8 Tips for Newborn Shoots with Fussy Babies

Right after my insanely busy fall season I wanted nothing more than to take at least a month-long break from photography. But, I had two newborns due in early December that I had booked months earlier. As fate would have it, they were both born just days apart so I needed to squeeze them into the same week of shooting. Then I got a call from a family whose photographer had canceled on them due to a family emergency and they begged me to fit them in.

I have a terrible time saying no, so I shot three newborns in one week. To give you an idea, I usually do one maybe two per month, so this was quite unusual for me and a little bit terrifying.

I have a confession – I don’t really LOVE  newborn photography. There, I said it! Partly though I think it’s because I’m just not that GOOD at it.  I mean I’m good at lighting and shooting them, but the posing and handling part I just don’t feel 100% confident in.  In fact, after EVERY newborn session I swear that I’m not going too book another one until I take a newborn workshop! But then, some time passes and I get a little amnesia and get excited about the challenge again and I cave.

So, there I was with three newborn sessions, each more difficult than the one before. But then I realized I was using the same techniques to try to salvage what I could from the shoots and that those techniques might be useful/helpful to anyone else who is photographing a less than perfect sleeper!

First, what follows is assuming you are employing all the BASIC techniques of newborn photography including keeping the room as close to 90 degrees as possible, using some sort of white noise app, making sure blankets and surfaces are warm before placing baby on them etc.  What I’m talking about here is when you are doing everything “by the book” and it’s STILL not going well -what can you do to make sure you get enough variety for a gallery?

1) Swaddle. Duh, you knew this already right?  But, there’s a twist.. I find that the types of fabrics that I was using to swaddle sleeping newborns to be completely inadequate for swaddling awake babies that are moving their arms and legs and tend to break free much too easily from any fabric with slip.. so I went out recently to BRU and bought some semi-attractive looking regular type of receiving blankets for this purpose.  Before my next session, I’m going to order these stretchy knit scarves from Van Klee instead.


2) Move to the parent shots. I find that even fussy babies are usually OK with doing parent shots for at least as long as it takes to fire off a few frames!


And, if not, see #1! During the session above, I only BRIEFLY shot this image before baby lost it. So we fed him, tried to come back later but he still wasn’t having any of it, so as a last resort we swaddled him for the family shot:


3) Staying on the topic of parent shots for a second, there is one pose in particular that I find can usually be achieved even when baby is not sleeping or even that calm, partly because you can’t see baby’s face that well, but also because the frog-like leg position and hand around baby’s head like this keeps the baby well contained even when awake. Plus, often the interest of looking into their parents’ faces will hold their attention long enough to get them to calm down a bit:


This baby was also pretty fussy when this shot was taken:


4)  Enlist one of the parents to help you hold the blanket up vs. having it clipped to a stand.  This is something I recently started doing and it has made a world of difference in how free I am to rotate the beanbag’s angle towards the window to get my lighting just how I want it.  But as it pertains to a difficult session, this will also allow you more freedom to shoot the same pose from different angles.  For example, after this shot:


I tried pulling him up over the “bump” I had created in the blankets expecting him to keep his head angled the same way, but then he turned it.  Instead of trying to make his head turn the way it had been (and risking him waking up in protest!)  I rotated my whole beanbag so that his body was no longer at a 45 degree angle but instead at a 90 degree angle from the window.



I can’t tell you how much this freedom from “blanket clipping” has helped me with getting more optimal light and angles throughout my newborn shoots!

5)  Shoot the details. When you REALLY are struggling to get the requisite number of shots, details shots will add some much needed variety:


It’s not just a gimmick either, parents LOVE these shots! The mom told me that this smooshy lip thing he’s doing is his signature move, so you can BET that’s something the parents want to remember!

6) Accessorize Accessorize Accessorize.  Often, I end up getting 90% of the shots from a session during one 15 minute stretch of REALLY deep sleep.  When that happens, I will literally switch out hats and bows like a mad woman trying to get some variety before I risk a bigger move like changing blankets.  This little guy REALLY gave us a run for our money until literally the LAST 10 minutes of the shoot when he finally feel into a super deep sleep.. so once we got him in the bucket I just changed up the hats and kept shooting!





7) Prioritize. I always set expectations with the parents that we may not get through all the shots they want, so I ask them what is MOST important to them and shoot that first. I had one client that REALLY wanted a swaddled shot. Normally I swaddle when baby isn’t cooperating as a plan B, but it was so important to her that we actually swaddled this little girl even though she was deeply sleeping:


If left to me, I always assume that baby on blanket and baby with parents are most important, but sometimes the parents have other ideas (they might want that prop shot more!) so it’s ALWAYS a good idea to ask!

8) Don’t be too hard on yourself, you probably have more than enough.  The second to last newborn I did was my hardest one EVER. I seriously could not move her fingers without her waking up screaming. By the end of the session we were all a little stressed out and I was just really down about it.  But then I realized that the shots we did get were great.  In fact, this is one of my favorite newborn images I’ve ever taken:


And in the end, even though we didn’t have enough variety for say a huge album, we had covered all our bases.  We had some beautiful wide awake swaddled shots, a few full body shots as above, a shot of the whole family and a shot of mom with baby and dad with baby.  Honestly, that’s plenty to choose from when it comes to the parents ordering products.. often times parents order  multiple copies of their favorite one or two shots anyway, and all it takes is ONE great shot printed on a large canvas to make an impressive statement:

Or just the three parent/family shots to make a fantastic grouping:

And two are all you really need for a beautiful birth announcement!

So while you may be beating yourself up about the lack of variety,  you are probably the only one. The parents were there -they KNOW how difficult the session was and they are most likely just incredibly grateful that you were able to get ANY wonderful shots and will be pleasantly surprised!  That’s how this family was – in the end we laughed about it, they got what they needed and everyone was happy.

