Beth Wade began taking maternity images as a complement to her photography of newborns. Actually, the photos would be more of a prequel, but you get the idea.
At first it wasn't very satisfying. "I was trying to do things that were trendy," Beth says. "People would send me images from social media and want me to do little blocks on their baby bellies and things like that. It wasn't really me."
What she wanted was something different, maternity photography more interesting and challenging than she was seeing, and she found it by using what she was seeing right in her own backyard: "We live on a lake. I had what I needed right here."
Given that, as she says, "there are only so many ways to photograph a belly," she'd let the setting help her create images that were as different as possible. "We've got a two-mile view down the main channel—it's a fantastic angle for this kind of photography." She also has a neighborhood that offers, within a short car ride, areas of grassland, lots of trees, open fields and community gardens.
In the Comfort Zone
Not only is the location ideal for photography, it's a big benefit to her clients. "My studio is attached to my home, so it's a comfort zone for the clients," Beth says. "There's no long-distance travel, and there's a place to change clothes."
The sessions begin with studio photos. "We do that while it's still fairly bright outside. We go through different wardrobe changes, make the photos and then go outside." The garden and field photos come next, and the day is wrapped up with sunset at the lake—"so if she gets wet and I get wet, those are the last photos of the day and we can walk into the house and change."
Beth usually schedules photography between 32 and 35 weeks of a pregnancy, with the timing reflecting a balance between "a nice, round belly" and an "overly uncomfortable" client. "It all depends on the mom, though," she says. "I had a client who was really tiny at 34 to 36 weeks, and I recently scheduled her for 37 or 38 weeks for her second baby. But generally I want to get the pictures before 37 weeks."
The South Carolina weather intrudes from time to time. "One summer because of rain I had to reschedule some maternity sessions three and four times. I can push it back a week and we'll still be okay, but if it gets to a point where we're really pushing it, I'll leave it up to the client."
The Substance of Style
Location is certainly important to the look of her photos, but it's not everything. Beth deals in the idealized image—you could think of her sessions as model shoots, but with more heart—and to create it everything comes into play, including hair and makeup artists at the studio if the client chooses. Clients can select their own clothing, but Beth prefers to confer with them on selections from her collection of fabrics and dresses.
A large part of her style is the moods she creates in the photos using interesting, often unusual studio backgrounds. She'll also set up silhouette situations, and in post production might remove sections of natural backgrounds or horizon lines to create dream-like atmospheres.
Because the comfort of the client is paramount, camera control has to be second nature and posing has to be quick and assured. "I can't be fooling around with camera settings. and I have to know where to position my moms and know the angle to use to take the pictures."
She likes to shoot wide open to get soft backgrounds, but will make adjustments to suit her vision for a particular image. "Often I like to have a fair distance between my subject and the background to increase the soft background blur; other times it's not what I’m looking for."
The important thing, she emphasizes, is knowing before you make a change how that difference will affect the image. It all comes down to knowing what she needs—from the lens, the f/stop, the shutter speed and the ISO—to get what she wants in the picture.
Beth often uses studio strobes indoors and goes with natural light outdoors. Tripod use is pretty much restricted to the times she'll get in the lake. "Most of the time when I'm photographing in the lake, I'm up to my ears in water," she says, "with the camera two inches above the water. Of course my clients are like, 'You're craaazy!' But recently I've purchased waders that are used for fly fishing, and they're fantastic."
Keeping It Different, Keeping It Personal
"I'm a big fan of the faceless shot," Beth says, "and of not necessarily having my subjects smile for the camera. I do a variety of things to change the look. I'll get a full shot where I may have her look down or look up at me, as well a shot where I crop at the chin or the neck. Some moms prefer faceless or not looking at the camera; others really like smiling at the camera." She feels the non-smiling and cropped shots bring all the attention to the belly—"which is essentially what the moms want; ultimately the picture is about the baby they're carrying."
Nothing she does is a surprise to the client. They've seen examples of her work and know what to expect, and what they expect is what Beth likes to do. "I make sure what's in my portfolio at the website and on my blog represents what they can expect from a session with me, and that it's what I want to do."