That adorable photo of a newborn sleeping on a faux bear rug — bottom skyward, toes curled and face resting on two tiny hands — looks so spontaneous. More likely, however, a savvy photographer orchestrated the image.
Children’s photographer Rachael Owen, owner of Catching Violet Photography, knows just how much planning goes into photographing seemingly impromptu moments. She schedules several hours for each newborn photo session with time built in for fussing, feeding and diaper changing.
Recently, the Pendleton photographer shot portraits of six-day-old Mila Aguilar inside Owen’s home studio. So much light flooded into the converted corner bedroom that Owen used window coverings to control the intensity. A thermometer above the door showed 90 degrees, the result of a space heater pre-warming the studio. Tropical temperatures encourage babies to sleep. Mila lay on her stomach without a stitch except for a loosely draped diaper.
Mila’s mother, Michelle, rubbed the baby’s back to coax a burp. Mila’s father Luis cradled his daughter with muscular arms and held her close, his masculinity juxtaposed with the fragility of his newborn.
Owen trained her Nikon on the pair, taking multiple shots as a flash aimed into a reflecting umbrella added more light. White noise — the sounds of a cat’s purr, heartbeat and possibly a bubbling aquarium — wafted into the room from speakers, creating a comforting aural blend and muffling the kachink of the camera shutter.
Owen had foregone her usual mug of java. A jittery photographer with shaky hands doesn’t do so well with infants.
“I tell the mother not to have coffee either,” she said. “It’s important for the baby not to be caffeinated on the morning of the shoot. You want a really relaxed baby.”
Owen schedules photo sessions before the babies are born. She said the window of opportunity is short for ideal results — between three and 10 days. Babies have recovered from the birth process but are still free of baby acne. They are Gumby-like in their flexibility and sleep most of the time.
Owen wore a white shirt. The fashion choice wasn’t just an effort to stay cool; the light color allows her to function as a human reflector.
“It reflects in the baby’s eyes,” she said.
The photographer changed scenes multiple times during the shoot, using a specialized beanbag chair, a stool draped with faux fur and even a gnarled wooden bowl. She pulled from a collection of backdrops and assortment of lacy diaper covers, headbands and other costume pieces.
As much as Owen sets the scene, she admitted the baby really controls the shoot.
“I let the baby drive,” she said. “If I had a mantra, it would be ‘I am flexible.’ Everything I do depends on the baby’s happiness and comfort.”
Owen tuned in to her tiny subject for direction. The malleable Mila allowed the photographer to position her arms and legs with only the occasional squirm. The baby called a halt to the shoot several times to fuss, feed or get re-diapered.
A Catching Violet calendar tacked near a computer desk in the room showcases a different Owen newborn photo each month — February features a baby boy sleeping in a baseball glove. Portraits of newborns and older children, especially her son and three daughters, adorn the walls of her North Hill home.
A little over three hours after the shoot began, Owen was satisfied. Later, she sat down at her computer and scanned the photos. She selected final shots, the ones she would finish using three different photo software programs. These photos will join others she took of Michelle with her baby bump and of Mila immediately after birth.
Owen seems to thrive on finding the ultimate pose, setting or technique— “the elusive formula for cute.” She does other types of photography, but babies will always come first for her.
“There’s something special about a baby,” Owen said. “This is a work of love.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.