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How to use studio lighting for newborn photography

Hi Everyone!
My name is Dina and I’m a newborn baby photographer in Brooklyn New York.

Today I want to show you how to use your studio lighting correctly when shooting newborn babies. Our goal is to have beautiful soft lighting, with soft – form defining shadows. You don’t want harsh lighting or harsh/strong edged shadows – but you also don’t want completely flat light without any shadows.

Let’s start with the technicalities…

What am I using?
Light: I have a Bowens flash set – not that I recommend this unit in particular. I do recommend a flash unit with multiple power settings. Your flash needs to be set on low power so you can shoot at wide open aperture without blowing out your images and making them completely white. In order to fire the flash I have a Bowens trigger that goes on my camera’s ‘hot shoe’.

Light Modifier: I’m using the very large 86″ PLM system. It is a very large umbrella with a white fabric diffuser over it to soften the light. My PLM has soft silver bounce interior and black exterior. Essentially it is a sort of a big soft box. I bought the largest light modifier because the larger the beam of the light source, the softer the lighting on your subject becomes. With newborn babies softer is better!
Tip* If you are on the lowest power and the light still seems too strong, put two fabric diffusers on your umbrella to diffuse your light further more.

-Camera: Nikon D750

-Lens: Sigma art 50mm 1.4 This lens opens  w i d e and helps me get that creamy background look.

We’ll start with the correct way of using studio lighting. Later I’ll show you other ways to use lighting – some of which are less flattering to your subjects.

My Camera settings;

My aperture is at  f/2.2,
Shutter Speed is 125, which is the correct sync speed for my flash. Check your camera/flash manual to determine which is your correct sync speed.
My ISO is very low >100.
My white balance is set with custom WB with the expodisc.
My flash power is at its lowest setting to accommodate the wide aperture that I use.

What can we do if the light is too powerful?
I want to address an issue that many photographers have when the light is too powerful. We love shooting with wide apertures, we want to get the blurred backdrop and get that creamy smooth look. but if the light power is at it’s lowest setting and the images are still getting blown out?
Here are a few solutions:
1) Get diffusion fabrics. If you are using the PLM system, buy  more than one diffusion fabric. If you have other modifiers get a simple sheer white fabric and clip it to your soft box.
2) Get a neutral density filter for your lens. Or as they are called ND filters.
3) Get a neutral density filter to put on your light! but be carful with this ND Filter you can’t use your modeling light or else you will burn the filter.

Let me explain why I think this is the ideal lighting. The doll is lit from right to left with soft looking overall lighting. There are no harsh highlights or ‘hot spots’ on her face. The shadows are soft and gradual (no hard edge shadows). Correct highlights or shadows are what makes the image work! Shadows are good and beautiful when in the right place! This is why I don’t use a reflector. I don’t want to fill in the good looking shadows I’m working hard to create.
In this image I placed the light 90° parallel to the right side. I also make sure that the edge of the light doesn’t get past baby’s head (or doll in our case). For me, a 90° light setup very much resembles a light pouring in through an outside window.
I place the light modifier just to the edge of head as you see in this example: All images shown here are SOOC (straight out of camera). Newborn lighting
and this one as well. Note that the backdrop is not completely illuminated.
Newborn lighting
The light gets feathered. What an interesting term, “feathered”! I imagine the edge of the light is lightly brushes my shooting subject, not hitting it hard in any way. Feathered lighting is the goal. It’s soft, and oh, so beautiful.

Look how lovely the doll is lit here; I see some yummy shadows and some soft highlights. I also see the background/ backdrop is not washed out with light. I don’t want the background/ backdrop to be too illuminated and take the attention away from my subject!
Newborn lighting

Now let’s see how the doll looks in an upright sitting position. Notice how nicely the light wraps its face and body. The catch light is in the correct place – the subject’s eyes, drawing your attention to them. And just the right amount of shadows add a soft form-defining 3D like look.
Newborn lighting
Now let’s look at a common mistake – placing the light without feathering, as shown below:
Newborn lighting
a front view of the same setup:
Newborn lighting
Look at the end result – the light appears as if it’s coming from behind the baby, causing a strong highlight on the head and ‘hole shadows’ on the face. This is a common error, resulting in the face of the baby appearing dark, while its body is brighter, as shown below.
Newborn lighting
Here is the same result with the subject sitting in an upright position – again very strong highlights and a dark face.
Newborn lighting
The last setup I want to show is not necessarily wrong, I just want you to be aware of the very slight difference, because once you will pay attention to it you will definitely be able to achieve the dreamy lighting you desire for newborn babies.

