6 Tips for Better Mommy DIY Baby Portraits

First off, let me start with a disclaimer. I do not consider myself a professional photographer. I’ve dabbled in the field a bit, but truth be told, it’s more of a glorified hobby for me. And honestly, I don’t always have the patience when it comes to photographing children other than my own. But I’m always an advocate for moms to learn a few tips and tricks to best capture their own little ones’ milestones. I’m all for going to a professional (and I have several photog friends who rock at it), but for the everyday no-special-occasion moments if your child happens to be in a good mood and you get the DIY photo session itch, scratch it!
Whenever I was home on maternity leave when Olivia was born, I couldn’t get enough of her. And in the 8 week span of no work, despite lack of sleep in dealing with a newborn, I got a little stir-crazy. For me, it was the perfect time to document her day-to-day changes that happened so quickly by just laying out a makeshift portrait set-up, and snapping away every sweet expression (and even the not-so-sweet ones) that I could. One day, believe it or not, you’ll even want to remember the cry faces and you’ll be glad you took the time to set up some opportunities for nice portraits frequently in addition to the random ones of  her staring at the swinging toys under her play gym in her pajamas.
So here they are…

6 Tips for Better Mommy DIY Baby Portraits:

1. Plan out a backdrop and a prop or two.
Backdrops can be as easy as a big cable-knit blanket or printed fabric (heck even shower curtains work if you’re willing to pull them down). For props, you can keep it simple with a swaddle blanket or get whimsical with plastic ornaments from your Christmas tree. I even wrapped a diaper box in Christmas paper and stuck a big bow on it to place Olivia inside of once she was sitting up. For Valentine’s, I made a string of heart garland just out of felt, ribbon, and hot glue. Don’t get too crazy since you don’t want to distract from the portrait’s main focus, and keep the props to scale to your little one. Remember, always safety first. (By the way, those are my actual lip prints. Olivia laughed the whole time I was putting them all over her, and my lips were hilariously clownish after reapplying and smudging lipstick on my face 20 times over.)

2. Set up beside a big window at a 45 degree-facing angle in the morning.
This part is huge and will contribute the best lighting to your portraits, as sunlight is always the go-to light source for great looking pictures. If you have white sheer curtains over the window, that’s even more of a plus (however, I didn’t so don’t feel like you need to go out and buy some). To set up the backdrop/blanket, get two chairs (wooden kitchen chairs work great) and a couple of potato chip bag clips, hair claw clips, or clip hangers. Spread out the backdrop/blanket on the floor and clip one edge in several places on the two back-facing kitchen chairs at a 45 degree facing angle to the window to create a DIY backdrop stand. A 45 degree angle creates the most flattering shadows to add depth to your photos. Be sure to pull the blanket tight so there are no wrinkles.
Now, here is why I say set up in the morning. There were some days when I didn’t know what kind of mood my little one would be in at sporadic moments. I went ahead and had it set up so that I could go about my day to tend to her needs, and when she seemed happy and somehow was magically fed, rested, and dry-diapered, I’d take advantage of the moment and plop her on my pre-made set-up to go to town with my camera.

For these shots, I used our hall bathroom’s shower curtain, a blanket Olivia already had, and a pants hanger broken in pieces to separate the clips and attach to the chairs.

3. Turn off the lights and let the window do the work.
Most house lights emit a yellow hue that doesn’t translate well in portraits. And a flash can cause issues for several reasons unless you know how to bounce a flash on the ceiling. 1- It eliminates the shadows that give professional-looking portraits more dimension. 2- It can wash out baby skin. 3- Blink! Your little one has young eyes and if he/she is awake, you want to capture those wide baby blues (or browns or greens)…plus you might just tick him/her off.

4. Find a pose that works for baby’s comfort.
This is easier said than done, I know, but your child will definitely let you know the instant she’s not happy with a pose. The three that I’ve found work best for little ones not sitting up yet are 1- simply lying flat on her back while you shoot overhead closeups (great for when she gets cranky and you need to just talk to her to calm her), 2- lying her in a big basket stuffed with a pillow like a make-shift bassinet at a 45 degree-facing angle to the lens (wicker laundry baskets work well), 3- making it a tummy-time session (try this one after little one has good head control).

5. Wave a red piece of fabric; rattle a noisemaker; play music; act like a lunatic.
Seriously. Or should I say not seriously? You probably know better than any professional photographer what makes your baby smile. She knows your touch, your smell, your face, and that is the advantage you have over anyone else taking your little one’s portraits. If daddy or another family member is helping out with getting good expressions, make sure he understands to put his face right beside your camera lens to give the illusion that baby is looking into the camera. Rattle noisemakers work well so you can direct where your child looks too. If you are photographing your newborn, wave the red piece of fabric in front of his/her face and slowly move it beside your camera lens. The first color newborns see is red, so this will get his/her attention long enough to direct baby’s gaze.

6. Shoot at baby’s eye level.
This is probably one of the biggest mistakes I see newbie photographers make when it comes to shooting babies. When you hold a baby, you look directly into its eyes. The same goes for if you put a camera lens between the two of you. Unless your are purposely trying to get a unique angle with a different perspective, you should almost always shoot overhead while looking down at baby.

7. (BONUS) Edit your pics!
One of the many things that make professional portraits so spectacular is the post-session work. If you don’t own Photoshop software or don’t know the first thing about editing, that’s totally fine. There are several free online photo editing websites like picmonkey.com and gimp.org that produce good looking results for amateur photographers. And it’s fun to see all of the possibilities! I sometimes added text to the corner of my portraits to document Olivia’s age. (Example: 3 months)

8. (MAJOR BONUS) Learn how to shoot in manual.
Now, I say this is a major bonus because this is a major feat of accomplishment- I’m still learning myself. By all means, shoot in auto mode on the portrait setting of your camera. But don’t be afraid to branch out and try the manual side when you can get really creative in playing with the depth of field (that gives pro baby pics that dreamy look) and spot-focusing. A great place to start is a blog I stumbled across a couple years back called froknowsphoto.com. It has very thorough explanations of complex concepts in manual photography and Jared, the blogger, is pretty entertaining.

Bottomline: Be realistic. Go into your DIY portrait session with an open mind and don’t put pressure on yourself if your first try doesn’t go well. Baby will feel your stress, which will cause even more problems at the attempt. Just see it as a fun activity that could result in keepsakes you can continually cherish in a skill that you can constantly practice with. So many moms have turned pro by doing just this- getting out the camera (even if it’s the cheapest of the cheap) and discovering they love it. You won’t know until you try. 🙂

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