This is the first installment in a two-week series about Cake Smash photography sessions by I Heart Faces Contributor, Andrea Riley. Follow along as Andrea shares how planning ahead can really help you have a great cake smash session. Read Part II of her series here:
- How To Edit A Cake Smash Photography Session Quickly
The first time I was asked to photograph a cake smash as part of a birthday party session, I had a moment of panic. My only knowledge of cake smashes included a pretty backdrop, lots of balloons, and a picture perfect cake. How in the world would I do this in the middle of a park at a birthday party in progress? I seriously considered bringing my backdrop stand with a paper backdrop and trying to set up a mini session. Reality quickly grounded me, and I realized that this would have to be a more informal affair. Up until then, I had only one vision of a cake smash session. Now I know cake smash sessions can vary as much as any other session. With some experience now under my belt, I have compiled my own personal list of “to do’s” and not-to-do’s”. I’m hoping this tutorial will come in handy for those looking at booking their first cake smash session. At the same time, I don’t consider myself a specialty cake smash session photographer, so I’d love to see many more tips and tricks added in the comments section.
Outfit & Cake
1. Decide on an outfit in advance
I always talk with the parents in advance of a session to find out what outfit they plan on having their child wear. Often, I will have them text a picture of the outfit. If I don’t think it will photograph well, I offer up other suggestions. It is important to know the outfit ahead of time so that backdrops/props/location can coordinate with the look that the parent is going after. If the parents decide to go for diaper only, a diaper cover is something to consider.
2. The Cake
Talk to the parents ahead of time about the cake. I have the parents purchase the cake so that the cost of the session can be kept down but make sure to communicate some “rules” for choosing the cake. Personally, I prefer white or light colored cake. I just don’t think dark cake looks that good smashed all over a baby’s face and mixed in with the frosting. I typically steer clear of bright white frosting as it can be very easy to overexpose. If white frosting is used, it’s nice to break up the white with sprinkles or other decorations. The big “1” candles can come in handy in a photo session. I find that the baby is attracted to it, and it helps keep the baby’s interest in sticking around and smashing that candle into the cake. Also, cupcakes can provide the same effect as a birthday cake at a lower price.
3. Determine location/setting
I do some cake smashes in a studio-type setting in my home, but more often than not, I set up sessions in unexpected places like a client’s kitchen or backyard, next to their garage, or in a city park. Cake smashes require very little room, so good locations are easy to find. What is important is knowing what the client expects for a cake smash. For my very first session that took place in a park, my vision was that we would search around for a grassy shaded area. Instead, I ended up being called over from taking group shots to a cake smash that was already in progress. It was set up in a pavilion with a big cake tin underneath the cake and a sun-spotted lawn in the background. It was too late to try to change anything, so I had to adjust and accept that this would not be very “Pinterest-like”. But, you know what, there’s nothing wrong with reality, either. This set-up allowed me to capture the interaction of the baby and her family. I just learned to bring along pretty cake pans for future sessions and guide the family toward more lighting-friendly spots.
Choose a Backdrop
1. Provide choices of backdrops
A backdrop can range from a wide open grassy space to a studio style session with a backdrop and acrylic floor. When hired to do a cake smash, make sure to find out what style of session the parent wants. (One good way to find out is to have them create an inspiration board on Pinterest. This helps make it very easy to identify a client’s style.)
One of my favorite sessions to photograph is the studio cake smash session which can be done with artificial or natural lighting. For these types of sessions, I bring along a choice of backdrops. For the session pictured below, I gave the mom the option of a patterned fabric print, solid pink paper, or white paper. I have coated canvas backdrops which should work well for a cake smash, but I haven’t had the nerve to use them yet. I have a solid collection of fabrics. Many of them I picked up from a local craft store that sells upholstery fabric remnants for $5.00 a piece. Jo-Ann fabrics also has a clearance section that I check out anytime I shop there. I pick up 4 foot wide paper rolls from Hobby Lobby. Even better is to use wider paper backdrops from camera stores. With a 4 foot backdrop like I typically use, if I choose a different angle other than straight-on, I almost always have to clone in the background while editing. Do consider the possibility of extreme color casts if opting for a bright backdrop as editing out photo casts can be a bear!
When using solid paper, I typically use an acrylic sheet (plexiglass) that I purchased from a local hardware store for around $35. It is easy to blend the seam into the background during post processing. The acrylic keeps the paper in place, and gives a reflection of the baby’s chubby legs. (Recently my hard drive crashed and I lost my pull-back for a cake smash session. This site was what I used for inspiration in setting up for my first studio-styled cake smash.)
For patterned backdrops, I don’t use the acrylic (due to not being able to blend it to the the background easily), so it is important to make sure the fabric is held down on the edges.
When I do birthday sessions without a cake smash planned, I sometimes sneak in a cupcake smash at the end (provided the baby is still in a good mood). Cupcakes can be picked up at a local grocery store for super cheap and it adds some really cute photos into a session. I recently bought a wooden high chair from Craigslist ($20) and spray painted it. This created a whimsical cake smash, and the added benefit is being able to repaint it to match new cake smash sessions.