This one is the 45° lighting. As you see the light is directed at the subject; Hitting it directly will cause harsher highlights and harsher shadows. Also the background / backdrop will be lit as well, Something I like to avoid. Newborn lighting
Here it is from the side. The whole background is lit with directional lighting, unlike the feathered lighting I love so much.
Newborn lighting
Now let’s look at a closeup; notice that the wrap is brighter from directional lighting and the background is lighter.
Newborn lighting
At this point we can compare. Which shot looks better to you?
In the one on left the light is feathered and doesn’t hit the doll directly. As a result, the light appears softer – and on the other hand, the highlights are slightly harsher. So there is more ‘white’ on the fabric and more ‘spill’ of light on the backdrop.
This is not technically wrong; it is just my artistic preference.
So when do I use 45° lighting?
If baby is posed in a way that his chin is tucked in and I notice that there is not enough light from the 90° lighting, I will turn the light 45° to fill the subject in with more light.
If you think to yourself, well I like that there is more light just like in the the right image. I want to point out that these images are SOOC. Naturally the feathered Lighting will be slightly darker SOOC. However when I add exposure later in post processing, it will add it without changing the quality of light!

Newborn lighting
Here are all 3 setups together:
Newborn lighting

Here are all three setups in the sitting position: Notice how much softer the shadows on the feathered light looks!
Newborn lighting
Last, but not least – if you shoot from the opposite direction of your light, you will get the yummiest backlight type of image. This lighting is best for detailed shots such as macro or close ups!
Newborn lighting
And I want to finish up with the lighting doll image I prefer best – the 90° feathered look. This time edited!
Newborn lighting
I hope you enjoyed this article on how to use newborn lighting correctly and achieve the dreamiest look!
Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments and I’ll be happy to post my response.

45 comments
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  • Carolzonta@hotmail.comSeptember 15, 2016 - 10:54

    Can I ask why you have the PLM turned that way? Like the top of the umbrella do the other side so the flash triggers to the other side? I’ve seen some other set ups that the top of the umbrella faces baby, what is the difference? ReplyCancel

    • dinaduchanSeptember 15, 2016 - 12:24

      Good question, the flash inside the PLM is firing towards the umbrella. The light is essentially bouncing from the modifier to through the diffused fabric on to my subject. Again one more step to soften the light!ReplyCancel

      • JennFebruary 18, 2017 - 10:10

        May I ask what strobe you use? I have purchased a few different ones but still struggling to find the perfect one.  I prefer natural light but recently invested in a similar system since I live in Ohio and the sun never cooperates in the winter. I’ve heard aliens bees are great but have had no luck finding them anywhere new. I hate to pay so much for something used. I use the feathering technique with newborns just because Moms are so often afraid the flash will harm their baby’s eyes I also love the soft lighting it creates. Thank you for sharing. ReplyCancel

        • JennFebruary 18, 2017 - 10:19

          Excited to see the website you linked has the Alienbees on it. All my stores I use for photography supplies don’t carry them. ReplyCancel

          • dinaduchanFebruary 18, 2017 - 20:04

            Though Alienbees are mentioned here, I don’t use them. They are not the best option out there. Einstein light is an option that more photographers are happy about. (But I’m not using it as well)

        • dinaduchanFebruary 18, 2017 - 20:08

          I’m using the Bowens one.However I’m sure there are better options out there.ReplyCancel

          • JennFebruary 19, 2017 - 02:05

            I have a bowens too, and an impact.  My soft box is only a 62″ though. 

