This article is based on concepts from The Photography Action Cards if you want to dig deeper for further training.
The key to great maternity portraits is to share the sense of caring and intimacy of the moment. Some mothers will wish to be alone in their picture; others will include one or more family members.
In this blog post, I will share some critical thoughts and techniques on a maternity portrait session to help you become successful in this extremely rewarding genre of photography.
These two example photos above are a maternity shot at its most basic level. There is nothing clearly wrong with either of these photos. However, they don’t tell us much of a story about the subjects, especially the mother.
Some mothers may not wish to have their faces included in the portrait or may simply prefer a close-up of their belly. In that case, this type of picture might be totally suitable.
In my experience, most families want an array of photos that work together as a story of the pregnancy as a whole.
Critical Point: Before planning your maternity session, sit down with the mother and any other participating family members. Find out their expectations and desires. You can create the most beautiful shot in the world, but if it doesn’t meet their expectations, it’s hard to put it into the “win” column. You’ll want to discuss wardrobe, including colors, location and storytelling, including the possibility of props, camera angles and the inclusion of other family members, including children.
Pro Tip: If children are to be included in the session, do their pictures first, followed by Mom and Dad, and then finally Mom alone. This order will maximize your time. The attention span of children is generally low. Once Dad is finished, he can occupy the children while Mom gets her portraits completed.
These are the five critical components for successful maternity photography:
- Camera point of view
- Telling the story
Let’s start with lighting
Keep the lighting simple. A side or backlight scenario that shows the gentle curves of mom’s pregnant body is where you should start. Study the sample photos in this article or for ideas on lighting.
The above photograph has a sweet story. The inclusion of the horse and boot was an excellent addition to this woman’s maternity image.
Where this picture falls short is in the lighting. The lighting is so flat that it is almost imperceptible that the woman is pregnant. (The pose didn’t help, either.)
The above picture also tells a story that involves a rural theme. However, the backlighting directs us to the most crucial element within the frame: her pregnancy.
Pro Tip: Your key light for a maternity portrait should be a back or side light source. Use it to rim the shape of the body.
Finding backlighting is not enough. Make sure the lighting is accomplishing what you want it to, highlighting the mother’s shape.
In the case above, the bright light source upon the house pulls the viewer’s eyes away from the mother. Plus, the color balance on her is skewed toward an unpleasing blue and cyan tint, often found in shadowy areas.
Critical Thought: When posing the mother at your chosen location, place her so that the backlighting or side lighting rims her body.
In general, unless it is adding a story element, a simple background works best. The above example offers a pleasing background that helps add a story element without overwhelming the subject.
This photographer spent time thinking about what they wanted to do with this maternity portrait. I like the pose and especially the woman’s expression. You can feel the love.
The problem with this image is the location and the camera’s point of view.
All of that background busyness on the right takes attention away from the subject. Also, the wind fluttered mom’s dress to makes it appear to be stuck on a pole in the background.
A simple change in camera position would have genuinely helped this photographer’s effort.
In terms of camera point of view (POV), I also want to address format and framing choices.
The couple in this picture form a natural vertical flow through their pose. But the photographer framed the photograph horizontally. That wasn’t the best choice, as it included a lot of unnecessary background areas.
Pro Tip: Take a moment, think about your subjects’ natural flow, and then choose the proper camera position and orientation.
The woman’s expression and the captured intimate moment between them are worth trying to save this picture.
The first step was to crop this photo into a proper natural flow. Already the picture is improved. The mother-to-be is now more prominent as the subject.
I used post-processing software to remove the remaining vehicles and pole, holding up her collar to bring this shot home. I also made a color-balance adjustment.
Pro Tip: It took me less than two minutes to remove the cars and the offending power line pole. I used the retouching app, TouchRetouch. I don’t think there is a better alternative for removing lines such as the power pole.
Critical Planning Tip: Bright colors such as pink, red or orange used in the wardrobe will likely skew your white balance. To capture the best color, you will want to set your color balance manually. Don’t use the Auto setting.
Take This Short Quiz
- What is the natural flow of this pose?
- Did the photographer choose the correct POV, framing and camera orientation?
- Was using the auto white balance a reasonable choice under this circumstance?
I know you nailed all three of those!
