One of the questions most often asked on various photography forums is how to photograph infants and young children well. People are always looking for the best poses, props and so forth. I have been photographing babies and young children for almost 20 years.
The single most effective tool in your arsenal is knowledge.
There is a world of difference between a newborn and a 3 month old. Quantum leaps in development occur between 3 and 6 months of age. A 9 month old does not resemble a 3 month old in any way. And the one-year old is the reigning sovereign of infanthood.
The Newborn–Newborns sleep. A lot. They are pure instinct. If they’re cold, they cry. If they’re hungry, they cry. If they’re wet, they cry. If they feel ‘abandoned’, they cry. If you understand this, you can effectively work with a newborn. Make sure they are warm, dry, fed and swaddled. Accept that they sleep and keep on photographing. We’ve come a long way with our attitudes in America around sleeping baby photography. I have always been slightly ahead of the curve in many ways, photographically speaking. When I first start photographing babies sleeping, most of the parents recoiled from those images. They felt the babies looked dead and consequently, hardly ever placed orders for those particular images. Yep. Then Anne Geddes came along and voila’! sleeping baby photos were all the rage.
If you are planning to photograph a sleeping newborn, understand that your perfect window of opportunity is from birth to 5 weeks. After that point, most babies are more alert and may be physically too large to put in certain situations.
The photograph above, of the sleeping baby on a stack of towels, is a case in point. The mother was a regular client of mine and this was her third and last child. She wanted something very special to mark this passage and was determined to have a sleeping baby shot. However, our schedules had not meshed well and by the time she came in with baby ‘W’, he was almost 8 weeks old. Fortunately I did not have anyone scheduled after her. It took almost 3 hours to get him to sleep. By the time he finally collapsed into an exhausted sleep, mom and I were pretty much toast. Because he was more alert, every time we thought he had finally dosed off and placed him on the towels, he felt abandoned, panicked and woke up. Much crying ensued.
What do I mean when I say ‘abandoned’? Somehow babies instinctively know when something is not ‘right’. I’m guessing the only time infants were ever placed naked upon the ground and taken from the warmth of their mother’s body was when they were being put out to die of exposure. Once they become more alert, they are more aware.
How do you make a newborn feel more secure? Two ways. Mom holds baby or you swaddle baby. I don’t mean you literally have to swaddle, as in that ancient and biblical method of wrapping securely into a little package or bundle that even UPS would be proud to handle. Although I did swaddle my first born until she was five months old, as she was a preemie and startled herself awake constantly. I learned the art from my Persian mother-in-law. For the purposes of photography you can just wrap them up in a soft blanket, or even snug their back up against a soft pillow or stuffed toy, like this:
The Three and Four-Month Old—Alert, engaging and not able to sit alone yet. Very responsive to the human face. An important thing to understand about this age range is, continually asking a baby to ‘focus’ is hard work for them. When we talk baby-talk in an effort to engage infants of this age, at first they will respond positively. They will make direct eye contact and smile, often making rapid, jerky movements with the arms and legs. However, if you continue to ask them to focus on you, they become agitated and will want mom to pick them up. They will engage in several different behaviors to make this happen.
They will begin to turn away from your face and avert their gaze. If you continue in your attempts to re-direct their focus to you, the following will happen.
- They will start to ‘fuss’.
- If that doesn’t work, they will start to spit up. If this only serves to have mom wipe their mouth and chin but not pick them up, then,
- They will begin to cry HARD in earnest and the session is OVER.
Very occasionally the situation can be salvaged with a bit of nursing or feeding, but I have personally found that nine times out of ten, it really is over. Sometimes, if it hasn’t already been done, removing clothing helps, and a previously cranky baby can become very happy naked.
What can you do? Be prepared and work FAST. You get 15 to 20 minutes TOPS with this age range. You can put them in something, like the flowerpot above, or you can put them on their tummies (if they like that position) then get down on their level to snap. Or you can work with nature and make them very comfortable and snap away. If they cry without their ‘binky’, let them have it and keep shooting.
If all else fails, have mom hold baby and photograph them looking over her shoulder.
The Five Month Old—The five-month old is my FAVORITE infant age to work with. Typically, they can sit alone but not crawl. What a dream come true. They are full of alert, engaging energy. They are often little performers. There are so many possibilities for this age. One of my favorite poses, of which I do not have a single example readily available, is what I call the ‘Shoot the Moon’ shot. Sit them down naked, with their back towards the camera. Make sure you’re ready behind the camera, then call their name. They will look back over their shoulder at you, often with a little index finger raised ever so sweetly and there you’ve got it. Sweet little baby cheeks.
You can put them in things, like this tiny inflatable swimming pool filled with warm water. Pardon the markings on these images, but they were scanned from my original contact sheets and show my darkroom notes. Yep, these are old school folks, all the way down to an actual darkroom. These shots were done for a children’s magazine and the editor wanted the background to be bright and colorful. The little girl was 5 months and a joy to work with. This is a great age for hats and glasses, but you have to work fast. You really need an assistant, and if that is mom, then all the better. When you’re absolutely sure you’re ready to shoot, have mom drop a hat on their head or put some glasses on their face, then move away fast. You get a few tries with this before they either lose their patience or get too quick for you.
Toilet paper or flowers (just make sure you’ve removed any thorns) can be fun too, as well as getting to sit up like a big boy by mom. Just remember, EVERYTHING goes in their mouth at this stage. Make sure any flowers or plants are non-toxic.
The Six to Ten-Month Old—Lots of crawling happens at this stage as well as pulling up and standing. You can have mom pick baby up and place towards the back of a backdrop while you lay down and shoot like crazy as they crawl towards you. You can also stand and shoot down towards them while they pull up on you. In general, a high viewpoint is very effective in photographing babies. It forces those big eyes to look right at you.
The Eleven to Twelve-Month Old—Most children in this age range are usually at least attempting to take their first few steps. Some may be walking like old pros. They LOVE to climb on things at this point, so give in to the natural course of events. Just make sure whatever they are climbing on is sturdy enough to hold them and an adult is standing nearby to catch any mishaps. It also helps to know what to expect.
This image of two fraternal twins was taken at the end of a session. Mom and I had pre-planned for the sisters to be wearing nothing more than diapers and covers with a ruffled bottom. I knew the instant mom and dad placed both girls in a standing position in front of the settee, they would start to climb. Mom and dad were each holding a child on either side of the background. I cautioned them NOT to put the girls down until I said ‘GO’. When I said ‘go’, they put the girls down quickly at the same time and backed away FAST. As I had expected, both girls started to climb immediately. The only thing I didn’t know was how perfectly symmetrical and synchronized they would be. This was the first shot. It was perfect. We didn’t get a ‘do over’.
Photographing infants can be very rewarding, as long as you understand the stages of development and come prepared.
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