      • EvaAugust 10, 2017 - 10:41

        Dear Dina, this was so helpful to me, there are just two things Im trying to work out. What are the specs that a great lighting should have to have and if you know a great light source that is available in Europe. Loads use the Einstein that is not available here anymore Im looking at other lights specs that can be very similar…ReplyCancel

        • dinaduchanAugust 10, 2017 - 11:02

          Glad I could help Eva!
          I’m not familiar with all lighting types however I do recommend a light that goes to low power and works well in the lowest power (Many lights preform well in high power but not so much in low power)ReplyCancel

  • ConnieSeptember 15, 2016 - 11:01

    Great job! It’s great to see other fellow photographers pull backs! ReplyCancel

    • dinaduchanSeptember 15, 2016 - 13:31

      Thank you!ReplyCancel

  • DeniseSeptember 15, 2016 - 13:39

    Great info!  I normally shoot with natural light, but will be shooting indoors with flash/strobes this weekend.  This answered my question.  ReplyCancel

    • dinaduchanSeptember 15, 2016 - 19:28

      So happy!ReplyCancel

  • LynnSeptember 15, 2016 - 14:23

    Thank you for this! I also have trouble with lighting in props, would you consider doing one for lighting baby in a bowl or basket?ReplyCancel

    • dinaduchanSeptember 15, 2016 - 19:29

      Good idea, will work on it!ReplyCancel

  • Lori MooreSeptember 15, 2016 - 18:45

    I use smaller softboxrs that are rectangular shaped do I attach the 86 inch plm that you spoke about to my strobe? When I Googled the system you spoke about it was only the softboxrs. I have tried to purchase something like this before but did not know if the weight of it would be too much for the system I am using?ReplyCancel

    • dinaduchanSeptember 15, 2016 - 19:32

      The PLM is un umbrella, you can mount it on a flash just like any other umbrella! The PLM is instead of a softbox. A Softbox Is a light modifier. A PLM is one too. ReplyCancel

  • MarylinSeptember 15, 2016 - 22:21

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us Dina. I’ve been struggling with flash for a while and letting it intimidate me. This information really broke it down into easy to understand steps and your photo examples were perfect. Also, I really appreciate all of your time and patience with the questions I had for you in a PM. You were so open, receptive, and generous with your time and knowledge. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for making this easier and for getting me excited about my studio lights again! Much love, MarylinReplyCancel

  • PaulaSeptember 16, 2016 - 00:02

    Thanks for sharing.  Your PLM, are you using the white with the added black outer cover and front white diffuser OR, are you using the Soft Silver with the front white diffuser.ReplyCancel

  • Petra NachlingerováSeptember 16, 2016 - 14:52

    Thank you for your tutorial it´s great … not all people do that …ReplyCancel

  • ShainaSeptember 26, 2016 - 12:57

    Thank You so much for Sharing Dina! I found this to be very helpful in so many ways. You explained the lighting so well down to the detail. Can’t wait to start practicing! Thank You!! ReplyCancel

  • LamaOctober 6, 2016 - 09:59

    Thank you so much for this post! It helped me figure out my problem!!ReplyCancel

  • ElianaOctober 7, 2016 - 01:20

    Hi newbie here, what about about your ambient light? Does the room have to be dark to get the shadows?ReplyCancel

    • dinaduchanOctober 11, 2016 - 08:41

      Hi, the power of flash overcomes the ambient light.ReplyCancel

  • JenelynApril 28, 2017 - 19:27

    Hi. I’ve just started my career in this field. Been studying a lot of online courses. Just want to tell you that your illustrations are the best so far. And the explanations as well. I better understood how the feathering works. 

    Would you mind sharing also how you can use your PLM in photographing Maternity, Infant/Toddler and Family. I have a Westcott one and still learning how to position my lights in different situations and sessions.ReplyCancel

  • Chani RJune 23, 2017 - 08:53

    This is the best article I’ve come across on lighting a newborn. You are an amazing photographer and teacher!ReplyCancel

  • YaffaJune 23, 2017 - 10:31

    Thank you so much Dina! This was so helpful! ReplyCancel

  • Rikki SJune 26, 2017 - 02:38

    Dina, Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!  This was so helpful and clear!!! And your photos are simply amazing!!!!!!ReplyCancel

