your birth photography questions answered

by Sharon Johnson

your birth photography questions answered photo

Birth Photography. If you haven’t heard of it or seen a session you must have been living under a rock. National news sources as well as hundreds of local broadcasts, blogs, and articles have covered the new trend of Birth Photography and while some people love the sessions, others despise the idea. Regardless of your opinion, this is one trend that is growing quickly and doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

I’m one of those that are completely and utterly in love with Birth Photography. Having a child was such a monumental and life-changing experiences for me (as I’m sure it was for you too) that it made complete sense for me to have a photographer present. It wasn’t hugely popular at the time and people scoffed at the idea when they heard who would be at the birth of my child, but we all feel the need to capture big moments like our wedding day, I just thought, ” why not a birth photographer too?” The images from that day bring me back to the excitement, the intensity, and all of the deep love that was present in that room. My love for photography paired with my love and respect for the birthing process quickly propelled me into photographing this monumental experience for other woman and families.

your birth photography questions answered photo

After 2 years of photographing dozens of births I’ve decided to become an open book in regards to what I’ve learned. Here are the answers to the most frequently asked questions from photographers interested either out of plain curiosity or those really seeking to photograph the sessions themselves.

your birth photography questions answered photo

How did you get into shooting birth stories?

After seeing the images shot from my baby girl’s birth, a past wedding client called me up and asked if I would be willing to photograph her experience. I, of course, said “YES!” After that, I continued to build my portfolio by photographing births for family and close friends.

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Any suggestions on how I can build my portfolio?

I would first suggest going to friends and family members you know who are expecting. They will be far more likely to invite you into this private affair without you having much experience. The first few births I photographed I offered to do for just above my costs to shoot them. Figure out what a fair price for you is and make sure both you and your “client” are very clear on what it will cost and what is being delivered.

If you don’t know many family members or friends that are expecting, call up local midwives, doulas, and birth centers. They are often willing to pair you with clients they think would be interested in photographs, in exchange for them using a few images themselves.

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With being on call for births and having a child of your own, how do you make it work?

If you are passionate about photographing births and you have children, you just find a way to just make it work. Some birthdays have fallen perfectly on a weekend when my husband is home and childcare hasn’t been a problem. Other occasions, it has been pure insanity with me being at a birth for 24+ hours and my baby girl getting shipped back and forth between grandmas, daddy, and next-door neighbors. Friends and family and other photographers have been a lifesaver for me.  Also, it is a great idea to meet with some mothers in your area who are doulas, midwifes, or birth photographers and suggest being on call for one another for childcare.

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Do you meet with your clients to get to know them better or do you just get hired and then show up when it’s time?

It depends. I personally don’t feel the need to meet up with most clients before a birth. I do have a lengthy questionnaire I go over with them on the phone, and I will check in every few weeks via phone or email before the big day. I don’t consistently do meet ups because I haven’t found them to be necessary for our interaction at the time of birth to go smoothly. This works with my personality. I can typically walk into a hospital room of a complete stranger/client and make them my best friend without a problem, and I find my clients tend to be the same way.  If a client asks to meet with me then I am always willing. However, there have also been times where I wasn’t sure if a potential client and I were a good fit so I have suggested it. Do what works for you and your clientele.

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Why do you, and a lot of photographers, shoot Birth Stories in all black and white?

I can only speak for myself so I’ll tell you why I prefer black and white for birth stories. I love the timelessness, softness, and story-like quality that B&W offers. For me it provides a sense of documentation while at the same time offering a boundary to becoming journalistic and, in my opinion, less intrusive. Color, for me, is too harsh and almost too real. This is completely based on the impression I want my images to convey and what works for me. That doesn’t in any way mean that you can’t shoot in color or people shouldn’t. A bonus to shooting in B&W is that editing is FAR quicker, and editing color in horrible hospital light is no cake walk!

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When is the best time to arrive at the hospital?

Once again, it depends. I typically try and arrive at the hospital/home/birth center when the client is dilated to a 6, but EVERY scenario, birth, and mother are different. Unfortunately there is no way to predict whether your client is going to go from being dilated from a 4 to a 9 in 30mins or a 5 to a 6 in 5 hours.  That is why asking a lot of questions before the birth is important, like “Did your past deliveries go quickly?” and  “Are you being induced or do you plan to labor at home for as long as possible?” These answers can always change when the moment arrives, but they often give you a better idea as to what might happen and when you should arrive.

