There are many different approaches to baby photography. On this blog post, I’ll talk about my favorite – using documentary photography to make meaningful baby photos.
Because I believe that, while “cutesy baby photos” can be adorable, they tend to miss meaning and depth. In contrast, photos that tell an actual story of each stage of your baby’s first year and your family life are authentic. And will be the photos that you will really want to remember.
Here I will share three simple, actionable tips on how to stop taking snapshots, cutesy photos of your baby.
And start taking baby photos that actually mean something.
Personal story about my journey with meaningful baby photography
When I first became a mom, I decided to document my baby’s first year through photos. My goal was to make an album from these images. So, I was regularly taking photos of him with my camera .
When he was about seven months old, I realized that my approach to how I was documenting my baby’s first year of life was all WRONG! As I went through the images, all I could see were cutesy baby photos. Yes, lots of them were adorable! Babies are so cute by nature that any baby photos, regardless of what they are about or how good or bad our technical photography skills are, are simply lovely.
Buuuuut, there was just something missing.
The photos did not really tell a story of my baby’s first year of life. They were just cute.
Most of the photos did not show the things that I actually wanted to remember, like the everyday routines, the beautiful love and bond that my husband shares with him, what our house looked like. I also wanted to be in the photos myself.
Because I am part of a few mom-with-a-camera photography groups, I ended up getting caught up in making photos like everyone else was doing. You know those photos that all mommies are posting on Instagram with cute muesli blankets? Cute crib setups? Yes, those!
I would come up with the idea beforehand, I would set everything up while my baby was napping, and then, in-between naps, I would take photos of him.
But here is the funny part – I just sucked at taking those photos. They didn’t reflect me, or my baby. Plus, I constantly felt so exhausted from doing those baby photography set ups. I was so tired and sleep-deprived already. Having to set up photos on top of everything else that I had to do as a mother, wife, and business owner, was TOO MUCH.
It was a painful realization that I had wasted so many opportunities to document our everyday lives in an authentic way. But, I am all about self-forgiveness and learning from mistakes (versus dwelling on them). So, I decided to take action and change things right away.
Why to read this post about meaningful baby photography?
I would like to share simple actionable steps with you today, so you can save yourself time and start doing meaningful baby photography using the documentary approach .
Yes, I said meaningful, not cute. This is my goal for you (and for myself). It is to document your baby’s life in a way that speaks deeply to you and that will remind you, years from now, all of the precious, little everyday moments that you are going through at the moment.
The first year goes by SO, but so quickly. I really encourage you to stop taking cute photos and start taking meaningful ones. These are the ones that you will deeply cherish and that your child will love.
How to make meaningful baby photography during your everyday life
Here are my three tips to create meaningful photos of your baby. These are tips that can be applied to family documentary photography in general, not only to baby photography.
Tip Number 1: Have a running list of story ideas
If you are anything like me, you are running on low fuel and broken sleep. So, I suggest not relying on your memory. Instead, write down (yes, actually write down on a notebook, on your phone, on a board) all the stories that you want to document. After all, family documentary photography is all about stories.
The secret for taking meaningful, storytelling images, is to know the story that you want to capture before you actually capture it.
Let me say that again: the secret ingredient to family documentary photography is to know what you are photographing before you even take the photo.
In the digital age, we have so much memory capacity in our phones and camera’s memory cards, that it is just so easy to take dozens, if not hundreds of photos without giving any thought to why we are taking it. We just mindless press a button. It doesn’t cost anything anyway, so why bother?! The problem with this is that we end up with a bunch of snapshots, not real photos that represent something.
So, know your story before you take a photo. Know what you want to document, what matters to you, what is meaningful.
To help you with this process, all you need to do is to stop and think:
What is meaningful about my baby’s life right now?
What do I want to remember one year from now? Five years from now?
Actionable Tip 1 | Right now, if possible, write down some meaningful:
- Objects/toys that your baby loves
- Locations, both inside your home and outdoor
- Developmental milestones that your baby is going through at present
Examples from my list:
- Location/object: My baby on the Dockatot. My baby spent a lot of time on his Dockatot during the early months. So, I wanted to make sure I took a photo of it that would remind me of this stage.
