Among the many genres of photography lies a specialized subset of the art that refuses to conform to the rules. Boudoir photography is an art that requires the photographer to convey emotion and intent above expression; to capture a private, intimate moment without vulgarity.
It’s an art in which the photographer, to satisfy their subject, must create a masterpiece worthy of any gallery wall, all the while knowing it may never be seen by more than a select few.
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What is boudoir photography?
The term “boudoir” comes from the French word meaning a woman’s private salon or dressing room. Although a vast majority of boudoir photography images portray an individual woman, photographers today are shooting boudoir photos featuring men and couples, too.
In these photos, the subject is typically scantily clad, if dressed at all. Though nudity is more often implied rather than shown. And, while lingerie or undergarments are common pieces, a plain white button-down shirt can be equally as sensual.
In short, boudoir photography is a glimpse into the private, intimate life of the subject. But it’s so much more than that.
To accurately define boudoir photography, we must first define what isn’t boudoir.
Boudoir isn’t portrait photography. Both types of photography focus on any human subject. But portraits spotlight the subject’s expression or personality while boudoir conveys the subject’s emotion or mood.
Portraits are meant to invite the viewer in. They’re often displayed framed on a wall, published to a website or social media profile, and meant to be shared. Boudoir photographs, on the other hand, are generally clandestine — kept private as a personal keepsake or a romantic gift to a lover.
While the subject of each photograph could be the same, portrait and boudoir photography differ drastically in their intent.
Portrait photography captures expression and personality.
Boudoir photography captures a private, intimate moment in time.
Boudoir isn’t fashion photography, either. Although fashion photography encompasses a wide range of photographic styles ranging from posed studio shots for catalogs to trendy and exaggerated shots for high fashion magazines and advertising, it lacks the intimacy of boudoir photography.
In fashion photography, the model becomes secondary to the clothing or accessories where, in boudoir photography, the model is secondary to the mood of the photograph.
And, while the same model, wardrobe, and backdrop can be used in either fashion or boudoir photography, the images are starkly different.
Fashion photography puts the focus on clothing or accessories.
Boudoir photography puts the focus on the mood or emotion.
What makes a good boudoir photographer?
Of course, having the right equipment and lighting, properly guiding and posing your subject, and knowing how and when to edit and retouch are essential. But what a boudoir photographer does before snapping that first shot is vital.
Because of the nature of the images, and because the subjects are most often regular people without modeling experience, good boudoir photographers are exceptionally skilled in making their clients feel at ease and confident.
They know the human body and which poses and positions best accentuate assets (or disguise flaws).
There’s a big difference between capturing a gorgeous, moody, sensual boudoir photograph and shooting what looks like an indecent snapshot taken by a peeping Tom. That’s why boudoir photographers are personable, professional, and very intentional in their work.
Good boudoir photographers will communicate with their clients before the shoot begins. Discuss what the client wants and expects from both the experience and the photographs they’re getting.
Is your client looking for something natural and glowy, playful and provocative, or sultry and seductive? Knowing your client’s expectations before the shoot will be important in determining the set and scenery, wardrobe, and lighting.
And, a good boudoir photographer is flexible. Not just because you’ll be shooting from a variety of angles and vantage points. Because you need to be ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice.
That can sometimes mean making accommodations for an uneasy client, being prepared to deal with wardrobe issues (hint: keep a roll of fashion tape in your camera bag), or making a spur-of-the-moment location change to chase the perfect light.
Is boudoir photography always shot in a bedroom or bathroom?
While it’s true a majority of boudoir photography portrays a subject (or subjects) alone in a bedroom or bathroom — it is, after all where the term boudoir originated — you can shoot this subset of photography technically anywhere.
You can take an intimate boudoir photograph in a living room, with the subject draped across an ornate sofa, for example. Or sitting on a kitchen floor, leaning back against the refrigerator licking ice cream from a spoon.
It’s even possible to capture the private intimacy of a boudoir photograph outdoors if the setting is right and the appropriate mood can be portrayed.
Equally important to the location of your shoot is the location of the photographer in each individual shot. Shooting the model from a higher vantage point can evoke a sense of innocence or submission. Shooting from a lower position can portray power and dominance.
You can shoot boudoir photography from a variety of angles and vantage points, each of which solicits a different emotion.
Shooting from a bird’s eye view, peeking around a corner, or snapping the reflection in a mirror are examples of the many ways to capture an image intended to look like a private moment.
What equipment do boudoir photographers use?
As mentioned above, there are no strict rules aside from decorum with your client, that apply across the board with everyone shooting boudoir photography. Ask 100 different photographers what equipment they use and you’ll get 100 different answers.
However, as a general rule of thumb, you’ll want a camera that’s lightweight and easy to handle. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are most common because of their speed, maneuverability, and ease of use.
Because boudoir photographers are not static in their shooting position or angles, you’ll want to ditch the tripod and opt for lighter-weight lenses that offer just the aperture and focal length you’ll need. There’s no reason to drag a heavy telephoto lens around when you’re near your subject.
A 50mm prime lens, widely known as the ‘nifty fifty’ is a great lens for both beginner and expert boudoir photographers. It is suitable for capturing full body shots or scenery. It’s good for close-ups as well. It closely resembles the view of the human eye, preventing images from becoming distorted. Plus, the wide aperture will adapt well to low-light conditions, perfect for a sultry and intimate shot.
A 35mm f/2 lens is another excellent boudoir lens as it also shoots well in low light conditions without distortion. This would be a great choice for closer, tighter face, and body shots.
Or, if you prefer a single versatile lens for all your shots, a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens is a great option. Just be mindful of the potential for perspective distortion that can happen below 35mm and above 55mm. Because you won’t be using a tripod, opt for faster shutter speeds to avoid blur or handshake.
Is boudoir photography dark and moody?
Because it’s so important to capture intimacy and emotion in boudoir photography, it’s easy — and perfectly acceptable — for the photographer to rely on darker “mood lighting.” But, that’s not to say it’s a rule or guideline.
Both a dark and sultry, shadow-heavy shot and a bright and crisp daylight shot can be equally beautiful and impactful boudoir photographs.
What’s most important, in terms of lighting, is capturing the intent of the image while portraying the model as beautifully as possible. Flattering natural light will almost always result in a better shot than artificial light.
Light that’s soft, either with a diffuser or through a thin, sheer curtain will help to reduce glare or harsh shadows.
Light allowed into the frame through window panes or blinds can create interesting texture and add to the story the image tells. Essentially, the role of lighting in boudoir photography is to emote.
Is it appropriate to edit or retouch boudoir photographs?
Nearly every single photographer, in every genre, style, or subset of the art, does at least some amount of editing or retouching in post-processing. In short, yes, it’s appropriate and expected to edit and retouch photos to an extent.
Adjustments to color, contrast, vibrance, and saturation can enhance the quality of your shots. That said, over-editing can defeat the purpose of boudoir photography. It makes your subject look and feel beautiful in her own skin.
Your model will appreciate the removal of small blemishes, an appearance of smoother skin, or very minor nips and tucks so long as she still looks like herself.
If you’re a beginner, there are a lot of tools that can help you get started with editing.
Unlike other styles and subsets of photography, there are virtually no rules in boudoir. You can shoot indoors or out; day or night; close-up or far away. Your model can wear clothes or be nude. They can be perfectly coiffed or beautifully natural.
Your images can be dark and shadowy or bright and airy. Boudoir photography should, however, always be intentional in capturing the mood and emotion of an intimate moment.
* If you’re a photographer looking to make some money, you can check our comprehensive article on how and where to sell your photos online.