The nude figure has been a feature of art for thousands of years. The nude appears even in prehistoric art in the form of “Venus figurines,” which featured the nude female body. It is thought that the figurines may have represented fertility deities. You have probably already been exposed to (bad pun semi-intended) male nudes, which feature prominently in Greek sculpture and Roman art. Classical sculptures commonly depicted “heroic nudity;” wherein gods and heroes were depicted naked, and mortals were depicted wearing clothes. Nudity was seen as divine.
These sculptures gave rise to “contrapposto” which refers to a pose still commonly used where a model stands with one leg bearing most of the body’s weight so “shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs.”
Many photographers are interested in trying their hand at female or male nude photography, but don’t know where to start. Though we live in an increasingly progressive environment, many people still feel uncomfortable with nudity, and nude photography can feel awkward to break into. If the shoot is kept private and professional, there is nothing to feel awkward about. Whether you’re a photographer looking to take nude photography (also know as “bodyscapes”) or a model looking for nude work, we have everything you need to consider about posing, etiquette and making sure all parties feel safe, professional and respected during your nude photography shoot.
Some photographers may feel a bit seedy scouting for nude models. Keep in mind that nude modeling is a job like any other. Professional model, actress and dancer, Ella Rose explained,
“We [nude models] don’t assume you’re a pervert, when you hire us for your artwork, personal projects or even just to test your ability to turn a lump of wax into a decent, human-shaped figure. (But we do seek standard references before meeting new clients, if we take our personal safety seriously). This should go without saying, of course; nudity is perfectly normal, but I have modelled for the occasional ‘newbie’ whose hands have visibly shaken at the experience; who’ve wanted very much to mention their wives and happy marriages within the first two or three sentences (perhaps in the opening email) to assure me of their lack of intention, and who announce that they will be leaving the room every time I change pose. It’s sweet, but largely unnecessary. Rest assured that if you’re not a lech, you probably won’t come across as one.”
That being said, if you are new to nude photography, you may want to work through an agency for your first few shoots. It is important that you have a clear idea of the type of nude photography you are hoping to capture before you seek out an agency. Are you looking for male nude photography? Female? Will the model’s face be shown? Are you planning to focus on a certain body part? The more specific information you are able to share with an agency, the higher the chance that they will be able to place you with the right model for your project.
Once you have a portfolio of artful nudes, it will be easier to bypass the agency by sharing your vision, your portfolio and your taste level with potential nude models. Many colleges have student art programs where you may be able to find a model. Some photographers look to trusted friend to pose as their models while they gain credibility in the industry.
Hopefully this goes without saying, but before you shoot a nude model, you need to be certain that everything you are doing is entirely legal. In some states it is illegal to photograph a nude minor even for artistic purposes. Regardless of the state you are in, working with a minor is not a good idea. Be sure to get a xeroxed copy of the model’s ID.
It is also a good idea to have the model sign a release form which indicates that they consent to being photographed nude. The form will detail how you plan to distribute the photos. It can be helpful to have a third party neutral person (ie not a close friend of either the model or the photographer) present for the duration of the shoot. And finally, be sure that no bystanders can see your model. Shoot on secluded private property or indoors. Certain cities (including San Francisco, surprisingly) have very strict laws against indecent exposure. Some cities including New York take a more lenient stance on public nudity for artistic purposes, however, it is still possible to get arrested.
Photographer Doug Peters raised a great point about sharing your images on social. He says, “Don’t forget to shoot a few “implied nude” shots. If you or your model want to promote yourselves on any kind of social media (or even in your own portfolios), you will need some images that don’t show nipples or pubic hair (or obviously genitalia). Self promotion is key in this day and age, so don’t waste a good opportunity by having nothing to show off from your shoot socially.”
Before you share any photos however, even if partially clothed, you must have your models’ explicit consent.
Nude Photography Etiquette
Don’t Touch the Model
It is always best not to touch the model. There are ways that you may touch a clothed model without thinking twice that are not appropriate to touch a nude model. Remember that these models are in a highly vulnerable state. Nude model, Ella Rose, explains, “We don’t really want you to touch us, especially when we’re nude. We are not made of fire (You don’t need to bounce away from us as though we might burn you), but if you think it’s appropriate to move our limbs for us instead of at least attempting to first describe a pose you are trying to capture or push/poke us into position without asking permission first (not while you brush our hair away from our faces), we may find you rude at best and threatening at worst. Any contact should be careful and brief; this isn’t because we’re precious (seriously, nude models are not divas!,) but because we value respect. Most humans are intuitively aware of personal space and how the etiquette is naturally rather amplified by nudity, but if you know you happen to struggle with social convention, it’s best to steer clear of any physical contact unless specifically agreed upon by the model. Do offer to help us down from that tree if we’re looking a bit stuck, but don’t linger about it.”
