How Donatella Nicolini Shot These Amazing Floral Maternity Images

As a photographer, personal projects are important to always keep trying out new things and practicing one’s craft while helping to maintain the passion in the art. If we are not constantly experimenting then how are we going to improve? If we are not constantly testing the limits of our comfort zone then how we will discover new areas of interest? If we are not constantly pushing the envelope of our work then our work will become stagnant and “stagnant” is not a description you ever want to assign to your art.

This shoot by Donatella Nicolini came from just that type of thinking.Nicolini is a photographer who mainly works in studio and for this shoot she wanted to find a way to incorporate outdoors and natural elements into her already amazing motherhood portraits. She sees pregnancy and motherhood as the most powerful and primordial force and beauty, as nature itself, which is why she wanted to combine the two. These portraits were taken right after she got her new medium format Fujifilm GFX50S a few months ago. 

“It works extremely well with natural light and high ISO allowing me the freedom to experiment with the available light I have in my studio, coming from the windows, and also mix it with strobes.”

Photo 1: Elodie and Ascanio 

For this image, Nicolini used real ear wheat, placing it at different distances. She also attached some to a few light stands and placed one very close to camera while others behind the subjects. The trick is to create different levels of depth, to add dimension and interest to the image. She chose to light the backdrop with a 90cm octa + grid to bring out the beautiful texture of the hand painted canvas without influencing subjects. The main light here is a Profoto B1 diffused with a rfi 5” octa and feathered to get a soft, painterly look. The color of wheat matches the color of the fabric she chose to dress the mom and also matches some of her hair. 

Photo 2: Lera e Luce 

The name of the baby girl “LUCE” means “Light”. 

Nicolini wanted to create something ethereal and bright for this mother and child. She chose white as a color for both the flowers and the mom’s dress. She then used real cotton flowers, placing them on light stands at different distances, portraying depth like the previous image. The backdrop is also a hand painted canvas, with a light and delicate color, the main light is natural light coming from the windows behind the backdrop. 

Photo 3: Chiara e Giada 

In this photo Nicolini balanced studio lighting with natural light to change the backdrop color with color gels. The beauty of Profoto strobes is that you can turn the power very low so you can balance studio light with natural light seamlessly. This way she was able to change the color of the backdrop from gray/green to purple directly in camera using a purple color gel to match the color of the flowers, which means less work in Photoshop after the shoot. She then also added a fan to create a natural movement to the mom’s hair, resembling the breeze you’d find in an open field. 

All the photos were color graded using Infinite Color Panel.

Equipment List

- Fujifilm GFX50S 

- Fujifilm 63mm f2.8 lens 

- Tripod 

- Profoto D2 + Purple Gel 

- Profoto B1 + 90cm octa + grid 

- Profoto B1 + Profoto rfi 5” Octa 

- Hand painted canvas backdrops by Artery Backdrops and Milano Backdrops

Lighting Setup 

Image 1:  Elodie e Ascanio

Profoto B1 diffused with a 90cm octa + grid to light up the backdrop without influencing the subject Profoto B1 diffused with rfi 5” octa used as main light. She feathered this light to achieve a soft and creamy painterly look Image

Image 2: Lera e Luce

Main and only light is natural light coming from the windows behind the backdrop. The windows are high and angled at 45” Image 

Image 3: Chiara e Giada

Main light is coming from the windows, behind the backdrop. Backdrop light is a bare Profoto D2 with purple gel at a very low power so she could balance it with the natural light and change the color of the backdrop without affecting the subjects


Photographer: Donatella Nicolini (instagram | website)
Hair and make up: Valentina Paolillo + Greta Roncoroni + Martina Ginisi 
Assistant: Luisa Galisai

Images used with permission of Donatella Nicolini

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LA M's picture

old school trick...and good results

Lee Christiansen's picture

Well I'm old generation and I use soft boxes rather than scrims... Why? Because a soft box should actually create a more even face of diffused light and so create a less spotted source of light, (due to the internal reflections of the box and usually a double diffusion layer.

It's quite tricky to get an evenly lit scrim due to the smaller point source of the originating light and its spotted nature. A soft box helps overcome this considerably with internal reflections which help fill the front panel very evenly.

Soft light is defined by the size of the light source compared to the subject and if that light source is very even, by definition it would produce a softer light.

I'll take a soft box over a scrim any day unless I need a very large diffused source (like when I was using a couple of 20ft x 20ft scrims on a green screen shoot with multiple 5KW lights on each to get a less "spotted" scrim).

For the record, I don't think these images have harsh lighting at all. Controlled yes. With direction, of course. But harsh - not a chance.

(Written from the perspective of an old-school Director of Photography for broadcast TV and Commercial Photographer)

Alex Herbert's picture

Lee, it's not worth it. I got into the same discussion with this guy a few weeks ago, seemingly he only comes on here to trash softboxes and tell other photographers how little they know about scrims.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I know - some people have fixed ideas about things based on... well...

But I have time on my hands and if there are wrongs to right, then I'll fight the fight...

Alexander Kono's picture

err, I would say that this is an effect of the Square Inverse Law, not the tools being used. If you had a softbox farther away from its diffuser you would theoretically get a similar quality of light.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Oh the failings of finding a YouTube video without knowing enough about light itself.

I've used both scrims and boxes because I know what their relative benefits are. Alas my uninformed friend, you're not so well versed because you can't stand to use a soft box properly.

Remember, (and this should be obvious), a soft box is just a self-contained scrim with the added bonus of internal reflections to ensure the diffusion panel is more evenly lit. That panel can be the same material as a scrim or different.

