Birth photography… As a mother, it makes perfect sense to me to photograph one of the most important days of my life. If only I could go back in time to do it! Sadly, it was barely a genre when I was birthing my littles.
As photo sessions go, birth photography presents unique challenges that quite possibly frighten off even seasoned photographers. Click Love Grow graduate Alana Prosper is a veteran of the birthing experience herself (on the other side of the camera!). She also rocks this very special documentary style when she attends a birth as the photographer. So we asked her to give us an insight into what to expect when photographing a birth.
The challenges associated with birth photography dictate that you absolutely need to be shooting in manual mode to nail it. So if you’re shooting in auto, take a leap of faith and learn how to master your DSLR!
Related: How To Shoot in Manual Mode
Birth photography is often misunderstood. I think people immediately imagine the graphic aspects, or feel that birth is too personal to have someone in there who is not one of their loved ones.
But birth photography is so much more than photos of the moment of physical birth. In actual fact, nothing graphic needs to feature… you’re capturing the complete story of birth.
Related: Storytelling Photography
The first thing to do is ask your couple if they have any specific photos they want and don’t want. Ask them how they want the second stage of labour captured. By that I mean do they specifically want you to capture the baby crowning. The alternative is shooting at the other end, from behind the mother’s shoulders. This a great perspective to capture their baby being lifted up toward them.
There is no posing during a birth. Birth photography is the ultimate in documentary story telling, and there are so many aspects you can capture.
It’s all about the small details, and emotions. The pained expressions, the laughter between contractions, the emotional text messages received. The supportive partner, the shoulder massages, holding hands and leaning on each other for support.
Birth is raw, beautiful and moving for anyone. Not just the parents, so you’d be forgiven if you got in there and forgot all.the.things. So, make a list of things to look for with a goal of telling the birth story:
It’s often a long day (or night!). There are times when nothing is happening, and there’s nothing specific to capture. During those down times take the opportunity to take some wide shots. Also try stepping out of the room and shoot looking in, it’s a great way to convey a sense of intimacy.
There is a lot of time where you’re not shooting at all, and that’s okay. Don’t feel like you always need to be taking a photo. Bonding with the parents is an important part of the process, as it helps them to be completely comfortable with you. So allow yourself to just sit and chat, and even be quiet together.
During down times, I’ll ask them if they want any alone time for a bit.
I doubt any other genre of photography is more light challenged than birth photography.
Generally speaking, a birthing room is purposefully kept in low light. So you really have no control over the quantity or quality of light. Sometimes you can’t even control where you position yourself in relation to the light.
For that reason, using high ISO is inevitable, and a nice wide open aperture to bring in more light.
I move around as much as possible (without getting in the way). I also take shots from as many different perspectives as I can, to make the most of the available light.
During the actual birth they might turn off the overhead room lights, and bring in one powerful spotlight. This obviously reduces the ambient light even further, and changes the quality altogether. When that happens, I try not to add too much light into my settings, as I don’t want to completely blow the highlights. Bear in mind however it’s impossible to avoid blowing all of them, so don’t be too hard on yourself!
Related: Low Light Photography Tips
The rooms can be small, with limited spots you can move without being in the way of staff. For this reason, a wide lens is ideal. Especially when you take your wide shots, which are essential to tell a story.
Birth is unpredictable, and may not go as planned. This can mean waiting at the hospital for a long time, only for it to turn into an emergency c-section. You may not be allowed in theater, but if that’s the case, it’s not over yet!
If that occurs, wait around until mum comes out of recovery. You’ll be able to capture photos of her first breastfeed and proper cuddles.
I have been lucky to capture a cesarean delivery in theater, however some hospitals or doctors don’t allow this. However, I can happily say it is slowly becoming more common!
If you’ve been booked to photograph a planned cesarean, obviously some aspects will differ from a natural delivery. Discover all you need to know, including a whole lot of inspiration, in this post we prepared earlier!
Related: Capturing a Cesarean Birth
This is no regular family session… hours can be long and unpredictable and there is often a lot of waiting. You may not get an opportunity to go home for food or a shower, particularly if you’re far from home.
So my tip is to pack a bag filled with snacks, spare clothes, deodorant, phone charger, magazines etc.
The parents can be very concerned about your welfare as their birth photographer, especially if you’ve been there for a long time. So I make it a priority to ensure they don’t worry about me or how long I’m there. I reassure them I’m organised… I have supplies to sustain me and entertain me when needed, and everything is sorted for me at home. I’m totally theirs for however long it takes.
I have a Nikon D750 which is a full frame camera. Given the low light that goes hand in hand with birth photography, a full frame camera is essential because it copes really well with high ISO. For that reason, you will struggle if you use a crop sensor camera.
At the moment my widest lens is a 50mm and on the whole it does the job. However, my ideal lens for birth photography would be a 35mm. Most delivery rooms are small and sometimes I feel I need to climb into the wall to get a wide shot!
I don’t use flash for birth photography, because it would distract the staff, the parents, and potentially startle the baby or hurt his/her eyes.
The low light means you’ll need wide open apertures to capture as much of the ambient light as possible. It also adds to the documentary feel, and helps isolate details and moments in a cluttered space. My aperture tends to stay around f/2.8, shutter speed at 1/250 or faster. Then I use my ISO to balance my exposure if the light changes.
In the lead up to a birth, ensure the parents check with the hospital and their doctor/midwife that they allow a birth photographer.
When I first arrive, I introduce myself to staff and tell them the parents have booked me to photograph their birth. I will do this again if a staff handover occurs whilst I’m there because the rostered midwives may not be aware of my presence.
I reassure them I will not get in their way, by explaining it will be entirely unposed, without interrupting the natural flow and order of the process. I also want them to know they don’t need to worry about getting in my shot…. the priority is in fact me ensuring I don’t get in their way. To that end, I also ask them to feel free to move me at any time during the birth.
Shoot from wherever you can, just make sure that you avoid getting in the way of any of the staff. Conversely, if they direct you to shoot from only one little corner of the room, then make that corner work!
You may be asked not to take images of any of the medical equipment that records data.
The nature of birth photography means you can’t rely on a specific date, so you’re on call! So if you have small people depending on you, you need support in order to offer birth photography.
I have a back up photographer in case I can’t attend a birth due to illness or any other reason. This has made me much happier to offer birth photography, as I always worried about someone missing out on their birth story if I was sick.
I like to provide a slideshow of the images set to music. It’s a really powerful way to bring your images to life and convey the emotion of birth.
Our next 8 Week Online Course is starting SOON! You'll learn how to get the most from your DSLR & take photos you LOVE!