Natalie White, an acclaimed nude model who has worked with artists including George Condo, Peter Beard, Marc Quinn, and Spencer Tunick echoes this sentiment saying, “Don’t move their arm to a different angle, don’t touch their face to change the angle in which it’s tilted. If you want a nude model to alter their pose it should be described with words, or the photographer or artist can show them by [demonstrating with their own body].”
Make Sure the Environment is Clean and Comfortable
You will want to have a separate, private place for the model to dress and undress. The model should be given a robe or something similar to wear in the moments when you are not shooting. Models are encouraged to stay covered when not being photographed. Anything the model will have contact with should be clean, and the space should be warm and comfortable.
Natalie White also encourages a nude model to speak up if they are in anyway uncomfortable. She says, “Whether it’s the temperature being too cold or they want assistants out of the room, they should say so immediately. You need to be direct about how you feel. If you are uncomfortable, it will come out in the images, and for that reason the artist should want you to be comfortable because they understand that too.”
Some photographers find it helpful to have a storyboard posted where the model can see. These can be sketches or actual photographs depicting the poses you are hoping to capture. The model will know you have a pre-thought out plan and will be able to mentally prepare for all upcoming poses.
You also want to be sure to respect the models’ space. This may mean you shoot from further away and use longer focal lengths. One photographer at the Digital Photography School said, “this will probably vary from person to person but we found that things worked best when I shot with longer focal lengths. Perhaps, it was partly that I wasn’t up real close and personal as I took my shots, and this allowed my subject some personal space — but the shots when I used a longer lens were better than those when shooting with short ones. I had started off shooting with a 50mm lens but ended up using a Canon 85mm prime lens.”
Shooting in Black & White is also a great option as it is more forgiving and often reads as more artful and less sexualized.
Be Upfront and Communicative
It is essential that you are honest and communicative with your model before and during the shoot. Recently, the British Actors Union added a new clause to its code of conduct. It states that “any nudity/semi nudity will be personally approved by the model before the shoot takes place.” Natalie White explains in an article on Artnet.com, “If the model isn’t well known for taking their clothes off, it should definitely be discussed ahead of time. And if the artist feels that the subject should take their clothes off in the middle of the session, they should schedule the unclothed session for a later day to give the model a chance to think about it.”
There may be times that your model is unable to sustain a pose for an extended amount of time, or feels uncomfortable in a certain position. Though you are the creator and can certainly have suggestions and opinions on what you think is best for the shoot, ultimately it is the model’s right to decide what they feel most comfortable.
Tips for Posing
Your model and your vision will largely dictate the type of poses you shoot. Ella Rose says, “Unless we are new, we probably know how to pose to create flattering angles and interesting imagery. It’s nice when we are allowed to get into the ‘flow’ of things, especially if we have a dance background (Note: dancers make excellent models!). It can sometimes work against your own interests to interfere too much, unless we are doing something badly wrong (in which case, please do intervene!). I was once directed into each and every pose after each individual camera click, body part by limb by gaze direction, by a beginner photographer who, after tiring himself out towards the end, suggested I do my own thing for the last 15 minutes and marvelled at how much more productive we were. Unless you really do want exact, meticulously pre-planned poses (which is fine!), don’t be too much of a control freak.”
That being said, it can be beneficial to have a few poses in mind before the shoot begins, especially if your model is new. Of course, poses will vary depending on whether your model is male or female. We’ll start with tips on posing nude male photography.
Posing Nude Male Photography
Nude male models are often photographed in athletic poses. For standing postures, you may consider a profile view that looks like bending or running in place. The “strolling pose” is also popular among male models. The pose “requires one leg extended forward with the toes about one inch (2.5 cm) off of the ground.” The model’s back foot should be up on the ball of the foot. One arm extends forward while the other is slightly back, as it would be when naturally walking. Ask the model to lengthen their stride slightly which will help to emphasize the length of the pose.
Frontal poses can be a bit jarring in male nude photography, but if this is your vision, then go for it. Models should square their bodies to the camera and may also want to cross their arms or touch their face so they have direction and their hands don’t hang unnaturally. You can also experiment with seated poses, where the man sits sideways.
