Sunday, January 17, 2010

baby photography for dummies

I love to capture memories with photos and I especially love to take pictures of babies (this is not a new phenomenon since giving birth to Ruby--I have always had this hobby)! While I am nowhere near a professional photographer (I honestly know just about goose egg of anything technical), I do really enjoy taking photos, critiquing them, and savoring them for years to come. When we live in the age of digital with so many options for taking, storing, and printing pictures, I am often surprised at just how bad people's photos can still be. It is such a shame to see sweet babies being captured forever in ultra-crappy photos.

Here is my take on simple photography that is not going to hurt your brain or swallow up your time.

First things first: you need a decent camera. This being said, I hate it when people see your photos and immediately assume you have a fancy camera. With a discerning eye, you can take good pictures with anything--I even use my phone a lot these days if that's what is nearby.

My oldest brother once gave me the advice that you should choose a camera from a company that's primary focus is in cameras, because they are the most committed to quality photography. I have been using only Olympus cameras (with the exception of one small Canon) for about 12 years now and I love them. For a mid-range camera that is as nice as you should go without going for a digital SLR, I am a big fan of the 500-series ultra-zoom line. The one I own is the SP-500 UZ below, but it has limited availability these days as everything is getting megapixel-ized like crazy. The newest version of the same camera is more expensive but has twice the megapixels--if that's important to you, by all means get it, though I personally don't think the extra megapixels are going to help you take any better of photos (unless you want to blow up your photos the size of your living room wall, it doesn't really matter). I love this camera because it has a great zoom lens and, more importantly to me, a great macro setting that allows for high-quality close-ups.

Although my 500 UZ is what I use most often with Ruby since I can leave it out and grab it whenever the moment strikes, I also own a digital SLR that I love for traveling and more heavy-duty photography. It's an investment to get a new camera, but if you can take great photos of your baby yourself, you may take her to a professional less often. If you do splurge on an SLR, I recommend getting a nice macro lens for amazing close-up baby photography and one good lens that has a big range for zoom and nearby. Below is the Olympus Evolt camera that I bought a few years ago. It's great, but I originally made the mistake of buying the package deal that includes two lenses. I say this is a mistake because if all you're going to have are standard not-that-great lenses, I actually don't think this is very much of a step up from the 500UZ non-SLR camera that I was talking about earlier. To be honest, I think that if you feel compelled to buy an SLR, then you need to do it right and get good lenses. In that case, my recommendation would be to buy the body-only and separate lenses. Since I bought the two lenses listed below, I have literally never again touched the two that came with my package deal.

Okay, regardless of what camera you are using, here are my tips--in no particular order--for capturing good photos that will showcase the beauty of your little darlin' in all of his or her glory:

1) The background does, indeed, matter! Plain backgrounds for photos of your baby look the best, especially when she's so young that all your photos are of her lying down. Spread a blanket down underneath her, or a bed sheet, or a piece of cloth--anything that will serve as your background. When I say "plain," I don't necessarily mean a solid color...Actually my favorite backgrounds are the incredibly beautiful quilts that our friend Mary has made for us (one for our wedding and one for Ruby's birth) that are anything but "plain." More so, I mean just have one background. For example, if I use my busy quilt, I will make sure that when I frame my picture the entire photo will have the quilt (rather than some quilt and some of the room behind the quilt). Also, find interesting backgrounds when you're out--living in a city lends itself well to finding exciting backgrounds--like graffiti, brick walls, city skylines, etc.--for photos.

I had Ruby at the farmer's market one day in October wearing a pumpkin hat and jack-o-lantern t-shirt. My photos at the market weren't anything that special, but, when I got home, I took off the black scarf I had been wearing and happened to lay Ruby down on top of it. It struck me that this was a great background, so I stuck two small pumpkins that we had bought on either side of her head and--voila!--I had a great shot that I ended up sending out as Halloween cards.

A lot of times, especially as baby gets older and can sit up, a solid-colored wall is a great background. Just think about what is behind her, though--is there an electrical socket in the photo that will cause eye traffic in the shot? Then move the baby a few inches to the side to avoid it or just take the picture from a different angle. My apartment may be cluttered, but my photos don't show it!

