Birth photography – Flash or no flash?

Baby born in the caul.

Baby born in the caul.

To be or not to be… a flasher. That is the question. Ask a bunch of birth photographers whether they flash or don’t flash, and you’ll surely get a heated discussion.  This blog post is for those of you who say “Never! I would NEVER use flash at a birth!”

The most common argument against using flash during a birth is that it will disrupt the birth environment. If you’re overshooting at your births or if you’re shooting in close range, sure. No laboring mother wants rapid fire flash in her face. BUT no good birth photographer does that! If you learn how to use flash smartly and sparingly, then it is a wonderful tool to have at your disposal. It’s important to add also that if you are not familiar with external flash (and more specifically bounced flash), then you either already have, or will, miss an important shot. I can guarantee it.

Two years ago I attended the homebirth of twins, the second of which was born completely in the caul. The birth environment was a challenge because 1) it was dusk, and in the transition to it becoming nighttime no one had time to turn on any lamps. 2) There were more birth workers than usual present, because it was a twin homebirth (twin B being breech), and they were post due. And 3) the bedroom was tiny. So with the sun dropping fast and a lot of people packed into a tiny room casting shadows all over Mama, I was not in the ideal situation.

Mama was birthing fast. In fact I missed twin A by 2 minutes. When I walked in everyone was rushing around. Nobody really noticed that I had arrived (which is fine). I saw that the birth pool was still filling up, but Mama was in a room across the hall. I stepped into the bedroom where she was already bearing down in preparation for the birth of twin B. And I popped my flash on my camera. Did I have time to ask Mom if the flash bothered her? I didn’t. But I had to make a snap decision. And in that moment I was so glad I was prepared and ready, because as baby came out the midwife announced that her amniotic sac was completely intact. I didn’t even have time to see it with my own eyes, that’s how fast it happened! I captured one of the most rare moments of birth ever, and it was properly exposed because and ONLY because I used my flash.

If I had missed this shot, you can only imagine how horrible I would have felt. That baby was not in the sac for long. The midwife immediately began working to open it and let baby take its first breath. It was a one shot chance.

I would advise that if you’re attending a nighttime birth, you have your flash ready to go. Not in your camera bag across the room (because we all know how easy it is to get stuck in one spot), but on your camera. If you want to avoid using it during labor, that’s fine. There is often enough time to play with angles and low lighting from lamps, candles, even flash lights in order to preserve the integrity of the birth environment during labor. But there’s no doubt that sometimes, especially if you plan to get clear emerging shots of baby, you have to use flash. I can almost guarantee that by that point your client is hardly thinking about what you’re doing. And if you’re respectful to those around you (warn them in advance that you will be using your flash) and get out of the way once you have those crucial images, you’ve done well.

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