I wrote this article for Lemonade and Lenses magazine– I also included it in the Props chapter of my Newborn E-Guide. 154 pages of real advice, real experiences, step by step images, video tutorials, and amazing stuff.
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Newborn photography is a broad, complicated subject. You can find videos on Youtube, courses on CreativeLive, and in-person workshops just about anywhere in the country (or world) taught by photographers of all levels. There are even e-workshops in the form of a pdf “guide book” that are available for purchase online, at roughly half or 1/3 the cost of an in-person class. What all of these mediums have in common, is that they mostly focus on the same thing- safety, and posing, lighting. While they may occasionally breeze through the topic of prop selection, the details are usually lacking, as most of the teaching material focuses on the actual act of posing and working with newborns. Not that there is anything wrong with this, by that’s why I’ve chosen to chat about it with you.When I first started out, I didn’t have any idea of fabrics, colors, textures and what I should have been looking for. All I knew is that I wanted to photograph newborns. What I was used to from working in the hospital setting was white sheets or gaudy blankets that the parents had brought in to use as my “backdrop.” While they may not have been bad looking in a general sense, they were never fit for trying to photograph a newborn baby on. Loud prints and mis-matched colors swallowed the baby whole, making them barely distinguishable in the final image. But the parents loved them regardless, even if you did have to play a little “Where’s Waldo?” When I ventured out on my own, I would pick up anything and everything that looked soft and comfy-whether or not it actually made an attractive addition to a photograph- not in the “that’s nice” or “that’s ugly” sense, but the “that will photograph well” sense. A beautiful throw won’t necessarily photograph well all the time. Some just don’t compliment baby’s skin well, while others are way too busy and distracting. But if something was soft and in a color that I didn’t have, I bought it for the sake of adding to my collection. As my work progressed, and I learned more about what colors, fabrics and textures photographed well and what didn’t, I noticed a huge difference in the final product of my work.If you’re just starting to built your newborn backdrop collection in the form of fabrics and throws, I recommend having at least 5 neutral drops to get you off and running. Neutral is the key word here, because in your first several months photographing newborns, you aren’t going to be able to predict the genders you are booked to photograph, or you may want to do casting calls to build up your portfolio a bit. You also want to make sure you have enough variety to use during each session while you are working on continuing to build your stash. By neutral, I’m actually referring partially to neutral tones, but mostly to GENDER neutral pieces. White throws are nice, but ivory/cream tends to warm the skin a little better, so that’s always my go-to throw or fabric choice! Greys are a fantastic addition, as grey is a gorgeous compliment to the skin and photographs well as long as you have your white balance set correctly. Speaking of white balance, light-middle greys make a perfect 18% grey target to set white balance with!Next up is yellow, blue (because blue works just as well for girls as is does boys!) and brown or tan. All of these colors work beautifully for both genders, and you won’t be spending an arm and a leg to get started, especially if you end up deciding that newborn photography isn’t for you, or that you just don’t want to work in it as much as other fields that appeal to you more. If you are already established and just looking to add something new, you can’t hardly go wrong with a selection from these color families. There are of course others, but if I were starting from the ground up, these would be what I started with. If your budget allows for more, then go crazy and pick up a few “fun” colors too! Red (brick reds photograph better than fire truck reds), pinks, green, etc. I don’t use black as it’s not a very practical choice being that it’s nearly impossible to see detail in a black throw when you are exposing for pale baby skin- but I have one black throw that I use for the simple shots of baby in dad’s hands against a black backdrop and it works beautifully for that. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like, because in post, I use the burn tool to deepen any detail to solid black anyway. For deeper color close to black, I prefer a beautiful charcoal throw which can still be used for this purpose, or photographed normally like other colors. There are so many options in terms of fabrics and throws, but typically I would recommend building a simple color collection before starting to add extra pieces with more “flare”- laces, rosebud fabrics, multicolored throws, etc.When choosing colors, there are certain colors I may use on dark skinned babies that I wouldn’t choose for pale-skinned babies and vice versa- but first and foremost, you’re going to start in the buying stage. I can photograph just about any color, but how well that color photographs may be another story. Certain colors like red, orange, yellow, green and pink can cast color onto your subject, leaving you with some scary-looking skin tones. This can sometimes be fixed simply by carefully choosing the shade of color you are using, and other times by choosing a specific type of