Friday, 13 June 2014

Photographing Newborn Twins - Part I

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 35mm F1.4L lens
1/60th sec at F5, ISO 400

This is my first blog and I can't think of a more fitting subject matter then discussing how I approached photographing my beautiful newborn twins. My twins are now just over three weeks old and I've faced a steep learning curve in order to get the quality of photos I desired. I am writing this blog from the point of view of a combined parent / enthusiast photographer. Therefore I had nearly limitless access to my newborns for photos, provided I had the patience to wait for the photos I wanted. Please bear in mind that this blog may provide a different perspective to a professional photographer who may only have several hours to perform a shoot.

Before we get started, I'd like to pass on a warning that was given to me by a professional newborn photographer just recently. A lot of the baby photographs you will likely see out there are the result of clever editing in Photoshop, using multiple images. This is how may newborn photographers are able to create photos of seemingly impossible poses. For example, one photo may be of someone supporting the head of the baby from above and then this is combined in Photoshop with a picture of the babies chin and hands to create the illusion that the baby is propping his or her head up. Having seen such a photo, and without knowing how it was generated, some people may attempt to pose the newborn in this way and in doing so may cause discomfort, or even pain, for the baby. Therefore please be aware that many photographs of newborns are essentially "faked" and don't attempt to pose a newborn in any way that causes strain or could otherwise place them in any danger. I know this is rather obvious but it's worth putting out there. I'm personally not a big fan of composite photos and therefore none of the photos you'll see here are stitched together that way. 

So with the warnings out of the way, I'd firstly I'll talk about lenses. I'm lucky in that I've amassed a very nice collection over the ten years or so that I've been pursing photography. I also have a 5D Mk III full frame camera to put them on, but you've probably guessed as much from the address of this blog. Do you need this camera to take stunning photos of newborns? Absolutely not, but having a great quality DSLR with sharp, quality lenses certainly helps matters significantly. However good equipment alone is not enough to achieve great photos. The equipment must be combined with technical know-how and a good eye for creative compositions. If you're new to photography then don't worry, these things will come in time.

Most of my lenses are prime, which means they have a fixed focal length. Whilst they are far less convenient than zoom lenses, which offer a range of focal lengths, they do gather many times more light due to their large apertures. Also, prime lenses generally offer superior image quality compared to zoom lenses because their optical design is optimised for the one focal length that they provide. Having said that, some of the new L series zooms on the market are starting to catch up. Most of my lenses have come with lens hoods. It's quite annoying to constantly attach and detach them but they do enhance contrast and inhibit lens flares by stopping stray light from entering the lens. Therefore I always use them. I also use UV filters on all of my lenses too, purely as an insurance policy. Although costly, I've opted to use Hoya HD filters because of their superior optical qualities and enhanced strength against impact. 

In terms of photographing newborns, I've generally used three lenses. First and foremost, the infamous Canon 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens, which is a one kilogram beast costing around $2,500 new. I've also used a Canon 35mm F1.4L lens and a Canon 100mm F2.8 macro lens. The last of these lenses is designed specifically for taking very close shots. It can produce some very dramatic shots but only costs around $500 second hand. The shot below was taken using my 100mm macro lens. 

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 100mm F2.8 Macro lens
1/3rd sec at F13, ISO 100

My newborn photographs generally fall into two categories. The first category is candid type shots, such as those I took in hospital. I stayed in hospital with my wife for around five nights and therefore all of my early photos fall into this category. I was able to bring a few of my lenses with me but I forgot to bring my Speedlite external flash. Therefore I made good use of the window light during the day with only the florescent hospital lights at night. Unsurprisingly, the window light shots were far more successful than those taken with only the hospital lights. Below is one of the window light candid shots.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 35mm F1.4L lens.
1/50th sec at F2.8, ISO 100

Once home from hospital I was able to start thinking about posed shots. I wanted to avoid the typical baby studio shots and instead opt for focusing on the connection between the twins. Whilst my twins aren't identical they have still shared a special time together in the womb and it's wonderful to be able to represent the essence of that in a photo. By the time I was ready for the first posed shot, the twins were already more than one week old. I have been told previously that many newborn photographers strongly prefer the babies to be seven days or less because they become a little more aware after this time and are more difficult to settle. Having now done many posed shots, and with the babies at the three week mark, I can understand this sentiment. Steadfast patience is an absolute must. Newborns are often posed without clothes and therefore keeping a room toasty warm is essential and adequate blankets must be provided when not taking photos, so the babies can maintain their core temperature. A really useful tip which I read about, and found to work well, was to have the mother feed in the same room and only have the newborn in nappies. This avoids a big change in temperature when it's time to take photos because only the nappy is removed - not all of their layers. Below is my first posed shot of the newborns. I have tried to capture the essence of connection that I spoke of earlier.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 35mm F1.4L lens
1/60th sec at F4.0, ISO 400

For lighting in the above shot I simply relied on my big bedroom window, which is located close to my bed. The real "trick" was to get the black background. Any matte black fabric could have been used but I found that my black dressing gown worked as good as anything else and it also provided good comfort for the babies. I laid my two sleeping babies on the bed on top of my dressing gown and slightly under exposed my shot. The background all but disappeared and only minimal effort was needed in Photoshop to clean up the occasional dull reflection of light.

