I distinctly remember my first maternity client and how painfully awkward it was.
Prior to the session I spent time searching for inspiration. And all I could find was ethereal draping fabrics, blowing wind and lots of bare skin out in fields of flowers. They were beautiful photographs, but they just weren’t me at all.
I couldn’t imagine setting up a studio of flowing drapery that covers everything except the bare essentials (cough, cough, the bump). Balancing baby blocks on my client’s belly was just not going to work for me. I just kept thinking to myself, there had to be some kind of in-between.
On top of the general look of the session, I was beginning to feel really self conscious when it came to how I would work through various poses. Thoughts like, “What should they do with their hands?”, “Is it too cheesy for the mom to hold the belly?” or “How do I capture the couple without making it resemble a bad prom photo?” would whirl through my head on an endless loop. It certainly wasn’t easy to get past these cliches of maternity photography, but I have found immense success in embracing the awkwardness.
It became increasingly important to me document this time with my clients in a way that made them remember who they were before their baby was born. Everything clicked for me once I shifted my focus off the bump and to the expecting couple.
I chose to capture the simple things like their morning routine. I documented how dad saw mom’s body in that moment or even the dog’s apprehension to her growing belly. In this approach, I found myself carving a path to more authentic maternity portraits. It felt like a breath of fresh air and even better, my clients were over the moon.
Through many lifestyle maternity sessions over the past six years, I have developed some tried and true tips to creating an environment for not-at-all-awkward maternity photos. Here are my top six tips for an intimate, swoon worthy, non-cheesy maternity session for those clients looking for something a little more real.
Talk a lot
This may sound silly, but I attribute my clients comfort to the conversations I have with them. Soon-to-be moms are so deep in change when we meet. Their bodies have been rapidly growing over their pregnancy. If they’re first time moms, they’re attempting to process all the newness of adding a baby to their family and even if they’re a well seasoned parent, with each new child brings so much unknown.
And then we expect them to cuddle in their underwear in front of the camera comfortably? Yeah, right.
Regardless of what they want out of their session, it has been tremendously beneficial to start a conversation around the topic. I make sure we chat on the phone before they even book. This call breaks down the different styles of maternity sessions and assures them that I am determined to make everyone feel comfortable and at ease.
During the session we talk about their hopes, dreams and fears. We talk about how the couple met, where they went on their first date and how excited the grandparents are. I learn about what they love most about their partner and which traits they hope to pass along to their kids. But most of all, we talk about how crazy amazing it is that they are about to be parents.
Throughout these conversations I am 100% engaged and hanging on their every word. I want my sessions to feel like we’re just a couple of friends hanging out.
While they crack up reminiscing about how their first date went down, I snap photos of them in that moment. Doing so brings out their most natural feelings toward each other and often times my clients forget we are even taking pictures.
Pro tip: Keep a short list of five or so questions that you can ask during your maternity sessions. It will keep the conversation moving and let you get to know them without awkward pauses!
Embrace the weird
While I truly believe that pregnancy is a time worth documenting, I also know that maternity photos can be weird! Don’t believe me? Do a quick Pinterest search on maternity photography and see what comes up.
Did you also see a plethora of flowing gowns in glowing fields with almost nothing underneath, awkward poses with lots of bump caressing, a handful of little baby shoes resting on the belly and milk baths with fresh flowers all around the bump? Are you also thinking, what the heck?
Imagine what women must feel when they do that first search for maternity photo inspiration. For some, those images are totally their jam, and if that’s the case, then rock on! But for most people, it’s all a bit overwhelming.
The first thing I do to embrace the weird is remind my clients that there’s not one way maternity photos should look. They get to drive their session whether that’s silly photos with their spouse, putting on that dress they’ve been saving for these photos or capturing the bump with their first born (aka: their pet).
We also talk about the fact that it might feel awkward for them to get in front of the camera and how that is totally normal. I give them a heads up on my style and fill them in on what they can expect out of me. No one wants any curve balls on the day of the session!
Pro tip: make sure that anyone asking you to take photos of them has seen your work. This ensures that they get your style and aren’t expecting something totally different.
Be a director
While I do not want to photograph some of the more dramatic poses that are popular in the maternity genre, I also know that I need to tell my clients what to do. Chances are, your subjects are not models. They don’t instinctively know how to hold themselves when you aim your camera at them.