Your theory of how a soft box must work is flawed because you're forgetting the mechanics of how the things actually work. Try one, heck buy one... remember that lovely silver lining inside...? It's there for a reason.

30 years as a broadcast director of photography, shooting all over the world on everything from documentaries to drama or music videos for Sony... Multiple awards across directing and cinematography... yep, I know what I speak of.

Add to that my 15 years as a commercial photographer shooting portraiture, editorial and product with a full product studio and shooting for international brands - yep still quite sure I know the relative benefits of scrims and soft boxes.

People can read your thoughts and my thoughts - and they can discern themselves which is diatribe and which is substance. But try not to embarrass yourself with empty insults towards my knowledge - it just sort of reinforces what many of us already think.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I watched it. I have it in my library of YouTube videos. I know this guy's work well. Funny thing is I don't need YouTube so much because I've got the hang of this stuff by now... But fun for you I'm sure.

I'll not bother with you anymore because people can read our posts and I need not prove anything more.

People do pay their photographers - they pay me. I've been studying enough which is why I explain things to you so carefully. Your responses however are not so detailed and rely more on the occasional hamfisted insult.

We have our relative reputations and opinions - I'll happily rest on mine.

Lee Christiansen's picture

And now I'll address the video. Yes this guy is talented and he does indeed know what he is talking about. I use a similar technique to his on many of my product shots.

Alas you're failing to understand his reasoning for using scrims over just soft boxes.

He is dealing with the aesthetics of reflections and because a soft box offers a uniform panel of light over the front panel, (which reinforces the argument of why they produce such lovely soft light), the reflection offered is of course the shape of the panel which has straight edges.

Alex wants a graduated edge to the reflections which would be more of a function of a scrim, (often because of the hotter spot due to lack of benefits from a soft box's internal reflections). He is maintaining the even quality of the reflection by using a sourced large illuminant from the soft box and then allowing a graduated effect by placing at an angle to a scrim.

I do this all the time with bottle highlights by having a strip box agreed to a scrim with the edge of the box touching the scrim and allowing fall off to the rest of the scrim - thus giving a graduated highlight with a clean distinct edge at one side.

You assertions of distance of source lamp to the diffusion panel are erroneous because this distance can be anything with either method and the only thing that actually matters os the final source of light on the subject which would be the scrim or the front panel of a box. Each has a different nature of course because of the mechanics of how the light reaches it.

But remember, softness of light is defined not by the diffusion, but by the size of the light source (i.e. the panel or scrim) and the subject. A more evenly lit panel / scrim by definition will afford a larger source (because more light is hitting the whole panel) and so in most cases a soft box will offer a softer option.

The lamp / strobe doesn't need the same distance from the diffusion material in a box than the same result on a scrim simply because of the internal reflections from the box overcome the relative shallow angle from the originating light source (lamp or strobe). A simple scrim doesn't have this advantage and so will either have a hotter spot in the centre or will require a greater throw from the lamp to the diffusion to overcome relative distance differences from edge to centre of the diffusion material.

I offer you not opinions but simple laws of optics.

It is this collection of laws that determine soft boxes are not inferior or superior to a simple scrim method, but that they offer a different optical effect.

When I need a feathered diffused panel, I opt for a scrim.

When I need a relative larger source of diffused light I will use a box.

If I need a huge diffused source I may opt for an oversized scrim to stop spillage and use multiple lamps to better evenly light the scrim, (as when I do 3000+ sq ft green screen shoots for example and I'm using multiple sets of 20ft x 20ft scrims with 100KW of lighting...)

But if I was shooting perhaps a vehicle from above and needed even, soft lighting then I'd more likely use something like the Chimera F2x soft box system.

Lighting is not about one solution and there are many ways to achieve the same solution. Recanting the same dogmatic mantra that scrims are better than soft boxes is plain silly - and you don't want us to think that of you now do you... :)

But as always, I'll let people read my thoughts and let them read yours - they can form their own opinions as to who they'd prefer to go with.

You can decide anything you like... we don't mind. After all, you're not lighting my shots. But take care when you question knowledge from others without knowing the pedigree of where it comes from.

Alex Herbert's picture

What an excellently detailed explanation. Disclaimer: I only picked up a DSLR for the first time 4 years ago, but have spent considerably more time learning lighting theory than I have taking photos. I knew that I knew what I was talking about, but it's very nice to have someone with so much REAL WORLD experience confirm it to me. There's so much nonsense regarding lighting floating around the internet. Thanks for clearing up some myths!

Deleted Account's picture

Nice images, I was doing that just today. Not with mums and babies but with chairs and beer. Not as soft and romantic but the depth trick all the same :)

John Tyson's picture

Photo #3. Cringeworthy editing. I mean, is it CGI? The title of that one should be "How I used a computer to make weird looking versions of people"

Alex Herbert's picture

I think that's what people want to look like these days. This is the filter generation, they're more used to looking at augmented photos of themselves than they are looking in the mirror. I heard it's common now for people to bring 'filtered' photos to plastic surgeons as a reference for what they want to look like.

Blake Aghili's picture

Lola Melani does this pretty much every day.

David Wild's picture

You guys are blind. Harsh lighting? What?? These are absolutely amazing! Thank you Donatella for being so generous with your information, I've learnt much from this!

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Nice work. Original for that kind of images. Thanks for sharing.

Myles Formby's picture

The shots with the natural window light behind. Was there fill from the front?