Whilst we're on the topic of Photoshop, I'll take a moment to point out my current workflow for photos. As a general rule, I take my photos in RAW and then use Canon's Digital Photo Professional software to make any adjustments and write out a 16 bit TIFF file. This software is supplied with the camera. The adjustments I choose to make generally include any variation to the colour temperature, applying distortion correction when desired and turning off the sharpness and noise correction features. I then open the TIFF image in Photoshop Elements 12 and use the Google Nix "Sharpener Pro 3" to sharpen the image up. I then use either Silver Efex Pro 2 for black and white conversion or Color Efex Pro 4 for any processing of colour photos. I then convert to an 8 bit image to do any minor touch ups such as removed the odd dust blemish. Finally I write out a jpeg file. If you're wondering why I don't use Photoshop CS3 it's simply a matter of cost. Photoshop Elements does most of what I need and cost around $130 for a perpetual license. A bargain compared to other options I think.

Moving on from my first posed shoot, I decided to build a makeshift studio of sorts. I bought some cheap pine and metal support brackets from the local hardware store and assembled a frame to hold a 1.5m x 1.5m backdrop. To provide a black background I purchased a cut of black velvet from Spotlight. On sale it cost around $50. I've found the black velvet to work well provided the incident light is not coming front on. To provide a space to place the subject I purchased something called a "Newborn Baby Posing Pod". It's basically a large bean bag, designed to have a shape that is very useful for placing newborns on - that is to say it's large and can be molded flat. Below is a photo of my makeshift studio as it currently stands.

My Makeshift Studio Setup 
To accomplish remote triggering of the flash with my Canon 5D Mk III, I am using a fairly cheap radio trigger. It's a Yongnu Digital wireless controller RF-602TX. It doesn't support ETTL mode for the flash but it does trigger the flash in manual mode quite reliably. It works as a two part arrangement with one part on the camera's hot shoe and the other attached to the flash. I think it was around the hundred dollar mark and I'm certainly happy with it's features and performance for that price. In terms of diffusing the flash, I currently have to bounce the flash off a reflector and aim the reflector as required, which generally requires a second set of hands. I'm hoping to improve it with a soft box to fit onto the flash, which will cost yet another hundred dollars. Admittedly the studio is a bit "bare bones" at the moment but the setup works, both for natural light and for flash photography. Below are an example of each. The first shot with my daughter contains only natural light from the window. The second shot with the balloon was taken at night. It was entirely lit with a single flash bounced off the reflector.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
 1/100th sec at F2.8, ISO 400

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 85mm F1.2L Mk II lens
 1/100th sec at F8, ISO 100

So which is better, flash or natural light? I think that both have their place. Certainly window light can provide some spectacular toning in portraits and for this reason I've relied on it for most of the newborn photos I've taken so far. However there are several drawbacks. Most obviously, the variability in the quantity and type of light available. A few times I've needed to use an ISO of 1,600 to compensate for waning light. Whilst this isn't a big deal for the 5D Mk III camera, the use of flash provides a consistency which simply isn't possible with natural light. Another issue that you'll come across with side lighting from a window is the balance of light across a face. If the subject is looking at the window it's probably not going to be a problem. However if the subject is looking directly at the camera, a reflector will likely be needed to bounce light onto the side of the face which is away from the window. Although if the room is lit well with diffuse ambient light, it may not be such a problem. It was a hassle with my setup and the reflector never quite softened the shadows enough. I found the the eye which was away from the window tended to have far to much shadow. I could have orientated my makeshift studio towards the window but this would have caused the black velvet backdrop to reflect lots of light and therefore defeat the purpose of using it. Use of a flash avoids all of this but does introduce the hassles involved with planning and implementing an artificial lighting plan. This means a fair amount of trail and error, for me at least. I'm sure that experienced professionals can judge the optimum settings quicker than I can. When using flash, diffusing the light is essential. There are many products to help achieve this. They include the Stofen Omnibounce, the Gary Fong Lightsphere and the Lastolite Ezybox range of softboxes, to name a few. However, at a minimum, pointing the flash away from the subject and bouncing it back via a large white surface will do quite a reasonable job. When shooting indoors, white walls work fine as a surface to bounce light off. I've used my white reflector for the above photo with the balloon.

