Inside: Are you wondering how to Photograph the Perfect Cake Smash? What should your camera settings be? What about props you should include? It’s all right here so lets get going.
A cake smash session is a traditional session done at the age of one year, where a toddler gets a regular portrait session and then at the end, dresses up in a special outfit and gets to eat a cake. It’s called a cake smash because, well, one year olds don’t know how to eat cake nicely with a fork – they just smash into it!
Doing a cake smash photo session isn’t as hard as it looks. There are some basic precautions you will want to take to ensure your smash turns out the best and doesn’t stain anything, but aside from that, you can easily create beautiful smash photos – even with a kit lens. I’m going to introduce you to how I consult, prepare, decorate, shoot, and edit a cake smash session, including what equipment I use and how I set it up, with pullbacks and a link to my cake smash pamphlet I designed. The intent of this article is to get you off and rolling into the cake smash world!
Cake Smash Photography Camera Equipment
Everyone does it a little differently, and some prefer other methods to decorating and cleaning up, but I am going to share with you what I do and how I do it. My cake smash sessions start off with basic equipment – a lighting setup, a roll of seamless paper, and my camera + kit lens. From there, I will have decorations, props, and outfits.
The lighting kit I use in my sessions is from Cowboy Studios. I bought this kit three years ago, and it’s served me well ever since! It came with a backdrop stand, so I use that in my sessions as well.
I use a Nikon D5100 and a kit lens, the 18-55mm. It’s no longer for sale, but, it’s basically a crop sensor and kit lens – what most people starting out use. You can get Nikon’s latest model at your local Walmart or Target if you wanted – it’s accessible to nearly everyone!
And I shoot my sessions on a roll of Savage Seamless paper. They are always 107” wide. I will let you know as the article progresses, the color of the rolls in my examples. There are many different vendors for this paper, but I personally use Samys Camera both for price, and because they are only a few hours away so my items always ship fast. I also pick up my paper at B&C Camera locally, when they have the color I want in stock.
Cake Smash Tips for Parents
There are some things both you and the parents will need to expect when you do a cake smash. The first is the most obvious – the smash part. The toddler will get messy and so will their outfit, and the outfit of anyone who picks them up to clean them. Not only will the person in charge of that want to have a change of clothes they don’t mind possibly staining, but you will need to have an area for baby to clean up in. I shoot out of my home, so I let my cake smash clients use the tub in my house. They are the only ones who even use that tub, and I have some baby shampoo as well as adult wash available for them to use. I keep towels and wash clothes on hand, that way when baby leaves they are nice and clean.
You’ll want the parents (or you) to have something on hand to put the smash outfit in, so that it doesn’t dirty up a diaper bag or car seat. Change of diapers is also recommended. You would think some of this would be implied or assumed, but it isn’t. Parents, especially those who have never done this before, don’t know what to expect and they literally are expecting you to fill them in with everything they need to know most of the time.
For the space you shoot in, you need to prepare for a mess. Have baby wipes on hand so that if you need to step in while shooting and move a kid around, you can quickly wipe your hands off so you don’t get icing on your camera. A baby wipe will do this faster and cleaner than a dry product. If you shoot on carpet, make sure you have someone who can watch baby so you don’t end up with stained, icing filled carpet. The icing can be oily (because icing contains butter) and under the paper, it may leak a little bit of oil if it’s really rubbed in by the child, so make sure you or the parents (if at their home) are okay with shooting on that floor and the possibility of needing to clean it up afterwards.
Click here for more on a Start to Finish Cake Smash Session
Smash Cake Session
I say most of this in my pamphlet but with less explanation. Choosing a cake is important from a taste, look and feel standpoint. You want it to look good in the photos, but it should also smash well, taste good to the child and feel right in their hands. Some kids will be picky and wont’ like the general cake or icing texture – one smash participant of mine wouldn’t do it without a fork – but others will dig right in.
The cake should be made of soft icing – not fondant. Fondant is like playdough, so it won’t spread or be really messy in a photo like buttercream or store icing will be. I will either make my own cakes or recommend a local baker, but I use a homemade buttercream icing for my cakes. Color wise, pick something that matches your theme! But you want to avoid red, because it can look like blood. This is something that some people have differing opinions on – they might not think this, but in 90% of the cases I have dealt with, when I show a parent a red cake example they cringe. I also avoid chocolate because it can look like poop. Any other color is usually good, but bright, almost neon colors work the best. I choose a color that contrasts my paper, or else is a totally different shade, so that it shows up well on the paper as well as the kid.