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How do doctors and staff treat and react to you?

I have never been treated poorly or negatively at any hospital or birth center. Most nurses are extremely helpful actually, making sure they get out of the way when they can for me to get a shot, and I have yet to have a nurse or Dr. tell me I cannot photograph them or anything else in the delivery room. I make sure my clients have permission from the Dr. as well as the hospital to have me there, and the FIRST thing I do when I arrive at the hospital is to introduce myself to the front desk and nurses, being very personable and sweet, of course. I also let them know that I’m great at staying out of their way and to just give me a shove if I end up an obstacle. Be nice to them, respect the job they have to do and they will more than likely do the same to you.

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How do you make sure you don’t need to be at 2 births at the same time?

You just can’t really. I used to schedule birth clients weeks apart but even doing that wouldn’t assure both clients don’t go into labor at the same time. Currently I will only pick up 3 birth stories a month and I have a backup photographer on call if I do in fact ever need her. I have yet to miss a birth (knock on wood).

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Do you use a flash?

Sometimes. I often find I’m shooting in a pitch-dark room at 2am and even if my camera is at 1600 ISO and f/2.0, there is little light to help. I typically try bounce light off of sidewalls. I have found that bouncing light off the ceiling or straight on the subject delivers poor images. Even at that, I use it sparingly and when it is necessary. If the mother finds it distracting or annoying I will ask to turn on lights or just make it work.

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What is your favorite camera and lens while shooting births?

I can shoot an entire birth on my 35mm (film shooter here) and 50mm 1.4 lens. It’s easy, it’s fast, I don’t have to worry about lens distortion, and it does just what I want it too. I find the less gear at a birth the better. Trying to sort through lenses and cameras while nurses and staff are rushing in and my client is screaming “THE BABY IS COMING!” is not something I like to worry myself with.

your birth photography questions answered photo

If you are passionate about both photography and birth, being a birth photographer is an incredibly satisfying profession. I wish you much luck as you delve into this wonderful new trend as you practice, experience, and find what works for you.

Have more questions? My book is always open, feel free to send them my way!

your birth photography questions answered photo

your birth photography questions answered photoSharon JohnsonWashington
Photographer
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Sharon is a Seattle based photographer focusing her work on Birth, Child, and Family photography. She shoots exclusively with film and an old camera that is worth less than her phone. Her blog comprises of her recent work but mostly her daughter and their pleasant adventures. Her blog and her work, she says, is the conduit in which she shares her truest sense of the world with others. When she isn’t shooting you will find her reading and marking up her favorite novel, concocting some strange meal in the kitchen, and playing hide and seek and giggling with her husband and baby girl.

Read more articles by Sharon Johnson.

28 Comments

  • Devon says:

    THANK YOU so much for this great Q&A!!!! Loved reading it, loved the pictures and I found it VERY helpful. I’m a portrait photographer and love photographing newborns. I’d like to get into birth photography but was lost on how to start. This really helped.

    Thanks!!

    Devon

  • Pam Western says:

    Thank you so much. I am stunned that you shoot in film. Wow…that is amazing! Your photos are beautiful. I’ve been a birth photographer for a couple of years and had the privilege of shooting 4 births so far…I can’t wait to do more. I love it so much, it is so fulfilling. Thanks for sharing your knowledge! Film? Wow!!!

    • Pam, It’s funny because I feel the same way about digital. Digital boggles my mind and I can’t believe when people produce such beautiful images from it ;)

      • Matthew Parks says:

        I’m a portrait and event photographer in Maine. I shot film for close to twenty years and I’m transitioning into digital. This was an amazing article, so thank you for writing it. Not only am I interested in getting into this for of photography (I am also trying to build my maternity and newborn portfolio), but I am trying to ease my wife into the idea of being willing to have a photographer when our baby girl is born in March. The images in this article are so beautiful, it may actually convince her to let me have a colleague of mine chronical the story for us. Cheers!

  • You are so welcome, Devon! Births are really such a rewarding event to document. All the best of luck as you venture into shooting these!

  • Karen says:

    I loved looking through these photos! I absolutely love them. I wish this was popular back when I had my two kiddos.

  • Julie says:

    Sharon, thank you so much for sharing! I shot one birth and can’t wait to shoot more. It’s so amazing to be a part of the miracle :) Thank you!

  • Absolutely powerful images. I got choked up a bit, considering I have had a baby and it just brings back all the memories! I love that they are in black/white too! Love the “storytelling” effect!

