We’ve received a wonderful response from our article in Rangefinder Magazine about birth photography, and have had many questions on the how-to aspect of it all. The article is a great starting point, but here is a little more information in case you’re wanting to delve into this genre yourself.
how did you get started in birth photography?
a wonderful friend of mine approached me about the possibility of photographing her birth and i was completely on board. i had already had two babies of my own and a birth photographer present, so i was familiar with not only the birthing process, but a well-established photographer.
what equipment do you use?
you can see all my equipment on my website right here, but what i mainly use at a birth is my Nikon D3s with either a 50mm f1.4, a 17-55mm, or a macro lens for the tiny little details. i also use my contax 645 medium format film camera with an 80mm f2.0 and use a variety of black and white film stocks but always have ilford 3200 on hand because of it’s low-light capabilities. all of my lenses are fast (meaning they can shoot in low light because the aperture can open very wide, anywhere from 2.0 to 1.4)
what lighting equipment do you use?
i bring a flash (sb900) and a video light with me just in case, but i have never – and hopefully WILL never – use them. for me, the beauty of birth photography is the photojournalistic aspect of it. capturing life as it is truly happening, and not interfering. Not only do i feel that a flash is obtrusive in a labor and delivery room, but i also feel it affects people’s reactions. i prefer to be a fly on the wall, and i never want my clients to know when i’m photographing and when i’m not. i truly want them to just forget i’m even there, so the rawness of the moment can happen naturally. Furthermore, if i have a laboring mother who wishes to be in a darkly lit area, if i fire a flash the end result will be a photograph of a well-lit area. this does not conjure up any memories of what her labor and delivery were like, it falsifies it. when my clients look back through their photography i want them to say “yes! this is exactly how i remembered it!” especially if that means that the room was dark and just a bit of the evening sun was coming through the window.
So… what do you do if it’s too dark for photography?
i come prepared. my Nikon D3s can handle really high ISOs and low-light situations, and pair that with a 50mm f1.4 lens and i should have a lot to work with. for film i make sure to bring ilford 3200, or i can also ask my film lab to push film so i can get a little more flexibility out of it. i prepare my clients beforehand that i work with all natural light, (and they are excited about this) so they do understand that i need at least SOME light to work with. on ocassion i’ve had to open the blinds a little more, or turn on a bed-side lamp. i get creative about my lighting, and i do what i need to do to get a good shot by working around it. i, however, never ask my laboring mother to move to a better location with better light, as that would be a little too much interference for my comfort. if it’s something i can suggest beforehand, i will, but not during labor. for example, during a home water birth i may ask if the pool could be set up near a window vs in the middle of a dark room. but once labor is underway, i take lemons and make lemonade, always finding a solution. it is challenging and very rewarding. if worse came to worse, and i had exhausted ALL options…. i would resort to my flash. but it would really have to be a situation where it was either no photography at all or photography with flash. And i would definitely consult the laboring mother as well as doula before i made that decision as i would hate to be firing a flash in a newborn baby’s sensitive eyes. how obtrusive, jolting, and frightening!
wait… why are you shooting film?
if i had my preference i would shoot film almost 100% of the time. but there are some areas that digital excels and so i use the medium that i feel best fits the purpose. i’m not necessarily a film snob, but i DO love the richness of it, the film grain, the truthfulness of it, the feeling behind it. film is where i started, and where my heart remains. at a birth it’s about 50/50. at a wedding film comprises the majority about 90/10. and portraiture is 100% film.
film? i still cant wrap my head around this….
it is so much information that i wouldn’t be able to really go into it. but i shoot all medium format film, on professional film cameras, and send off my negatives to be developed by a professional lab. they also scan the negatives in for me so that my clients have a digital file, just like regular digital images. the only difference being the quality, tonalities, and loveliness that film delivers. if you’re interested in shooting film, or still mind-boggled, start with jonathan canlas’s book Film Is Not Dead.
what is the end product your clients receive?
they receive a slideshow of watermarked images. they are free to post this online or share with their friends and family. anything and everything else is purchased at an in-home ordering session a few weeks after the birth. at our in-home ordering session my clients see their images for the very first time, and they have the opportunity to purchase albums (that i’ve pre-designed), prints, canvases, as well as high-resolution images.
what is the investment for your birth photography?
