. But if you have a decent camera like a D40, it will help any picture you take to learn about contrast enhancement and color correction with curves and channel blending.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:19 PM on July 28, 2008

The real secret? Use an older baby and a very fast lens!
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 3:13 PM on July 28, 2008

PRACTICE! I agree with everything that's been said above, also. You definately want a higher ISO like 400-800. In addition, using a flash that's mounted on the hotshoe and bounced off the ceiling yields great results with EVERYTHING. I can't reccommend that enough.

I haven't personally shot a newborn, but I have shot a baby starting at a few months. I just took this shot(self link) recently (the baby is now ~1 year)
posted by majikstreet at 3:25 PM on July 28, 2008

How To Photograph Your Baby, by the excellent Nick Kelsh, has some pointers that I wish I had acted on. Didn't read it closely; was preoccupied with touching and staring at the baby.
posted by Dave 9 at 7:00 PM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

One hugely useful tip I discovered for portrait photos -- assuming you've got a zoom lens -- is to step back and zoom in on your subject. If you take the photo up close without zooming in, it tends to distort their facial features. But taking the photo from afar while zooming will make facial features more real-to-life.
posted by Menomena at 7:06 PM on July 28, 2008

I've heard tickling a baby's nose with a feather immediately before snapping the picture gets you some great expressions.
posted by inigo2 at 8:25 PM on July 28, 2008

Response by poster: For reference, we found another Santa Barbara photograph, a Brooks student, who also does really nice work.
posted by k8t at 10:06 PM on July 28, 2008

Disclosure: I'm a photographer who makes a living through photography. However, I don't do this type of photography.

What are the tricks/tip to getting great newborn photographs?

Technical competency and aesthetic intuition, as mentioned above. Either you have it or you need to hire someone who does.

but she charges $650 and you get a book and a few 3X5s

Seems about right. You've got to realize that, when hiring a photographer, you're hiring someone with thousands and thousands of dollars of equipment that needs to be replaced and upgraded every two years: cameras, lens, lights, other studio equipment, computer, redundant external harddrives, dvd backups. Then there's all of the other expenses that go into the business of photography: website, digital and print marketing, mailings, car, studio ownership or rental, insurance (for gear and for any accident that might happen involving your baby), accountant, lawyer, business licensing, internet connection, online archiving, student loans, etc. Then there are the direct costs of your particular shoot: time, mileage, studio rental (if necessary), equipment rental (if necessary), post-production time (hours and hours; absolutely necessary; a photo straight from a camera will never look like what you see on a photographer's website; this does not mean manipulation like in fashion magazines, but rather slight color correction and levels adjustments to compensate for the loss in quality and peculiarities of any printing process) , delivery of the photos, film (if used), film processing (if used), print costs, on-set catering, etc. Sure, some of these aren't applicable to your situation or maybe there are, but there are a lot of hidden costs that go into taking pictures consistently and well. Realize that about 10% of a photographer's time is taking pictures; the rest is all of the annoying business stuff that costs money and time. Notice that none of what's listed above compensates the photographer for their talent and artistic ability.

could we try to hire a student from the local photography school to take photos like this?

Brooks has a documented history of fleecing their current and prospective students; I hope you don't want to do the same. I know people who have left Brooks with $100,000 in debt and no job prospects. Your hypothetical student probably needs the money more than the linked working professional. The other issue is how to find these students and why you want a photography student except as a way to get a bargain on the cost of the shoot. Any student together enough to have a decent website with examples of the types of photography you want will be about the same price the "pro".

If we go with the photography student, what is a fair rate to pay him/her?

Close to the same rate as the professional linked in your question. Anything less is unfair and taking advantage of the student and predates on their naivety about the costs of photography. Whatever you do, please don't insult the student by telling them that they can use the pictures for their portfolio (the photographer always can unless there's some really strange legalese involved) or that it will be great experience for them (maybe, but probably not; you want someone who can take good pictures of your baby, which means that they already have experience shooting babies, which means that your shoot is just money.). The other possible benefit for the student from doing this shoot is the prospect of referrals to other expecting couples. However, when you tell other couples about the photographer (and it will come up, because you're going to be showing these pictures to everyone you know) they'll ask how much they cost; with all of these bargain-minded referrals there's no way that that photographer will be able to raise their rates on the day of their graduation when they magically become a "professional." Another possible (and marginal) value for the photographer--for which the photographer might be justified in accepting lower rates--would be to get you to sign model releases for the shoot, so that the pictures can be sold for corporate and commercial usage. You probably don't want to do that.

