In bloom: the creation of an award-winning personal photo project

Newborn and maternity photographer Kelly Brown spent six months creating a series of memorable prints for a distinction panel. Here she reveals the process behind it.
A curled-up baby sleeps in the centre of a large artificial flower in a photograph by Kelly Brown taken on a Canon EOS R5.

Photographer Kelly Brown shot this award-winning image – part of a series of 20 – with the help of her assistant (also her sister) who was beside the baby at all times. "She focuses totally on the baby, which allows me to concentrate on the creative aspects," Kelly explains. "This means I can take my eyes away from the baby to reposition a petal, for example, or get the best position in terms of camera angle." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 38mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 100. © Kelly Brown

"I think it's really important that professional photographers have personal projects that we can explore and use to expand our skills," says newborn photographer Kelly Brown. "You get to a point in your career and think, 'This is great, I love it', and then you think, 'What am I going to push myself to do next?'"

Kelly, based in Brisbane, Australia, has focused on newborn and maternity work for the past 14 years and has developed an international reputation for her beautiful, meticulously crafted images. The high quality of her photography has been recognised throughout the photographic industry and she is a Canon Master in Australia, as well as a Canson® Infinity Ambassador.

Alongside her professional photography, Kelly's search for new ways to challenge herself creatively led her, in 2022, to submit a body of work to a panel for a Fellowship Distinction from the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers (SWPP).

Although Kelly already had one SWPP distinction, it was awarded for a range of client and personal work about motherhood in general, including some newborn work. This time, she wanted to be recognised at the highest level specifically for her newborn photography. "I wanted to create a body of work that basically represented everything I've done over the past decade – to create something with an artistic approach that was purely for me," she explains.

To achieve this goal, Kelly decided on an ambitious project in which she would present 20 images, each showing a newborn baby nestling inside a different giant white flower. She was inspired to shoot this series by a photo she had seen in a fashion magazine, showing a model in front of a large white flower. She felt that flowers would be the ideal natural setting for a series of newborn baby portraits.

"Flowers, for me, are such a great representation of new life and new beginnings," she says. "They're delicate like a newborn baby and they're all very different, even if they're the same species. Each flower is its own unique self, just like a baby." She felt that white would be the ideal flower colour, as it would heighten the sense of innocence in the images and wouldn't distract from the babies.

However, while the flower in the image that inspired her had been computer-generated, Kelly decided to personally design, hand-make and paint each flower in her series.

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A baby rests their hands under their chin as they sleep inside a large white flower in a photograph by Kelly Brown taken on a Canon EOS R5.

For Kelly, newborn photography is all about creating the perfect experience for families. "The success of my business has been down to word of mouth and returning clients," she says. "You get to know families on such a personal level when they continually come back. The rapport and the connection I've created with my clients has been really important. They're my biggest advocates." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 70mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 100. © Kelly Brown

Photographer Kelly Brown spray paints a large white flower in preparation for a series of newborn portraits.

Kelly says it was important to her that her newborn project was handcrafted, and that her photographs were finalised as much as possible in-camera, rather than in the editing process. "From an artistic point of view, because as photographers we can do so much on our computers, I personally love the challenge of creating things in-camera," she says. "That part of it is what I love to explore." In this image, Kelly can be seen spraying one of her handmade flowers with water-based acrylic paint. © Garrett Hollis

Handcrafting a photography project: design and construction

One of the main decisions Kelly had to make for the series was choosing which types of flower she wanted to include. After considering lots of options, she ultimately opted for ones that could be constructed to safely hold a baby during the shoot.

First of all, Kelly sketched out the design for each flower, then cut them out from sheets of 3mm foam underlay. She chose this material as it is very soft and easy to bend, so there was no risk of the baby touching anything sharp or harmful. Each flower had as its base a sturdy solid bowl made of plaster, then each petal was attached to the outside of the bowl. Finally, Kelly painted the flowers with a water-based acrylic paint using a spray gun. (The full process can be seen in the video below.)

 Newborn photographer Kelly Brown looks at her laptop inquisitively while seated at a small desk. Surrounding her are large, white, artificial flowers.

