Mothers, especially first-time moms, have a natural urge to document the experience of pregnancy, from the first signs of showing to the baby’s first picture. And who can blame them? Your first child is something you never forget—not that you forget your second or third, of course, but many mothers are too busy by the time they’re having #2 to put the same amount of time and effort into documenting the process. To be certain, it generally doesn’t matter if parents have 10 books of photos of their first pregnancy, 1 book for the second, and then some random snapshots of the third.
Then again, it matters very much to the photographer. Aside from needing the work to make a living, photographers must accept that most maternity shoots will be with first-time mothers. These mothers are nervous. They want everything to be “right,” and they can’t be faulted for that. So whether you are a pro who wants to expand into maternity photography or just a family member who’s handy with a camera, it pays to learn about the best ways to take photographs that reveal pregnant women to be the vibrant, wellsprings of life that they truly are.
Perhaps more importantly, this type of photo should document each woman’s pregnancy experience as she wishes it to be documented, as she wishes to remember this historic time in her life, her family’s lives, and the life of the baby who is creating all the joy in the first place. Today, we’ll look at some ideas and techniques that will help every photographer take better maternity shots, and also take some of the stress out of the process.
Take Maternity Photos Outdoors
If there is one rule that all maternity photographers should learn, it is this: whenever possible, hold your session outside. Needless to say, whether it is feasible to do so will depend on the weather and the location. If the mother is seven months along, and it’s November, and you’re in Minneapolis, well, you’ll have to settle for an indoor shoot. We’ll talk about that later, but for now, we’re talking about why the great outdoors is the best venue for maternity photography.
Naturally, there may be concerns about privacy. Many women want to have their growing baby-bumps photographed au naturel, and there are some who want to be fully nude. Such photos are often quite striking, and one can certainly understand why an indoor shoot might seem like the best plan for such a situation.
But there are compelling reasons to do maternity shoots outdoors. Firstly, there is the great abundance of natural light. At the right time of day (the so-called “golden hour” especially), the sun creates an ambient glow that simply cannot be captured inside, and certainly not with natural light. Secondly, there is the obvious-but-worth-saying-anyway fact that the beauty of nature can only serve to highlight the beauty of a mother-to-be. Symbolically, photos of pregnant women in gardens or among fruit trees are sure winners.
And if privacy is an issue, one must be ready to think outside the box when selecting a location. State parks might not be the best choice, but your subject may have–or know someone who has—an appropriately secluded back yard, and most photographers have spent years stockpiling secluded outdoor spots. The pictures you get from an outdoor shoot will be worth it. You can go deeper on this topic by reading Kevin Kopchynski’s guide to outdoor photography, and learn about how to use filters to get the best outdoor shots in this online course.
Use Natural Light
If you must shoot indoors, whether it is because of modesty concerns, lack of the right location, or the climate, then your watchwords must be “natural light.” There is no substitute. For years, photographers have argued the merits of natural light vs. artificial light. Both camps tend to be passionate about lighting, and both tend to be certain that they are right and those who hold other opinions are just “not getting it.” For our purposes, let us simply say that while both are valid ways to light a maternity shoot, natural light is preferable.
Why natural light? Well, for one thing, using natural light will let you travel lighter and get to work more quickly, since you have no lighting rig to carry or set up. And time is going to be essential for a natural light shoot. Doubtless, you know your home studio well, but if you are working indoors in another location, scout it out ahead of time to find out what direction the light will be coming from and when it will be at its best. Time, as all photographers know, can be your worst enemy. Don’t miss your optimal window for light.
Another factor in natural light’s favor is that it allows you to capture subtle nuances, such as the delicate interplay between light and shadow. A pregnant woman’s body is nothing if not a place of new curves and new contours, and capturing all of the variations in tones is far easier with natural light than artificial.
And natural light has the distinct advantage of looking more, well, “natural” in the finished photograph. “You know, I think I’d like my maternity shots to look really processed, weird, and artificial, like the stuff you used to see in Interview Magazine in the ‘80s,” said no pregnant woman, ever.
The world of natural light photography is vast, and there is much more to discuss than is possible here. Learn more about how to use natural light to create stunning pictures.
And if you must use artificial lighting, all is not lost. You need not sacrifice subtlety just because you don’t have an indoor location with a window facing the right way to capture that “golden hour” glow. Done with sensitivity (and some help from the right filters, reflectors, and the other tools of the trade), artificial light can come very close to the softness of natural light. When combined with whatever natural light is available, it can often be hard to tell that artificial light has been used. Some photographers even consider working with purely artificial light to be a special kind of challenge. Educate yourself about a number of different lighting techniques.
Make Moms-to-Be Feel Beautiful and Comfortable
Every portrait photographer knows that you must make your subject feel comfortable, and there is no subject more likely to feel physically uncomfortable than a woman in the later part of a pregnancy. Pregnancy is work, there is no doubt about it. And of course, many pregnant women feel that they are not looking their best, or that they are “gross” right now. Weight gain, water retention, and a myriad of the other physical changes that come with pregnancy are simply facts of life.
You, the photographer, have your work cut out for you in this area. Make your subject comfortable by ensuring that she is surrounded only by people she feels comfortable with. If she has a significant other, and that person is available, then include him or her. If she has other children and wants them around, include them. You should be the only stranger, and you must therefore do everything you can to put her at ease. Let her know that she is beautiful, that she looks great. Don’t overdo it—just try to be genuine. If you are male, be sure to take care about how much you say along those lines, especially if her significant other is male and is in the room!
Retouch to Get the Glow
As much as we like to talk about “natural beauty,” the simple fact is that in 2014, no professional photograph, especially not one that includes a human being in it, gets by without some after-the-fact tinkering. The modern photographer probably spends five times more of time and effort on post-production than on the shoot itself. Pregnant women are prone to irregularities in skin tone and texture, owing to the ever-changing hormonal shifts that are part of the deal. And no one wants to look anything other than beautiful, so de-emphasizing a double chin or correcting for that one lock of hair that could spoil an otherwise perfect shot is going to be necessary. You will, without question, have to retouch your photos, and it’s pretty fun after some practice.
Whatever you may do in terms of lighting and location, whatever you can do in terms of making your subject comfortable, and whatever your imagination can come up with in terms of props and poses, one thing remains constant: you need to capture images that portray a mother-to-be at her best. Your job is to preserve the beauty, significance, and magic of the creation of a new life. Once the mother-to-be becomes a mother-who-is, those images will be the best way for her, her family, and for the child inside her to connect with that special time. Make every shot count!