by Sharon Johnson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
Sharon Johnson, Washington
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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.