Friday, 31 August 2012


I have been thinking a lot about motherhood at the moment (probably because I have just had my second child!). There were also some articles in the August 2012 British Journal of Photography focusing on the family which further sparked my interest.

Towards the end of my pregnancy, I took some self-portraits. This was a technical challenge. I have done self-portraits before, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier! This time I had gone out and bought some studio equipment – a backdrop, a reflector holder, and a tripod stand for mounting my small external (580EX) flash on (along with some Honl light modifiers for it). I did two sessions, one week apart. This assisted with the creative side, as between the two sessions I reviewed the shots and thought about different poses and outfits etc. I have never used a backdrop before, and I chose a simple white muslin for both shoots, mainly because I didn’t want to be using paper due to environmental reasons (having to throw it out when dirty). I didn’t consider having to spend a few hours ironing it though! Even then, the backdrop is clearly visible in the photos, so this is something I’ll have to consider in the future. I also have quite a limited space at my disposal which means I could not stand as far as I wanted in front of the backdrop, though I’m still not sure how I would get the floor of the backdrop seamless for those shots where it is included. Something I’ll have to play with, or improve my post-processing skills (or both!).

I used quite simple setups, a single light (with either an umbrella or snoot), reflector and white background. I used my external flash occasionally for fill-light and also tried pointing it at the background with coloured gels to make the background another colour. This I found didn’t work very well, partly because of my limited space arrangement, and also because the main light is more powerful than the external flash. I really need to have two lights of similar power for this to work I think.  It was fun trying a variety of poses and different camera angles. Focussing is very challenging when you are both the photographer and subject – there does not seem to be much discussion about this challenge and I would be interested to talk to others about how to do it. I ended up placing an object at about where I would pose, focus on that and then use the self-timer and move into the shot. In most cases this has worked OK, though perhaps not spot-on. Practice will help! Or an assistant…

I then had the challenge of post-processing. I loaded my images into Lightroom for the usual rating/keywording etc, and once I had decided on the best few images, loaded them into Photoshop for post processing. I did the usual simple levels/curves adjustments, and then spent quite a bit of time on the cloning and spot removal. I tidied up around the hair to get rid of the stray hairs which are surprisingly obvious on a white background! I also needed to smooth the background a bit, which I did using a high-pass filter inverted and masked in over the background. I also sharpened the eyes using an unsharp mask, and used the saturation slider to selectively brighten up lips and skin. It was good to play with different techniques, but once again I was reminded about how much I really don’t know about Photoshop, and really can only learn by doing!

I post two example of images below, with the before and after processing on the left and right respectively. The effect of the processing is quite subtle, and it will be interesting to return to these photos when I have more skill at processing to further refine them. I think there is definite improvement, but I’m sure more could be done to ‘lift’ them as images.

With the baby born, I then set about my next (photographic) challenge… to capture one of those iconic baby images… easier said than done! Once again, I did it on my own, with a fairly simple setup – one light, cushion and towels on the floor, covered with waterproof cloth and blanket. I used a heater to heat the space before getting baby naked and comfortable. I have watched a few YouTube videos on how to photograph newborns, so had some ideas about how it was done. Once again, background caused me a problem, as I had it fine underneath him, but behind him it was crumpled and inadequate. This caused me problems in the post-processing as I essentially had to erase the blanket. No worries, I’ll get that right next time. Posing a sleeping baby (and keeping him asleep) is challenging, but it was really fun, and the results are quite delightful, so I’m glad I attempted this. Getting the ‘creamy smooth’ baby look in Photoshop is not that easy though, and quite unrealistic actually, as babies are quite red and splotchy. I feel like I’m getting close to as far as I want to push it, but it has made me realise that all those baby photographers must spend a lot of time altering the colours and smoothing out lines and spots (probably just like fashion photographers do!). Nonetheless, it was quite rewarding and challenging to pose and photograph a newborn baby. My best shot below (before and after processing) as it is currently.

I have also been reading about other artists/photographers and their interest in motherhood. Catching my eye in BJP August 2012 was the work of Anastasia Taylor-Lind, who has recently completed a piece of work entitled “The National Womb” about a birth encouragement project to encourage young people to increase the population in Nagorno-Karabakh. The families are paid to have children, the financial reward increasing with subsequent children. I wondered about the simplicity of their life, and the challenges they face every day. We live in such a privileged country and yet still it’s common to hear friends complaining  about how hard they have it with their babies, yet we have running hot water in our homes and don’t have to wash our nappies by hand (indeed most people don’t  even use reusable nappies these days). The women in this photographic series are bringing up their children under the threat of war breaking out, and it’s no wonder life looks hard in these images. The women look somewhat drained of emotion, though perhaps instead of this indicating no emotion at all as I first postulated, it instead reflects their actual emotional and physical state of exhaustion. Having a young baby is tiring!

I was also reminded then of the work of Rineke Dijkstra, whose ‘New Mothers’ project I remember seeing in the Tate Modern in London a few years ago. Her subjects, three mothers photographed an hour, a day and a week after giving birth, appear equally drained of emotion, perfectly suiting the ‘deadpan’ style of imagery that Dijkstra is known for (possibly reflecting her choice of camera which may take longer to set up and thus the subject relaxes such that her face appears not to have much emotion on it).  I liked this quote from Frieze magazine about the project, “restraint and deceptive simplicity of her approach towards representing people whose lives have been touched by commonplace but monumental change” – this I can really identify with  - having a baby is such a momentous thing to do, yet _anyone_ can do it, and thus in a way it is not regarded as special, but the human body is so incredibly amazing in the things it can do, and birth is one of the greatest examples of this.

Taylor-Lind, A. (2011), VII Website [online], Available from [Accessed 31 August 2012]

Frieze (1998), Frieze Blog [online], Available from 
 [Accessed 31 August 2012]

British Journal of Photography, August 2012