2) Natural lighting is your friend! Photos outside are always brighter, shinier, and more vibrant than indoor flash pictures that wash out and unflatter even the most gorgeous of people. Whenever possible, snap your cutie's pictures in natural light. And it doesn't have to be outside--just sit baby down to play next to a window and you have your shot. If you don't have enough light, then your pictures will turn out fuzzy (especially if your hand isn't steady). I tend to take most of my pictures on the auto settings, so my flash pops up when it wants to based on the light. I usually just hold it down manually if I don't want it, but then just brace myself against furniture or something that helps me keep a steady arm while shooting.

3) If you can't fix it, fake it! I am not somebody who does a lot of modifications to photos on the computer. For one, there's no time for it. But I also don't own Photoshop or any fancy post-production tools. That being said, the very basics are sometimes super helpful to someone (like me) with little technical photo knowledge. For example, all those photos from in the hospital when Ruby was only minutes old and Jude looked tired, Ruby looked bright pink, and I looked I had been in labor for 36 hours with no drugs! Turn them all black-and-white! Everyone will look better and all those nasty hospital lights that accentuated your imperfections are a moot point. When I take random flash pictures in my house, too, they sometimes get so washed out or the colors are just so "off" that I will just switch them to black-and-white on the computer and see if it helps.

I have also recently gotten an iPhone, which makes it so easy to text real-time photos to my parents and siblings. My new favorite app is a 99-center called ShakeItPhoto, which lets you turn any photo you took on your iPhone into a "Polaroid." I love it! Instead of fretting about the graininess or poor quality of my iPhone pictures, I embrace it and glorify it by making it into a retro-looking little square. So fun!

4) Use a couple of your camera's basic settings! Like I said before, I don't actually know anything technical about photography. However, I have learned what "looks good" through playing with my camera. Use the macro setting on your camera (depending on the lens, some will be better than others), which is the little flower icon, to take close-ups of your baby. Combine this with natural lighting from a window in the morning and you're in business! If you're taking macro pictures, then you need as much light as possible and to hold the camera very still. I took a bunch of close-ups of Ruby's face and body parts recently in my living room by the window.

Here are some from the beginning: the first one is Ruby at about three hours old in the hospital, next to a window. The next one is next to a window in my living room when she was about a month old.

The other setting I tend to use a lot is the action setting (the running man icon). This one I use whenever there is water in the photo because it catches droplets and waves really well. Also, if something is moving in the background, like the subway below or cars on a busy street. It helps to blur the action that is not being focused on.

5) Props help! Babies are going to do what they're going to do--don't try to force a "pose" for a picture or it's just going to end up looking unnatural and/or cheesy. I like to give Ruby props to hang out with when I'm going to take a picture and just catch her interacting with them (as opposed to interacting with me as the photographer). A Boppy pillow is a good thing to have a young infant stationed in. Stuffed animals make cute and fun additions to a photo. The red tutu picture below I recently took in an effort to make some Valentines. I wanted her to have something to play with while I snapped pictures, so I just cut out some hearts from pink paper and--sure enough--she was enthralled!

6) You can get in your pictures, too! I can't tell you how many times I have been on a trip or at an event where I'm taking pictures like crazy, only to realize later that it doesn't even look like I was there at all because there are no photos with me in them! I cherish photos that I have of me with my parents when I was a baby, and I think it's important for Ruby to have photos with us in them, too. We might be trying to remember her in all of her baby cuteness now, but someday she is going to be trying to remember us the way we were "way back then," too!

Of course, if there are people around, you can just ask someone to a take a picture of you. However, if you've ever had a photo of you and your best friend's feet and an ancient Greek ruin at the Acropolis (no joke!), you know that asking a stranger to take your picture can be pretty disasterous. My advice to you is this: look around and scan for people carrying fancy cameras or looking like they're taking their pictures very thoughtfully--they will likely take the task of your family photo very seriously. And when someone then says to check and make sure you like it, take them up on it!

I usually prefer to set up a timer. This way, I can control exactly what the frame-up will be. I love to have a tripod and highly recommend having a simple one on hand, but I so rarely think to carry one (and who needs one more thing to lug around when you've got a baby and a diaper bag). You can get creative and scout your location--you may end up setting up your camera on a garbage can, a railing, or once my clever friend Coral even hung our camera from a tree by it's strap (which gave us a unique--albiet slightly crooked--picture)!


  1. Just found your blog while doing a Google search......loved every word of it! Thanks so much for sharing........

    Just had my first grandson Tuesday and I am looking for ways to capture him! These are all great, great, great ideas!

  2. Thanks so much! I'm so glad you found it helpful!

  3. Great post. the natural light is definitely a good tip. gets you the best type of colours which is why i love taking photos outside.