- Developmental milestone: My baby putting his feet in his mouth. Yes, it is something small, but I just loved this baby milestone.
Tip Number 2: Include relationships and routines
The photos that I love the most from my baby’s first year of life are the ones that include both my husband and my son.
But here, I don’t mean those snapshots when both are looking straight into the camera. No. I mean those photos that show their relationship, their bond, their everyday routines. It shows that moment taking place that I capture with my camera without them even realizing it.
Also, in this step, I encourage you to include the everyday routines and mundane events that are special to you at the moment, and that these special relationship moments tend to unfold naturally.
Actional Tip 2 | Revisit the list and try to come up with ideas of how you can document your baby with important people in his or her life, and those daily routines that are special or unique to your baby’s current stage.
Examples from my list included husband and baby:
- Reading together
- Getting ready to go out
- Hubby bathing baby during night routine
A side note: here I would have loved to include other people, like grandparents or cousins, on my list. But during my baby’s first year of life, lockdown happened. So, it is all about hubby!
Tip Number 3: Anticipate the story you want to tell
Documentary photography is all about photographing into the future.
When you know ahead of time what you want to photograph and you know the story you want to tell, you are mentally ready and prepared to make the photo. So, when the moment that you are waiting for takes place, you take the photo with intention.
Photographing into the future is very different than simply reacting to moments that happen and just taking snapshots. This approach is reactionary. You see a cute moment taking place, you grab your camera/phone and you take a photo. Chances are – you missed the moment by one millisecond. And, the photo sucked. Sorry, but it is true.
Good, strong storytelling photos don’t just happen. They are planned. They are anticipated.
Actionable Tip 3 | When you note that one of those stories you have written down is about to take place, grab your phone/camera, and get ready ahead of time.
Here is an example. My husband loves taking daily walks with our son. When he was a baby, he would put him in the Ergobaby and just go to the park next to our house. Because this was a moment I wanted to document, when my husband would announce that he was going to take our baby for their daily walk, I would get the camera ready.
Here is the step-by-step to successful documentary photos. Instead of waiting for the moment to start to unfold for me to do something about it, I would:
(1) anticipate the moment
(2) know the story I wanted to document
(3) put myself in a good position
(4) I would take the photo as the story naturally developed without my interference.
The photo above was a 100% documentary. That is, I didn’t interfere or give any sort of direction. I just let the moment unfold naturally and took the photos. To this date, it is one of my favorites.
But what if you miss the moment?
If you want to take genuine photos on your everyday life, then I don’t advise asking those in the photo to just quickly re-do the moment for you. Over time, they will likely get annoyed! Plus, you will miss the authenticity of it.
Instead… just wait until the next time that same moment happens again. The great news is that you are very likely to get another chance in the near future. That’s the beauty of photography daily stories and everyday routines as they repeat again and again. Just keep that idea/story in mind, and give it another go.
Bonus tip: self-portrait
If you are anything like me, you are all about being the official storyteller in your family. This means that you are rarely in the photos yourself. So, my bonus tip is to make sure that you add to your running list of story ideas moments that you are included in the story too.
Then, you can just ask your partner, relative, or your older child to take the photo for you. You can also include yourself by taking photos in front of the mirror, setting up in a tripod (like the photo above), or just including a part of your body in the frame.
For example, I asked my husband to take a few photos when I was playing with my baby. This is one of my favorites as I just love the joy that my husband managed to capture.
Regardless of how you include yourself in the photos, just make sure that you are also part of it. Your child will thank you later on for taking the time and making the effort to show up in your family’s photo history!
If you need to take one thing out of this post, here it is: write down story ideas of things that mean something to you about your baby’s first year of life. Just the action of writing those stories down will make you aware of what you want to photograph. This will impact your images in a way that they will slowly start to go from boring snapshots to meaningful and authentic storytelling photos.