Acclaimed fashion and editorial photographer Chris Davis did an interview in 2013 where he shared his best tips for shooting male models. Though he is primarily a fashion photographer, many of his tips translate seamlessly to nude male photography, including the following in regards to posing. Davis says,
“Pose-wise, I often just try and guide the models rather than be too heavy on the direction. I like to see their personalities come through. Guys can sometimes be a little wooden and too rigid, but after a bit of direction you can loosen them up and get them moving more naturally. The high end male models have always been amazing. They are fluid and creative in poses without being too cliché or too feminine. For some reason, I find camp can come over as a bit cheesy in a fashion shoot, unless it’s part of the editorial story.
I think more than anything, I try and keep the poses more natural and candid-looking. If the pose looks unnatural or too forced, it can make the shot look fake and you lose the connection with the model.”
Many experts suggestion turning to the Greek for inspiration in nude male photography. Their poses quickly advanced with the goal of having their sculptures look alive and realistic. Some great examples of poses from the classics can be found here.
You can find even more ideas for modern poses for men here.
Lighting Nude Male Photography
Muscles tend to be the focus of nude male photography, so you want to be sure your shoot is lit accordingly. Certain poses and angles may cause the body to cast shadows on itself, which should be avoided if possible. Consider the difference in lighting when shooting male or female models.
Doug Peters of Ambient Light Blog explains, “I have a preference when shooting nudes to keep the lighting soft for females (to accent the softness of her curves) while shooting male nudes usually requires much harsher lighting to accentuate masculine angles and muscle tones. This is easy to achieve in a studio setting by either having your flash units shoot through softboxes or white umbrellas for shooting females, or using snoot attachments for shooting males. Using natural light it could be as simple as having net curtains pulled across your window and using the white side of your reflector for females, or using bare windows and either the silver reflector or no reflector at all for males.”
Acclaimed nude photographer David Kai-Piper explains his best tips for lighting nudes, saying “You also want to light your model from behind rather than the front. The light should just graze across the model’s skin. For that reason, you want the light to be low and pointing back at you rather than shining down on the model. This will create the deep shadows and pull out muscle detail and shape of the models figure.”
Posing Nude Female Photography
The focus of nude female photography is often curves and softness. Some of the most tasteful female nude photography actually occurs when the woman is partially covered. You can use a sheet, a body of water, or an open shirt to give an illusion of nudity without a full nude.
Using a wall for the model to lean against is helpful, and as the Nude Retouching blog mentions, “Using walls helps a nude photographer very strongly to diversify the poses. The wall can be used as a support for hands, body, back and legs. [As an] example the model softly touches a wall with her palms and looks down.”
Images of the model on a chair or a stool and shot from below work well to showcase legs, whereas photographers taken from the profile or the back showcase curves and hair.
Laying on the stomach is always a tasteful and elegant option. Sculpture and paintings, both ancient and current, are a great starting point for finding nude model inspiration.
A photographer who took pictures of her friend nude found, “When I stopped treating my friend as a person wanting a portrait and started looking for shapes and considering how light was falling on her body (almost more like a landscape), then I started to get the best results. As a result I had her stand, sit and lay in comfortable positions and found myself moving around her more than having her move around me.”
During a nude photography shoot, it can be incredibly helpful to see beyond the nudity. Desensitize from it. Think of the body as a landscape or an abstract and look for interesting shapes, lines and light.
Notes on Editing
Even if your model looks flawless and your shoot is perfectly lit, chances are you will still have to do some post-production editing. Have models avoid wearing underwear or any other tight clothes leading up to the shoot. These will leave lines and marks in the skin, which are really hard and time consuming to edit out in post-production. Goose bumps are also extremely difficult to remove in the editing process, so in addition to the model’s comfort, you will want to keep the room warm for ease of editing. We turned to a nude male photography expert, Chris Davis, for tips on editing nude photography. He says,
“I definitely try and keep more detail in men’s skin. I find you can retouch a lot more with female models. If you go too far with a male model, unless its for a deliberately perfect looking editorial, it can look a bit plastic and a bit cold.
I used to Photoshop the hell out of my shots when I started! It’s quite funny when I look back at my earlier work. At the time, I came from an editing and CGI background so it looked okay to me. It was another photographer that I knew at the time, an Italian girl, that was extremely blunt with me regarding her feedback. She basically told me to redo my entire portfolio because the skin was overly retouched.
It was true, I’d somehow just thought of it as a ‘style’ at the time. Making my editing more subtle was one of the best changes I made. It was tough to get that right balance, but the time was worth it.”