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Tuesday Photo Tips – How to Take: Baby and Young Child Portraits w/ David Maynard & Tamron

David Guy Maynard is best known for his commercial photography and the photo workshops he leads around the country, but when he sticks close to home in Tampa Bay, Florida, he also offers services to locals such as senior photos, wedding and event photography, and baby and child portraits. And when it comes to the latter, David doesn’t do “standard” (i.e., stagnant and static).

“I don’t ever want to take ‘regular’ portraits of babies and kids,” he says, citing Anne Geddes as an inspiration for his work. “I’m looking to capture an artistic, fairy tale view of whatever stage we’re photographing. I try to offer up something unique to each set of parents that marks their child as separate from everyone else’s. And that means I go all out when it comes to stocking my supplies: You wouldn’t believe what you can spend on baby props. I’m constantly ordering from all different countries, and Amazon has become my best friend—the UPS guy must think I have 14 kids.”

To achieve his baby and child images, David uses the Tamron SP 70-200mm VCSP 24-70mm VC, and SP 85mm F/1.8 VC lenses for a versatile range of focal lengths and photographic creativity. Read on for some how-to tips from David that can help make your own baby or child photo session a success.

Meet before the session to get to know each other.
This is an important step for a few reasons. First, even though clients who come to me have usually already seen my work, they want to get to know me and my team as people. And from my end, chatting with the moms, dads, and other family members that can sometimes even lead to them giving me a great idea that I work into the session.

But mostly these meetings allow me to gauge what the entire family is all about, which I can then bring into the images. The child you’re photographing is a part of that family, and because that family has certain things attached to it that will influence the child as he or she grows up, you want to know about that. I photograph a family that loves balloons, for instance, and so we often include balloons in the photos. If you can pull out that “feeling” and tie it into your images, when the family is looking at the photos years down the road, they won’t only be saying, “Wow, these are beautiful photos.” They’ll also be saying, “That’s our family. This makes sense. This is us.”

Involve the parents.
I’m somewhat selective in whom I accept as a client—it takes the right kind of parent to work with me. We actually have a contract the parents sign that gives them a list of things we expect, including what they have to do beforehand to prep. For example, you have to make sure the baby is fed or not fed, depending on what type of photo you’re looking to get. If you want an artistic image of you breastfeeding your baby (and that’s a popular request), you can’t come in with a baby you’ve just fed and expect to get that shot.

The photo of the baby on the crate, for example, was a challenge. We had to work quickly to capture that sleeping baby image. The infant was eating small amounts at a time and was somewhat irritable. My assistant was off to the side of the crate, and the mom was behind the crate on her knees, breastfeeding just enough to get the baby to fall sleep. As soon as the baby nodded off, the mom put the baby into position on the crate and everyone scooted out of the picture. I snapped a couple of frames and then everyone rushed back in because the baby was already awake again.

© David Guy Maynard

Don’t always put a time limit on a shoot.
A session lasts as long as a session lasts (schedules permitting). I don’t go into one saying, “OK, you get 90 minutes.” I look at what we need to accomplish, and I’ll do what it takes to achieve that where possible, no matter how long it takes. I’ve had sessions, especially with multiples, when it takes a full day. The goal is to get what we set out to get.

Keep lighting to a minimum.
Lighting babies, especially newborns, is very different from lighting adults. When I’m working with a fashion model, for example, I might pop in 500 w/s of light—the models will blink or water up a bit, but they get over it. Babies, however, are very light-sensitive. They have, after all, been in the dark for nine months. If you rush into a hospital room and start bombarding a newly arrived newborn with light, they won’t like you much.

If I use any light at all for the first-day shots (images taken in the hospital right after the baby is born), I tend to use a single speedlight. I’ll have an assistant holding the light off to the side and bouncing it so I can get the shadows and highlights where I want them. If I have natural light coming in through the hospital windows, I’ll try to use that. Many of the hospital delivery sections I’ve been in are kind of dark window wise, which always creates a challenge, but indirect lighting is still best when they’re so little. When they’re older and I’m able to get them in the studio, I can use a little more lighting. The shot of the baby on the crate, for example, is a single light with a softbox on it against a white paper backdrop.

Be willing to be as goofy (and flexible) as possible.
To be effective in this type of photography, you have to be able to relax. If you’re uptight and go into a shoot thinking about your quarterly taxes or an email you have to send, the child senses that disconnect and you won’t get the best portrait.

It also helps if you can portray an almost childlike mentality yourself to photograph babies and kids. The baby eating the birthday cake, for example, which I took with the Tamron 24-70: I was sitting relatively close and just taking photos after we gave her this cake and she went to town with it. But I needed more animation in the shot. So I leaned in and said in a very animated tone, “Baby, can I have a bite? Num num num, yum yum yum.” The baby loved it and offered me some cake, and that was the exact moment I captured the photo.

© David Guy Maynard

Also know that you’re going to be on the floor a lot with baby and child photography. If you’ve got a bad back or a knee that won’t let you get back up once you go down, you might want to stick with other types of photography!

Go for expressions and emotion.
Every baby is different, but you can usually evoke expressive faces with some classic techniques: rattling a set of keys, acting silly, and so forth. The baby shown in the basket here had an extra advantage: She’s my granddaughter. Her dad (my son) was also an expressive baby. All I had to pull out was a periodic “Boo!” to get some kind of response and keep her entranced and focused on me.

