Create wall-worthy, artistic birth photos taken in low-light situations with insights from Nicole Hamic, a doula and birth photographer.
Content Warning: This article features graphic photographs of the birthing experience.
The intimate art of birth photography is so much more than photographing “small people coming out of larger people,” Nicole Hamic says with a wink. This Utah-based, certified doula and birth photographer knows a thing or two about documenting birth stories.
“Birth photography is about connection. About hand-holding and the wiping of sweat,” Nicole observes. “It’s the hard moments and the triumphant ones.”
What is birth photography?
For Nicole, birth photography is a way to freeze the precious, unnoticed moments of the birth experience. “This story is your legacy to your children,” says Nicole. “This is your family’s history.”
A true birth photographer is a storyteller. More than merely documenting deliveries, birth photographers invest numerous hours into capturing the anticipation, pain, and wonder of new life.
How to be a birth photographer
Nicole encourages every potential birth photographer to pursue further education. Entering the birth space without any education can be dangerous, so it’s critical to become knowledgeable about:
- the birthing process
- natural births
- possible complications
- what to expect from the different birth professionals and providers
How to learn birth photography
Consider your ideal client and the birth space they desire. What type of birthing process happens there? Learn as much as you can about photographing birth in that specific environment.
Pursue a mentor, or Nicole recommends Birth Becomes You for their courses and workshops. “If this is really the world you want to get into,” Nicole adds, “don’t let a lack of education hold you back.”
What is a “doulatog”?
“Often, I am wearing two hats at the births I attend,” says Nicole. As a self-described “doulatog,” she contributes both her experience as a certified doula and as a professional photographer.
Nicole offers a three-week intensive workshop through The Unraveled Academy called The Doulatog to help professional birth photographers and doulas merge their professions.
Recommended birth photography camera setup
Nicole’s two full-frame Nikon D750 cameras, Nikkor 24mm 1.4 lens, and Profoto A1 Speedlight come with her to every birth she photographs. Lately, she has begin considering an upgrade to the mirrorless Nikon Z6ii for its enhanced video capabilities.
Low-light birth photography
A birth photographer must be comfortable working in low-light situations. “Even in a brightly lit delivery room,” Nicole explains, “if you crowd enough doctors or nurses around a birthing person, you’ll be working with a fully-shaded frame.”
If possible, Nicole recommends shooting births with minimal light. “I find it’s far less invasive to the birthing person than opening up the shades or flipping on an overhead light.”
While initially against the idea of using flash in this setting, Nicole now shoots about 99% of her births with bounced flash in order to deliver print-worthy art.
“I use a well-bounced flash set to a very low setting,” explains Nicole. “The light is so fast that the birthing person barely registers that it happened. It doesn’t disturb the birth space the way people might think.”
Birth photography camera settings
Because she works with a flash, Nicole always sets her shutter speed to 1/200″, the highest it can go with her Profoto A1.
She varies her aperture between f/2.0 and f/3.5. “But for the moment of birth,” Nicole highlights, “my camera is almost always at f/3.5, as things move quickly in and out of the field of view.”
However, even with the Speedlight and wide-open aperture, Nicole finds her ISO between 600-800 when shooting a hospital birth and 1200-2000 during at-home births or at a birth center.
To best prepare for at-home births, Nicole also recommends scheduling a home visit before going on-call at the 37-week mark. This allows you to analyze the environment, and identify opportunities to improve the lighting if you’re shooting in the middle of the night.
Take time before the birth to demonstrate the importance of light in the birthing room. Some of Nicole’s suggestions include:
- bedside table lamps
- twinkle lights you can place around the birthing pool
- a nearby bathroom or closet light
Finding a work-life balance
“One of my biggest challenges as a birth photographer is a very personal one: the on-call time and work-life balance,” Nicole acknowledges. Like many self-employed individuals, Nicole navigates multiple roles, from wife to mom to doula and birth photographer.
“I want to say yes to the spontaneous hikes, ski trips, and camping,” Nicole describes wistfully. “In 2020, I only had three weekends when I was off-call.”
Schedule your time off
While she admits she doesn’t have all the answers just yet, Nicole is looking forward to incorporating a new, limited schedule. She recommends that you define the maximum number of births you can comfortably take in an eight-week period, then take four consecutive weeks off.
Establish a community of fellow birth photographers
Nicole truly embraces the mindset of community over competition, and she intentionally builds excellent relationships with other local birth photographers and birth workers. While it’s challenging to cultivate a wide network in smaller communities, it is worth the effort.
“You can’t guarantee that two clients won’t go into labor at the same time,” Nicole advises, “or that your kid won’t break their arm at soccer practice right when a client calls.” Having other trusted birth photographers you can call for backup is an absolute necessity.
Birth photography pricing
Nicole encourages folks new to the birth photography industry to familiarize themselves with local birth photography rates. Here’s why:
- If you’re ever forced to call on a backup photographer, you’ll need the funds to compensate them fairly.
- Other birth photographers will be less likely to help you if they know you’ve been undercutting their prices.
Nicole also reminds new photographers of the time commitment and personal sacrifice required by an on-call birth photographer lifestyle. Consider these factors when establishing your prices so your business can be profitable and sustainable.
Birth photography print sales
Nicole helps her clients celebrate their birth story by using a hybrid IPS (in-person sales) model. There are always at least two or three magical moments of connection that belong on the client’s wall.
Nicole believes in the value of birth photography art, and she designs packages that are absolutely perfect for her clients.
“I don’t create art to be viewed only on a computer,” says Nicole. “What I want is for my clients to open a beautiful heirloom album or a glass box of fine art prints. I want them to see their birth story.”
Photograph your first birth
When you’re ready to create a photography portfolio, reach out to some reputable birth work photographers. They may be willing to bring you along when the next baby is born—just to shadow, observe, and assist.
Once you feel confidant enough to book your first birth, you’ll need a birth photography contract with clear clauses regarding timelines and liability. Then prepare your “go bag” so you’re ready to rush out the door at a moment’s notice when that client calls!
Make them glad they chose to hire a photographer
Most important of all, remember your real job as a birth photographer: to lend a kind, calm energy to the intensity of the birth experience. With an intentional approach and a story-driven mindset, you’ll create pictures that generations will cherish.
Written by RACHAEL LAPORTE | Photography by NICOLE HAMIC