Hopefully all your newborns are good sleepers and you won’t ever need any of the tips above. If so, you are luckier and probably better at handling babies than I am :)

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Sara says:

Holy Cow, I am pretty sure you wrote this for me. ;) I’d have to say that newborn session s are my least favorite. They are the hardest and most stressful for sure. Typically my back hurts and my head hurts and I am sweating buckets because of the warm room or space. I do end up loving the end result just not getting to that result.
I am so glad you wrote this, it helps me realize that maybe I am not doing anything wrong if other photographers are going through the same stuff. Thanks for your insight and I LOVE your work!

susie miller says:

I bought some stretch scarves at Lost River Clothing. They have a great selection of colors. They work really well.

Dana says:

I never thought about the variety (or lack of) in that way! Very enlightening!

Sophie says:

Love the tip for swaddling, and I’ll have to give those stretchy scarves a shot. Thanks for the awesome tips!!

sara says:

Hi, love your photography!!! Where can I find a bucket like yours? Thanks!!!

ariana says:

Thanks! I got this at design revolution :)

Rob says:

Just a follow-up, since Ariana recommended the Baby Shusher Pro app above. I just noticed the app is on sale for 99 cents (down from $4.99) starting today. I have no idea how long the sale will last.

ariana says:

Hi Emily, I don’t have any recent pullbacks, however, getting their heads up is just a matter of putting rolled up receiving blankets (or some other small cloth) under the blanket right under their arms/head after they are settled..it’s essential to keep them from burrowing! Also try to get their head on their hands for the same reason – to give them some lift!

Emily says:

Ariana: Thank you so much for this post!! It was so helpful to me. Your photographs are very inspiring. Could you possibly do a post with pullbacks for us on lighting/posing? I get especially frustrated with propping the babies head up so I can see their face! My newborns always want to burrow their little head into the blanket!
Thanks again for the post!

ariana says:

Yulie, the elf hat with the pom pom I got from Design Revolution, the bear hat I got from this Etsy seller: http://www.etsy.com/shop/AngeesOriginals?ref=seller_info and the newsboy hat from here: http://www.etsy.com/listing/73067070/newborn-newsboy-baby-hat-in-barley-color

yulie says:

Hi Ariana, I am a fan of your photographs. Everything looks amazing! Could I ask you where you get those adorable newborn boy knit hats? Thanks!

Mama Smith says:

Your photos are so amazing! I can’t imagine that this isn’t your primary job. As a very discerning non-photographer I can say that you’re right that the little things you’re worrying about are not noticed by the clients. All of these look more than perfect to me.

Leslie says:

Thanks for sharing this! I just did a newborn recently. I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of a good white noise app?


ariana says:

Hi Leslie, yes I can! Baby Shusher pro!

Lacey says:

Great tips, Ariana!! Thanks for sharing!

Lisa says:

Great tips! I especially like the idea of being able to rotate the beanbag – I’ve been caught trying to endless repose a baby when they didn’t lay toward the light the way I wanted them to, when I could have just rotated the bean bag!

Wow. I could have written this myself…but I didn’t. Because I didn’t think of it! This perfectly describes a newborn session for me, as well as the three newborns sessions I too shot last week. Very well done!

ariana says:

@Jill, thanks lady – you are becoming quite the photographer yourself!!

@Rob it really is amazing.. I seriously don’t know how I lived before I got that lens! I think the Nikon 24-70 is better than the canon version, so you should be good there. But a 50mm is really standard for newborns, most photogs I know use it exclusively for newborn work.. you just can’t get that yummy bokeh unless you open much wider than the 2.8 that the zooms allow. Also realized I forgot to answer about the beanbag.. any large “puck” ie flat on top beanbag will do. I got mine from JCPenney when they were having a big sale! It’s HUGE. like takes up the entire trunk huge!

Rob says:

Thanks for the fast reply. I’m a Nikon shooter, so I’m not too familiar with Canon glass. However, I have tried the 70-200 II with a 5D II and indeed it is a “rock my world” combo. Nikon’s 24-70 isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good. Will look into the 50 1.4 in the near future, thanks!

You are SO amazingly talented. Gah, those pictures are GORGEOUS! Have you tried the Aden & Anais swaddling blankets? I always found I could get a good tight wrap with those on Leyna, even when she was wide awake and fighting, and they are sooooo beautiful.

ariana says:

Pam, that last picture is priceless!

Thanks Rob! I use my 50 1.4 for all my newborn shots. I used to use the 24-70 for the parent shots, but now that I have a studio and enough room to back up a bit I just keep the 50 on and stop down for the parent shots. I’m not a huge fan of the 24-70 at all.. I heard they are coming out with a version II, so hopefully it will be like the 700-200 version II (ie rock my world!) :)

Rob says:

Reading your intro, all I can say is we are our harshest critic. I think these look fantastic! We’ve only done a few newborn shoots ourselves, and have had similar experiences of frustration. Glad to read that it’s not just us.

If you don’t mind, I have a couple of technical questions. What lens do you typically use for a newborn shoot? I use a 24-70 f/2.8 for a lot of my indoor kid shoots but haven’t quite found the focal length I like for newborn shoots.

Also, is there a type of beanbag you recommend? With my own son we used a boppy that had the center filled in, but it still had too much of a curve in the center for some shots. Trying to boost it with blankets made it look lumpier than I like, so I was thinking perhaps a beanbag is something we should consider.

pam says:

I actually shot three newborns this weekend too, and I’m no pro. I just do it for fun. I almost wish you’d posted this a week ago, but I’m happy with what I got (considering this was just for fun, for friends.)

and this was my favorite of all: