Everything You Need to Know About Boudoir Photography
Boudoir photography defies genre. It is a style of photography that incorporates elements of portraiture, glamour, high fashion and fine art photography. Boudoir comes from the french word bouder meaning: to sulk. Historically, sulking was seen as something one would do privately, and the term bouder came to encapsulate a room where one would go to withdraw and be quietly alone. A bouder was a place of intimacy and privacy, where one could express their true selves without fear of judgment or punishment.
Boudoir photography takes it cues from French history, and it is a way of photographing your subjects in their most raw and private form. It allows for a glimpse into what usually goes unseen.
Boudoir was seen as empowering women in the 1800s. It was a way for women to take control of their reputation and be seen in a certain, private way. In the early 1900s boudoir lost steam as an art form, as it began to be seen as inappropriate and tawdry.
Photographer Arthur Allen is largely credited with bringing boudoir photography into the 20th century. At the time, nudity was still illegal in photographs, and he was arrested several times for his art. Though his photos were misunderstood by some, his work quickly captured the attention of photographers and artists. He photographed women of all shapes and sizes and is largely credited with inspiring the pin-up girls of the 1940s and 1950s.
When we think of boudoir photography, the image of a woman posing in lingerie comes to mind. While a large portion of boudoir photography captures a single participant, and most commonly women, boudoir photography of couples is growing increasingly popular.
Many people think that couples boudoir photography is for exhibionists or that it veers upon pornographic. Forget all of that. Couples boudoir photography does not have to be overtly sexual, in fact, the photos don’t necessarily contain much skin at all. Couples boudoir photography can be so striking and evocative because it is inherently interactive. The photos will showcase couples in their most private and vulnerable states, and there is something so mysterious and sexy about this intimacy captured on film.
“With couples boudoir, it’s all about the connection the couple shares in the present. We take the love, feelings and emotions of the couple and make them come to life on camera.” – Mike Allbech
If you’re a photographer looking to expand your portfolio with boudoir photographs of couples or are interested in boudoir photographs of yourself and your partner, we have you covered with everything you need to know before, during, and after your shoot.
Before the Shoot
The couples you are photographing are going to be nervous. In many cases, they are stripping down to their underwear and sharing a part of themselves never before seen by a stranger. It is your job as a photographer to make the photo shoot as relaxed and comfortable as possible. Clients who are nervous and uncomfortable will show this in their body language and in their expressions, and this discomfort will be visible in the photos. It can be helpful to ask couples what they love about their own bodies and their partners’ bodies.
“Ask them questions and work with the answers. Slowly, as the confidence and trust become stronger, work with the other areas. Evoke emotion. A person smiling can be a very sexy photograph as they feel pleasure or enjoyment. Other times, more of a serious look can bring a sensual tone. Assess their character and work from it.” – Expert Photography
Music goes along way in setting the scene. It’s always a good idea to curate a playlist to set the relaxed mood, and ask your clients beforehand if they would like to make a playlist for themselves. Sometimes, it is helpful for them to have control over something as small as the music. Make sure you have speakers, wifi and any cords you will need.
Many photographers also like to put together a small kit of photo shoot essentials that may be helpful for clients. It’s a great idea to have a small bag filled with mints, Advil, bobby pins, baby wipes (in case anyone gets makeup on their clothes) blotting papers, chapstick and any other small items that will help your clients feel well-cared-for and welcome. Be sure to have water and some light snacks, as beer and champagne also goes a long way in helping your clients to relax and have fun.
Some photographers also carry a full makeup kit, but if that’s not your thing, just be sure to advise your client to bring makeup for any touch-ups. A good setting spray and a translucent powder are always helpful to have on hand, as well as makeup remover for after the shoot.
Boudoir photography shoots are the most successful when your clients feel comfortable and at ease. Your shoot should be less about props and fancy techniques, and more focused on easing your clients and assuring them that they look great.
Camera and Lighting Equipment
There isn’t a one size fits all approach when lighting and shooting your couples boudoir photography shoot. Because your clients will likely be filled with nerves, a boudoir shoot is not the time to try out your new equipment. You want to make sure you know your camera and lenses inside and out; when you appear confident, prepared and relaxed your clients will have an easier time relaxing.
The camera lens you select is arguably more important than the camera body. A quieter camera is always a plus, as it allows the camera to melt away.
