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Newborn Posing: How To Make Cute Photos of Cranky Babies

8 min read

Have you ever wondered why you never see a baby on the runway at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show? Or even backstage at New York Fashion Week?

We’ll tell you.

Babies are terrible models.

Sure, everyone oohs and aahs over the precious portraits of newborns swaddled in a haze of bokeh. Tiny hands and feet peek out from downy blankets. Whimsical hats cradle dimpled cheeks. Delicate lashes close over sleepy eyes…

What Bob and Betty Homemaker don’t realize is that babies – especially the newborn variety – are total divas who need constant feeding, incessant snuggling, and endless reassurance in the form of eyebrow massages, overheated rooms, ambient noise makers, and clicky tongue-noises. (No one knows why that works.)

Photo by Jess Cadena

Photographers have a tough job. We’re tasked with making someone else’s bundle of sleep-deprivation look like a bundle of rainbow-infused joy, so that when our clients look back on these months of exhaustion and anxiety, all they’ll remember is sweet baby breath and nose-nuzzles.

So how do you do it? How do you take a squirmy, screamy, wide-awake, possibly still-terrified-to-be-out-of-the-womb little human, and turn her or him into a malleable, moldable mound of infant perfection?

You Don’t.

That really is the first lesson. Approach each session with the assumption that this baby will be the diva-est of all baby divas, and you will need to pull out all creative stops in order to make a single usable portrait.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Get Them Milk-Drunk.

Think how YOU feel when you’re hungry. We like to call it “hangry” – you know, Hungry + Angry? Now, for a newborn, throw in a dash of Confusion, a fistful of What-Are-You-Doing-To-Me, and a heap of I-Was-Happy-Where-I-Was-Why-Did-You-Make-Me-Leave, and you’ll have an inkling of how miserable this little person is at the slightest pang of hunger.

If you want Baby to be chill for photos, Baby needs to EAT – and often!

Photos by Shannon Hager

  • For In-Studio Sessions: The first half-hour after the family arrives should be dedicated to feeding. This way Baby can be adapting to the new space while enjoying a pre-shoot meal.
  • For In-Home Sessions: Remind the parents to feed their baby just before you arrive, so Baby is freshly-full when you begin making photographs.

Stage An Intervention

Now that Baby is in a happy, drowsy state of milk-fed bliss, it’s time to get the whole family involved.

When Baby is wide-awake, plop the little one in her family’s arms! A newborn’s vision is … well, mostly it ISN’T. Their little eyes can’t track a darn thing, and, to be honest, you’re mostly a blur to them. However, a baby will naturally look toward familiar sounds and smells – like the scents and voices of their parents or siblings.

Photo by Andrea Krey

“Babies usually calm down in Mom’s arms. I actually prefer the baby to be awake for family images! It allows me to capture the bond between Baby, siblings, and parents.” – Andrea Krey

Though Baby isn’t able to focus on your camera, you can simulate Baby’s direct gaze with a few simple tricks:

  • Forget the flash. Natural window light is less startling to Baby’s eyes than the flash of a strobe. If you need to add a light source, consider continuous lighting instead of flashes.    

“I stand in Baby’s line of sight. It looks like the baby was looking at me, but really I was just standing in the right place!” – Shannon Hager

Photos by Amanda Nicole

I make lots of sounds! Little clicks and coos can make the baby look your way if the little guy is focused on his feet.” – Amanda Nicole

  • Lure them with light. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the brightest spot in any scene – and babies are no different. If you’re standing between Baby and a light source (such as a big window), chances are good Baby will look in your direction.

Put Them On Lockdown.

Okay, not “lockdown,” per se, but the swaddle is the next best thing. Most newborns LOVE being swaddled. They’re so fresh out of the womb, all that space is uncomfortably freeing – sort of how you’d feel if you forgot to put on undies before going to the grocery store. *Shudder.*

Photos by Andrea Krey

A good, snug swaddle makes Baby feel secure and keeps them from startling awake (if they’re lucky enough to fall asleep in the first place). But wide-awake is fine, too! Now that Baby is swaddled, you can snag some fabulous photos of the tiny tyke glaring at you (it’s their best model face – really), and make a few detail images while you’re at it! (Who doesn’t love pouty baby lips?)

“Baby can’t wiggle about while wrapped, so you can photograph those teeny toes, sweet little fingers, and beautiful lashes without too much trouble! My favorite wraps are jersey knit strips of fabric and cheesecloth wraps from Cloth Apothecary.” – Jess Cadena  

Photos by Alison Winterroth

Swaddling is also a swell solution for newborns whose emotions have run away with them. If Baby can’t stop crying, a good swaddle often saves the day!

Take the Baby Out of the Basket!

After all, would you want to arrive in a strange place only to immediately be plopped into a container and told to smile? We think not!

While no one can argue with the utter adorableness of a squinchy newborn curled into doll-like repose, we also can’t blame Babydom for the occasional refusal to participate in our portrait rituals.

Photo by Jess Cadena

The challenge? Communicating the change in plans to Baby’s agents – the parents. If the ‘Rents have their hearts set on a picture of Pumpkin in a pumpkin – but Baby isn’t buying it – it’s up to you to regroup and refocus the creative energy.

“The book The Happiest Baby On The Block was a lifesaver for me as a new mom – and now as a newborn photographer! Remember: Swaddle, Side (turn Baby on their side), Shush (the white noise app is a lifesaver!), Swing (gentle rocking), and Suck (pacifier or nursing). If you combine those with the warmth of a space heater, you get baby magic!” – Alison Winterroth

Calm the parents, soothe the baby, and move on to photographs that document their bond and capture these fleeting moments in their lives.

Header photo by Alison Winterroth

What do you do to make your newborn sessions run smoothly? Share your tips and tricks in the comments – and become part of the ShootProof community today!


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