© David Guy Maynard

When you’re dealing with slightly older kids, it gets a little easier—though, believe it or not, a 1-year-old can be easier to deal with than a 2- or 3-year-old. For this baby playing under the blanket, I just placed that blanket over the baby’s head and started saying “Peekaboo!” over and over. You just need to set them up, show them what you want them to do, and then allow them to naturally respond to it. After that, it’s up to you to time the shutter right.

© David Guy Maynard

There are also some technical tricks. A woman in Oklahoma who attended one of my workshops last year gave me a gift that I now use all of the time. She crochets lens wraps, and she offered me one that looks like a little ladybug—it’s bright red with little dots on it. All I do is wrap it around my lens, and it catches the babies’ attention so that they’re looking directly into my lens for most of the shoot.

As for sibling photos: It’s not as hard as you might think, especially if the older child is of an age where he or she can really understand what you’re directing them to do. For this pair of sibling images, all I had to do was ask the older sister if she loved her new baby sister, then tell her to go over and give the baby a little kiss. It’s a scene with sweet emotion that their parents loved. The photo where she’s looking away, however, was simply a luck shot. That was after a kiss, and she was getting fidgety. She looks like she’s in contemplation, but she was really just getting distracted.

© David Guy Maynard

© David Guy Maynard

Account for spontaneous additions to your original blueprint.
Even though I like to go in with a plan, not everything goes according to plan—and you have to be prepared for that. The photo of the little girl with the wings dancing, for example: That wasn’t a planned moment. She had her entire family there: her mom, sister, aunt and uncle, and grandmother. The grandma was egging her on and putting her in her comfort zone, and she just got to the point where she felt compelled to start dancing. Even though for many of my images I know exactly how I want an arm to be placed, or what expression I’m looking to get, there are also images like these that I take as they come. You have to work spontaneity in along with your more targeted and precise photos.

© David Guy Maynard

Realize some kids will be easier to work with than others.
I had a client come in with a son and a daughter, both cute kids. The son opened right up to me—I remember we were joking around about Transformers. You have to meet them at their level and talk to them about things they’ll understand. Their real personality flows at that point. The sister, on the other hand was very shy: It was the first day she’d met me, and she was a clamshell. I couldn’t get her to open up. The second time they came she was no problem, but that first time—sometimes you have to know when to admit defeat and acknowledge you’re not going to get what you want that day. Maybe choose to relax and get to know each other that day instead.

Make newborns look their best.
Because we tend to photograph babies nude, or nearly nude, when they’re first born, their skin is going to show—and many babies still have the bruises, scratches, and other marks from the birthing process. But I take a fine-art approach to documenting that child’s journey, not a photojournalistic one, so as far as I’m concerned, those marks are getting edited out. We have enough real life to contend with every day. When we’re showing the sweetest things in our lives, we’re allowed to be a little fantastical about it.

Another physical challenge with newborns: temporarily misshapen heads. It takes a little time for the head to equalize in most cases. You can use hats, of course, to mask this issue, but you can also control the outcome with your lens. if you use a wide-angle lens and get real low on a human subject, the head looks like a pin but the body is really big; if you go up high, the head looks like a bobblehead and the body gets small. That’s focal distortion.

I was photographing a newborn four hours after he was born and dealing with this very issue. I used the Tamron 24-70, which has an extraordinary minimum focusing distance that’s wonderful for child photography, to allow me to get really close to the baby. I was able to find the angle where I was getting just enough distortion and bending it in my favor to make the head look less cone-like.

Prep for the unexpected.
Some of these newborns may come in with siblings who are toddlers or preschoolers, so you have to watch your gear. They could be running in circles or dancing, and they can be very inquisitive. You could end up getting cameras or other equipment tipped. I don’t even use a tripod. We do use light stands, but I put sandbags on those so there’s no chance of them falling over. I don’t want anyone getting hurt, so we’re very cautious about that kind of thing.

Another challenge in this line of work: It’s the first and only shooting situation where I have to regularly clean my props and backdrops from a baby doing its business. A couple of weeks ago, I was doing a session with my assistant, Sammi, who was holding the baby as we were switching the backdrops and the props. Sammi had set a camera down on a short stand and was standing holding this naked infant in between where the backdrop stood and where the camera was. Then the baby started peeing, and she had to choose which way to go and which equipment to spare (she saved the camera and let the backdrop bear the brunt of it). You do have those funny moments, and you have to be ready for them.

Don’t view time with your clients as a one-off “session.”
That’s not how we approach it, anyway. The way we try to position it is that we’re there for the whole shebang. One of the more elite items I offer, for instance, is a book, which starts with a portrait of Mom and Dad when they first find out they’re having a baby. We document the entire pregnancy, from the belly swelling to preparation photos taken in the nursery, then tastefully done images of the birth itself and artistic first-day portraits. After that we’ll check back in to take photos monthly up to a year. By the time the book is complete, those clients may have been a part of my life for nearly two years.

And that can lead to repeat, long-term customers. The 1-year-old I photographed eating the cake, I’ve been photographing different members of her family for eight years now—four different generations in all. They’re like my family. In fact, during that shoot, she kept running over to where I was sitting on the floor taking pictures, wanting to sit in my lap.

Embrace what you personally take away from this type of photography.
Some of the most important moments of my life were the births of my children. I cried every time. And I kind of re-live a little bit of that each time I photograph a birth. I marvel and chuckle at the differences in the kids: One baby may emerge with no hair, another one looking like they’re ready to join Motley Crue. It’s so interesting to see those juxtapositions. The most gratifying thing about this job, though, is when I sit with the parents in front of the computer screen and show them the photos and they are so happy they tear up. Then I know I did what I was supposed to do.

To see more of David Guy Maynard’s work, go to www.dmaynardphotography.com.