The Flash Debate: Behind the Scenes of Birth Photography

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The transition to using an external flash during births was a very difficult one for me to make. After four and a half years of photographing births (and nearly 100 births photographed over this time) without  using an external flash, the thought of suddenly changing the way I document birth really scared me.

Working for four and a half years without using an external flash has worked well and it has catered to me being an unobtrusive part of a birth team.

The thought of suddenly introducing what I considered a very noticeable piece of equipment into a calm and focused birth space worried me as well.

I have prided myself on the fact that I arrive during the intense throws of labor, when mothers and birth teams do not notice me, and I have loved that doulas, midwives, nurses have all coined the term “birth ninja” for me over the years, continuously being surprised at how I was able to capture so many raw and purely emotional moments when they didn’t even realize I was there.

What started this entire idea of debating external flash use during birth?

For years I have been a member of IAPBP (International Association of Professional Birth Photographers) and slowly I started noticing a small group of quickly growing birth workers called Birth Becomes Her. I joined the private group, and slowly began to find my footing in what I realized was a nation-wide on-line birth community for birth photographers and also labor doulas and midwives crossing over to birth photography. As I observed their work over the years and their work ethic, I realized several of the birthing photographers working in Denver, Colorado and in Canada were using external flash during their client’s births. For months and YEARS this was a knowledge that I didn’t know what to do with.

I loved meeting and sitting down with my clients and explaining how I don’t bring any large equipment to their labors, to keep it an intimate and quiet setting. How I like to be a fly on the wall, reserved and focused, silently supporting the laboring couple while also capturing their extraordinary journey, while never being noticed. I loved priding myself on how many of my clients would tell me, they were not even aware I was in the room until well after their baby was born. Being an unobtrusive member of my client’s birth team was a key element in how I saw myself for years.

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The thought of bringing in an external flash, with a light going on constantly, illuminating an otherwise dark sacred laboring space, distracting my client’s focus, distracting their birth team — well it was a terrifying thought.

I continued to follow the photographers of BBH for a long time, especially someone I hold in high regard, Monet Nicole, and I continued to wonder how she does it. How does she get her birth clients on board with such a distracting, obtrusive element of photography.

It wasn’t until I started digging deeper and actually considering it seriously that I found myself becoming more educated.

The first big impact on my journey to flash was the investment in an external flash. Being a natural / or available (ambient lighting) photographer for years, this is something I’ve worked with maybe one or twice at a wedding well over a decade ago. I found the members of Birth Becomes Her (BBH) very supportive and informative — and they guided me to purchasing my first flash for just a few dollars. All these years I thought this would be a $200-$400 investment for me but instead, I made a small purchase for a very basic speedlight that ended up working exceedingly well for me

Fast forward 5 births and two months, I have documented five women laboring, giving birth and enjoying their newborn babies all while using flash. I even used flash at two of those births during day light hours to help me fill in the shadows.

What have my birth clients said about me using flash at their births?

Since purchasing my flash and photographing five births with it, I have asked feedback from my clients, their partners/spouses, labor and delivery nurses and midwives each time like an absolutely paranoid person if the flash was bothersome, (Think: Natural Light Devoted Photographer), as I was trying to collect feedback on how the external flash affected them. I wanted to use their feedback on how they experienced the flash during their labor/birth to decide if I could or should continue using flash with future birth clients, and each time my birth clients have one of two responses regarding their feelings on the external flash:

-you used flash?

(After all the paranoia on my part of being obtrusive to my birth clients, this reaction made me laugh out loud, that no one even noticed it being used in a small and dark birthing space)

-it was completely fine and didn’t bother me at all

The Beauty of Natural / Ambient Lighting

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With all of this being said, there is something to be said of the beauty of natural / ambient lighting.

There are definitely moments where I certainly make the decision to not use external flash. Moments where shadows are casting all over the room, all over mom’s face, and its a moment of absolute beauty. It can be a profound moment of reflection, it can be moody, romantic lighting. But typically, for the delivery of baby, I use flash. This moment happens extremely quickly. I have had perhaps 3 of 100 women crowning for a long amount of time. Typically by the time baby’s head is crowning, baby is on mom’s chest within 3 to 10 seconds thereafter. There is no time for messing up, no time for dimly lit rooms.

Hypnobirthing

As a personal feedback myself, if I was going to attend a Hypnobirth where my client was laboring in a room without light, and the mom was not yet at the stage of labor where she was bearing down, (transition), I would be very hesitant to use my external flash, despite the 100% positive feedback from the last five clients births I have attended using my flash. Being a hypnobirther myself with my second pregnancy, I don’t know if adding ANYTHING extra to my gear during early labor is conducive to a positive and calm birthing environment, other than a dark room, soft voices, essential oils, hip squeezes.

However, that being said, I do things very specifically with my birth photography and birth videos. I rarely arrive to a birth when a woman is 6 hours away from transition, although occasionally I do come earlier than usual, typically, I arrive about 1-3 hours before the stage of labor called transition. I do this intentionally. I don’t want to be in any way disruptive to a laboring mom. And a person can be disruptive just by being present, it doesn’t require a bright shining light to mess with the flow of labor. I communicate really well with my clients and their birth teams during their labors to ensure that I am coming closer to when a woman is between 6-8 cm dilated. It varies of course based on whether she is a first, second time mom, an unmedicated birth or epidural or induction. But I always aim to arrive when a woman is between 6 - 8 cm dilated. That ensures she is past the stage of 5 centimeters and active labor really kicks in. On average, women dilate about 1 centimeter per hour, but I find this to be a very loose guideline as I have seen women go from 5 to 10 centimeters in 12 hours and women go from 5 to 10 centimeters in thirty minutes. And that is why the efficacy of excellent communication has its positive outcomes for all the births I attend.

Birth Photo without the use of external flash

Birth Photo without the use of external flash

I did attend a hypnobirth in January of this year where mom was closer to 3 centimeters (a birth I chose to attend earlier for many reasons) and I chose to use flash at this particularly labor. I informed mom and dad ahead of time that if it was bothersome, to let me know and I would continue with the use of ambient lighting only.

Birth Photo with the use of external flash

Birth Photo with the use of external flash

According to the parents feedback, it did not affect the mom at all, and I find that most of my birth clients build a tremendous trust with me during their pregnancies, they follow my work on facebook and instagram and together we take the time to review the difference in quality of images with the use of external flash vs not using flash, and it is my clients who decide they want me to use flash at their birth. It is never a requirement or rule. It is a very open flow of communication.

I hope this helps someone who is in between trying to make the decision.