Get creative with baby photography and play with digital backdrops

Watch video: Use digital backdrops for baby photography

Although sleep-deprived new parents might not agree at the time, babies grow and change incredibly fast. Before you know it, a newborn is a rampaging toddler. So, if you’re planning on arranging a baby photo shoot for friends or family, or for your own little bundle, now is the time to do it. But how do you approach a shoot like this?

One technique is the baby composite. For this, we take a photo of the baby and then combine it with an eye-catching backdrop. You can find lots of stunning backdrops online, such as the autumnal setup we downloaded from Adobe Stock (free with an Adobe CC subscription).

• Prefer using a physical background? Check out the best backdrops for photography (opens in new tab)

Of course, if you prefer, you could always take the Anne Geddes approach and create your own intricate baby backdrops and costumes. But depending on the props needed, this could prove expensive. With a few simple camera and Photoshop skills, you can combine your subject with all kinds of ready made digital backdrops.

You don’t need loads of studio lighting kit (opens in new tab), either; window light is perfect for baby portraits at home. A window with non-direct sunlight offers a bank of lovely soft illumination, and it costs nothing. 

We’ll also show you how to get your camera set up for window-light portraits, which is invaluable whether you’re planning on shooting for a composite like this or for any kind of portrait. 

Once done, we’ll take you step-by-step through the technique for combining your portraits with the stock backdrop. (You’ll find a full walkthrough of the Photoshop technique in the above video.) 

1. Match the lighting

(Image credit: James Paterson)

The key to composites is in matching the lighting. Our background image (a free Adobe Stock image – search for "Newborn Digital Background Autumn Pumpkin") is lit with soft frontal light, so we lit our baby in a similar way, with a large bay window behind the camera.

2. Select the foreground

(Image credit: James Paterson)

In the Photoshop Libraries panel (Window > Libraries), double-click to open your stock image. Select a part of the fluff to go in front of the baby. Hit Q, grab the brush and paint black to select. Hit Q again, go to Select > Inverse and press Cmd/Ctrl + J to copy to a new layer.

3. Cut out the baby

(Image credit: James Paterson)

In the baby image, go to Select > Subject. Then Select > Select And Mask. Paint with the Refine Edge brush along the hair to improve the selection edge. Go to Output > Layer Mask and hit OK. Grab the Brush tool and perfect the mask by painting with black to hide or white to reveal.

4. Paste and position

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Grab the Move tool and drag the cut-out baby into the background image. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + T to transform, then resize and position the baby. Drag the layer below the selection we made earlier of the front of the bucket so the baby looks like he’s behind the fluff.

5. Paint shadows

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Make a new layer above the baby layer. Right-click and Create Clipping Mask. Grab the Brush tool, hit D for black and 2 for 20% opacity; now paint to add a shadow where the baby meets the bucket. Make another layer below the baby layer, and paint black to add shadow behind the baby.

6. Add a vignette

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Press Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E to merge all the layers, then go to Filter > Camera Raw Filter. Hit J for Radial filter and drag a circle, then hit X to invert and drag down on Exposure to add a vignette. Add grain in the Effects panel and choose a Profile to skew the colors.

7 Angle from above

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Window light works best over faces when it comes from slightly above, which is why a high window or skylight works well. With babies, keep in mind that if they’re on their back, ‘above’ to them might be different from the camera position, so angle them so the window is above the face.

8. Try backlighting

(Image credit: James Paterson)

As well as straight-on or side-on, you can get great light over a face by positioning the subject so that the window is behind and to one side. This way, the window backlights the subject. It’s usually best to have the face side-on in profile for this kind of portrait shot.

9. Check for catchlights

(Image credit: James Paterson)

One of the great things about shooting with window light is the lovely catchlights that it usually creates in your subject’s eyes. If you’re not seeing catchlights, it might be because the subject is at the wrong angle to the window, so adjust the position until you see the eyes light up.

10 Create a Compilation of baby portraits

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Once you get started taking window-lit baby photos, it’s difficult to stop, and you might find you end up with a whole memory card full of great portraits. 

A wonderful way to display these is as a collection of nine images arranged in a square. This could then be printed on a canvas or put together using a large frame and a custom-made mount. You can combine the set of images with ease in Photoshop.

Begin by making a square document, then turn on the grid (View > Grid). Grab the Rectangle Shape tool and drag boxes for each image window. Once done, drag in your photos, position on layers above each shape and right-click to Create Clipping Mask. Clip each image to a shape, then fine-tune the positioning.

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James Paterson

The lead technique writer on Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab) and N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine (opens in new tab), James is a fantastic general practice photographer with an enviable array of skills across every genre of photography. 


Whether it's flash photography techniques like stroboscopic portraits, astrophotography projects like photographing the Northern Lights, or turning sound into art by making paint dance on a set of speakers, James' tutorials and projects are as creative as they are enjoyable. 


As the editor of Practical Photoshop magazine, he's also a wizard at the dark arts of Photoshop, Lightroom and Affinity, and is capable of some genuine black magic in the digital darkroom, making him one of the leading authorities on photo editing software and techniques.