Often I am approached by other photographers via phone and my Facebook page, all asking the same questions. "How do I get into birth photography?" Unfortunately, I can no longer dedicate the time I'd like to answering each inquiry from fellow photographers, because folks, babies are being born! Instead, I'm writing this post. I hope you're not terribly offended by my impersonal approach. This is one of very few posts I'll ever address to other photographers. I've noticed lately that many photographers dedicate less of their time to creativity and more of their time to preaching to other photographers (not to be mistaken with guiding them), and even more time trying to tell, rather than show, their potential clients that they are the real deal. I never want to come across as a know-it-all, because my knowledge database is vast and sparse. I'm not better than you. However, I will dedicate this post to a couple words of advice, which you or may not find any value in. I've learned some things in my experience that I hope may help you.
I won't go into considerations on the general business level, because I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you're already an experienced photographer with an established business. If that's not the case, props to you for your ambition! There is a world of resources at your fingertips!
How do I get into birth photography?
When I was considering becoming a birth photographer in Denver, Colorado, the superficial appeal was quite obvious. The birth event is so raw and emotionally charged, and my personality and lifestyle seemed to fit perfectly. I was aware that life as a birth photographer wouldn't be easy, and it was important that I envision my life on an hour-by-hour and day-by-day nitty gritty basis. I needed to determine not only how feasible it would be for my life, but also whether I could be truly fulfilled in it.
Deciding that you want to be a professional birth photographer is not a whim decision. It's something you'll want to consider very seriously. I've had photographers contact me in a panicky state, saying, "I told this couple I would photograph their birth, and I just don't think I can handle the burden of being on call! Can I refer them to you?" I imagine it would be incredibly disheartening to dedicate and invest yourself wholly in building your birth photography business, only to find that it's not really your cup of tea. Not only is the lifestyle wildly demanding, the technical challenges are greater in birth photography than in any other type of photography I've experienced. The right equipment for the job is a hunk of an investment. Many photographers like to say, "It's not the equipment that makes the photograph." These photographers have never photographed a candle-lit birth and delivered 24x36" canvases of said birth. True, if you're an amateur photographer, having top-of-the-line equipment will do nothing for your photography. But the very fact that you're considering birth photography indicates to me that you're an experienced, professional photographer.
So now, let's take a step back and ask a couple of questions. These are questions I asked myself when determining whether birth photography was right for me. Attempt to actually imagine what the lifestyle could mean for you as you read these questions. I think they might help to lessen culture shock as you enter the field.
Does event photography in general appeal to you? Why or why not? What is it about birth photography specifically that you find compelling? If you tell me that you're drawn to the beauty and emotion of birth, I'm going to urge you to dig deeper! Do you have a natural and calm demeanor? A genuine spirit overflowing with positive energy? Can you handle being on call 24/7 for weeks and even months at a time? Is your partner and family fully supportive and willing to make daily sacrifices to cater to your on-call lifestyle? Are you comfortable in a medical setting? Are you calm in emergency, sometimes life or death situations? Do you emotionally handle stress and uncertainty with grace and ease? Are you comfortable with female (and sometimes male) nudity? Are you able to plan time off, breaks, and vacations months in advance? Are you willing to make significant sacrifices to your social life? Is it feasible to always drive separately and carry your gear with you? Is your business and gear insured? Can you handle the financial uncertainty while building your business? Are you willing to spend countless hours in the hospital waiting room at random hours? Are you able to find rest in unfamiliar areas?
For me, the answer to all of these, for various reasons, was "yes". I honestly believe that birth photography is fitting to a very small group of people. The beauty of photography is that the options and genres are unlimited. If you prefer to have more freedom in your daily life, but love all the emotion you see in birth, perhaps you might investigate the possibility of wedding photography. If you prefer predictability and security, you might consider photographing family sessions and seniors. Of course, every niche has it's pros and cons and hurdles.
Yes, yes YES! That's me! I want to be a birth photographer. How do I get into it?
Hold up! Rein it in just a bit. Your enthusiasm is beautiful, but you need to take some quality time to PREPARE. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of dedicated and patient preparation. Do your research. Evaluate the market. Build a business plan and forecast. As a professional, you're already familiar with the difficulties of shooting in low light and tight spaces. Save for and invest in the right equipment for the job, if it's not already in your bag. You are expected to deliver nothing less than professional, crisp, print-quality images to your clients.
