Maternity Photography: A Guide to Pregnancy Portraits

Maternity photography has emerged in recent years as a wildly popular tradition among pregnant women, couples, and families hoping to document this exciting time in their lives. 

In this guide, we’ll dive deeper into maternity photography and the controversial photo that launched the relatively new genre. We’ll cover which cameras, lenses, and gear you’ll need for a successful shoot. And, we’ll give you several tips to capture beautiful, meaningful memories for the growing family.

What is maternity photography?

Maternity photography is a genre of portrait photography that highlights a woman’s pregnancy, growing family, and changing body. As portraiture, maternity photographs should convey the subjects in a beautiful, impactful, or candid way while highlighting an ever-expanding baby bump.

Photo by Tai’s Captures on Unsplash

Maternity photos can seek to show the unique relationship between an expectant mother and her unborn child. It can showcase a woman’s body through the physical changes of pregnancy or the dynamics of a growing family. The images captured during a maternity photoshoot become heirlooms. So, as a maternity photographer, you’ll be tasked with capturing photos to be cherished for generations to come.

History of maternity photography

Prior to the 20th century, pregnancy was rarely depicted in portraits, either photographed or painted. Historians surmise this was due to conservative attitudes at the time. To depict a pregnant woman would reveal to viewers that she was sexually active. It has also been suggested that the high rate of women that did not survive childbirth may have played a role in the decision not to document maternity through photographs.

Over the next 90-years, as conservative attitudes toward pregnancy began to ease up and childbirth became much safer, maternity photos became more common. However, they were typically low-key snapshots taken at home rather than the professional photographs popular today. So what changed?

The photo that launched the genre

In 1991, photographer Annie Leibovitz famously photographed Demi Moore, in the nude and 7-months pregnant, for the cover of Vanity Fair. At the time of its publication, the image was considered so shocking that many retailers even refused to stock the issue. The image challenged the public to reconsider the outdated attitudes about the female body, to celebrate pregnancy rather than hide it. While controversial, it succeeded in launching an entirely new genre of professional portraiture — maternity photography.

Now, only a few decades after the iconic Demi Moore photo, pregnant women regularly celebrate the exciting, hopeful, and transformative time in their lives through a variety of styles of maternity photography.

Photo by João Paulo de Souza Oliveira from Pexels

Styles of maternity photography

Like other portrait photos, maternity shots can be captured in a variety of styles. They can be heavily posed studio shots or casual, candid outdoor images. Or, they can be filled with rich color or made in high-contrast black and white. They can include only the mom-to-be or her entire family. Or, they can range from serious and sentimental, intimate and sensual, or humorous and playful.

Every woman experiences pregnancy differently. Thus, maternity photographs are as varied in their style as the pregnant women being photographed. 

What’s the best camera for maternity photography?

Because maternity photography is shot in a variety of settings and lighting conditions, there is no single best camera that will work for all maternity photographers. However, DSLR or mirrorless cameras will make it easy to adapt to your particular shoot. Because you’ll be capturing heirloom images for your client, your camera should be capable of high-resolution shots suitable for printing.

What is the best lens for maternity photography?

Your lens choice will be very important when shooting a maternity photo. Remember, although this is portraiture, your images will often be three-quarter or full-length shots rather than headshots. You may choose to show the mom-to-be at full-length in front of a beautiful background. Or, you may opt for closer, more intimate shots.

A 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.2 is a great choice because it closely captures what the human eye sees and is adaptable to a variety of shooting conditions. With its wide aperture, the “nifty fifty” is fast, captures gorgeous bokeh, and is ideal in both bright and low-light environments. A 50mm lens is versatile enough that you can get close to your subject, filling the frame for more intimate shots. Or, you can step back and capture more of the surroundings. Avoid shooting maternity photography with anything wider than 50mm to avoid distortion.

If you’re shooting outside and have the room, an 85mm f/1.8 is another great choice for maternity photographers. The lens offers gorgeous subject-background separation and creates dreamy bokeh. An 85mm is a solid all-around great lens for maternity photos, but it can be difficult to direct and pose your subject from the greater distance necessary to shoot with this lens.

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

If you prefer a zoom, a 70-200 f/2.8 offers versatility to capture both wide and close-up shots without having to physically move in and out of the shot.

Other maternity photography gear

Additional gear will also be dependent on your location, lighting, and style of the photoshoot. If you’re shooting in a studio, indoors, or somewhere with limited natural lighting, you may need an artificial light source, either flash, strobe, continuous, or studio lighting.