Storytelling with Maternity Portraiture
Storytelling can take many forms. You can address it by location, props, people, camera angle, camera framing and the lighting.
The story can be quite apparent such as the mother holding the boot in the previously mentioned horse photo.
You can also go for a more ethereal form of storytelling, such as this beautiful woman on the dock. We have the warm low light of a new day dawning. Plus, water is often a symbol of life.
I love this picture except for one thing: that darn pole in the background is a huge distraction from the subject!
The pole was removed in under 10 seconds with TouchRetouch. I’m telling you, it’s a beautiful thing!
When writing fiction, such as television, movies or novels, a term is often used called “the story trope.”
A story trope is a story theme that has been told many times. A writer has to work hard to make a new twist on an old story trope so that their piece of writing can find acceptance.
The same is valid for photography. Someone creates something new. Everyone loves it, and so everyone repeats it. This example of following the leader is a photography trope.
In the maternity genre, one of these tropes is the mom sitting in a milky water tub with plants floating around her.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with using a photography trope. However, it is going to take more effort on your part to make it better than all the other versions.
In the example photos above, the far-left version is the least successful, in my opinion. The lighting is not complimentary, the color balance is strange and the camera POV is not particularly flattering.
The center example is a vast improvement on all those counts, plus the photographer added a candle as a storytelling prop.
The far-right version is my favorite. It takes the trope to an entirely new place. It’s a tender portrait that highlights this woman’s beauty, femininity and pregnancy in a new and visually exciting way.
Key Point: Study what’s being produced in maternity portraiture. It’s essential to go through this ritual because the moms who will be your subjects are doing this as well. They will see what’s popular and request it. If you can give them what they seek, but in a manner that they haven’t seen before, and it is pleasing to them—they’ll love you for it!
I would have preferred to see this in vertical orientation. However, breaking that rule works better in this example than the previously discussed one. The lighting here is relatively flat. Notice the camera position. The photographer lowered the camera POV so that Mom’s belly’s curve was placed against the contrasting sky.
This photo is fun. It wouldn’t work for everyone. This example highlights the importance of that initial meeting and discussion with Mom and Dad. Again, the lighting here is reasonably flat, so the photographer used contrast to make the shape of her body more prominent.
I think the picture is more powerful when framed a bit tighter. The fun here is captured in the expressions and the body language of the subjects. The wider shot subdues those elements in favor of more background.
The color balance here has been color-graded in post. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, it can date your pictures as being trendy.
Pro Tip: For more timeless maternity portraits—that won’t become dated—go for a natural color balance or even black and white.
Of the work that I curated for this article, I think this is the best maternity portrait.
- The backlighting highlights her shape beautifully
- The woman has a pleasing expression
- Her red dress draws immediate attention toward her
- The white balance is perfectly adjusted
- Her husband is present and loving, but in a subordinate pose, making her the star of her maternity picture
- The lens choice and camera orientation work correctly in the placement of the subjects within the composition’s space
- The location is lovely and unobtrusive
- The vignette successfully pushes the eyes inward toward the couple without going overboard
Recommended camera settings for maternity portraits
- Shooting mode: Aperture Priority
- Aperture: f/5.6 to f/11 (watch your depth of field)
- Drive mode: Single Shot
- Focus mode: AF-S
- Shutter speed: 1/125th to 1/500th of a second
- ISO: 400 (adjust as necessary for the correct f stop and a shutter speed of at least 1/125th of a second)
- Metering mode: Center weighted
- Focus points: Center grouping
- White balance: Auto (if colors are neutral)
- Indoors: place your subject(s) near a large window or doorway with non-direct sunlight. Keep the background simple. Use a reflector or use an electronic fill flash if necessary.
- Outdoors: shoot during the golden hour (one hour before sunset until a half-hour after sunset).
- In both cases, work on backlighting or side light to accentuate the curves of Mom’s body.
Focus on the belly button area, the woman’s eyes or a family member’s eyes, depending upon your setup, pose and story.
Final Pro Tip! When judging your final image’s color (white balance) in post-production, concentrate on the skin tones.
About the Author:
Kent DuFault is an author and photographer with over 35 years of experience. He’s currently the director of content at the online photography school, Photzy.com
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