So you’ve seen the recent video and want to be a birth photographer! Maybe you’ve been attending births as a doula and want to add to your services. Maybe you’ve shot portraits for a while and love the drama and emotion you see in the birth photos that other people have taken. But are you ready for births? Birth photography offers some unique challenges and obstacles that you don’t have with traditional portrait or lifestyle photography. It’s very demanding of both the photographer’s skill and equipment. I’ve put together a list of basic criteria that I feel are essential to birth photography:
1. Are you a legal business? Not specific to birth photography, but an important one. Know the laws pertaining to businesses operating in your area, and follow them. Wish I didn’t have to include this, but there are so many people acting as a business without being legal and competing against those who are operating aboveboard.
2. Be ready to live the on-call lifestyle. So important I’ve written a whole article on it you can read here.. If someone were to call you this very minute, who would cover for you for the next 24-48 hours. If your family woke up in the morning and you were gone, would everything run smoothly? Can you function well with minimal sleep? If you think births can be done in normal business hours, think again!
3. Emotional readiness. Birth, breastfeeding and parenting can be pretty hot topics. Most doulas have already explored these issues, but it may be a new concept to photographers. Can you be a silent witness when the laboring mom is making choices completely opposite than what you feel is right? Can you set aside your personal feelings and capture precious family experiences that make you uncomfortable in a way that the family will look back on fondly? Do you have any strong emotions remaining from your own experiences giving birth that might be triggered at another birth? Keep in mind that the planned birth might change, and even moms planning an unmedicated home waterbirth can end up birthing by cesarean. Can you ride that roller coaster?
Also, when you are a portait or wedding photographer you can post sneek peaks of sessions or events you are excited about sharing. Would you be able to attend the most beautiful birth, take the most amazing photos, and wait to post them until after the parents have had the chance to share the news? Or never be able to share them online at all? While we are not held to the same legal privacy requirements as health care professionals, you do need to gain your client’s trust and keep it. How you act with sensitive information and images can have wide reaching effects on your reputation, hospital policies, and the whole industry.
4. Do you know the basics of labor and delivery? You don’t have to become a full-fledged midwife or doula (unless you want to or already are) but being familiar with the language and process of birth can be helpful. I recommend taking a good quality childbirth class that teaches these things. (The one you took while pregnant doesn’t count! Take one again in the photographer role, and take advantage of the opportunity to network with the teacher while you’re at it!)
5. Do you have good reliable backup gear? Sadly, cameras fail. Memory cards corrupt and stop recording. Batteries die. Shutters stick, and lenses crack. Knew someone once who left a birth before baby came because her (one and only) battery died. Get spares of EVERYTHING. Including a body and lenses. If you dropped your camera at a birth, what would you do? If nothing else from this article impresses on you, please remember this: You get ONE chance at shooting this birth. One. No reshoots. You can’t reschedule like you can a portrait session. Even weddings can be restaged if the photographer screws up, but not births! You have to be 100% on the ball and prepared for anything!
6. Do you know how to edit well and consistently? Can you edit in a way that the photos stand alone to tell the story and don’t scream that they were edited? Can you convert to black and white with good skin tones? Do you know how to edit a photo where there are mixed light sources? It is not unusual for a daytime hospital birth to have fluorescent light, incandescent light and daylight all in the same shot. And you can’t ask for the action to stop while you pull out a grey card and take a shot!
7. Lastly, and most importantly, know your camera. I cannot stress this enough! Know what it can do. Know what it CAN’T do. Know how to work around those limitations, if possible. Know what ISO is, and how you can use it at a birth to get the best photos possible. Know what an aperture is, and which apertures let in more light. Know what is the maximum shutter speed you can shoot handheld and not get blur. Know how to change the settings on your camera quickly and without fumbling. If you have to ask what settings to use in challenging situations, you’re not ready for births. Try these exercises and see if your skills and gear are up to the test: (You have 5 minutes for each exercise, and that’s generous!)
- At night, go to a room with no windows. Light no more than 3 candles. Take a few portraits of someone else in the room, with NO FLASH. Then try the same with a flash. Can you get good dimensional light and avoid hotspots with a flash? (Hint: Not possible with the pop-up….)
- Park yourself in the corner of a small room, like a child’s bedroom. Without moving your feet more than 6 inches, take 6 different portraits of a small group of people (5-7) taking, moving around, and passing around a doll 6 feet away. Try to get good compositions, clear shots of faces, and no blurry shots.
- If you think you ever want to shoot a waterbirth, fill up your tub and place an object in the water. Take a few photos of the object, both with and without flash, minimizing the reflection in the water. Try it again in super low light.
Professional photographers can relate when someone gets a “nice” camera and suddenly considers herself a photographer. Birth photography is like any other specialized field of photography that comes with its own challenges. Never in a million years would I call myself a sports photographer or a high-fashion photographer without learning all I can about the field, practicing on my own first, then practicing with clients that know my limitations.
If you already have a passion and profession surrounding birth, birth photography can be very rewarding but there will be a steep learning curve before you can master the craft. I can’t think of any other event that can offer the same emotion and drama as welcoming a new life.
So….are you ready?
Many thanks to Sarah Morgan Boccolucci, a fellow doula and birth photographer in Colorado, for collaborating with me on this article. We’ve collaborated before on another article, if you would like to read it.