  • Jennifer G says:

    This is amazing!! I just had a daughter in June 2012, and I am sad to say, that there is not ONE photo of me and my baby the day she was born. I took a few self-portraits of her and I but not good one, from our first “meeting” after she was born. Sadly, I blame my husband. Photography is a huge part of my life (not a pro, but I dabble) and my husband found the DSLR to be too much on her birth day. I SO wish I had a friend who is a photography for families come on down and capture every moment. This brings tears to my eyes…Keep it up!! l

  • This photos are just simply astonishing.

  • kd says:

    Hi Sharon, I have a question! Of course we all (well, probably most of us) want, hope and plan for a beautiful labor and vaginal delivery. But let’s be real. Sometimes babies end up delivered by C-section due to unforeseen circumstances. What then? I would not expect many hospitals allow photographers in the OR, and especially not for emergency surgeries… do they? Have you ever had this happen? Thanks!

    • Hi KD, great question. I have heard of photographers being able to go into a c0section when it has been a planned c-section and they have worked it out with the dr and hospital before hand. I have had vaginal planned births turned emergency c-sections twice. I just go right on shooting. It’s still the story of their birth, SO much happens before and after the actual deliver that there is still so much story to tell. here is a great and very moving example : http://www.sharonjohnsonphotography.com/watsons-birth-story/

  • Joy says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this, I am very interested in getting more birth experience. This was very helpful, thanks!

  • cassie says:

    Thank you for sharing, very interesting article to read! I remember at my daughter’s birth we were told photography wasn’t allowed, but someone (must have been the doula??) snapped some pictures with my husband’s camera when my daughter was being born. The quality was bad, but the emotion is priceless (we have a great photo with my daughter in my arms and my look of amazement literally seconds after she was born). I would think your work is very rewarding and your clients treasure the memories you capture.

  • Beautiful work! I love how you’ve captured these stories for the new parents and families. This type of work interests me and your tips are really helpful!! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

  • Joyce says:

    This post can’t come at a better time! I will be shooting my first ever birth story this Monday, a c-section. Thank you!

  • Katie Cook says:

    I was just wondering how you go about payment. Do you collect a deposit up front or the entire amount? What about if you miss the delivery? refunds? What kind of policies would you put in place so that its not chaos at the birth? Thanks for sharing

  • Sloane says:

    Hello! I am just getting into the birth photography! I was hoping you could give us some example of the questionnaire that have prepared for your families. I’ve have two booked for February and have asked them all the questions that I can think of. They have cleared this with their doctor and hospital/birthing center, but I want to make sure I am asking all of the right questions! Thanks in advance!

  • Lisa Wood says:

    Sharon, I truly want to thank you for sharing such wonderful insights and tips for birth photography. I find that some photographers just don’t want to share their info. and I’m a believer of sharing some info. that could help others trying to pursue their passion. I recently did my first birth bc a friend ask me. I was very nervous and I’m so glad I did it!!! What an incredible experience!!! Now, I will be doing another one any day now and I thought I would never be doing this kind of photography. hehe My life was truly touched capturing such an incredible moments!

    Thank you for sharing and you are very gifted in your photography work :)

  • marie says:

    I know this is an older article, but new to me. Thanks so much for your advice on birth photography! Loved this.

  • Amy Barker says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article! I am shooting my first birth this week. She’s scheduled to be induced on Friday if she doesn’t go before hand, since she was due last Friday. I’m not really ‘nervous’, more anxious about making sure I handle it professionally and making sure I get the shots I need. I loved the way you talked about handling talking to the staff, that was really helpful!
    I wondered if I should shoot in color and change them to B&W in post processing, but now I am sure I will shoot in B&W.
    Thank you again for this article! ♥

  • Chris Dittz says:

    Hi Sharon Johnson, thanks for sharing all important information. Your work is amazing. I have a delicate question, some clients ask me to do this kind a work, I tried once for free, but I don’t have idea how to set a price for a labor, this because we never know how long the wait will be. If you can help me I’ll be very thankful. Thanks in advance!

  • Veronica says:

    Hi!! I will be doing my very first birth photography session… What tips would you suggest?

  • Heather Potter says:

    Do you ever have issues with your 50mm in tight rooms? I’ve had that issue before and I’m wondering if that’s when a 35mm lens would work best. I often find myself in the smallest birth rooms known to mankind.

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