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Using the right lighting to show off your baby belly

“Amateurs worry about the right equipment, professionals worry about money and true masters worry about light.” Georg B.

How right he was. When I decided to set up my own photography business six years ago, what I worried about most was having the right kit. And fretting about money is par for the course when you’re self-employed, although some times are better than others. These days, however, the thing I worry about most is indeed getting the right light conditions. I only work with natural light, which means I am at the mercy of the weather and the environment. I always time my outdoor shoots so that I can work with my favourite kind of light: backlighting. That means either early mornings just after sunrise, or in the evenings around an hour or two before sunset.

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This picture was taken in winter around 30–40 minutes after sunrise.

What is so great about backlighting?

At one point, I used to think that the sun had to be as high as possible in the sky to take good pictures: the more light, the better. The myth that you should always have the sun behind you when taking pictures is still very widespread. But where there is lots of light, there are also lots of shadows, and when the sun is high in the sky, these are very visible in your pictures. Unflattering shadows appear under the eyes and the chin, and the light is very harsh and not at all romantic. Of course, the results are different if you position your subject in the shade; however, you can get different light conditions in the image because the shadow will normally end somewhere, giving you very bright patches within the image. So whenever possible, I take pictures in the “golden hour”, when the sun is low in the sky.

When is the golden hour?

The perfect time changes from day to day. There are some good apps you can use to help you determine this; I use “Golden Hour One”. You can enter the place and date, and the app comes up with the times of the golden hour and the blue hour. The blue hour is at twilight, when day and night merge. It is also a wonderful time for atmospheric images, but gives a completely different look to the golden hour. In the blue hour, the colour temperature of the light is on the cool side, whereas, as its name suggests, the golden hour is full of warm, golden light. I always start my morning photo shoots right after sunrise, which currently (autumn) means at around 7:30, and evening shoots at around an hour before the blue hour, which here would be about 5:10. But I do like it when the sun is a little higher in the sky. Also, I put myself under a little less time pressure than if I don’t start until that crucial hour begins. In the golden hour, every minute counts, and this can ramp up the stress for amateur photographers.

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The “Golden Hour One” app gives good advice on picking the time for your shoot.

Choosing the right location

Of course, the location is also a huge factor, and my results can vary massively depending on whether I take pictures in the woods or in an open space. I like to explore each location before the actual shoot. It is important to check it out at the same time of day that you are planning to take your photos, making sure that there is not too much of a gap between the two days, as sunrise and sunset times change every day. Personally, I like it best when the sun is blocked a little by trees or something else in the foreground. Of course, this effect relies on the sun actually shining and not being hidden by clouds.

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Here, you have the sun coming from behind, but much more weakly because of the cloud cover.
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I really love the effect when sunlight is diffused by leaves or between trees. They act like a natural filter.

The right camera settings

I have a reputation for being not particularly au fait with technology. I like to focus on working with the people I am photographing and making them feel comfortable. But a bit of theory does no harm, even for backlight photography. I always take pictures in manual mode and would recommend that you do the same. It takes a bit of practice, but it means you have complete control over the light. I normally take pictures with a wide aperture at around F/2.8. As I often photograph children who, famously, are never still, I stick with an exposure time of 1/400. Although it is not always necessary, I simply cannot afford out-of-focus pictures when they are what I am paid for. That means the ISO is effectively the last variable I can use to make adjustments to get the exposure just right. I also always check the images on the display as I am going along, so I can decide whether I am happy or whether darker or lighter would be better. I can then adjust the ISO accordingly. I have a pretty pragmatic approach. If I like it, if it looks good, it doesn’t matter whether my picture has textbook perfect lighting or not. Don’t forget, there’s no right or wrong way to do things. Have a bit of courage and develop your own style; don’t worry too much about all the rules.

What are problems come with backlit photography?

Your camera may struggle to focus on the subject. This is because there is so much backlight that there is not a great deal of contrast in the image, and it is the contrast that the camera uses to focus. That happens to me all the time, and sometimes a customer will turn round to me and ask what I’m fiddling about at behind the lens and why I don’t just get on with taking the picture. But there is a little trick you can use. Hold the camera in one hand and use the other hand to block the sunlight a little way in front of the lens, so that the subject is still visible in the viewfinder. Then focus, take your hand away and quickly press the shutter release.

The light changes from one minute to the next

I have always been fascinated by how quickly the light can change during the golden hour. The pictures I take at the beginning of the photo shoot look completely different to those taken towards the end. Perspective also makes a tremendous difference. Try it for yourself, by holding your camera a couple of centimetres higher or lower – you’ll be amazed!

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The sun is still relatively high in the sky. It is about an hour and a half before sunset.
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Around 15 minutes later.
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Another 15 minutes later.
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Just a few more minutes and the sun will disappear behind the trees.

Lens flares – yes or no?

It is a controversial issue, but I think lens flares are (normally) fabulous. These aperture effects can create milky areas, circles of light and small, brightly coloured reflections. Of course, they should never cover the subjects, especially not their faces. If you wish to avoid them, fit a lens hood to the lens. This can block out the stray light source, stopping its light from ever getting as far as the lens. In my experience, it does not always work, and you may need to adjust your perspective a little. Take a step to the right or left, or change the angle of the camera, and you will get a completely different light situation.

Good foregrounds make good pictures

Have you ever wondered what makes some baby belly pictures more interesting than others? This is when I roll out my mantra “Good foregrounds make good pictures”. It is simple, but unbelievably effective. As well as getting the light right, there are other ways you can make a picture interesting. Simply have something in the foreground and take a picture of the subject past the foreground, as it were. For me, it is often some grasses or bushes. Or simply whatever is there.

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Square prints in a cute gift box

For the results of the baby belly shoot, I have opted for square prints with a white border. The 24 10x10 cm square prints are delivered in a cute box, making a wonderful gift for the father-to-be, for example. The photos are printed on high-quality Fujifilm photo paper and are also available without the white border. Personally, I find the white border really stylish, which is why I have opted for it.

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Profilbild Sarah

Sarah Menzi is a passionate family photographer and mother to one son. She lives with her family in Winterthur, which is also home to her wonderful boho-style daylight studio in the heart of the old town. Her pictures are simple and emotional. You can see lots of her natural shots of babies, families and pregnant mothers-to-be at www.sarahmenzi.com as well as Facebook and Instagram.

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