Fill up your knowledge database (ya brain, girl!). Meet with local OBs, midwives, doulas, and as many other birth professionals as possible concerning your ambition. They are familiar with the work environment as well as the nuances, unpredictable nature, attendant expectations, mother's expectations, birth culture, etc. They are loaded with wisdom and experience! You really cannot do too much preparation and research. Read as many birth stories as you can lay your hands on. Read every bit of literature that your clients might be delving into. Without actually attending a birth, this is the best way to prepare.
There are a lot of extremely talented and knowledgeable birth photographers out there who offer mentoring. I think it's crucial to heed their advice and learn from there experience, but please NEVER lose yourself and your individuality as an artist. Don't become a clone of any particular photographer. Where is the artistry in that? And here's my greatest word of advice as you seek mentorship: don't glom onto one specific photographer and take their advice as gospel. Learn from multiple mentors - as many mentors as you can afford! THIS is what will enable you to set yourself apart from the rest!
To get you started, I highly recommend you check out Birthbound Photographer.
As you do your research and prepare, please be extremely careful to never copy and use another photographer's images or text or phrases. For some reason, this has been a real problem in our community of "professionals". Likely, you will be caught and reported, damaging your image and reputation forever. In our small community, we all look out for one another, and we do not tolerate theft. Remember: people will hire you for your originality and creativity. It's the nature of the craft. Exercise your creative brain. Think for yourself! Do not steal!
Um, right, I'll never steal. Did you say "business plan"??
Mmmhmm. Yeah, I did. Building a detailed business plan can take months, but these months of preparation are absolutely invaluable in building your birth photography business. It's easy to skip to the creative part and neglect preparation, because it won't bite you or haunt you immediately. But I'm telling you now, it will eventually bite you AND haunt you.
Plus, you can't really run a business without a pricing plan. And this is where you're going to begin to establish your pricing. I'm not going to dive into pricing. "Not now, not never." But I will advise you to be sensitive to market trends and to the photographers in your area. "Portfolio building" prices can be temporarily damaging to your business in the first years. Compromising your relationships by undercutting others is unethical and not sustainable. Strong business ethics will take you far. Forming close relationships built on integrity with the other birth photographers in your area will prove to be invaluable. Because you WILL need to collaborate with them at some point. You WILL, if you value your sanity, need reliable backup photographers, and you WILL be expected to pay them fairly. But first, you must pay yourself fairly. Additionally, by not undercutting, other photographers will be far more likely to send work YOUR way when their schedules are full or they're taking time off.
Don't be tempted to copy another photographer's price list. What works for them in their area and in their life may not be applicable to you. Use your brainpower, work those numbers, figure your worth, estimate your expenses and figure it out! If you're feeling stuck, setup an appointment with a business strategy consultant.
Alright, you talked me into it. I guess this would be a good place to let you in on a little secret. This is my secret for success. My business didn't take off or become dependable and consistent until I started charging what I'm worth. It was crazy and miraculous, and it totally worked. And I think this is why: The more you value yourself, the more others will value you. I think that's the hard part about being a creative... you truly are your worst critic, you're constantly undervaluing yourself, and this totally translates over to how others perceive you. N'est pas?
Great! Business plan. Check. Now how do I get into birth photography?
Great question! So you're an experienced photographer, you have an established business, you own all the equipment you need to do your job correctly, and you're interested in diving into the very unique world of birth photography. Now that you've done your research with local birth professionals, you understand the birth event in detail, you're familiar with interventions, customs, and birth options, and you've created some relationships and have established some contacts. That's a great start! Through word of mouth and with a strong portfolio of baby-related work, you will be able to land your first birth session. Just remember, stick to your pricing, know your terms, and don't be afraid to turn a client down if you think the relationship is uncomfortable. Know who you are. Set standards for yourself and your business. Have RESPECT for your business. Never settle. Girl, it will pay off.
What camera/lens should I use?
You know you're not ready to become a birth photographer if seeing this question in my FAQ excited you. I know that's not what you want to hear. As I mentioned earlier, birth photography is in the top most challenging genres of photography. So I advise taking photography classes. I advise shooting other genres to learn how to use a camera and determine which lenses you love working with most. This only comes with experience, trial and error, and taking classes. Check out creativelive.com and lynda.com if your schedule doesn't allow for physical classes.