currently, at the time of publishing this article, my prices for birth photography are 5,000.00 which covers my time on call, time shooting, film, film development, and the low-resolution watermarked slideshow.
i dont think that clients in my area would ever go for that price tag. that seems expensive…
i agree. it sure does. and although every market is different, i encourage you to thoroughly think about the price you will need to charge if you are to be a legitimate business that is able to subsist and not fold. The price i charge is based on the fact that a birth photographer needs to be on call at the very least 2 weeks before the due date, and up to two weeks after. that is an entire month that you need to devote to one client. not to mention, that price covers your time shooting, which could be anywhere from 1 hour to 48. you could potentially be shooting for two days straight. furthermore, if you have children of your own (which, most of us do, having fallen in love with birth after we ourselves became mothers) that price needs to be able to cover childcare at any hour of the night for any length of time. it also needs to be able to cover meals for you during the birth, as you could be shooting long enough to have to eat up to 6 meals. For me, there is the overhead cost of physical film and development and scanning, and travel to get to my client’s births. there is also time meeting with clients in person, and the in-home ordering session afterward, and travel to those sessions. and those are all individual costs specifically for this one client. not to mention the cost of doing regular business, paying taxes, purchasing contracts, having a lawyer look over your contracts (more on that in a minute), printing marketing material to get your name out there, advertising costs, website and blog development and upkeep, insurance for yourself as well as your equipment, the cost of backup equipment, etc. and after ALL of this, you will still need to be able to bring in some sort of profit, no matter how marginal, to be able to stay afloat and continue to do what you love. i teach classes on birth photography (and specifically, pricing birth photography) at WPPI (wedding and portrait photographers international) and also do one-to-one mentorships to help get your business on track. if you need help with the business side of things, don’t hesitate to send me an email and we can get one set up for you. firstname.lastname@example.org
so what if no one will pay that price?
it is up to you to create the value for it in your market. it is not a matter of they WONT pay for it, as they dont see the VALUE in it. Clients have money for things they care about. You need to show imagery that tugs on heartstrings, that pulls emotion out of people, so that they feel as though they wouldnt be able to live without having birth photography to remember their birth by. if you have done this successfully, they will find value in your work, and room in their budget. when i was starting out i had clients tell me before that they couldnt afford a 50.00 print, yet i saw her wearing a designer purse and driving a luxury vehicle. she surely could AFFORD to pay for it, but she didn’t see the VALUE in it. When i looked inwardly and recognized this, it is when things turned around. my prices are not inflated, they are just realistic. I also wont apologize for making a living in photography. just because i can subsist off of my income doesnt mean i’m any less of a person or ‘artist’ or cheating a client out of their money. it means that i respect myself, my family, and my business, and value my time and work. and when you value yourself, your clients will too. and because i do not give discounts willy nilly, it also means that i can afford to donate some of my time to truly worthy causes and feel good about that. if i were barely breaking even i’d be taking on so much work just to barely scrape by that i would not be present as a mother for my children, my business would be failing, my clients wouldnt get the attention they deserve, and i would most definitely not ever have time to give back to the community or shoot a birth on a pro-bono basis for someone who deserved it. birth photography is a new genre. you can make it what you make it. you dont have any precedents before you, you dont have to break the mold. you get to INVENT THE MOLD. clients should automatically think about birth photography like they would wedding photography- an event that can never be replicated. birth photography isn’t a portrait session, it’s event coverage. but it’s up to you to get it right the first time. it breaks my heart to hear about photographers charging 400 dollars, 600 dollars for a birth session. i can tell you right now you will never be able to sustain that type of price. you will go out of business, or you will painfully burn out. i am so sorry to be the voice of reason, but it is true. if you disagree, i want you to give me a cost breakdown of all of the above, and tell me what you are making per hour. 1.50? less? it’s likely. unless all your births are scheduled c-sections, are less than a few hours long, and you never need to be on call, that would be the only way it might work.
what if you miss the birth?
just like you need to have professional back-up equipment of equal standing as your primary equipment, you need to have a backup photographer on call as well. or a few if you do many births. policies differ from photographer to photographer on this topic- some call up their backup and have the backup take over the entire contract and client, shooting the birth, editing the photos and handling the delivery of the products to the client. other photographers handle it like a second shooter at the wedding (which would be my preferred way)- the backup shoots the birth, hands over the digital negatives, original photographer edits them in her style, and handles the remainder of the responsibilities to the client. essentially, just sending someone in your place for the birth itself.
