Wondering how to photograph a cake smash session? Get PRO Cake Smash Tips including cake smash photography camera settings and lighting setup
BE SURE TO READ part 1 of the Cake Smash Series! How to Photograph the Perfect Cake Smash Session if you haven’t already so you aren’t lost here in part two!
Welcome to part two of my cake smash explanation! I went over prepping for a cake smash, preparing the parents and what I use to shoot with – so now we’re going to go over the technical aspect of it all…like our cake smash photography camera settings as well as composition, cake smash photo shoot props and how to edit your pictures in the end.
What is a Cake Smash Shoot?
The trend started when parents wanted to use a child’s first birthday pictures for party invites and then it slowly led to taking pictures of the one year old eating his/her very own cake. Capturing a cake smash photoshoot can be pretty cute and quirky, depending on the child’s personality!
What is the purpose of a Cake Smash?
Smash cakes are a small frosted cake made just for the birthday boy or girl! Give the cake to the birthday child and let him or her dig into it with their hands. Be warned that it gets messy, but the photos are priceless.
What can I use instead of Cake for a Cake Smash?
Some great ideas for alternatives: pancakes, ice cream sandwiches, cupcakes, popsicles, cookies, fruit and more here.
Table of Contents
Cake Smash Photoshoot Prep
The Nitty Gritty – My Shooting – Here is a pullback of my shooting space when I am doing a cake smash photo session:
The roll in this shot is the 107” Seamless paper I linked to earlier – so you can see, my space is small. The color is True Blue.
I work with two of the four lights that came in my kit, with soft boxes on them. How high I turn the lights up can vary depending on the color of the paper, props, and the skin tone of the baby. For example, a very dark skinned baby I might turn the lights up a bit more to bring out more detail, whereas a very pale skinned baby would need lower lights so I don’t blow them out. Generally, I keep my lights at ½ – ¾ power.
Photo Shoot Props
When decorating, it’s important to keep shadows in mind. My paper horseshoes and stars here were attached with tape to the background, so there’s relatively little to no shadowing with those. But the banner was hung on the backdrop stand, and so it was about a fourth inch from the paper, which resulted in more shadows. In this case, the shadows added a bit of depth to the image, and didn’t detract.
But if you choose big, bulky props, placement will affect shadows. It’s always best to do test shots a day before the shoot and see what your props do. Shoot them in the same location and have a stand in (mine is a cabbage patch doll) that sits where the child will sit, so you can verify placement of props, and decide how close or far away you want them from both the subject and the background.
Cake Smash Photography Camera Settings
When shooting in studio, you don’t need that depth of field that a prime or high end zoom will give you – so, as mentioned before, you can shoot a studio cake smash session with a kit lens or a lens that has an aperture like 4-5.6, and you won’t need to worry!
I set my camera settings in manual to nearly the same thing every time. My ISO is always 100, my shutter speed is always 1/160. This shutter speed is the sync speed for my flash – any higher and I’ll get black bars at the bottom of the image, which means that the shutter was faster than the strobes and caught a dark partial image before the lights fired.
My aperture can change slightly. I might be shooting the child with an aperture of f/11, and then with an outfit or prop change, I need a little more light so I adjust it to f/8. It all depends on the scene, but it is never any lower than f/6 or higher than f/16.
One Year Old Portraits
Before you even pull the cake out, you will want to do formal portraits of the child, and possibly some of the parents.
Keep in mind that how you set the lights up for a cake smash (lower to the ground pointed at a small sitting child) is different than if you were to have a parent sitting there, or if you did a standing shot. There is nothing wrong with shooting a test shot of a pose, checking shadows and lighting, and then having the family wait a few seconds while you adjust the lights to where you want them to be in placement and height.
Many new photographers feel like professional is equated to fast, and it isn’t. Many clients will enjoy that you take the time to set things up properly and make sure they are correct, rather than speeding through things and later on delivering a sub par product you’ve had to manipulate largely in Photoshop or Lightroom.
The above image is using Savage’s Canary Yellow paper. Minimal shadows in your image are fine for instance, the shadows here from the banner and then the few from the feet of the wire stool.
What you want to avoid are really large, harsh shadows, or ones that overpower the image. You can use props to assist a child who is younger than a year or not quite standing or walking yet – here, the little girl couldn’t stand on her own, so I used this stool to help her. It’s thin and light, so it doesn’t stand out in the image as a bulky prop, and it doesn’t block or cover her bottom half. But at the same time, it is sturdy and safe enough for her to lean on and use as a prop with her twenty or so pounds of weight and strength, and I don’t have to worry about her breaking it, falling or having any issues.