“The Fujinon 35mm f/2 prime lens with the Fujifilm X-Pro 2 is a great piece of glass. It comes in wider than the 50mm standard prime lens, which gives you more of the scene. The f/2 is great for low light conditions but doesn’t create hyper-sharpness in your image. It works very quietly, which is perfect for this intimate form of portraiture. It is less distracting for the model and helps keep the mood. This lens also has distance on its side; it’s not too close and not too far away. It creates a gap that isn’t in your face, but close enough to keep that relationship with the subject.” – Expert Photography
The 35mm is the favorite of many portrait photographers because it tightly picks up on the details of the face. A 50mm lens allows you to capture more of the scene surrounding the couple. If the backdrop and surrounding area is especially beautiful or helps you tell a cohesive story, a 50mm may be the way to go. These lenses produce sharp photographs with little distortion.
A zoom lens with a range from 24-70mm is a favorite among boudoir photographers. The versatility of being able to capture close cropped headshots or full body portraits means you get the work of many lenses in one. You will save time changing lenses and you will have the ability to capture the clients without being too close to them.
More unconventionally, a PC lens (Perspective Control) can be an interesting and effective choice for boudoir photography.
“PC lenses were developed for use with architecture, interior and still-life photography. What is to say you can’t use them in other areas? As photographers, we often need to break rules to create something new and interesting. These lenses allow you to not only focus horizontally but vertically too. This means that instead of a focus line, you get a focus spot. This can really help you highlight a specific area of the model, and push everything else out into a dreamy soft focus. Viewers are really shown where to look, and what not to be distracted by. These lenses are expensive and they will need more tinkering with on the shoot, so both the subject and photographer need some patience.” – Expert Photography
The lighting you choose will largely depend on the time of day you are shooting, your access to natural light and the vibe you are going for. Some boudoir photographers prefer to diffuse natural light with something like a lace curtain for a soft, romantic feel. Others, like acclaimed boudoir photographer Rachel Stephens (who earns $350,000 a year solely on boudoir photography), prefer to come prepared with lighting options. Stephens’ shared her favorite lighting on a blog post on Creative Live. Her Lighting Kit includes:
- Lowel LC88EX Rifa-Lite eX88 1000 Watt Softbox Light
- Lowel Rifa LC-88eX1 eXchange-Lite 100 Watt 32×32 Collapsible Soft Light System w/ 1000w/120v FEL Lamp
- Elinchrom D-Lite 200WS EL 20463 IT Strobe Head
- Elinchrom EL 19349 Skyport ECO Wireless Flash Transmitter
- Elinchrom EL 26179 Rotalux 39×39 Square Softbox with 2 Diffusers
- Lowel 40×40 Fabric Egg Crate Grid for Rifa-Lite 88
- California Sunbounce Micro Mini (2×3 Feet)
As with all gear, it is best to use the lighting you are familiar with while opting for soft lights over anything flourescent or overhead. The last thing you want is for your clients to feel like they are in a poorly lit dressing room. Minor tweaks in lighting can always be made in post-production.
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Tips for Posing Couples
The role of a boudoir photographer is to “transform [our clients] by drawing out their inner beauty, holding up that mirror to them, letting them see themselves in a new light, free from the harsh criticism they are stifled by in everyday life.” – Rachel Stephens, who works primarily with women in her boudoir photography.
The same can be said of couples boudoir photography; the way your clients feel and behave will depend on how comfortable they are in the poses. It’s always a good idea to ask them if there are any poses they specifically want to create, but you should have a pose list in mind. This will provide organization for the shoot and a sense of direction. Even if you veer from the list as the shoot organically unfolds, a bit of pose direction is especially helpful during the first few shots.
There are always the classic poses to fall back on: A woman on her back with man on top of her, a shot from the waist down, or a profile of the couple from the side with the woman’s legs wrapped around his waist. It can be fun to try some less expected poses which feature body parts you wouldn’t necessarily except, like hands or feet entwined.
Props are also a great way to elevate your poses. Some couples like the look of masks, feathers or lace. Don’t underestimate the power of a smiling shot; a photo of the couple laughing together is inherently very intimate.
Poses should be flattering and focus on a woman’s curves, and on the v-shape of the man’s body. If you have experience posing women for boudoir photography, you may want to look at images in men’s magazines, as male poses will greatly differ.
A couple’s adoring body language is the most important thing to capture in boudoir photography, and you can capture the natural body language by having your clients try “flow posing.”
“One great asset is ‘flow posing’. This system keeps your model in motion, which helps to keep that natural look to the photographs. The idea is that you start by photographing the subject on their front. They then move to their side, then on to their back. This gives you the potential to photograph a wide variety of shots and poses.This works so well because you can take many photographers without excessive moving to and from different settings.” – Expert Photography
For more pose inspiration, check out this post.