2. Remove distractions
With birthday parties, it’s not very practical to do a studio style session. Instead, work with the parent to find a spot to set up that is free of distractions. Try to polish the scene a bit with a pretty plate, an uncluttered background, and perhaps a coordinating blanket beneath the baby. I have also been at birthday parties where the parents quickly threw together a cake smash. Since I didn’t have control of the dynamics of the session, I made sure to open up the aperture (to blur out the cluttered background) and embrace the candid moments.
3. Keep it simple
A trend with cake smashes is to have lot of balloons, banners, and other knick-knacks in the background. I think some of these are really cute, but I do wonder how it pulls together if a parent wants a storyboard format of the session. My preference is to keep the backdrop simple. If a banner or balloons is wanted by the parents, I will use them but in only a couple shots so that the pictures will go nicely together.
1. Have clean-up arrangement set up in advance
2. Figure out manual camera settings
3. Take cake-free baby photos
4. Take photos of baby-free cake
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have everything ready to go before bringing the baby/cake combo into the scene. If you shoot in manual at the correct setting, it makes batch editing so much easier. And, batch editing is perfect for this type of session where the scene/lighting does not change. I always shoot in RAW and typically shoot with a narrower aperture and fast shutter speed. For most cake smashes, the baby is very likely to move…fast…so I want to make sure I’m not missing focus. Make sure you are in a good lighting situation whether in open shade or using studio lighting. I usually use a backdrop stand whether for fabric or paper. If you don’t have a backdrop stand, wide masking tape can be used to tape the backdrop to a smooth surface such as a garage door (providing the parents are okay with it). There are also lots of tutorials out there for making a low-cost PVC backdrop stand.
In the presession, I place the baby on the scene and test my manual settings and white balance. This is also a chance to grab some “clean baby” photos. Then, without changing settings, I have mom hold the baby while I take photos of the unmauled cake. Make sure that the cake isn’t being overexposed at the settings you have chosen. I use the same settings all throughout the session. If the location is chosen carefully, the lighting should remain consistent throughout the session. Using the same setting allows me to edit so much quicker. I’m not suggesting that this will work for everyone, but I have found for me personally that it has cut down on my editing time substantially.
One other preparation note is to have a big beach towel available so that we can wrap the baby up at the end of the session and avoid getting icing on everything.
1. Involve parents
2. Snap fast…these sessions are short!
3. Use one lens
4. Change perspectives
5. Get details
Once I’m sure all my settings are good to go (aperture, exposure, shutter speed, white balance), the fun begins. For the majority of the cake smashes I’ve done, the action only lasts for about 10 minutes. Usually the parents have to get the fun going by offering up some frosting for the baby to eat. Let them know to feel free to put baby’s hands in the icing if the baby doesn’t have much interest. Quite honestly, most of the babies I’ve photographed haven’t been eager to dig into the cake. A little assistance from the parents can give the appearance of a cake-loving baby. Parents are also handy for getting the baby to become more animated. In the photo below, the baby had fun feeding his daddy the cake.
Don’t fret if the baby keeps trying to walk or crawl away. Just have mom or dad place them back and snap away once the parents have cleared the scene. This part of the session is going to fly by! The most recent session I did lasted from 7:27 when I took a picture of the before cake to 7:37 with the after cake. At that point, it was clear the baby wanted nothing more to do with the cake smash. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous whether I got enough good shots, but was relieved when culling the photos to find that I was able to find 43 “keepers”. Of course, I didn’t edit all 43, but it was a relief to find I had plenty of photos to choose from. While taking photos, I try to vary the perspective: front, angled, overhead, details (toes, hands, mouth). This prevents a series of similar photos from looking the same. I always try to keep the baby centered on the backdrop. This way if the backdrop doesn’t provide enough coverage, it is easy to add in the backdrop while editing.
1. Get ready for candids
2. Clean up can be just as fun as the cake smash.
Usually, I have the parents wrap the baby up in a beach towel and head off to the shower/bath.
I once had a session where they put the baby in a wash tub outside, and this set the scene for some precious shots of the baby getting cleaned up. If outdoors, the hurry to get baby clean isn’t so dire. Many times, the baby just runs around and plays until the set-up is cleared away. A couple candid shots of the baby playing is fun to capture. Even indoors, bathtub photos are an adorable component to add to the session.
In the second part of this tutorial I share how I edit cake smash sessions. Studio style cake smash sessions are my favorite to edit because batch changes can be applied so easily.
Andrea Riley is a photographer and teacher from Ohio and a proud member of the I Heart Faces Creative Team. She and her sister Angie currently specialize in fusion high school senior photography with their company The Picture Show. When not in the role of photographer or teacher, Andrea enjoy spending time with her husband and three children and their dog. Follow her on her blog Happy Chaos or on Twitter at @the.picture.show.