We Tried It: A Virtually Directed Newborn Photo Shoot

By the time I gave birth to my son Rio in June, three months into the pandemic, I was a pro at finding silver linings. No in-person baby shower? I'm not really a shower person anyway! No showing off my bump in cute maternity clothes? Maternity leggings for the entirety of my WFH third trimester! No visitors at the hospital? More time to bond as a family of three and no need to brush my hair! Friends and family can't hold him and my parents haven't met him? Hmm, having a hard time finding that silver lining [sob]. But for the most part, I've been able to focus on what I have and not what I'm missing.

And then I came across someone's throwback professional newborn photos in my Instagram feed and I surprised myself by getting emotional and thinking, I must have that.

A newborn photo shoot is very Before Times. Close physical contact indoors with a stranger for an extended period of time? There was just no way. I felt weepy and frustrated. (Now, before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that I'm incredibly fortunate and this is not, by any stretch, a real problem. But see: that whole “not seeing friends or family thing.” Weepy and frustrated were unavoidable.)

After digging around, a friend told me about a veteran professional baby photographer named Sara Kalish who had pivoted and was doing virtually directed newborn shoots. As in, she tells you what to do over FaceTime, you do it, and somehow you end up with amazing photos. Of course, I'm oversimplifying. Here's what it was really like.

Once we booked her, Sara sent my husband Kris and me a prop list: two phones, one to FaceTime with and one to shoot with. The White Noise app set to the brown noise setting (unfortunate name, very nap-inducing sound). A tripod, an area with natural light, a light-colored blanket to use as the background, a bunch of pillows and rolled towels, and one (hopefully) very drowsy and compliant newborn? We sent her photos of various places in the apartment and three blanket options. We decided on the bed in our room and a cream cashmere throw ("You're sure you don't mind it getting ruined?" she confirmed a few times). Oh yeah, and we needed heat. That helps get the baby sleepy, pliable, and willing – and it works best when the baby is younger than two weeks, so we really would miss out if we waited.

That’s how we found ourselves with a space heater turned on to 85 degrees on a 90-degree day in June. We FaceTimed Sara and she told us exactly how to set up the scene: We placed rolled towels just so under the blanket, positioned pillows behind, pulled back the curtain to get better light. And then the magic began. And I'm not throwing around that word lightly. She gave us incredibly detailed directions on how to strip down Rio in a way that would keep him calm, how to position him, then soothe him. Finally, she instructed us how to wait for him to be just sleepy enough that we could contort his limbs into a sweet pose, then carefully take the pacifier and our hands away.

Sara patiently and calmly gave us guidance over FaceTime and made it clear she was happy to just sit there until Rio was ready for the shot. We never felt rushed or judged. A few times she said something like, just move that hand a tiny bit to the right, or tuck his knees up toward his chest, or smooth out that blanket. And I thought, through dripping sweat and exhaustion and postpartum hormones, what difference could that possibly make?! Answer: a big difference.

Sara had prepared us for the fact that if Rio wasn't cooperating, we may need to “call it,” then try again later that day. Luckily, he was very compliant. Note that compliant does not mean he didn't poop on the cashmere throw. Three times. We got through a number of setups and positions in about an hour and a half, which meant we had time for some family shots.

As we used the self-timer to get a photo of the three of us, Rio napping in my arms (and yes, pooping for a fourth time on my gauzy white top), I realized we didn't have a photo of the three of us yet since there had been no one we could ask to take our family picture and I’m not counting the selfie I took of us in a mirror! So if I look a little emotional in those shots, now you know why.

The entire thing took about two hours and the result was 100 photos on my phone camera roll. But that wasn't the end of it. We sent them all to Sara, marked our favorites, and then she got to work on editing them. In layman's terms: She Photoshopped out the poop. More professionally put, she made them look like they were taken in a studio with a fancy camera and she made us look good. We look like ourselves, but less sweaty. (Check out her Instagram to see how transformative her editing work is.)

The bottom line: I wholeheartedly recommend doing a virtual baby shoot if an in-person shoot isn't doable for you. And go with someone who's got some experience. Sara's got it down to a science and as she explained to me, outdoor from-a-distance shoots really don't work for newborns; those are better with kids who can hold up their necks and are starting to smile. And yes, the thousands of photos you’re already taking on your phone are great, but you'll love having a handful of pro shots in the mix.

I'm sure the photos would be even better had we done the shoot in Sara's studio and she'd taken them on her heavy duty camera. But then again, we would've missed out on learning genius tips like how to calm down a baby by slowly patting him on his butt, waiting until his mouth goes slack to remove a pacifier, using the White Noise app, and never taking photos up a baby's nostrils. Oh yeah, and how to get poop out of cashmere. Silver linings.

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