Katie Marshall laughs when she looks back at her novice attempts at newborn and maternity photography. She recalls her first sessions, when it wasn’t unusual for her to use an ottoman as a prop in her dining room because that’s where the best natural light was. Though she cringes a little when she looks back at her early work, she also understands its importance as a visual reminder of how far she’s come in her craft.
Marshall operates her newborn and maternity studio from her home in Swedesboro, New Jersey. She’s converted the front half of the house—what were the formal living and dining rooms—into a studio. It’s separated from her living space so that clients feel comfortable while giving her ample room to work. Her photographic style is simple and clean, with neutral tones that keep the focus on artfully posed maternal bellies and delicate newborn cheeks.
“I’ve always been a neutral girl,” says Marshall. “Even my home is decorated in simple black, white, and beige pieces. And that’s the style I put out into the world as a photographer. It’s the style of work I want to attract.”
That’s a point Marshall emphasizes when she’s teaching or workshopping with other photographers: Take time to develop your style so you can present a consistent portfolio of work. Her years of trial and error have not only resulted in Marshall confidently finding herself as a photographer, but they’ve also made her eager to share her earned wisdom.
YOU CAN’T BE ALL THINGS TO ALL CLIENTS. It’s tempting when you’re just starting out to take any and all clients who come along. But while experimentation is key to finding your style, you can go too far and wind up with a chaotic portfolio that doesn’t accurately represent the work you want to do.
“It’s super important to niche down to what you love,” says Marshall. “People who try to do too much get spread too thin. Finding your niche gives you the opportunity to become that much better and attract clients who appreciate your style rather than clients out just looking for any photographer.”
Through experience, Marshall found that babies and bellies lit her up creatively and allowed her to develop a style. Most important, she discovered she could create a sustainable business based around that clientele.
“It really is a mental hurdle of focusing on the client you want to bring in the door and not worrying about how many people are booking someone else or choosing a different style,” she says. “Don’t waste energy on the people who were never going to be your client—the people looking for the cheapest photographer or the everything photographer. You have to move on from what wasn’t yours to begin with.”
SAFETY IS A PRIORITY. It may seem obvious, but Marshall can’t say it enough. Working with newborns isn’t like anything else. “You really have to understand how babies work,” she says. “You never want them to overheat or be too tightly wrapped so that their circulation is cut off. You have to start with a very good understanding of newborns.”
Marshall recommends finding community newborn safety classes and online resources to learn the basics. She also suggests finding an established newborn photographer who can serve as a mentor. No one should start photographing newborns without a thorough understanding of safety practices, including posing, props, and the need for an assistant.
MOMS-TO-BE NEED GRACE AND SUPPORT. “Women by nature struggle with body image already, then you throw in some extra pounds and a belly they’re not used to, and you get a very uncomfortable client,” says Marshall.
Marshall does her best to emphasize all the beautiful qualities of the pregnant body during sessions. She wants her subjects to feel like Instagram models, so she’s constantly reassuring them and trying to help them tap into their gorgeous side. She guides maternity clients to think about being fluid with their movements, with soft, elegant hands and pointed toes. She models the poses for them before the session, demonstrating how to portray that fluidity, which also helps set them at ease.
“Remember that pregnant women are not feeling like themselves, like they’re not in their own body,” she says. “Pregnant women are stunning. I love what you can do with a pregnant woman in a photo. But I always try to remember that they don’t always feel stunning.”
NEWBORNS ARE UNPREDICTABLE. Some babies sleep through the entire session. Others are fussy. Marshall says the best way to go into newborn sessions is with the mindset that the baby is in charge.
“If you come in with high expectations for yourself, it’s almost guaranteed not to go that way,” she says. “Let your tiny, brand new client be the boss. Style the session the way you want, but if a baby doesn’t want to get into a pose, let it go. Have some grace with yourself. You can’t be too controlling.”
What’s helped Marshall is to have a mix of poses at the ready then let the baby take the lead. If the baby doesn’t like one pose, stop and move on. “You just can’t force them,” she says. “You get frustrated, the baby gets frustrated, and the rest of the session is tense and not what you want it to be for your clients. Be fluid and roll with it.”
If you’re struggling with posing newborns, Marshall recommends studying newborn images and paying attention to poses and lighting. Analyze images that you’re drawn to and break them down. How is the baby wrapped? How is the face tilted? Where is the light hitting? Then ask friends with newborns to let you practice the poses that speak to your style.
A MAGICAL EXPERIENCE IS THE BEST MARKETING. Marshall finds that creating an amazing client experience is the best thing she can do to attract more business. Though she posts on Instagram regularly, word of mouth is the gold standard for landing new clients. And word of mouth is only beneficial if the message is a glowing review.
“I want them to leave feeling great and excited for their images, on cloud nine,” she says. “I want them to share their experience with their friends. Pregnant women always know other pregnant women and new moms.”
She doesn’t spend money on frills like charcuterie but instead focuses on the feeling of the session. She provides constant reassurance and celebration of a pregnant body or a tiny newborn. The way she makes clients feel about themselves and their babies does more than over-the-top studio extras, she believes.
“Every client feels like my most important client,” she says.
BE TRUE TO YOURSELF. Marshall circles back around to the importance of knowing who you are as a photographer and building your brand and business around that knowledge. Focus on what you’re good at rather than trying to please everyone. Even if you’ve shifted in your style or changed your aesthetic, ease that shift into your portfolio gradually and build consistency.
“If you do what you love and what makes you happy, you’ll be better at it,” she says. “You want people to recommend you for who you are and the work that you want to produce. Stay true to yourself, and people will come to you because you’re the expert in that style.”
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.