Tips for shooting your own birth photography
About a month ago my partner and I welcomed our daughter into the world after a 48 hour labor. As a photographer with general DIY sensibilities, it was an amazing opportunity to shoot something deeply intimate and profoundly life changing. The resulting photos are something we cherish, even if my partner did not always appreciate the camera being present during the difficult moments of labor. Home birth, although objectively a cheaper option, has become something of an extravagance as most insurance companies will only pay for a hospital birth. In addition, many choose to hire a doula, someone to encapsulate their placenta, there are birth supplies to be purchased, and you may end up buying things for the baby as well! Hiring a professional birth photographer can be an impossible luxury on top of everything else. With all of my newfound waking hours (every 2 hours, it seems), I have been thinking about this a lot as I really believe that having quality photos of your birth should be something accessible to everyone. Therefore, I’ve written up these FAQ-style tips for taking your own birth photography. Enjoy!
Note: These are tips and suggestions for the photographer and birth team to help you get the most out of your birth photography, not for the birth mother! Trust me, she’ll be otherwise occupied.
“How should we prepare the space?”
As you prepare your birth space, there is a lot of overlap between what makes a calming birthing environment and an aesthetically pleasing photo. However, as a birth goes long it is easy for clutter to build up. It is a lot easier to move an item out of the shot than it is to edit it out of the photo after the the fact. In general, simplicity in the space will allow the beauty and emotion of the moment to come through in the photography without distraction. Every few hours, make an effort to clean up the space, clearing away dishes, empty bottles, etc. When shooting, be aware of potentially distracting elements, such as a chair with no one sitting in it or a towel on the floor. Move them or avoid them.
If you have the option, choose a space with a relatively sparse background (such as a blank wall) over a space busy with decor (such as in front of a bookcase or doorway). If possible, position the birth tub, bed, and floor spaces to be used for labor next to windows and sources of natural light. The more photos you can take using natural light, the better your results will be. After the sun sets, arrange soft lamps and string lights around the space to give it a nice, even glow. Avoid single harsh lights (such overhead lights and chandeliers) and lights that cast a heavy shadow on the face. Candles are great for ambiance, but unless you are using a lot of them they probably won’t produce enough light for your camera to faithfully capture, so use them only in conjunction with other light sources.
“How should we pose in the shots?”
You shouldn’t. The most successful shots aren’t posed but candid, in the moment. Minimal posing and arranging yourself to be better lit by the window light or lamps around you is fine, but don’t worry about how you look on camera. We all look tired, exhausted, nervous, exuberant…that’s the whole point! Capturing those emotions as they flow through you is what makes up your birth story. Birth is a marathon, not a sprint…let us see the struggle! This goes for the whole birth team, not just the birth mother.
“How can I practice birth photography?”
It is a great idea to practice a few times before the actual labor and birth, especially if you aren’t used to operating a camera or if you might be using some new features on your camera (such as manual focus). The biggest challenge of most birth photography is getting good shots in low light, since births tend to happen in the middle of the night. If you have the option to set up the birth space in advance, that’s great, and practicing photography there will help you see potential challenges in advance (i.e. with the lamp in this corner, it creates a weird shadow on the opposite wall — better to move the lamp to the center of the wall). If you don’t have that option, try practicing in your bedroom with the overhead lights turned off. Turn on just one or two lamps and practice shooting the bed, paying attention to framing (what the camera sees versus what you see). If she’s willing, the birth mother can pose for you, giving you a realistic practice model. Have fun with it, make it a maternity boudoir shoot!
“Should I buy a new camera?”
Probably not. If you have a phone released in the past 2 years or so and you’re generally happy with the shots you take with it then it will work fine for this purpose. If you have a fancier camera, such as a DSLR or micro 4/3s, even better. If you’re in the market for a new phone or a new camera anyway, then I’m happy to offer advice, but generally speaking I would rather you shoot with the camera that’s already familiar to you, instead of trying to use a new, unfamiliar camera in what can be a stressful situation!
“Should I use flash?”
No, or at least avoid flash whenever possible. Most cameras have a mode to shoot in automatic but with no flash, this is the mode I recommend that you use. Flash is very disruptive to the laboring mother, and typically renders harsh shadows and too bright highlights in the photos that can be difficult to recover. I would much prefer you set up your birth space with thoughtful constant on lights, such as soft lamps, string lights, or window light that will be both pleasing and calming to the mother as well as beneficial to your photography.
“How should I prepare my phone?”
The most important thing is that you have enough free storage space to accommodate the influx of photos you’ll be taking. All of those podcasts, music, and old photos and videos taking up space on your phone? Back them up and delete them. I highly recommend using Google Photos to back up your photos and videos, and podcasts and music you can generally just delete and re-download later. Likewise, if you haven’t opened an app in over a month you probably don’t need it, just delete it! If you have a phone that can accept a microSD card for additional storage, I recommend buying one so you have plenty of space. Purchased through a large online retailer they can be quite affordable, generally $20 — $40. You should aim to have at least 10 GB of free space on your phone, and more is better!
