There are a lot of articles and blog posts out there regarding safety tips for photographers when working with newborns and babies. Most have some really great tips, but there were a lot of other things that I have learned over the years that I haven’t seen listed in most of those articles. I wanted to write this blog post to help other photographers learn how to safely work with shooting babies. I seriously cannot believe it has been almost 20 years since I did my first few baby sessions (wow that makes me feel so old)! Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been shooting babies exclusively for 20 years, but I have done it enough now where I have a good concept of what works and what does not.
If you are a new photographer, please take the time to read and review all of the safety guidelines that I have detailed below. You have a very important job of keeping someone else’s baby safe and protected while you work with them! For new parents, please be sure that you work with someone who is experienced and knowledgeable about newborn and infant photography safety when planning your baby’s photoshoots. If you have any doubts, be sure to ask lots of questions!
1. Newborns cannot regulate their body temperature the same way that we can, so be sure to keep the room that you are shooting in extra warm and toasty.
2. To keep my studio warm, I use a space heater and a rice bag near the baby. I don’t ever place the baby directly on the warmed rice bag, but always make sure there is a blanket between the baby’s skin and the bag. Rice bags are very easy to use and heat up. I just sewed together a little pouch of fabric, about the length of a newborn’s body, filled it with rice, and sewed it shut. When I am going to use it, I heat it in the microwave next to a mug of water for about a minute.
3. When shooting newborns outdoors, be sure that the weather is warm enough. Do not ever force a baby into a situation where they seem unhappy. I remember one particular session that I shot a couple of years ago where even though it was not that cold outside, the baby was just not happy in my outdoor studio area. Instead of forcing the issue, I explained to the parents that it would be much better if we went back inside and continued with some indoor shots instead where their baby was happy.
In the image above of our son, we shot this just after he was born, in March (when it is still a bit cold here). You cannot see it from the images, but he actually had 2-3 layers of clothes on underneath the knitted wrap to make sure that he was warm and cozy. Even with older babies, I never put them in a situation where they will get a chill when shooting them outdoors. If I am shooting a baby in the nude or just a diaper outside, I will only do that on a warm day, and only in very brief increments of time.
4. Never use direct flash or un-diffused strobe lighting since the bright flash of light can be damaging to their developing eyes and brains. It is much better to use natural light and/or continuous studio lighting. If strobes are used, they should be properly diffused so the flash of light is not so harsh and jarring to the infant. When I did my first few little baby portraits, all I had was my film camera and a white shirt that I wore so I could position myself as a reflector while shooting (I was in high school and did not have much budget!). I definitely recommend using a reflector whenever possible. You can even use a large piece of white foam core if you cannot afford a regular reflector.
5. Never place a baby in anything that could be breakable, dangerous or sharp. This includes any glass objects (vases, mirrors, glass bowls, etc.). Even though it may seem that newborns do not have the ability to move much and break something, they can move more than you would expect.
6. Beware of trying to mimic composite shots. I personally never shoot babies in a complex composite pose since I do not like to perpetuate the illusion that I am doing something unsafe with any baby that I shoot. I feel that this is a dangerous trend in the industry, and new photographers need to understand that no baby should ever actually be placed in things like a sling hanging from a branch, a swing hanging from a tree, on top of a mirror, etc. Most of the images that you see that show these types of things are actually composited images when done safely.
7. Make sure that you wash your hands and/or use hand sanitizer regularly when working with babies. Their immune systems are not fully developed yet, and you want to be sure that you don’t pass along any germs to them.
8. Similarly, make sure that you are up to date on your TDaP vaccines. Pertussis can be deadly to infants, and adults can often be carrying the disease but show no symptoms. It can be passed from adult to infant while holding the baby, so make sure you have your vaccine. Babies usually do not have their complete set of vaccines to protect them from pertussis until they are at least 6 months old.
9. Study charts about infant developmental stages for various ages in the first year. Realize that a 3 month old will not be able to do things like sit up on their own, and it is not safe to try to force them into a pose that they are not developmentally ready for yet. Our little guy was able to sit himself up in a baby chair at 3 months (with spotting), but that is fairly unusual.
10. Always be sure to have a parent very close at hand near the baby to act as a spotter. Babies of all ages are wobbly, and you never want to have the baby fall over while you are shooting them.
11. If shooting a baby on a bed, be sure that they are always in the middle of the bed and not on the edge. I almost had a scary incident with this kind of situation back when I was 14 years old and shooting a newborn. Even newborns are capable of moving themselves around.
12. Always do a quick check of the baby’s fingers and toes to make sure that no loose threads, hairs, or fuzz are wrapped around them. This is especially important when working with furry or fuzzy wraps or rugs. Babies can loose circulation on their fingers or toes so quickly, so you want to make sure nothing is wrapped around any of their little digits that could interfere with their circulation.
13. Go slowly and be patient. Be sure to allow plenty of time for feeding, cuddling, diaper changes, etc.
14. Always keep in mind that babies are little teeny tiny people and not a prop or a doll. They have unique personalities and preferences, just like anyone else. If a baby seems uncomfortable or unhappy, don’t force it! Work with the baby and you will find that the shoot goes much easier. Sometimes the poses that the babies puts themselves in are way cuter than how you were originally trying to pose them!
15. Never shoot a baby in bright, direct sun. Babies younger than 6 months old should not ever wear sunscreen, and even between 6 months to one year old it is better to skip this if possible. Babies are very sensitive to sunburn. The sun is harshest between the hours of 10-2 pm. Plan accordingly.
16. Never shoot a baby in an environment with a lot of bugs around such as mosquitoes. Babies younger than 6 months old should not ever wear bug spray, and even between 6 months to one year old it is better to skip this if possible. Mosquitoes carry diseases that can be deadly to those with weak immune systems, such as an infant. Don’t take any chances. Be safe and cautious with your choice of location and time of day. Mosquitoes are most active around dawn and dusk and near bodies of still water. Plan accordingly.
17. If you or anyone in your household is sick, reschedule the session. It is the professional and considerate thing to do since you should make every effort not to get your client’s baby sick.
18. Always have a client image release contract, even if you are just starting out and shooting for free. This is important for all parties involved. You want to make sure that you have the parents’ written permission to use images of their child for your portfolio. You also want to give the parents peace of mind about where their child’s images will be posted online (e.g. their sweet baby’s photo is not going to be seen next to some outtake from filming a bloody horror movie).