This is why it’s important to constantly direct your subjects. Use simple prompts and specific directions so that they can feel like they are doing things right. Remember, they trust you to be the expert in this situation and your encouragement and adjustments will increase your subjects’ confidence.
That said, your direction does not have to be dramatic. I love using simple, silly prompts to get natural reactions from my subjects.
For example I might start by asking mom to rest her hands on her belly or turn ever so slightly to get the best angle of her growing bump. Then I might have dad whisper what they had for breakfast in his sexiest voice possible in her ear. The laughter that ensues makes for the best kinds of facial expressions!
I also make it clear that I am not here to judge their modeling skills. Instead, I want them to do the things that bring them joy so we can capture that. I encourage my subjects to turn up their favorite tunes, dance, make some coffee, or look at that funny Youtube video we were just talking about. We keep it very casual and that’s where the magic happens.
Help choose a simple wardrobe
I used to think I needed to come prepared to every shoot with a floral robe, lace kimono or some kind of flowing dress. While these are all beautiful pieces, I recognize not all ladies have them readily available in their closets.
So instead, I urge my clients to work with what they have. After all, I want them to look back at these photos and recognize the clothing they were wearing. Clothing can hold such importance for our memories, so why not incorporate them into the session?
I have spent a good chunk of time putting together a preparation guide for my clients as well as plenty of example imagery on Pinterest. I give as many different style examples as possible. Not everyone is comfortable with stripping down to their bra and underwear in a photo!
There was on time when my client wrote to me, “Okay, so I know we need to do the underwear and robe look, so let’s get that over with first.” I cringed for her! I would never want to make someone feel like that is what they had to do! Instead, we took photos in her comfy pjs with her husband. She was at ease and filled with joy that shined through in her photos.
Make sure your client knows that her wardrobe is whatever she wants it to be and more importantly, what she feels beautiful in! As a guide for sessions at home, we can usually fit in about three outfit changes if the mood strikes.
I usually take ten minutes when I arrive to their home to take a quick tour, and then talk wardrobe with the mom. I ask that she have a few options ready, but we also may go rummage in their closet a bit to find just the right things. It’s all about being flexible, and making sure mom is comfortable throughout.
Get the partner involved naturally
This may not be applicable to every shoot. I have done many sessions during the week while the partner is at work. However, I urge a lot of my clients to include the whole family for at least a portion of the session.
Keep in mind, when you include someone else you invite their potentially awkward feelings as well. It definitely takes more direction and patience on the photographer’s end to make sure both parties are comfortable.
We all know what it looks like when dad is just not feeling it. It’s usually a photo of a pregnant belly with dad, without the mom in focus or the dad just there uncomfortable holding said belly. And it just looks awkward. That being said, these photos are about the bump, so how do we get the partner involved without the awkwardness?
For starters, instead of asking them to touch the belly, suggest that they snuggle their wife and talk about what they kid will be like. I always ask if they can feel the baby kick or where it’s sitting at the moment. Do they sing to the baby or tell stories? The idea is to get them to interact with the belly but in a more natural way.
It’s important to make them focus on that gorgeous mama instead of you and your camera. By reminding them that it is their baby in there instead of just a giant belly, you are more likely to get them to relax.
Forget about the bump
Wait… aren’t these photos all about that baby bump?! Yes and no.
It may feel like the most counterintuitive thing for a maternity session. But I’ve found that it helps capture the most personality and intimate nature in the couple. This story is as much about their relationship now before baby as it is about the baby itself.
So instead of telling the couple to obsess over the baby, try making them focus on each other. This can be as simple as asking them to get comfy on the couch together. Give them something to talk and start snapping away.
One of my favorites is “I want you to tell the other person one thing that you are really proud of them for, that you have been meaning to tell them but haven’t had the chance.” Seeing as this is more of a personal chat, I assure them that I am taking a step back to photograph from a distance. From there I just tune into their body language.
I am not listening to their conversation. Rather, I am capturing them in a relaxed state. They are totally engulfed in the moment with their lover. In these less guarded moments, real authentic magic happens. I may see dad start to trace shapes over the belly or mom get teary eyed at his words. But none of it is manufactured.
If you are wanting to capture maternity photos that feel less awkward and more real, it all starts with you. Taking this simple approach to maternity photos will let you see the magic that happens naturally as a family grows. And there is nothing you can manufacture that is more beautiful than that.