Shooting the images

Kelly wanted to photograph the babies in her studio during their first few weeks of life. Some came from a model call she put out on social media, while others were the children of regular clients. She set aside around two hours for each shoot, which allowed time for feeding as well as making sure the baby was relaxed and comfortable.

The images were all shot using the same equipment: a Canon EOS R5 camera with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens. For lighting, Kelly used an 800-watt flash head with a 150mm Octabox to give soft, even lighting that was also bounced off large polystyrene reflectors.

When shooting older babies in her normal work, who can sometimes be quite active, Kelly uses the EOS R5's Eye Detection AF for locking focus on the baby's face. In this case, however, she primarily chose the camera for its 45MP sensor.

"In this project, especially when photographing all white flowers on white backgrounds, there was no doubt I'd use the Canon EOS R5 purely for the level of detail it captured," she says. "The foam flowers had a flat surface with little texture, especially when painted, but I found that when I zoomed into the high-res files on my computer I could see every detail I wanted."

Kelly says the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens is the one she uses whenever she's photographing babies. "This lens gives me a lot of versatility," she explains. "I use it at its longest focal length for 90% of my sessions so I can capture images with as little distortion as possible. However, when photographing large props, especially from above as I was doing here, I had to zoom out as wide as possible to capture all the flower in one frame. Having that versatility in focal lengths was really important."

Close-up of an adult hand holding the hand of a newborn baby.

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A baby curls up asleep inside a large white flower in a photograph by Kelly Brown taken on a Canon EOS R5.

Kelly slightly changed her shooting style for this series of images. "Normally I shoot at f/2 or f/2.8, but there was so much detail in these flowers and being white on white I needed to be able to print all that detail," she says. "So I shot the majority of them around f/5.6 and some that were a little bit deeper were shot at f/8, which meant everything was nice and sharp throughout." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 62mm, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 100. © Kelly Brown

Printing the project

Kelly used her main printer, the imagePROGRAF PRO-4000, for outputting the images. "I have used it for printing all my award-winning images for the past five years, and two of them received 100 points – the maximum score you can get," she says. "The detail it's able to produce is really important for achieving scores like that."

Paper choice is also key for getting the best possible final result, especially when working with different babies' skin tones, and Kelly chose to use Canson Infinity ARCHES BFK Rives Pure White paper. "It's a matte paper with a beautiful soft texture and is quite phenomenal in what it can produce in terms of detail," she says. "Being able to add a little bit of extra texture from the paper choice allows you to produce something that's really sublime. The pure white colour was what I believe made the white flowers really stand out, because it didn't have any additional colours or tones in it."

Photographer Kelly Brown stands displaying her series of newborn baby portraits that earned her a Fellowship Distinction from the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers.

Here, Kelly shows the project images as they were presented to the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers' judging panel. Each print was displayed with a white mat which had an oval-shaped frame that also protected the prints on their journey from Australia to the UK. "The oval fitted beautifully within the frame and worked well in terms of the shapes of the flowers," says Kelly. © Garrett Hollis

The end of the creative journey

After working on the project for six months, Kelly was ready to submit the 20 prints she had made to the SWPP panel for its verdict. She had documented and shared the whole creative journey with the members of her online photography education platform, and many of those members were able to attend the judging of the panel at the Societies of Photographers' annual convention in London. Kelly admits to being very nervous about the result.

"There's a lot of self-doubt when you're creating a personal project, and sharing that process can be very daunting," Kelly says. "But my members said they enjoyed seeing how I could push myself out of my comfort zone and create something different.

"Throughout the process I shared the highs and lows, but also showed that no matter how experienced you are we all face challenges; it's all about how we meet those challenges to achieve the results we want," she continues. When the SWPP judges assessed Kelly's project, they unanimously agreed to award Kelly a Fellowship for her remarkable series.

Kelly says she felt a mixture of relief and pride at the result. "I felt very relieved because I had faced challenges throughout the process. Also, there were so many people on the journey with me and I didn't want to fail in front of them. But most of all I was proud I'd accomplished something I'd set out to do.

"When you're doing something like this, you never know what the outcome is going to be – you can't assume you're going to succeed. Looking back, it was an incredible experience."

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