1. Use a Normal Lens (50mm or so)
While traditional portrait lenses (100mm and higher) can be more flattering to faces, they require a greater distance between the camera and subject. Since we are working in a relatively small area, 50mm gives us the best balance between image quality and ease of use.
Canon and Nikon both make affordable 50mm lenses which will dramatically improve the quality of your images over any kit lenses. Also keep in mind the crop factor which occurs on some digital SLR cameras. If you are using a non-full frame camera (e.g. a Canon Rebel or Nikon D60) the 50mm lens will act like an 80mm lens. You may want to look at a ~32mm lens to compensate for the additional magnification.
2. Use Large Apertures
A large aperture (small f number) lets in more light and reduces the depth of field. We typically work at f/2.8 to f/4.5 to help blur the background and keep the focus on our little subjects. The fact that larger apertures let in more light is an added bonus.
3. Consider Using a Macro Lens for Details
While the minimum focusing distance of a regular lens is usually around a foot or so, macro lenses let you get super close - an inch or so away - allowing you to fill the frame with the tiniest baby details. Nikon makes two: a 50mm and 105mm. The latest version of the 105 also includes their vibration reduction which isn’t as useful as you’d think. Also, keep in mind the depth of field on a macro lens is extremely shallow! You’ll want to seriously consider using a tripod since the slightest movement will blur your image.
4. Full-frame Sensor
If you can afford it, get a camera with a full-frame sensor. The bigger sensor lets in more light, gives your better detail and less noise at high ISOs and eliminates the crop factor found on cameras with smaller sensors. No only will a 50mm lens work as designed, but you'll get a bit more depth of field at a given aperture than you would with the same f-stop on a crop factor camera.
5. Use a Fast Shutter Speed
Try to keep the shutter speed at or above 1/250 of second. If you’re a steady shooter you can go lower, but since we're shooting almost entirely hand-held, 1/250 sec shutter speed is fast enough to eliminate any potential image blurring.
6. Don't Be Afraid of High ISO
You always want to keep your ISO as low as possible, but if you still don’t have enough light, consider raising your ISO value. Newer cameras can hit an ISO of 800 without even blinking, and the latest version of Lightroom/Camera Raw can work wonders on grainy files - they come out looking really great. We recommend raising your ISO before adjusting down my shutter speed because we'd rather have a sharp picture that's a little grainy than a blurry picture without any grain.
7. No Tripod
When shooting newborns, we're on their schedule and we need to be efficient shooters. Using a tripod gets in the way and can slows down a shoot. With careful attention to your focusing and shutter speed, you can get away without a tripod. Now, having said that, it can be useful for macro shots, but we would caution against it for everything else.
8. Set Your White Balance to Cloudy
We've talked about this on this blog before, but as a general rule, keep your white balance set to 'Cloudy' (Approx 5500° Kelvin) for nice warm skin tones. If it comes out too warm, you can always override, assuming you shoot in RAW mode...
9. Always shoot RAW
Always, always, always shoot raw. There’s no reason not to. You have complete control over sharpening, compression, white balance and it even gives you a little latitude if your exposure isn’t spot on. Lightroom, Camera Raw, Aperture and others can be tremendously useful to manage and tweak your raw files so they come out looking great with very little work.
10. Focus on the Eyes
When you’re dealing with a large aperture, the ‘focus and recompose’ method for framing your shot won't always work. Your depth of field can be so shallow that even small camera position adjustments can knock things out of focus. A better approach is to frame your shot, then move the camera's focus cursor over one of your subject’s eyes and take the shot.
BONUS: Use Manual or Spot Metering
If you're comfortable shooting in Manual mode, you can skip this one. If not, use spot metering instead of evaluative (check your camera's manual for information on how to switch the metering modes). This will let the camera meter off a small area (usually centered on your focus point) instead of trying to look at the whole scene to determine the proper exposure.
Keep in mind that if you’re shooting a newborn on a black background, the camera will try to turn your black background into middle gray, and ruin the image through overexposure. (the converse happens if you’re shooting on a white background). To minimize this, dial in exposure compensation. In other words, if you’re shooting on black, you can take the camera’s default exposure and add a -1ev to the camera. This will tell the camera to subtract a stop from what it thinks is the correct exposure.
To view more examples of these principles in action, click here to visit our newborn photography gallery. If you have any questions about any of these tips, leave a comment below. Good luck!