Random bits of advice...
- Working with two camera bodies really allows for more flexibility and variety during fast-paced events! It also assures that you have a backup plan if something malfunctions with your primary body. Because this moment is precious and it will never exist again.
- Invest in a rolling camera bag. You owe it to yourself. It is not safe to be carrying so much weight around with you everywhere you go while on call. Be sure that the bag you invest in can fit on a rolling hospital cart. You'll understand why when you photograph a cesarean birth. Click here to see my pimped out bag.
- Never work without attorney-approved contracts and model releases. I said, "NEVER". Friends and family are no exception. Many people are recommending certain birth photography contract templates. I used them for a time, myself. But when I finally wised-up and had my own attorney review them, they were riddled with errors! I was aghast at how long I'd worked with so much risk! Be careful when shopping online, and always have your own attorney involved in the process!
- Invest in some pepper spray or a stun gun. Take a self-defense course. You'll find yourself walking to your car in the middle of the night carrying expensive equipment. And that'll be the same night the parking lot lights have gone haywire and not sensed the lack of sunlight. Creep-y.
- Don't procrastinate when you think you need a shower!
- Insure your business!
- Stay away from infants if there's any chance you're ill. Find 3 reliable backups, and form great relationships with them. Don't wait until you need a backup to introduce yourself and form a relationship with other photographers.
- "Like" other birth photographers on Facebook and support them, but remove them from your newsfeed. Find your inspiration in other places, so you can build a unique brand which screams YOU!
- Stop asking photographers you admire what lenses they use or what settings they used to acquire a certain shot. Knowing what lenses they use will not make you better at your job, and knowing what specific settings they used in a specific scenario is just the best way to tell the world, "I'm an amateur!", not because you're still trying to learn, but because this information is not going to serve you in your clients' own very specific lighting conditions.
- Please be very respectful with your demeanor around other birth professionals (midwives, doulas, medical staff). Your behavior reflects on us all. It is NOT your place to question the recommendations of medical professionals. When advocating to get into the OR, there is only so much you can do. Do not turn it into a fight. This will only tarnish Birth Photographers in your region altogether.
- Wear neutral-colored clothing to prevent color casts.
- Dress in layers. Birthing rooms are often freezing during labor, because momma is working hard. The temperature is usually turned up immediately after birth.
- Remember, the birthing room is not your territory. We are at the bottom of the hierarchy here, because we are not necessary for the wellbeing of mother and child.
- Working in a busy hospital setting, stay out of the way as much as possible. Over time you'll learn where you're expected to be in any given scenario. Try to be as predictable as possible and confident and smooth with your movements. Don't ever find yourself in that awkward, silent, "you go this way, I'll go that way.... wait, THAT way.... BONK!" scenario. Staff would prefer to move around a stationary object (you) than try to guess where you're headed.
- Use the Waze app for navigation. You'll always know where the accidents, cops, and traffic jams are, and you'll always be given the fastest routes to your births!
- Walking into a home birth, you see another person has settled their bags on the floor. This is not THE place for setting bags. This is probably the midwife's tools, and she'll need constant quick access. Set your things elsewhere, out of the way.
- The hospital countertops are NOT there for you to stand on to get a different angle.
- Don't leave a birth and assume you totally rocked it just based on the images. Ask for feedback from the other birth workers and from your clients. Your conduct matters.
- Take care of yourself while at births. Feed yourself. I advise investing in a Magic Bullet. Protein-packed shakes are fast and filling on the go, and great to sip on to keep your blood sugar up and prevent your hands from shaking. Beware of any food allergies your clients may have, and never bring smelly foods into the room.
- No volume of attended births will ever make you a medical professional. Our hearts ache for uneducated or mistreated clients, but there is a fine line to be respected when it comes to childbirth education and medical advice.
- Make your on-call phone ringer and text tone as loud and obnoxious as possible. Ensure that there are no service black holes in your home and office. If there are, switch carriers as soon as possible. Have a backup plan if your cell goes out.
- Keep the car gassed up at all times. Pretend that the halfway mark is the Empty mark.
- Take a vacation from time-to-time. Photograph something that you're not paid to photograph. Explore. Learn.
- Every birth is different. Every birth is unpredictable. No exceptions. Say it and repeat it and LIVE BY IT.