If they can sit still on their own and safely, you can have the child sitting on a prop. (if they are wiggle worms and you need extra tips take a minute and ready our 11 Tips to take Pictures of a One Year Old Successfully!)
Choosing the right kind of prop for the session is essential. In this blue cowboy country themed session, I used a remake of a rustic red fruit crate, which might be found on a farm somewhere in the back of a barn.
In the yellow session, I used a dainty, almost French looking vintage wire rack, which was very feminine in its lines and didn’t add a lot of weight to the overall image.
Tips for an Outside Cake Smash
With this Mickey themed shoot (On Savage Banana colored paper), we put a giant Mickey next to his chair. (And for those wondering – this was shot with a 50mm 1.8 lens lens at f2.5 and shutter 1/1250 – I chose these settings because this session was done outside on a cloudy day in a park, so I was able to back up enough to get ample depth of field and pull him from the background several feet.)
You don’t want your props to be super distracting – remember, the child is the point of the session and the subject! But if you have enough room, you can add pieces that complement the theme and the child without making the image feel overwhelming.
Depending on how you market your sessions and the demographic that comes to you, you may find yourself photographing a lot of babies by themselves, or with their families, or perhaps a mix of both. Encouraging family members to participate is never a bad idea, as it gets those images captured with everyone else, which as photographers, is something that is always good to recommend.
Don’t expect the client to walk in ready to be in front of the camera – discuss this beforehand in your consultation call, email or meeting. Talk to them about whether they want you to snap a quick family portrait, or perhaps do some shots of the siblings together. Maybe (like the above case) the session was arranged by grandma, or maybe a godparent or sibling, or aunt/uncle. If someone other than the parents is arranging or paying for the session, encourage them to participate and be a part as well. If the child is cooperating, it only takes a few minutes to get a landscape and portrait orientated photo for them to hang on the wall! Some of my parents and grandparents set those images as their backgrounds or lock screens on their smartphones.
Cake Smash Photo Time
There’s very little to go over here that I haven’t already. Make sure your space is prepared for a small, fast child to be digging into a cake and then possibly running around. Essential Baby has some great tips on being prepared for clean up when it comes to a babies cake smash!
If you have anything within their reach or feet in the studio that you don’t want ruined with icing, then move it higher or out of the room. There is always that small chance that when you go to check the back of camera, mom happens to browsing her Facebook feed, and that little one chomping on cake decides to grab a piece and run on the fly. By the time you safely set your camera down, he’s got one hand painting the nearest wall or shelf with icing and the other is grasping the closest prop on hand, which could be either something you used in his session, or could be that hand knitted angora fur newborn knit hat that cost you $45 and a five week waiting list. You decide by prepping your studio!
Keep it simple for the cake smash. Make the child the focus. If you use a lot of props in the background like balloons, streamers, paper balls and other things, put them at a different plane than the child – for example, those things a few inches from the background but your subject several feet from the background. Separation leads to a little bit of depth of field, and a nicer image.
These are just a few examples for setups that will compliment your child and stick with a theme. Mix it up! Talk to your client and find out what the child likes, favorite colors or shows, and make a theme to match.
Editing Pictures of a Cake Smash Session
The point of shooting in a studio setting with strobes is that you get the same, consistent light no matter what. Shooting outside for a cake smash doesn’t give that same consistency, as lighting is constantly changing. If you keep your settings the same, you will find processing to be much easier than if you had to constantly edit every image in a session.
I like to use Lightroom to do my major edits and only use Photoshop when necessary for some cloning or patching I can’t get done in Lightroom. Most of the time that means a quick settings copy and paste over every image, and I’m nearly done! I always shoot on a custom white balance so that the white balance stays consistent in all the images. I cull out any images where the flash didn’t fire, then import the rest of the images. In Lightroom I do a second cull of any out of focus images, or ones whose composition doesn’t work. Then I choose the first image, adjust the white balance as needed, apply my one or two preset edits, sharpen the subject and I’m ready to export. I copy my develop settings and paste them on all the other images, so all I need to do is any individual sharpening I might want to brush into an image.
I do a lot of manual edits, but I also use the InFusion Presets sold by MCP Actions and Presets.
A cake smash photo session of 40 images might take me a half hour to edit total. Here is an example of SOOC and final edit:
As you can see, very little difference! I like to keep my photo edits in studio clean, simple, and with good lighting and a simple setup, that’s easy to do – even with a crop sensor beginner camera and kit lens!
If you have any questions I haven’t addressed here, please leave a comment and I will answer them as best as I can!
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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.