5 Common Lighting Mistakes of Newborn Photographers

lighting mistakes of newborn photographers

You’re ready to stop making lighting mistakes. Everyone said your newborn photography would get better when you started using studio lights.

“Consistent results” they promised.

You’ve watched every Youtube video you can lay your hands on, and you spend hours jumping between Facebook groups reading post after post about newborn photography.

Yet here you are … still frustrated as ever with your results that never quite look like the gorgeous images that come across your social media feeds.

We feel your frustration (and can attest that we’ve all been there!).

Studio lighting isn’t the solution to amazing newborn photographs … but USING your studio lighting correctly is!

(which is why Studio Lighting for Newborns is one of our most popular courses here at The Milky Way – go figure!)

In this post, we’ve broken down the 5 most common lighting mistakes that we’ve seen newborn photographers make. So when you are troubleshooting your studio lighting results, start by making sure you’re not guilty of any of these!

Lighting Mistake 1: Using lights that are too high-powered

Although we live in a world where bigger is usually better, that is not the case when it comes to studio lighting for newborns! Many photographers turn to the budget sub-$100 studio lights when they are just starting out. Even at their lowest setting, the power on these lights are just too strong.

This much power is fine for traditional studio photography – not so much for newborns where you want soft light that wraps all around the baby. And certainly not when you want to shoot at wider open apertures.

When you:

  • want to shoot in the f1.8-f2.8 range (to get that creamy bokeh that everyone loves), and
  • are restricted to a maximum 1/200 or 1/250 shutter speed (the sync speed of your particular camera), and
  • are already at the lowest ISO of 100,

and then there is too much light coming from your strobe, you risk overexposing your images, or having hot spots on baby’s skin. You can stop down your aperture, but then you’re not going to get the creamy results you are after.

soft lighting not lighting mistakes
Low apertures create a dreamy, soft background

So what if you’ve already bought one of these too powerful strobes?
You can try to add an extra layer of diffusion fabric to your light modifier, or you can use neutral density filters for your lens.

If you are still shopping, make sure that your light power can go down to at least 5 or 6Ws (like the AlienBees 400, Elinchrom D-Lite RX One or Interfit Honey Badger 320Ws). If your budget allows, the Einstein 640 will get you all the way down to 2.5Ws, making it the best choice in strobes.

Wondering what gear you need to get started? We talk more about that in Beginners guide to getting started with studio lighting for newborns

Lighting Mistake 2: Placing the light too far away and having harsh shadows

Some photographers have a moodier style, and prefer to have deeper shadows even in their newborn work.

But if you want soft shadows, with light wrapping around your subject, you will need to bring your light really close to your subject … probably even closer than you think!

In fact, I’m usually shoulder to shoulder with my light and modifier for beanbag shots, as you can see here!

studio light placement

Lighting Mistake 3: Uplighting (most common on beanbag + aerial shots)

Uplighting is probably the most common lighting mistake that photographers new to studio lighting make (actually, it’s a common mistake even when using natural light!)

Uplighting occurs when the light source is placed below the baby’s head, and pointed up in the direction of the head. It causes dark, spooky shadows under the eyes – remember telling ghost stories with a flashlight under your chin? You will be creating the same effect on your little clients’ face if you uplight!

You want to make sure that the baby’s head is closest to the light source, which will then let the light flow down the baby’s head from top to chin. If you see shadows under baby’s chin and nose, it is a good indication that you are doing it right! You’ll often hear that you need to “look for the butterfly” – which refers to the shape of the little shadow under baby’s nose when you are lighting correctly.

butterfly shadow under the nose of a newborn

(Want to see what we mean? Watch our YouTube video on “Finding the Butterfly Shadow”)

Lighting Mistake 4: Not understanding how (or why!) to feather lighting

Many newborn photographers (even the experienced ones!) get frustrated when trying to light subjects on a dark blanket or against a dark backdrop. Using traditional 45 degree lighting will over-light parts of the backdrop making it much lighter than you would like.

To keep the darker background dark and evenly lit, you need to feather your light.

When you feather your light, you angle it parallel to the backdrop (but still down baby’s head), so that the backdrop is not lit directly, and your subject is lit indirectly by the edge of the beam of light traveling past

Traditional 45 degree lighting, with the light pointed at the backdrop, making it lighter.
Feathered light, with only the edge of the light illuminating the subject, keeping the backdrop dark.

Angles of light, and how they affect your results, can be a really confusing topic.
Consider joining our Studio Lighting for Newborns course, where all these variables are explained and demonstrated in detail.

Lighting Mistake 5: Thinking there is only ONE right way!

Photography is art. We are happy to let an Impressionist painting by Monet hang next to a Cubist Picasso, without judging one as right and the other as wrong. Yet we can so easily get hung up on trying to make our photography look like everyone else!

Lighting is a personal preference – you can shoot for moody shadows, or light and airy. The important thing is figuring our your style through practice end experimentation.

Look at these images from our Newborn Retreat teachers. Each and every one is lit differently. But they are all incredible gorgeous in their own right.

Images: Megan Macdonald Photography, Dewdrops Photography by Amy McDaniel, Bianca Hubble Photography, Captured by Claudia, Danielle Hobbs Photography

When you decide to use studio lighting for your newborn photography, it is merely the start of your journey of discovering your style. Learning some rules of lighting is a good place to start (so you can go break the ones you want!).

You can go into this journey with the common lighting mistakes mentioned above checked off on your “lessons learned” list. Now it’s time to grow and experiment!

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