  • RachelJuly 3, 2017 - 12:05

    Hi Dina, first thank you for offering your help on this. I  need a little clarification on the placement of the light and a couple questions.  When you said to make sure the edge of the light doesn’t go past baby’s head, do you mean in the direction of that back wall?  I see your arrows but it almost looks like the edge of the light (closest to the wall) is lining up with the center of baby’s head.  Should that edge of the light line up with the back edge of baby’s head or the center of the head?  Sorry, I’m probably thinking about it too much.  
    I’m so glad you mentioned that the 90 degree image would seem underexposed SOOC and how to deal with it in post instead of with your lights or camera. That was an eye-opener for me!  Having said that, approximately how much exposure did you add to this image? 
    Lastly,you mentioned using the 45 degree for chin tucked in. Can you show an example image ?
    Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your knowledge with us. ReplyCancel

    • dinaduchanJuly 5, 2017 - 13:16

      1) if the baby is on the center of the bean bag, The edge of the light should’t go past that point.
      2) It’s always better yo under expose than over expose in camera. How ever getting the exposure right in camera is better!
      3) I will always try to fix the pose so the face is lit nicely. Only if not possible i’ll bring the light in to lit the face more.
      You’re Welcome 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Gogo EmmonsJuly 4, 2017 - 09:23

    Dina, THANK YOU SOOOOOO MUCH for taking the time to do this tutorial! It’s clear, easy to understand, and full of examples to “SEE” exactly the difference! I have 6 years photographing NB and I never took the time to check the difference bw the 45 and the 90 degrees. Again, Thank you so much ! SO MUCH APPRECIATED!ReplyCancel

  • Sabine De RijbelJuly 5, 2017 - 16:37

    Hallo Dina, thank you for sharing your studio lighting setup.  I was also struggling with my lighting because I only have a little window in my studio.  I tried the 90° feathered together with my window and it is really great !!! Thank you so much !!ReplyCancel

  • Alena PopovaJuly 6, 2017 - 22:14

    Dina, thank you so much! your tutorial is very helpful. Which triggers do you use? ReplyCancel

    • dinaduchanJuly 7, 2017 - 10:54

      You’er welcome! I’m using one that is compatible with my Bowens lightReplyCancel

  • LanaAugust 3, 2017 - 10:33

    This was THE BEST article I read while I was learning how to use studio lighting.  I had taken online courses and invested thousands of dollars on lighting, classes, and mentoring before I read this and this article was better than all of that.  The behind the scenes pictures of the setups and the pictures showing right and wrong all lined up just gave me that “aha” moment!  Thank you so much for sharing!  And beautiful work by the way!  I love your style!ReplyCancel

    • dinaduchanAugust 3, 2017 - 12:58

      So happy this was helpful! Thank you for the kind words 🙂ReplyCancel

  • RomanSeptember 12, 2017 - 03:46

    Hi, can I ask you what are the specifications of your Bowen light? Especially how strong it is – 400W or 600W? Thank you for answer and a great inspiration from your blog and work 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Season HurdFebruary 4, 2018 - 14:28

    Oh my goodness, thank you so much for this! What a lovely, concise, and clear way to tell me just what I’ve been seeking. You’re awesome!ReplyCancel

  • BeniFebruary 7, 2018 - 10:02

    Hi Dina I just read your this great article on new born photo setup. I have a question what should be the power setting on the flash for new born session. I am planning to buy Einstein flash and so which model you prefer ? And what if I go for the canon speed flashlight ? ReplyCancel

  • ChristinaFebruary 27, 2018 - 22:02

    Thank you so much for this tutorial! I am completely new to artificial lighting and am struggling to find the “right” setup. It looks like the strobe you have is no longer available. Are there any comparable setups that you can suggest as far as quality and power? Thanks!ReplyCancel

  • Ron DauroraJuly 25, 2018 - 19:34

    Hello Dina, been looking at this post on and off for several months. I’m an amateur, but looking for professional results. Pulled the trigger and bought an Einstein and a 86″ PLM W diffuser and a 1.8 mm lens. My Daughter Nadine is giving birth to her first child in a couple weeks and wants Dad to take some good pictures. Wish me luck!ReplyCancel

  • AngelaAugust 11, 2018 - 21:14

    This is the best tutorial I have read on the subject. Thank you. ReplyCancel

  • dinaduchanSeptember 15, 2016 - 19:29

    likewise 🙂ReplyCancel

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