A photographer is super useful for a lot of reasons; the biggest one in my mind is that setting timers and taking self portraits is hard! Even as a professional photographer, it's one of the things I dread the most and why I hire photographers myself.
A photographer allows you to relax and be in the moment, while also being part of the photographic story. A beautiful family photo is hard to come by, and so appreciated.
But, what about photos that you could take yourself? Maybe you have a newborn at home and feel inspired to make a quality portrait using your phone or camera. And what about those daily portraits of your kids and pets?
What should you pay attention to in order to achieve the best results on your own? Here are some of my personal and professional guidelines. Prefaced with the fact that every artist and individual has their own preferences, there are no hard rules for a perfect shot. But these are the guidelines I follow to get a quality, nicely-lit portrait.
Lighting is everything and by far the most important component for getting a quality photograph. We have two things to consider when talking about light: type and placement.
1) Light Type | Use Only Natural Fill Light from a Big Window
Why Natural Light?
All light has color. Indoor artificial lighting has a different color than outdoor light. So, rule #1 is to only use one source of lighting. This way you don't have strange color casts in your p photo. I recommend natural light from a big window instead of artificial light. I recommend a window vs a light bulb because it is larger source of light (big window) is going to be softer on the subject than a smaller sized light (lamp).
Why Fill Light, and What is It?
Think about how the light changes around your home from morning to evening. Some hours it shines bright through the window, casting high-contrast shadows on the floor. This is called Direct Light. Other hours it shines softly, making everything in the room appear evenly lit. This is called indirect light. You want the subject in your portrait to have softly-lit skin so that details aren't hidden by dark shadows or too bright by the intense light, this is why Fill Light is preferable over direct light for most conventional portraits.
I usually look for fill light by locating the sun (is it east or west?) and then go to the room on the opposite end of where the sun is. So in the morning, I'd take my portraits on the West side of the house. In the evening, I'd choose the East side. South will always have more direct light than North. So a North-East side of the house in the evening is my jam.
Note sometimes direct light is effective when you want to convey a feeling along with the portrait. Strong shadows express warmth and sunlight. So if the mood is more important than nicely lighting your subject, you can totally go with this. This is the photo that says: I am in the glider, snuggling with my newborn, and the sun is on me and I feel amazing.
Ok, so you've identified the source of light. Now let's talk about...
2) Light Placement/Position | Shine the light on your subject and the parts of your subject you want to draw the eye to.
This might mean they're directly facing the window, or facing away at an angle between between 0 and 90 degrees.
This part means thinking about the direction of your light source. You want the window fill light to be shining on your subject's face, hands, whatever you're photographing. You could put your subject directly opposite of the window, with you and the camera in-between the two, and this makes the window light shine directly on your subject. This will result in the least amount of shadows on your subject because the light isn't coming from an angle. Totally cool! Try it and see what you think!
If you want to add some depth to the light on your subject (some soft shadows are good), try rotating them so that instead of facing directly at the window, they're facing away at an angle between 0 and 90 degrees (0 being looking directly at the window, and 90 degrees meaning their head is turned perpendicular with the window). See how this placement changes the shadows that fall on your subject. What do you like better? It might be a personal preference.
Note: Once you start facing them away from the window (greater than 90 degrees angle) you'll see more shadows on your subject than light. This can be effective for a moodier feel.
Note: If your window is in the background of your photograph it will quickly become the brightest point in the photograph because it is your main source of light, and this is often what your eye naturally travels to and can distract from your subject. This is especially important to consider & experiment with when you face your subject more than 90 degrees away from the window.
Image Notes in the image above, fill light is used to create the soft highlights and shadows. The lighting is coming from a 80-90 degree angle from a window to the right.
Now that you have decided on your lighting, it's time to think about the things in your frame (everything that is in your picture).
3) Background | Be selective with the objects that are visible
My tip is to simplify the background. For a newborn photo this might mean putting them on the bed where you have your favorite linens and nothing else (laundry, toys, cell phone all need to be moved elsewhere).
Think about everything that's in your frame and ask "does this add to my photograph?". If not, move it.
If you have your subject, say a newborn, in a bouncer or laundry basket with knitted blankets, think about the angle you're shooting from. To capture your subject's face you may need to position yourself so you're capturing things like walls and dressers that are in the background. Try moving your subject to a location where the lighting is still desirable, but the things in the background aren't distracting.
Image Notes: in the photo above, the wall is bare and there are minimal distracting elements in the frame which allows the attention to be drawn to the little details of the feet. A shallow depth of field helps with this.