I like to use vanilla cakes for my smashes. It’s the easiest to handle taste wise for a kid new to eating solids, and it doesn’t overwhelm with extra color. Chocolate cake can look like… poop. Not always, there are exceptions, and like the icing it can be opinionated, but most of the time it’s not pretty. It muddles up the icing color too. I just prefer vanilla (or white) for all of these reasons.
Size wise, a round 6-12 inch cake is best. Smaller is better – I usually do 6 inch – but some parents like the grandeur of a larger cake and that’s okay as long as it doesn’t overwhelm the baby.
Now, as for the child – your client should prep their one year old by giving them cake before the session. If you walk into a cake smash with a baby who has never eaten cake before, you could have all sorts of issues. The baby could not like the cake, not want to eat it because it is new, get sick, or worse, choke on the solids. I will sometimes lean in and give the baby a piece of cake while I am shooting to get them to like it, and the last thing on earth I want to hear as I feed them a large chunk of solids is “Oh, be careful, that’s her first bite of real food!”
Before the Smash – Standard Portraits
If you have done any kind of studio portrait session before then you know how this rolls. I start out with family shots, then sibling shots, then individuals of the toddler. Parents often bring more than one outfit in for the little one, so I do them last because of all the changes. If siblings or the toddler isn’t cooperating, I might do something else first, like individual shots, or some shots of the other siblings by themselves. That way I don’t waste studio time, and momma can concentrate on getting the baby to focus while I work with the other kids.
Usually, because my setup is simple, I can shoot everything with that same setup. But sometimes I will add or subtract items for the portraits, so that they look a little different than the smash photos. This gives it a little bit of variety where it is all one color.
How to do a Cake Smash Photo Shoot at Home
These can help both you and the parents, so that the smash turns out perfectly!
- Schedule the smash around the baby’s schedule. This way you don’t hit them right at nap time or some weird time of the day where they are cranky and don’t want to be in front of the camera. Depending on how you work this may be a little hard, but it is better than having a set of nothing but crying portraits!
- A smash cake can freeze for up to two weeks and stay fresh – so keep this in mind in case you or the client needs to reschedule. Just set it out 24 hours before the session to thaw.
- The less outfits the better so the child doesn’t get tired or upset at being changed all the time. I tell parents 2-3 regular outfits and one smash outfit, at most.
- Have a clause in your contract for if the child doesn’t cooperate. Personally, if I get halfway through portraits and it’s obvious the little one doesn’t want to be doing this, I will reschedule for as soon as possible, so we don’t waste a cake on an unhappy child.
- Less is more with the smash. This counts for both decorations from your end of things, to the outfit the child is in. I usually do tutus or diaper covers with little girls, and no tops, and then a diaper cover and tie or hat for the boys. Make sure the parents understand that this outfit can get stained, so it’s best not to spend too much money or use something super sentimental.
- Get a feel for the theme the parents want to do, so you know how to decorate and they can pick a smash outfit to match. Some parents let me roll with the theme but I always get a photo of the smash outfit so I know it doesn’t clash!
- Like mentioned before, have a place for baby to clean up afterwards and make sure parents know what all this entails, so if they need to bring anything for their child they can. Some kids need special soaps for allergies or other items, so be on the same page with the parents.
In the next part of this two part series, we’ll go over the technical aspects of my shooting, setups, posing, and post processing to get the perfect image in camera so you can push out a 40 image session in under a half hour in Lightroom!
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Hi! I’m Jenna Schwartz, a 7 year veteran of newborn, child, family and portrait photography. I have over 65 awards, international publication and “Best of” city awards for 2013 and 2014, and I’m ranked in the top 10% child photographers in the world and the top 5% of the US. I work from a residential studio in Henderson Nevada and travel to Eastern Ohio for several times a year for sessions. When I am not shooting, I’m hanging out with my two cats, my husband and my stepson.
Thanks Jenna! Great tips on the cake smash! #pursuitcommunity 🙂
Wendy!!! The timing of these ptohos couldn’t have been more perfect. I sent our little man off to daycare today for the first full day. Thanks again, we are so blessed to have such a creative and talented friend!
I just adore your openness and sharing some tips and techniques that you’ve had success with in photographing a Cake Smash Session! Well, multiple really!
I am currently using continuous lighting (will think about upgrading in the future to a strobe), however, would you have any tips/advice on how to best place the lighting? I am using two lights, at the 45 degree (4 and 6pm) . However, I find that I am never certain on the best height to place these for a small child that is nearly one.
Any go to heights or tips on how to select the best light height for getting the cleanest image with the most amount of light?
Thanks for your help!