How To Take Great Childbirth Photos

How to take challenging photos of childbirth. A midwife offers tips for filming, getting the very best photos of baby, mama & the birthing family.

Today many parents want to record their birth experiences. It's not always easy; even professional photographers find filming births challenging. Amateurs (friends or relatives) often end up with disappointing results--odd-angle pictures of thighs and pubic hair, unflattering backviews of doctors and midwives, blurry bits of baby arms and legs sticking out of blankets, sad shots of squinched-eyed squalling newborns protesting the bright lights.

However, you can get really great pictures of your special once-in-a-lifetime experience by using these practical tips.

1. Before you go into labor, get approval to film from your doctor or midwife and from the head nurse of Labor and Delivery.

Your birth attendant may feel fine about birth photos, but the Head Nurse will know about any hospital regulations or limitations.

For instance, some hospitals don't allow the use of plug-in electric equipment (including lights) without prior permission from the Maintenance Department.

Happily, most hospitals do allow filming--at least of uncomplicated births. Some, however, do not allow filming of surgical (cesarean section) births. (See endnote #1.) Since nearly a fourth of births in the U.S. are surgical, you should plan ahead for this possibility even if you expect a natural delivery.

Hospital policies about filming other birth complications vary. (See endnote #3.)

2. Your photographer should take birth classes and a tour of Labor and Delivery so s/he will know what to expect. Childbirth teachers usually welcome any number of "birth team members" in classes with expectant mothers--you won't be charged extra for having your photographer attend with you. Most childbirth teachers also show films or slides of births--these can help you decide what kinds of pictures you do and do not want for your own birth.

3. Decide beforehand exactly how graphic you want the pictures to be. Do you want full-on close-ups of the baby being born, or would you prefer more discrete "side-view" shots? Make your desires clear to your photographer.

Most of us are somewhat self-conscious about our appearance. Some women are embarrassed about having their genitals photographed; some of us don't mind these pictures (so long as our baby is in them) but would hate to see pictures of our thighs or breasts.

In labor you'll be too busy to worry much about who's taking pictures of what, so your photographer needs to understand beforehand what kind of pictures you do and don't want.

Inexperienced birth photographers often make the mistake of focusing (literally) on the area between the laboring mama's legs, even early in labor. There's simply no need for "full exposure" shots until delivery is imminent.

There are plenty of pictures to be taken during labour, though. It's lovely to have photos of mama working with contractions, changing positions, resting, etc.

4. During labor, your photographer should also try to catch candid shots of family members and friends who are present. Pictures of your sister rubbing your back or your toddler offering you a sip of juice help recall your full birth experience. If possible, you want to get action photos of labor and delivery staff too.

5. Be sure to catch that first precious glimpse of your baby's face on film! During labor, ask your midwife, doctor or nurse which way they expect the baby to face during delivery. Your photographer should be on that side of you for the birth.

6. As a general rule, the baby's father or your "significant other," is NOT the best person to have taking pictures. If he wants to actively take part in labor and delivery, taking

pictures may distract him.

A professional photographer recently told me about filming his daughter's birth. Very sadly he confided, "By putting all my energy into filming, very little of it was directed where it should have been--toward my wife." He lost out too--the pleasure for a new daddy of active participation and direct connection with mother and baby is often diminished when a lens gets in the way.

Consider asking a friend or relative to take pictures of your birth instead. (See endnote #2.)

8.If you really want pictures of your birth, invite someone to your birth and make that their only job--if you expect your sister or mother to help with your toddler and take pictures too, odds are she'll be busy babysitting just when you want those special pictures taken.

Or hire a professional birth photographer. Ask your childbirth teacher if she knows of one. Some teachers even moonlight as birth photographers!

Remember, though, that, just as a painting is owned by the artist--not the model--photos are legally

owned by the photographer. This means your photographer doesn't

need your permission to use photos of your birth--unless you've mutually agreed in writing beforehand that you own photos and negatives.

9. Rent a pager for your photographer for the last two to three weeks of pregnancy. Put the pager number (along with other important phone numbers) with your suitcase to take to the hospital.

