Being invited to document a birth story is exciting, despite the long day. Whether you are a hired photographer or a close family friend, knowing as much as you can about the day can help you secure some great shots that will be treasured for a lifetime.
If you’ve never witnessed a birth before, you’re going to be experiencing long waiting periods followed by immediate action as soon as the baby arrives. Be prepared to capture moments as quickly as they unfold. Remember that you cannot stage, repeat or do much of anything as you capture a birth story. There are no re-do’s when the baby is delivered. When they clean, weigh, and measure the newborn they need to do their job so you need to be quick to capture it as it happens.
Here’s a walk through a day of a typical birth day with my suggestions of moments to document throughout the process. These are the moments you can look forward to capturing and witnessing behind the lens.
Select Your Camera Settings
First, before you begin, turn off your flash and select an ISO that’s high enough to deal with the indoor low lighting situation. I select one that can provide me with a fast shutter speed if I change my aperture from slightly closed at around f/3.5 to say f/1.2. I leave my ISO alone because with everything that will go on, I will most likely not be able to change it, so select one that’s efficient enough to give you good exposure as you toggle your aperture.
I would pick somewhere between ISO 800 and 1600. You will know you have the right ISO when you pick your go-to aperture settings (the widest and smallest aperture you will go to) and your shutter does not drag to avoid blurry images. I think a shutter speed that is faster than 1/250s when wide open is a good idea.
I’m not concerned with the noise that shows with the increase in ISO because most images I will convert to black and white, as it emphasizes the feelings and moments while diminishing distractions.
Observe and Capture the Setting
When you first arrive in the delivery room, naturally greet the friends and family in the room and find a corner where you won’t be in the way. Nurses will come in to check patient stats as the time draws near. You can use this time to shoot the peaceful “waiting” moment and the interaction with the nurses as well. A wide angled shot would be excellent to capture the entire setting of the room, and no one has to pose.
Make the effort to let the nurse and doctor know you’re there to capture the birth story and that they can feel free to tell you when you need to stop shooting, or any restrictions. Typically there aren’t any, but they appreciate the introduction and when they know you have a job, they will often accommodate so you can get some great shots.
You can photograph the mother’s ID bracelet, socks, her hand on her tummy, and wander over to the monitor that will show a graph of heart rates, and any contractions. Look for jumps in the graph, take a photo of the printed chart and a quick photo of the clock to document it in time.
You can also capture the quiet details, perhaps areas that will be anticipating the little one to arrive.
Sometimes the anticipation is fairly uneventful, it’s simply waiting and doing nothing. During this time, you might find that a creative angle can be taken to capture this. Even shifting your focal point can emphasize those involved in the waiting process can work.
If the mother is feeling pain or holding someone’s hand during a contraction, capture that intense moment.
When the big moment has arrived, this is when you should be ready. I like to keep my 50mm lens on my full-frame camera so I can get the clear shots I need, but still be at a decent distance. I keep my focal point on the center point since I switch from horizontal to vertical shots often, and quickly recompose my shots with back-button focus.
Be aware of baby privates, mommy privates, and use creative angles or cropping in camera so neither are exposed. You should have already let the mother know that you will be very aware of strategic placement and angles to avoid her feeling exposed.
Also tell her that if there are any shots that are not modest, those images will be automatically thrown away ,but also that you will not be publishing anything graphic either. It’s important that you make the mother comfortable with her privacy.
Typically, a bright light goes on during the labor or C-section so the delivery doctor can see better. As your events change from dark to light areas in the room within a matter of seconds, toggle your aperture to get the correct exposure. Your ISO should give you a fast enough shutter speed at f/1.2 and also a nice exposure under the lights at f/5.6. Watch your light meter in your viewfinder as you document and as long as your shutter speed is over 1/125, you’re fine.
The Arrival: First Glimpse of Baby
Once the baby decides to make it’s debut, know your positioning, which should probably be by the head of the mother, but out of the way. There might be a seat waiting for you if you’re witnessing a C-section, but know you are most likely not restricted to sitting in the chair, but ask if you are allowed to get up.
Keep your distance from the newborn as it’s being cleaned, and passed along. I prefer the 50mm during this time.
After the baby comes out it can go either one of two ways. It may be immediately cleaned before it gets introduced to the mom and dad, or briefly introduced to the mom and dad for a quick hold before it’s off to be cleaned and then measured and weighed.
The umbilical cord will also be cut before the baby is handed over to the parents so make sure you get a snapshot of that as well.
Capturing the First Meeting
The best angle if possible is overhead when the mom and dad put their heads close together and the newborn’s face is between them, giving you the best shot of the baby’s face. Sometimes this angle isn’t always possible, so the typical angle of seeing the entire family’s face works just as well.
Make sure your aperture is set where the entire family is in focus for this moment, at least f/3.5.
Capturing the Baby Stats
This moment happens quickly as the nurses need to do their job and wait for no one. Lights will be turned on then turned off quickly, so adjust your aperture accordingly as the events happen.
The newborn will be weighed, measured and the footprints will be taken. Don’t over think the process of capturing a good image on your end, because before you know it, it will be over. Shoot fast as they plop the baby on the scale, write, and then move onto the next checklist.
Again, using the center focus and toggling your aperture will be your major go-to’s for quick and in-focus documentation.
The Congratulations and First Meetings
Now that the big event is over, the family who have been waiting outside to visit come trickling in. This is a great time to find a cozy corner away, slap on a portrait lens and document their first meeting. Since you have enough of the newborn, this is an opportune time to focus on their faces and expressions instead of the newborn.
If you can stand a little further away, you'll still be able to capture the moment between the newborn and family members while not interfering.
The Peaceful Sleeper and the New Family
By now the little babe is exhausted and so are the parents. Take this time to get a blissfully clean, sleeping newborn and the parents holding their new child.
Take a few shots of the new family together in a single frame, but if the mom is too tired to pose, sleeping, or feeling uncomfortable for a traditional picture, don’t push it.
When you feel you are done, ask if there are any other shots the couple would like you to photograph before you say goodbye. Give a nice congratulations and let your clients know when they can expect to receive the images.