fabric. Some knit fabrics are more reflective than other more light-absorbing fabrics, thus they cast more color reflected back onto the newborn’s skin. Many times even now, I find this by trial and error still. I will hold a fabric near a light source in the store and place my hand on it, watching to see if light it thrown back at my hand and if so, how severe. In terms of choosing the shade of color, I will typically go with brick red shades as opposed to bright reds, deeper yellows instead of bright yellows, and avoiding bright orange (sunset orange rocks!) and bright greens (but olive green is awesome). Medium pinks usually cast less color than hot pink or baby pink.But again, some of this will also depend on the skin tone of your newborn, as darker skinned babies won’t show color cast as much as pale-skinned babies, and you can have a little more freedom of choice with them. All of that being said, there are ways to still use the colors of your choice and combat color cast at the same time. You can simply use a reflector! The smaller the better, as a large reflector will reflect more light than you want back onto your subject. A white piece of paper is what I tend to grab! The reason for choosing a smaller reflector like a piece of paper, is that you can direct the clean, WHITE light into the areas that are receiving color cast, eliminating it while not completely altering the exposure of your overall image, which may already be perfectly lit with just right amount of intentional shadows.Texture is important, as certain textures can both compliment an image and fade into the background, whereas other textures are too busy, too overbearing, and just too much. You can’t really go wrong with a tight woven or a cable knit, but have to be careful with “fluffy” fabrics which can be too busy and distracting, or even swallow the baby if that’s not what you’re going for. Fluffy fabrics work great as “nests” with baby laying on their back curled up. Shiny fabrics are typically a no-no, as they tend to look harsh and even appear (or actually feel!) itchy. They can also reflect light when you don’t want them too, causing “hot spots” in your fabric, where the coloring is uneven because a certain area is too shiny and catching light. Accent fabrics, like those with 3D textures that pop off of the surface (Fancy Fabric and Props has a beautiful butterfly piece for example!) are beautiful additions, just again be mindful of the fabric itself (not too itchy) and avoid it if it’s “shiny”. Laces are another example of GORGEOUS overlay pieces, as long as you are mindful of the FEEL of these fabrics. Newborn skin is sensitive, and you want them to be comfortable. When using overlay fabrics, you want to make sure you have a similar toned fabric for underneath, as they are obviously see-throughA good amount of fabrics and throws I have purchased simply online. Many of my favorite vendors are Fancy Fabrics & Props, Roses & Ruffles, and online stores like Bedford Cottage.com, Overstock.com, etc. Other times I’m keeping an eye open in my daily shopping at places like Target, TJMaxx, Home Goods, fabric stores, etc. I find new places all the time by simply typing “cable-knit throw” or “lace fabric overlay” for example into Google and seeing what comes up. Never close your mind to where you may find your next score!Finally, be open to the use of your fabrics. Did you find a blanket that you fell head over heals for, but no matter what you try, it just doesn’t photograph well on the beanbag? Is it too busy? First, if it’s your background that’s too busy and not so much your foreground, make sure you are holding/clamping the blanket back properly before taking your shot. It also helps to position the baby further away from the background (toward the front of your beanbag) and shooting in closer, naturally exaggerating the depth of field. For busier blankets (those that are multicolored, have textures like stripes, plaid, etc) I’m extra careful to keep them pulled low and tight AWAY from the baby so that my natural depth of field is exaggerated even more so, fading the pattern out naturally, helping to keep the baby as the main focus of the image. You can’t really do much of an additional blanket fade in Photoshop with these kinds of blankets, so it’s extra important, even more-so than usual, to make sure you are fading them out naturally as much as possible while shooting by holding them properly, and using a low aperture in camera.Another option is using this blanket somewhere else, like in a prop. Have you ever thought of curling it up inside of a bucket or folding it neatly inside of a crate? Sometimes when a throw is simply too busy to be a huge portion of your image as in beanbag shots, it may still work out as a smaller factor in prop shots, so keep that in mind the next time you are thinking of parting with your “precious” because it’s too busy for beanbag shots! Sometimes they are just the right amount of flare for a prop shot, and I have saved many of my favorites this wayThis also helps if a client brings a personal item that may be too small or too busy for beanbag shots, but can bring flare to the image in a prop shot without being overbearing. Have fun building or adding to your collection, and I hope next time you are shopping that you can keep these tips in the back of your mind to help get some beautiful pieces that you will love to use, and your babies will love too!
This image shows how I clamp up my blankets- low and tight- and how I layer them for quick transition! There is a puppy pee pad between each one to prevent accidents from soaking through
Thanks for reading!