4) Background | Use distance between subject and background
Lots of people love those photos with the blurry background. And modern cell phones help us achieve that affect by blurring the area around a subject. But there are techniques you can use in the physical world that also help you achieve this effect.
To achieve a "shallow depth of field", meaning a softer background and sharp subject, you can create space between your subject and the background. The things that you're focusing on will naturally have more detail than the things that are further away from the focal point.
If you put your subject directly on the floor and shoot from above them, there's only an inch from the subject to the floor. So unlikely to have much difference in sharpness between subject and background.
If you put your subject 5 feet away from the background, maybe further away from the wall or in a chair (photographing from above) you'll have more distance and more likely to have a softer background.
Note: If you have a "fancy camera", one that has an A mode that lets you change the aperture, switch it to A mode and change the setting to the smallest A number. This will give you the most blurry background.
Image Notes The flooring and feet of the mother are softer than the baby because she is several inches from the ground and I've also used a small aperture value "Small A #" of 1.4-2.8. This draws the eyes to the newborn. Notice how there aren't many objects in the background, so the eye is not distracted from the newborn
Lastly, we'll talk about colors and textures.
5) Moments | Patience is everything
Your newborn is showing off their personality from day 1. In those moments where they open their eyes, you can see curiosity, confusion, disapproval and happiness, amongst so many more emotions!
The moment you choose to press the shutter is important. A little stretch of the arms or a lip purse in sleep can be beautiful to capture. You may only need to take a few pictures, but you may also need to be patient to get those moments that tell a story.
Image Notes: this photo was captured in-between the snoozes and tears that typically take place during a newborn session. There are a few other shots where the newborn is not looking at the camera, but this one stood out to me because of how engaged she is.
6) Colors and Textures | Be strategic and have fun with it!
Colors and textures largely come down to personal preference, with a little bit of technique and strategy to bring it home.
How do colors affect a photograph?
First, think about the colors you you like to look at? Some people love bold and colorful. Others love muted and natural. Maybe it differs by the day. But feel free to think about your choices and choose what you love.
Also, think about contrast and attention. You can help your subject pop by creating some contrast between them and the background with color. Maybe a peach romper against a light teal background.
As for textures, the textures you introduce into your photograph can add a feeling and interest. Try adding a wool blanket to make it cozy. Or polka dots to make it fun!
With color and technique, think about where the eye travels. I might notice a yellow shirt before a muted green plant. You may want to remove distracting colors and textures from your shot if they distract from your subject. And alternatively, add them to your subject to draw attention.
Also, colors can influence mood. A warm color may feel cozy where a cold color can feel deep an intimate. Think about how colors make you feel and incorporate those into your choices.
7) Get in the Frame | Plan the shot and hand over the camera
You might have to be your own art director. If you want to be in the frame, get all of the pieces together like lighting, background, colors, textures, and the moment you want to capture, and then hand over the camera!
You could give the cell phone to your 4 year old like I've done on occasion, or ask another adult to snap the photo.
Image Notes: I took the image above, but this is an example of a moment you might want to remember yourself. We may feel tired or less than glamorous in the 4th trimester, but a new parent's glow is undeniably beautiful and I know when we look back on these photos we'll only see beauty.
Posed Newborn Tip | Props and Accessories
This post was written in response to other parent's wondering how to make their own newborn photos that might be an improvement from a cell phone shot. The tips above are general guidelines that can be applied to all sorts of photographs. But here are a few extra tips for newborn portraits.
Accessories and Props can be purchased on Etsy from independent sellers, and there are lots of videos of how to swaddle on YouTube.
For a posed newborn portrait you'll need, at a minimum:
a light swaddle: I say a light swaddle because you don't want it to overwhelm your newborn. Cheesecloth and Jersey Cotton are two popular materials, choose a color or print you love! Note that cheesecloth is harder to use, so should be used only in the first 4-10 days when baby is less wiggly and more sleepy.
a background (a piece of fur, a simple crate, something to set your baby on - this could even be another person's arms).
an optional blanket to provide a cushion for your newborn either in the crate or on the fur
You can go down the Etsy rabbit hole. There's so much to choose from! Remember that the photo with these props will look the best with the most strategic lighting, discussed above.
Start with the Burrito Pose. It's the simplest.
Hope this helps! These are lessons I've learned in 10+ years of newborn and portrait photography using natural light. They're my "secrets" and now they're yours. We're all in this together.
Questions? Comment below and I'll answer them!