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Shooting in a Small Space
The majority of your boudoir shoots will be shot inside. Unlike family photography or wedding photography, your clients will likely be partially naked, so in most cases (unless you’re on very secluded land) it won’t be appropriate to shoot outside. This means you will spend a lot of time shooting boudoir in a small studio space.
If you think your space is too small or spare for boudoir, think again. A creative usage of props can transform your space into a romantic bedroom or living room. You will need a comfy chair or a loveseat (Ikea has some affordable options that photograph well). You can change the look of the chair by adding pillows, covering the chair in a lace curtain (as photographer, Jennifer Tallerico suggests) or add a blanket with a luxe texture.
Shooting on a bed is always a good option for couples boudoir photography, but beds are big, heavy and hard to move. Chances are your studio does not have room for a double bed. Don’t underestimate the power of an air mattress. You can blow it up for a boudoir shoot and dress it with white linens for a romantic scene with the bed on the floor. When you’re done, you can store the bed just about anywhere. Photographing the couple directly on the floor can also make for captivating photos.
“I just took the air mattress and had her lay on the floor. Simple and nothing more needed. I have not moved or redecorated the area, but yet it looks like an entirely new setup. For this shot my camera was flush with the floor, to give a new angle into the room. It brought out the elongated legs that was missing in all the other images. This is an impact image that can work nicely into the center of the album, or even at the end for the wow factor.” – Jennifer Tallerico
If you’re shooting in a small confined space, you will want to frequently change the angle at which you photograph. Go below your clients, try eye level and different levels of zoom. This was make for a diverse body of work without asking your clients to change clothes and positions repeatedly.
If you’re shooting in natural light, “Golden Hour,” one hour after sunrise and before sunset, is the ideal time to take the photographs. If that won’t work for your schedule, be sure to use a curtain (lace works well) to diffuse the light pouring in from outside. Photographers on a budget can create an easy backdrop using black or white paper, or work with the natural interior of the studio or hotel room. If you are shooting in a hotel room, be sure to arrive early to get a sense of the layout of the room and how the light will interact with the furniture in the shot.
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More Tips for Couples Boudoir Photography
It is usually best to give concrete directions. Saying things like, “Brush your hair from your face,” or “Put your right hand on your hip,” is direct and clear. Be sure to give directions at a speed your camera will be able to capture without blurring the image.
“Look for the light. Most often, light is the main culprit behind unflattering images. Ask yourself: Where is the light falling and accordingly, where are the shadows? Overhead light creates ugly shadows beneath the eyes, while light coming from directly below creates a ghastly haunted look. Consistently pay attention to the light – its direction, color and source. Fluorescent light is just about as unflattering as you can get, while soft diffused window light flatters skin like nothing else can.” – Susan Eckert, Body and Soul: Lucrative and Life-Changing Boudoir Photography
Don’t forget to pose hands and feets. Many “normal” people, by which I mean non-models, will not pay close attention to these limbs which can make or break a photo. Provide direction for your clients on where to place and how to hold their hands. Giving them something to do with their hands usually generates natural-looking photos. It can also be helpful to look at a lingerie catalog before shooting. You will start to get a sense of how models use their arms and legs to form triangles and crisp lines, and once you see it in action, you will know how to direct your shot.
You want to feel comfortable and confident on the day of your shoot. To look and feel your best, do something that makes you feel good before shooting. For some people that’s a workout to get the endorphins flowing. For others, it’s a massage or a facial for glowing skin. Ideally, you will have talked with your photographer extensively beforehand, and you will feel free to tell them if something during the shoot doesn’t feel or seem right.
Some people elect to get their hair and makeup done for the shoot. While that is not totally necessarily, it will give you an extra confidence boost. Make sure you know what look you are going for (natural, glam, edgy) well before the day of your shoot arrives, so you can style yourself accordingly or tell the stylist what you’re going for.
Be ready to tell your photographer what you love about your body and what you would like to see highlighted. Nobody feels totally comfortable with their own body, so be willing to discuss this with your photographer. You want them to highlight the parts you love about yourself and your partner.
You will want to bring a few outfit changes; lingerie and simple boxers are always nice, but couples boudoir photography does not have to show a lot of skin. Bring outfits that make you feel comfortable and elegant, and be sure to try them on beforehand.
Some couples choose to practice poses beforehand in front of a mirror. You may even want to take a few practice shots on your own with an iPhone. These are not expected to be good quality, and you can delete them right after. But, the experience of taking photos will start to prepare you for how to move and pose during your shoot.
You and your partner can also work together to curate a fun or sexy playlist that will help you relax.
Overall, couples boudoir photography is meant to be a fun bonding experience with your partner. Everyone is nervous at first, and everyone ends up being glad they did the shoot.