A tripod can be useful in certain shooting situations, too. A tripod can make it easier to capture sharp focus without the blur of camera shake in low-light shots. Even in well-lit shots, however, a tripod can be a useful tool for maternity photographers. If your composition is perfectly set up, but your model needs a little help getting into the perfect pose, a tripod will allow you to keep your camera in position while you interact with your client. Use a remote shutter release in conjunction with your tripod to easily snap shots while repositioning and posing your client.

Of course, backup batteries and extra memory cards should be standard in any professional photographer’s camera bag. 

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Camera settings for maternity photography

Because maternity photography encompasses such a wide variety of styles and shooting situations, you’ll need a clear understanding of which camera settings to use for each type of shot. Set your camera to manual mode for the most control over your images. Then, adjust aperture, ISO, and shutter speed accordingly.

  • Aperture: A wider aperture will create a shallower depth of field to separate your subject from the background. A narrower aperture will leave more of the image in focus. Because aperture controls the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor, a wide aperture will also let in more light, so this setting will change with each shooting situation.
  • ISO: Increase your ISO when shooting in low-light situations or decrease your ISO when shooting in bright light. Always try to keep your ISO as low as possible to avoid grain and noise in your shot.
  • Shutter Speed: A slower shutter speed will be adequate for stationary poses while action shots and candid photos may require a faster shutter. But remember, your shutter speed should never be slower than your focal length or your images will be blurry.

Your camera settings will largely depend on style, location, lighting, and the overall effect you’re hoping to achieve with your image.

Photo by Daniel Reche from Pexels

5 Tips for maternity photographers

As discussed, maternity photography can include posed studio shots, candid action shots, indoor, outdoor, and anything-in-between shots. While so many elements of your shoot are dependent on the situation, there are a few tips to use across the board for successful maternity photos.

1. Make your client comfortable

Pregnancy, especially in the later weeks when most maternity shots are taken, can be physically demanding. Coupled with the fact that the mom-to-be may be feeling self-conscious in front of the camera, maternity photo shoots can quickly become uncomfortable. Remain empathetic to your client and her needs, frequently checking her physical and emotional comfort levels throughout the shoot. 

2. Come prepared with poses

Heading into your shoot, you should already have an idea of what your client wants to achieve in her shots and have poses in mind. A pregnant mom that tires easily could quickly become fatigued having to repose too many times. Additionally, poses should show off the baby bump while presenting mom-to-be in an attractive light. 

Photo by Georgia Maciel from Pexels

3. Make mom-to-be feel beautiful

Every woman, especially one that’s carrying an entire human inside her belly, wants to look and feel attractive. Three-quarter poses will accentuate her curves. Bent knees, elbows, and fingers will photograph more beautifully than stiff, straight lines. You can also make use of double-sided tape, pins, and clips to make wardrobe or fabric coverings appear perfectly fit and flattering.

4. Use props thoughtfully

Your client may want to include props, like the ultrasound photo or a pair of tiny booties in her shot. Have fun with your props. Inject some humor into a candid shot by having mom-to-be munching on pickles and ice cream or her favorite pregnancy craving. Include flowers or a crown to enhance her femininity or add elegance to the shot. Just remember to use props sparingly and thoughtfully to avoid the object drawing focus away from the story your photo tells.

Photo by John Ho Photography on Flickr

5. Focus on the baby bump

Aside from angling your model to best show off her bump—don’t shoot straight-on, square-shouldered shots that make her belly look flat—compose your photo in a way that keeps the focus on the pregnancy. Pay attention to details that can quickly become distractions. Simplify or blur your background. 

Editing maternity photos

As with any style of portrait photography, post-processing and editing your maternity photos will be important to achieving print-worthy images. Photo editing is done to make subtle enhancements or corrections to an image that’s already great, so start with a photograph that’s already almost there. 

For photo editing, we recommend Photoshop or Lightroom. Basic edits commonly made with maternity photographs include cropping, straightening, and color-correcting. And, any mom-to-be will appreciate retouching to fix flaws like blemishes, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, or an odd, out-of-place strand of hair. Just don’t go overboard with retouching or your image may end up looking fake.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Final thoughts

Maternity photographs are often among the most treasured of any professional portrait. The anticipated arrival of a new baby is an exciting time. For many growing families, your photos will be capturing those precious moments before their lives were forever changed.

Take time to get to know your client and her wishes. Use the tips and tricks listed above. And, take the task seriously. Remember you’re both making and capturing memories in photographing the images that will become family heirlooms for generations to come.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

Leave a Comment