One final thought on this topic is this - a photograph is a record of light. Particularly in black and white photos where luminosity is the only variable across the photograph. I have never seen an amazing photograph with bad lighting.

The last topic I wanted to talk about in this blog is macro detail. I mentioned before that a macro lens can represent good value for money. If I had to choose only one lens to use to take newborn photographs with, a macro would likely be my choice. The reason is that it's so versatile. Macro lenses can do incredible close up images of a baby hand, face and feet but can equally be used as a portrait lens when required. When taking macro shots, bear in mind that the Depth of Field (DoF) can become very shallow due to the small focal distances. Below is an example of using a macro lens to capture the hands of my wife, our first daughter and our newborn daughter. The photo below was taken at F5.6 and most of the frame is within the DoF. However this is far from the closest focal distance. If you look back at the second photo in this blog, which was taken at a much closer distance, I needed to use F13 in order to get most of the frame in focus.

 Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 100mm F2.8 Macro lens
 1/100th sec at F5.6, ISO 100

So that's it. My first ever blog! Please let me know what you think or if you have any questions. I'll end this blog with a splash of colour.

Canon 5D Mk III with Canon EF 35mm F1.4L lens
1/80th sec at F4, ISO 320


  1. Hi there Michael and congratulations on your twins and the blog!
    I came across your blog on Flickr. As a hobby photographer myself I have photographed a few babies for the past year or so and it has become somewhat of addiction :-) It started out with my sister's son whom I have had a photo session with every month since he was born 15 months ago, and I can tell you it is such a joy to look back at the photos from those sessions. I have since then practised with other babies and I never get enough...
    I really envy you of your 35mm f1.4L It has been on my dream list for a long time :-) I also shoot with 5D MIII and I always use natural light simply because I still have to master the use of studio lights of speed lights. But in addition I prefer the natural light on such small babies. It can however be difficult in the winter (im in Iceland). I use the 50mm f1.4 and 85mm f1.8 on most of my photos.
    I must say I'm very surprised about the complexity of your editing process. Why not use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom? It does everything from raw import onwards and you can do almost all processing exept for HDR and photo merging (which you said you weren't fan of anyway) And it costs about $100 without subscription of anykind. You can even upload your photos to Flickr and other socalnetworks straight from there. Also it does a great job of managing your library. You may think I work for Adobe...but no :-)
    I like your setup with the mini studio. I hope to have something like this one day but until now I have always photographed the little ones in their own home with natural light.
    Anyway, good luck on your journey with the twins (and other family members) and I will follow your Flickr for inspiration ;-)
    Best regards,
    Rebekka (from Iceland)

  2. Thank you Rebekka for posting my first ever blog comment! You’ve really made my day with such a detailed comment – I was beginning to think that no one had actually read my article. I’m glad to hear that you’re having some good success with photographing newborns. I’ve added you to my Flickr contacts so I can see your work as you post it. Judging from your photostream, it looks like you do some good travel photography as well. Iceland seems like a very beautiful and exotic location – northern lights, waterfalls & mountains. It would be great to see some photos of that if you have any to post!
    The 35mm Canon F1.4L lens is definitely a fun lens to use. I think it’s a very useful focal length that, when combined with the shallow depth of field the lens can bring, produces a very distinct look. I haven’t really used the lens in that way for these photos here – it was mainly stopped down to F4 or more to render more detail. There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the new Sigma F1.4 Art lens, which I believe is a fair bit cheaper and also quite sharp. Perhaps this may also be something to consider? I haven’t used it so I can’t give any opinion. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if Canon bring out a 35mm F1.4L Mk II lens soon so keep this in mind.
    You’re right to point out the complexity in my current workflow – I probably glossed over this a little in the blog. However, there is some method to my madness. I like to use Canon’s proprietary Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software for converting RAW files because I like to apply distortion correction quite often. I take lots of urban and architectural shots with wide angle lenses. The barrel distortion can get quite noticeable when there are straight lines in the shots. The lens distortion data for most of Canon’s lenses is available from their DPP tool so it’s easy to apply a correction that’s matched to the lens. I don’t think (and I could be wrong here) that the same data is available in Adobe RAW. So that was the main reason for not going down the path of Adobe Lightroom for the moment. As for why I use Adobe Photoshop Elements vs Lightroom, it’s simply because I’m used to the Photoshop environment and because it’s easy to use the Google Nik plug-ins (Silver Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro etc.), however they are also available for Lightroom.
    Anyway, thanks for reading!