what about cancellations?
there are a variety of scenarios about cancellation in my contract, but essentially, if there is to be a scheduled c-section, and the hospital will not allow a photographer in to the operating room, i allow my clients to cancel the remainder of contract (deposit non-refundable) if they wish. however, if it is an emergency c-section, the contract still stands as written. essentially, the actual BIRTH of the baby only comprises abotu 2% of the actual photographs in the final portfolio. everything leading up to it- the support of the husband and birth team, walking laps, pushing, emotions are all still there. and the events directly after the birth- mother holding her baby for the first time, the weighing of the baby, measuring, cutting of the cord, swaddling, diapering, breastfeeding, dad holding his baby for the first time… all of that still tells a story. there are a myriad of things that can prevent a photographer from shooting the ACTUAL birth (a quick change in positioning to help a baby out, a doctor walking in front of the camera to be in a better position, the hospital not allowing any photography for the actual crowning and birth) and an emergency c-section is just one amongst that list. In my opinion, it is just another piece of the narrative, and can still tell a beautiful beautiful story.
contracts… what do they cover?
first and foremost you NEED to have a lawyer look over or prepare this contract for you. you could be liable for so so so much, and it is a medical situation, so you REALLY need to be covered, and covered with an iron clad contract. i dont want to be messing with any hospital litigation, dealing with any upset mothers with new hormones and lack of sleep, or any issues from a third party. i can not stress the urgency to have a professionally drawn up contract to protect yourself. i would not so much as even walk into a labor and delivery room without that contract signed and sealed for any reason whatsoever. here are some of the points my contract covers: the payment shedule, the package description of what is to be included, the photographer’s responsibilities (and also outlining what i’m NOT responsible for), the Client’s responsibilities, cancellation policies, scheduled c-section policies, change of date/location policies, copyright and release requirements, website privacy polcies, product delivery, album design, album delivery time, print product inherent qualities, CD/DVD/harddrive storage, adjustment of images, social media policies, limitation of liability, warranty disclaimer, photographer’s illness or injury, force Majeure, idemnification, exclusive photographer, garments/nudity policies, third-party limitations, attorney fees, joint and severally liability, modification and waiver, and finally, model release. it even covers such ‘obvious’ topics as the fact that i will be photographing my clients in the state that they are, and the final photographs will reflect that state. and because my post production (photoshopping) policies are spelled out, it creates a good understanding that if you are nude at your birth, your photographs will reflect that. i can not photoshop clothes back on you. and if you are bearing down through a contraction and sweat is pouring off your forehead, i will not go back in and edit those drops out. of course, we all hope that clients are attracted to our work because of the work they see on our website, but it is always good to have these honest conversations beforehand. it is an overwhelming contract, and something i sit down and do with my clients so they understand it and we can walk through it together. i never want a client to just blindly sign it- it is my way of spelling out the expectations for them and myself as well. at this time they will also write out their birth plan for me. and, to follow in the theme of protecting yourself… i am not a lawyer and can not really advise on legal topics :)
get it. and it may be a good idea to structure your business as an LLC to offer you more protection.
How can a photographer best prepare herself before getting into this emerging genre of photography?
First of all, I would encourage any photographer to take some birthing classes, and witness a few births (especially natural labor) before jumping in. It is not for the faint of heart, and I think you need to have a true love of the entire process and not be squeamish about the more…..liquid…. parts of labor and delivery. Although these parts of the process are not traditionally ‘pretty’ it is the emotion that draws me in. the rawness of it. the photojournalism that tells a story. But don’t just witness a natural labor and take childbirth classes to make sure you can hack it, you need them to be able to anticipate what is going to happen next. For example, in many home births and birth centers they don’t check the women often to find out how far she’s dilated. A good health care professional can judge how far a woman is along by the sounds that she is making, and how she is responding to questions. If you’re familiar enough with labor and delivery to judge this too, you’ll know which lenses to have when, where you should be positioned at any given time, and once the baby is out, what they are going to do with her (measuring, weighing, breastfeeding, etc). Just like it would be hard to photograph a wedding without ever attending one yourself, it is such with birth photography. You’ll find yourself missing moments if you’re not able to anticipate them first.