10. Once the baby is born, be sure your photographer takes plenty of close-ups of his or her tiny fingers and toes, and especially the face. Be careful, though, to keep baby's head covered--a lot of body heat can be lost from that little damp head!

Be sure to get pictures of Daddy, siblings, and grandparents holding baby for the first time. Siblings love being able to show classmates and teachers photos of themselves holding their new baby brother or sister.

Your photographer needs to take lots of new-baby pictures!

The most common mistake of amateurs is taking too few shots in order to "save film." Some of your prettiest pictures will be quick spontaneous shots.

One of my favorite series of photos showed the daddy leaning down to kiss his minutes-old daughter. She stared directly at him, wide-eyed, then reached up to suck at the tip of his nose--his surprised look is priceless! The photographer caught that shot because she was taking picture after picture during those first precious minutes.

The birth of your baby is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. Following the above advice, with some planning and a little luck, you can capture your experience in photographs you and your family will always cherish.


Endnote #1: Filming a Cesarean Birth

In an emergency, of course, taking pictures is secondary to the well-being of your baby and you.

Usually, however, even unplanned cesareans aren't emergencies. Often you can still get pictures--especially those special "just born" baby pictures.

You need to talk with your health care provider about this beforehand and, again, you need to make sure there are no hospital policies against photographing cesareans.

Women rarely want close-ups of the surgery itself--if you do, be sure to talk to your doctor about this beforehand, and be sure that your photographer is comfortable with this.

One disadvantage of delivering surgically is that you may be limited to having only one "birth team member" with you. If your "significant other" is the only person you will have, you may want to forego having pictures, so he can give his full attention to you and to the new-born baby.

Sometimes nurses or other members of the surgical staff are willing to take a few pictures for you. The anesthesiologist at one section I attended overheard the daddy say he really wanted to get pictures and then noticed he was entirely preoccupied reassuring his wife. Quietly, the doctor picked up the camera, climbed up on his stool(!) and snapped pictures of the actual delivery and of the baby being held for the mama to see and kiss. What a wonderful man!

When recording a cesarean birth, your photographer should try to be on the side of the room where the newborn exam table or isolette (a plexiglass baby bed) is placed. S/he will need to be careful not to get in the way or to bump into tables containing sterile instruments. The anesthesiologist is often a good person to ask for advice about where one can stand without being in the way.

Endnote #2: Notes for Amateur Birth Photographers

Never use flashcubes or bright lighting. Both are distracting to a laboring mother and downright painful for a newborn baby's eyes.

Use 35 mm 400 speed film pushed up to 800. Unless you're taking black and white shots for magazine publication, I recommend taking slides--lots of them--and then making prints of the best ones. Always take along lots of rolls of film.

Use a tripod to hold at least one camera. A tripod is a nervous photographer's best friend. Unless you've seen a few births, you're likely to be a bit shaky--a tripod will steady your hand, if not your heart.

Endnote #3: Complicated Deliveries

When birth complications arise unexpectedly, photographers often wonder if they should keep filming. Usually the answer is "yes," if it won't interfere with necessary medical procedures. Such deliveries are often very confusing, especially to the mother who may find herself overwhelmed by what's happening to and/or around her. Looking at pictures later can help her to understand and integrate everything that happened.

No one wants to think about the possibility of their baby being born less-than-perfect--or, worse yet--stillborn. Until recently these babies were often hidden away from their parents. Now, enlightened medical professionals recognize that seeing such babies is an essential part of the grieving--and healing--process.

Parents may initially be taken aback when a nurse offers to take pictures of a stillborn baby, but those photos soon become a deeply cherished part of their memories and feelings. Even when a baby dies after a difficult illness, a picture of that beloved child lying quietly, finally at peace and beyond pain, can provide great comfort to grieving family members.

Likewise a baby with physical deformities should be photographed, if for no other reason than to answer the child's question years later, "What did I look like when I was born?" No matter if your baby "looks different" from most babies--s/he is your child! I promise you will be glad you to have photographs.

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