Staged Outdoor Baby Portraits

This post is about photographing babies in a staged outdoor setting.  If you are looking for a procedure to make candid unplanned photographs, please skip this post.  While there are many ways to photograph babies in an outdoor setting, this is my favorite method.

  1. Pick the date of the shoot and figure out the sunset time for that date, using any one of the sunset calendars available online.
  2. Find a good park with good foliage near your home.
  3. On the day of the shoot, in addition to the baby, carry two comforters.
  4. Arrive at the location of the shoot 60-90 minutes before sunset.  The light gets sweeter closer to the sunset.  Light in the middle of the day is not suitable for outdoor portraits.
  5. Setup one comforter for the baby and the other one for the photographer, such that when the photographer is shooting the photographs, the baby is getting side-lighting.  The sun should be on the baby’s left or right, not front/back.  Side-lighting provides a lot of depth to the image.  Front lighting is flat and not recommended, if you can avoid it.  Backlighting, although interesting, is not widely appreciated for outdoor portraits.  Furthermore, set the two comforters such that the background is far away from the baby.  Instead of setting the baby near a background wall or a bunch of background trees, these backgrounds should be far away.  In the park, the photographer should be nearest to the border and the baby should be inside the park, such that the other end of the park is far away.  This will allow you to blur out the background, intensifying the attention of the viewer on the baby.
  6. On the photographer’s comforter, place the tripod, as low to the ground as possible.  This will enable you to shoot from the child’s eye-level.  Do not shoot portraits from up looking down.  It is best to shoot portraits from the eye-level of the subject.
  7. Mount a long lens on the tripod.  My favorite lens is the 70-200mm f2.8 lens.  This lens sits on the tripod.  The camera body hangs on the lens.  A telephoto blurs out the background much more than a normal or wide angle lens.  In addition, a telephoto lens does not have the distortion so common in the wide angle lenses.  Finally, the coverage provided by telephoto lens is most appropriate for portraits.
  8. Mount the camera on it.  I use a Nikon D300.  Mount an external flash on the camera. The on-camera flashes are not good enough.  I use the SB-800 speedlight.
  9. Set the camera to aperture priority exposure mode.  Set the aperture to f2.8 or f4.  This will provide the shallow depth of field to blur out the background.
  10. Choose to shoot with a single focus sensor turned on.  Furthermore, using the jockey at the back of the camera, get comfortable in moving that sensor around as necessary.
  11. Turn on the external speedlight in TTL (BL) mode (Nikon) or eTTL mode (Canon).  This will simply put out some fill light without overwhelming the subject with flash light.  Even if the ambient light is sufficient, this is necessary – it introduces a catch light in the eyes and provides some light to fill the dark shadows.
  12. Place baby on its comforter and let him/her play around.
  13. Start shooting pictures, with the focus sensor on the baby’s eyes.  Even if parts of the baby are not in focus due to shallow depth of field, it is extremely important for the eyes to be tack sharp and in focus.
  14. Keep shooting images, starting from about 30 minutes before sunset, all the way till the last light is all gone.  You should have several hundred frames done.
  15. Go home and pick your best.  Develop the image in Lightroom or similar software.

Thank you for your attention.  If you found this procedure to be useful or even if one aspect of this enhances your technique in any way, please let me know.  Feel free to forward this post to anyone that might benefit from it.

Thank you.

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