Creative Conversations with The Iconic Donatella Nicolini

Article written by David Parish and Pratik Naik

Donatella Nicolini is a modern legend. She’ll be who you hear about for years to come and then say, “I knew her back in the day!” She’s a maternity photographer that has such a beautiful style to her work, crafted over years of learning and testing. We asked her about her humble beginnings, her moments of growth, how photography helped her realize what a gift she had with people, and more.

Follow her work on Instagram and her website.  

Your images are instantly identifiable in the numerous groups and social platforms we see them in. How did you go about learning your unique approach to imagery?

First of all, thank you! I love that! I trust my instinct and my personal taste and I put it all in my images. I believe it’s important to learn and find inspiration from many different sources. I still educate myself everyday and when I create an image I don’t think so much about what style I should go with, I just create what I love in that specific moment of my life. All that I study, read, explore and look at everyday, the work of different artists, in photography as well as in movies, blend together and work inside of me, mostly as an unconscious process.

You seemed to settle into shooting maternity photos fairly early on in your career. Did you always aspire to be a maternity photographer or was there an evolution in your work that brought you here?

I started with portraits, I was very shy as a kid and growing up I had a difficult time managing relationships with people. I found out that when I was photographing people, all that changed. I realized I could connect with people more while taking their portraits then in any other situation. It warmed my heart to realize that even if i wouldn’t normally like some people, when I looked at them through the camera I saw beauty in each and every one of them. I remember feeling so much love for these people that I didn’t even know before the photoshoot, it was something so new to me.

I knew, clear as day, portrait photography was my thing. It was my therapy. I admit, to these days, I don’t recognize the person I was anymore. Now spending time with people, getting to know them is my favorite thing. Wherever I am I make some friends, I talk to anyone and I love it! So, after taking portraits for a while, I decided I wanted that to be my full time job. There was nothing else I would’ve loved more to do for the rest of my life. I started to study about business and one of the first things I learned is that I needed to pick a niche.

At that time, my nephew was born and I was looking at newborn and baby pictures in order to learn how to take a decent portrait of my baby boy. Those babies photos were so cute and it seemed to be a solid trend in the US, Australia and UK, while it wasn’t already popular in my country (Italy). I saw it as a good business opportunity and I thought: Great! I found my niche! I’ll be a newborn photographer! I focused on that for a while, learning all about safety and posing, attending workshops and such and practicing with my friends’ babies.

One day a mom asked me if I could take her pregnancy photos. I never had a maternity session before, but I was very excited about it and so I said yes! I took the opportunity and I spent a month studying everything I could find about maternity photo shoots. I already knew something about lighting and composition due to my previous portrait work, but I knew I needed to prepare specifically for that. I wanted to flatter her pregnancy form as best as I could. I remember I went on Creative live, Pinterest, Youtube and bought any course about maternity portraiture available at the time. So the day of my first maternity photoshoot came and I loved it! I felt very comfortable about the whole experience and was very involved and connected with my client.

I posted the first portraits on my social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram etc) and I got a great response from people. For the first time I got a photo of mine published on a photography magazine in India! Go figure! Shoot after shoot it hit me, this was my real niche. I saw incredible beauty, strength and magic in every pregnancy session I did and I wanted other people to see it too. I wanted my mom-to-be clients to feel proud, strong, gorgeous in their pregnancy, especially the ones who felt all the opposite. I knew I found my mission.

Have you had any formal education in photography or any assisting jobs in your career? Do you believe it’s valuable to study others or discover everything through trial and error?

I didn’t follow a formal education in photography and I never had an assisting job.

However I attended a lot of workshops, both in person and online. I am constantly studying, everyday. I keep buying new online courses, reading books, planning on attending new workshops, watching Youtube videos and so on. Practice is also key. Making mistakes is so important to grow and become a better photographer. Is one thing to know a technique in theory and a whole other thing to actually do it and make it work on set. I think the point is when you love what you do, you also love studying and knowing as much as you can about it. It’s a lifetime journey of improvement and I love it!

Newborn photos seem to be something you often photograph as well. Was this a natural progression of past maternity clients asking for newborn photos or was this always part of the plan?

As I mentioned earlier, it was the other way around! Newborn photography led me to Maternity photography and that proves that it is important to pick a niche, even if your first choice is not the perfect one because it will bring you closer to the right one for you. If I didn’t pick newborn photography as a niche, I might’ve never had the chance to photograph a pregnant woman or that would’ve happened much later in my life. So, picking a niche, even if you’re not 100% sure about it, is still better than keeping your work generic and not picking any.

There is a balance of colored and black/white images in your portfolio. Do you prefer one over the other? What do you use to decide which one you would go with?

I love both, but if I really think about it, I would say I have a thing for black and white. In a maternity session I usually show clients 70% black and white images and 30% color. I love playing with color grading though. I love movies so much, when I work with colors I like to create images that have a cinematographic touch. Most of the times I know which images are going to be colored and which in black and white before I shoot them. I plan every shoot and see every image in my mind before I create it. That helps me deciding what colors to use when choosing clothes/props/backdrops etc for every specific picture.

What would you say the panels have done for you in your workflow? Do you think it’s something that works for beginners as well and what would it teach them?

I love the panels! I have been using both of them with every image ever since I’ve got them.

The panels show you, in the easiest and fastest way possible, an endless stream of creative possibilities that help you choosing the final look for your image. Each look communicates something different. It’s that extra final touch that makes you say “Yeah. Now it’s done!”.

I think they’re both extremely helpful for beginners too, as the panels can help achieve looks they wouldn’t know how to get otherwise manually or wouldn’t even consider possible to do. I definitely recommend the panels to everyone who wants to explore his creativity and save time during the editing process!

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