the next steps would be to insure you have the proper equipment to be able to handle the lighting situations you will be dealt with. And, because this is an event that can not be replicated again, you need to not only have backup equipment of equal standard to your main equipment, but also a backup photographer, and childcare (if you have a family of your own) that you can call at any time of day for any length of time. I feel that this genre of photography is a natural progression for photographers who are already photographing maternity and newborn photos, but also for photographers who love photojournalism. If they have a love of birth it could become not only a good source of income (birth photography can be on par with wedding photography) but also an incredible experience that leaves you feeling fulfilled as a person as well as photographer- being included in the most intimate of experiences. I also would never be able to do what I do without the support of my husband, who picks up wherever I left off parenting. Fortunately, he works from home, so he is usually around to watch our own children while I photograph a birth. If he isn’t around, I have other family members, like my mother, who I can call to help in a pinch. It’s vital to have a good support system surrounding you in any profession that requires you being on call. Shooting a birth is sort of like shooting a wedding- only the bride calls you in the middle of the night to tell you the wedding is starting NOW, the wedding can last an undetermined amount of hours, there may not be any light at all for you to work with, and there is no big reception meal they provide you with ☺ I say all of that lightheartedly, but photographers do need to be prepared for some serious commitment to be put forth in the area of birth photography.
if you’re all set- if you have a support team, proper equipment and back-up equipment, and a solid contract that has been reviewed by a lawyer, then shoot a birth for free. eeks… i know. but you need to have it in your portfolio. make sure this client understands that you will be using this birth and the images resulting on the web, and in print, because you need to invest in a few sample albums that you can leave at your favorite OBGYN’s offices and midwife’s offices. leave them wherever pregnant mothers are in waiting rooms or hanging out looking for something to flip through. print off brochures or 4×6 post cards and build up relationships with doctors offices so you can leave them there on the end tables. Although i would normally recommend website optimisation, birth photography is such a new genre that i’m not sure women are necessarily googling ‘portland birth photographer’ just yet. in a year or two, yes. but right now, it’s better to visually get printed work out there and in front of your audience.
Have you ever encountered a doctor/midwife or hospital that turned you away, or made it difficult for you to do your work?
Most of my clients happen to be free standing birth center clients, and I have wonderful relationships with the midwives, so it’s never really an issue. There does seem to be a certain level of trust that is needed between the photographer and the health care professionals, so if Im photographing a birth with a physician I’ve never met before I try to reach out to them to say hello and describe my non-invasive style of shooting. I want them to know that I wont be getting in their way, that I wont be using a flash, and that my first priority is having a healthy mother and baby- not getting ‘THE’ shot. There are times that they request I not photograph the actual entrance of the baby, but sometimes they are more lenient on that topic once the labor is progressing. Hospital policies differ as much from state to state as they do from individual hospital to hospital, so I always have my potential clients look into their health care professional’s policies on photography before they sign a contract with me. For example, I know that in florida they are very strict about birth photography in hospitals, but in Wisconsin they are much more liberal, open, and accommodating.
what are the tradeoffs?
ok. lets get really really real here. lets not sugar coat this at all. yes, birth is a transformative event, and leaves me feeling amazed and fulfilled every time i leave one. i love it, i am passionate about it. but…. it is not a huge money maker. my business would have a hard time if it subsisted solely off of birth photography. and i give up a lot of time with my own family, and put my husband in a difficult position every time i get a call in the middle of the night and say “ok! i’m leaving! i’ll be back…….. at some point in the next few days. good luck”. i miss my kids’ events and new milestones, and there is definitely the lack-of-sleep issue too. Luckily, i have not come across any health care professionals who treat me like dirt, but i know it happens and have heard the stories. There is also the risk of something going wrong and witnessing a life-ending or altering event. it is expensive- all that backup equipment and stress about not being there for the birth, stress that neither you nor your back-up will be able to make it to the birth. but is it worth it? for me, absolutely. but you need to be prepared and well aware of the tradeoffs so that you can fully enjoy it and not have any frustrations or regrets about doing what you do. there is nothing, NOTHING like witnessing a woman becoming a mother, and witnessing a new life breathe air for the first time. nothing. and i wouldn’t change it for the world.