You've also got to appraise the value these pictures have to you. Is saving a couple hundred dollars now going to compensate you for the difference, twenty years from now, between beautiful pictures of your newborn and a botched shoot done by you or someone with no experience working with children?

How could we with our Nikon D40x take photos like this?

I haven't seen any of the portfolio you linked to or any of your photography, but I'll take a guess. You'll do wonders for your photography if you tape down the on-camera flash and never ever use it, or even think of using it, ever again.
posted by msbrauer at 10:05 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a professional photographer, I echo the comments made by the other pros upthread - especially the information about the costs of being a professional photographer and the dubious "value" to photography students when taking on a job like this for less money.

Here are my thoughts about what you need to learn and do to emulate the styles you like when shooting by yourself:

1) The MOST important thing (the primary thing that sets most professional photos apart from snapshots) is the lighting. It needs to be soft indirect light. If you use a window as the primary light you need a white card or white wall to bounce light from the window to the "dark side" of the baby. If you want to shoot outside, do so only on an overcast day, and again you will probably need a bounce card to reduce shadows. The second photographer has several outdoor shots where there are no shadows (both sides of the baby's face are equally bright) and this is done with a flash fill on an overcast day. Personally - those photos leave me "flat" but if you like that style then you need to learn how to set your camera and flash for flash fill. Also, your baby may not be thrilled with being flashed in the face.

2) The next important thing is the background - all the photos you linked to have very simple backgrounds. When you find a baby photo you like, don't look at the baby - look at everything else. How can you make your "set" look like that? There are some good tips on the "how to photograph your baby" site linked upthread.

3) I wouldn't worry about setting a shallow depth of field - you will have trouble getting enough light to get a depth of field deep enough to bring all the parts you want in focus. It's very easy to end up "too shallow" and end up with a great shot, except you wish you had more DoF.

Look for baby photos you like on flickr and smugmug and then use the "more info" options to see what the camera settings were for those shots. Here's one on Smugmug. Put your mouse over the image, and an overlay will appear on the right. At the bottom is an "i" icon, click that and another overlay will appear that shows the camera info for that image. You will see it was shot with these camera settings:
Camera: Canon EOS 20D
Exposure: 1/160
Aperture: f/5.6
ISO: 100
Focal Length: 45mm (75mm equivalent in 35mm)

Drag the overlay down (off the photo) and then use your keyboard arrow keys to move forward and back in the gallery, and view other photos (and their settings) without having to take extra steps to see the settings on each photo.

Here's one on Flickr. Scroll down to the bottom of the right hand column to the More Information section and click on the "more properties" link to get the camera properties for this shot. You will see it was shot with these camera settings:
Camera: Nikon D200
Exposure: 1/125
Aperture: f/7.1
Focal Length: 80 mm
ISO Speed: 250

4) Bump the ISO if you must, but don't do it unless necessary to get fast enough shutter and high enough f-stops. Lower ISO is always better. See the shots above - shot at ISO 100 and ISO 250.

5) Shoot in RAW. No exceptions. If you want top quality images NEVER shoot in jpeg mode. Don't do B/W conversion in the camera. RAW only! Do the conversion in your post processing. Over time you will learn more about post processing and will want to go back to your earlier shots and reprocess them, making them even better as you learn new post processing techniques.

6) Your images are only as good as the glass used to gather them. There is a reason why people pay $1500 for a lens instead of $150 for the same focal-length lens in a lower quality line. If you have the "kit lens" consider renting a top quality lens for a week or several weeks. You may think all the hype about good lenses is "just hype" but it's not - once you shoot with a top quality lens you will be itching to buy one. Fortunately you can rent them so you don't have to break the bank!

7) Cull! This is the hardest part - especially when shooting a baby because the images are "your baby" in two ways - of your baby, and your photos are also (themselves) your baby. But you MUST cull. This is another trait that defines the professional photographer - they never show you all the photos. They cull, cull, cull. You only see the very best shots. Do the same with your own work. You should only keep about 10% of what you shoot, and of that you may only share or print 10% - so only 1 in 100 ends up being shared.

8) Post processing is just as complicated and important as shooting. If you want color prints you need to color profile your monitor. If you send your images to a lab for printing, see if they offer printer profiles and learn how to soft-proof your images with the printer profile. Run some test prints and compare them to how they look on your screen to make sure you have everything configured right. I highly suggest you get one (or several) of Scott Kelby's books on using Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and/or Lightroom to learn post processing tricks.
posted by jcdill at 8:39 AM on July 30, 2008

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