Also don’t forget to charge your battery! Labor can take many hours or days, and you’ll be pretty distracted, so I recommend that you keep your phone plugged in to charge whenever you aren’t using it so that it is always ready to go. If you have an external battery pack, charge that up too. A note of warning though, don’t reach for a plugged in phone while in the birth tub (or any other body of water), unfortunately people have died this way! Using an unplugged phone or camera in the tub is safe for you, though not necessarily for your camera.
“What camera app should I use?”
I would generally recommend the default camera app that came with your phone, unless you have another that you prefer and already use. Don’t use Instagram, Facebook, or any app heavy on filters, as they apply compression and processing to your images that will reduce your options for creative processing after the fact. I would also recommend keeping your phone’s screen set to a relatively low brightness, just to minimize distraction to the birthing mother. Also, your phone’s rear camera is always higher quality than your phone’s front camera, so keep in mind that selfies may not look as good as the rest of your photos.
“How should I prepare my fancy camera?”
If you have a DSLR, micro 4/3, or compact camera (basically, anything beside a phone camera), there are a few settings you will want to change or confirm before the labor starts:
- Set the date and time! This is very important, because when you’re looking at the photos later you’ll want to be able to see the time stamps of each one, it is an important part of your birth story! You’re phone likely keeps its own time updated, so set your camera to match your phone’s time. Many cameras will lose their time sync if they’ve been sitting in a closet for a long time with a dead battery.
- Set the image quality to RAW or RAW + jpeg. If your camera doesn’t have a RAW mode, then use the highest quality jpeg available, often called ‘jpeg fine’.
- Make sure your camera’s memory card is empty and ready to be filled up. Just like with your phone, you don’t want to run out of space at the inopportune moment!
- Make sure your camera’s battery is charged, and consider buying a backup battery as well. Brand name backup batteries can be quite expensive, so I recommend buying generic ones. In my experience, the generics are every bit as good and typically cost about $20 each (as opposed to $80 for the brand name). Buy it from an online retailer or a local camera store.
- If your camera has a manual focus mode, I recommend practicing with it well before the birth. Many births happen in the wee hours of the morning with very low lighting, and many auto-focus systems fail in these conditions. If your camera is hunting for focus right in the crucial moments because there’s not enough light in the room, you may need to switch to manual focus. Better to get some shots that are slightly blurry than to not get the shot at all!
- If you’re a novice photographer, use the shooting mode ‘automatic no flash’. On some cameras this is a discreet shooting mode, in others you would choose automatic mode and manually disable the flash. Avoid preset modes like portrait, landscape, and sports mode, as they all tweak the image’s color, sharpness, and other aspects that will limit your creative options later. The ideal image will come off the camera looking ‘flat’, meaning somewhat subdued in color, contrast, etc. This allows for more flexibility to breathe life into it when processing.
- If you’re a more advanced photographer and comfortable shooting in manual modes, such as aperture or shutter speed priority modes, great! I encourage you to play around and explore different creative shots during the labor, as you’ll probably have plenty of time to experiment. However, for the actual moments of birth you may want to fall back to auto mode (no flash) and just focus on composition and framing of the shots. As some general advice, a shutter speed of 1/125 or faster will give you a good sharp shot while holding the camera, anything slower than that (1/100, 1/50, 1 sec, etc.) will likely blur unless you are using a tripod or other stable shooting surface. If 1/125 is producing shots that are too dark, try opening the aperture all the way (lower f numbers, such as f2.8, f3.5, and f4.0) and increasing your ISO to a high number (such as ISO 1600, 3200, or 6400). During processing you can brighten a shot that is too dark quite easily, but you cannot save a shot that is too blurry. [if all of this is gobbledygook to you, don’t worry and just stick with my advice in #6!]
“Should I shoot video?”
Up to you. I think shooting some video can be nice, but keep the clips short, say 10–30 seconds. Video clips will take up significantly more space on your phone or camera, so you’re far more likely to run out of space if you’re shooting a bunch of video alongside your photos. If you want video of the actual moments of birth, I would recommend buying or borrowing a cheap camcorder or GoPro type camera, setting it up on a tripod, and letting it record on its own. That will leave you to focus on just shooting still photos.
I put a lot of work into post-processing these shots to bring the best out of them and to add my personal style (black and white, high contrast, lots of vignetting). I created a before & after gallery that you’re welcome to peruse to give you an idea of how I choose to modify photos. I use Lightroom on a computer, but there are many options, including many great free editing apps for your phone (Google Photos & Lightroom Mobile are two of my favorites). There’s no right or wrong way to process a photo, if you like the way it looks then you’re doing it right! If you find you don’t have the time, patience, or inclination to edit your birth photos, I offer a low-cost service to do it for you. If you’re interested, here’s my site
Hope that helps! Below is a gallery of some of my favorite shots from our birth along with some more thoughts on each one.