In this article we’re going to explore eleven helpful tips that will make you a better boudoir photographer and improve the quality of your images — guaranteed. As a working boudoir photographer, I’ve discovered some pretty helpful ideas that have had a big impact on how I shoot and on the images themselves and I’ll even reveal my most valuable tip (a bonus tip!) as we go through this.
So, what are eleven helpful tips that will improve your boudoir photography?
1.) ETTR — expose to the right
2.) Remember to check the background
3.) Angled light is always more interesting than head-on light
4.) Become a student of posing
5.) Control ambient light with shutter speed
6.) Be careful shooting at f2.8
7.) Use at least two different lenses in every shoot
8.) Shoot detailed shots for emotional impact
9.) Have a “most important thing” in every shot
10.) Create directional light with negative fill
Now that we’ve listed all eleven tips (wait a minute, that’s only ten) let’s talk about each one in detail and get into the specifics of how to execute each one to improve your boudoir photography — and remember, keep an eye out for that bonus tip, I can assure you it’s one you’ve never heard before.
(See? There’s eleven!)
Great, let’s run this up the flagpole and see how the wind’s blowin’. Oh, and stick around ’til the end because that’s when things get real interesting… in a rather unexpected manner.
1.) ETTR — Expose to the Right
ETTR stands for “expose to the right”. Some of you may already be familiar with what this means but for those who don’t (like me at one point), it’s in reference to your histogram.
If you’re not familiar with a histogram, it’s a graph you can elect to have show up on the back of your camera’s LCD display, or with some cameras, inside the viewfinder itself. It represents the exposure of your image measured in light (or lack thereof). It shows if your highlights are blown out, if your shadows are too dark, as well as where your mid-tones lie.
The left side reads the shadows or blacks of your image, the middle reads mostly mid-tones, and the right side reads the whites or highlights of your image.
Typically, shooting in softened natural window light indoors, you want the “hump” or spike to fall more towards the right side of the graph, more towards where the histogram reads the highlights without it touching the far right side. If it does, that means your highlights are blown out — there’s no digital information there that can be recovered in Photoshop or Lightroom.
And that’s not good… for the most part. There are exceptions though, like if you’re shooting right next to your window so your window is in the shot. Your window will be overexposed but you’re not exposing for the window, you’re exposing for the model.
Ideally, you want your histogram to favor the right side, hence the term, exposing to the right, without it touching the far right side.
When you expose to the right (of the histogram) you’re capturing more digital information, or in technical terms, your signal to noise ratio is greater. It’s like tuning a radio, the stronger you dial in the channel, the greater the signal to noise ratio becomes and the better the sound quality.
You’re also capturing more detail and tonal gradation in the shadows. You don’t want your shadows to be pure black (I’m mean, usually you don’t. Not unless that’s what you’re going for specifically.) Pure black means there’s no information there. It’s a dead zone, just like blowing out your highlights.
If you’re shooting in a low light situation, something dark and moody, your histogram will look different. For our discussion here though, we’re just talking about normal daylight exposure with natural light.
So, try to adjust your settings to get the exposure you want while paying attention to where the “hump” or spike on your histogram falls. If it’s left of center you may have to lower your shutter speed, open up your aperture, or boost your ISO.
My first choice would be to lower your shutter speed because we may not want to change our aperture.
So, my first tip is to be aware of what your histogram is telling you and adjust your settings so you “expose to the right”, or ETTR. This will not only give you better images but also more latitude to adjust things to your liking in post.
2.) Remember To Check The Background
You can get lost shooting… and what I mean by this is that you can be so focused on getting your subject into just the right pose, with just the right expression, with just the right lighting that you can forget about checking subtle things in the background — things that will be a pain to Photoshop out later, if at all.
Ugh! It’s happened to me and it’s probably happened to you as well.
There are so many things running through your head as a photographer with getting the right camera settings, framing the shot, and everything I mentioned above that’s it’s easy to overlook that “thing” in the background that’s crept into your shot as you shift slightly to the left or right to get a slightly different angle.
The big thing to look out for is you don’t want anything to appear to be protruding out of or “impaling” your subject. For example, there may be a plant in the background that you don’t really notice as being anything that could ruin your shot… until you get home and open up the images on your computer and notice it growing out of your subject’s head.
That’s going to be difficult to eliminate in Photoshop, especially if you have a wall with a gradient of light as your background. Try photoshopping anything from a wall with a gradient of light and let me know how that works out.
Another example might be (let’s just say) an umbrella leaning against the wall in the background. It might look like it’s “impaling” your lovely model in the torso if she’s lying on her side.
So, remember to check the background before starting your next series of shots. If there’s something there, you might be able to move it out of frame, cover it up with something appropriate, or adjust your angle or the model’s position to make it a non issue.
Believe me, your future post-processing self will thank you for it later.
3.) Angled Light Is Always More Interesting Than Head-On Light
At least in my opinion, but why is that?
Angled light creates shadows, highlights, and gradations of light across the face and body emphasizing the illusion that we are looking at something in three dimensions instead of two. It’s what creates depth in photography.
Shadows and highlights also contribute to the drama of the shot because shadows represent what is hidden and give the image its mystery by what they conceal. Without shadows there is no mystery.
Drama is about contrasting forces in opposition and without the contrasting forces of light and shadow, there is no drama. So, to create more dimensionality, mystery, and drama use angled light.
For the most part, angled light looks best when it’s feathered across the face from the side at around 45 degrees (give or take) or when your subject is lit from above, either directly overhead or angled somewhat in front.
With all that being said, there is a place for full-on lighting.
When you want to conceal lines and wrinkles or any other “imperfections” of the face and body, lighting your subject head-on is the way to go. Clam shell lighting is good for that. It’s having a light overhead angled down onto your subject with usually a bounce underneath but that’s done more for portraits.
For boudoir, full head-on lighting can be utilized by having your model face the largest window available that you’re using for your light source. Then you, as photographer, step in front and snap away.
Don’t worry about blocking the light. There should be enough wrapping around you to still light your subject nicely.
But, getting back to my main tip here, angled light is going to be more interesting. So, angle your model at about 45 degrees to the light source and you’ll improve your boudoir images with just that one simple tip.
Unless, of course (see? there’s always an exception) you’re specifically going for that willowy, blown out, fully lit look for artistic reasons.
4.) Become A Student Of Posing
What flatters the female form?
Do you know?
Can you express that in words? Can you finish this sentence?
“The female form looks best when…”
If you can’t then there’s a gap in your education that needs to be filled and that all boils down to posing. You need to know this stuff because your client is relying on you to tell her how to pose… and you need to be able to direct and guide her.
Become a student of posing and learn the fundamentals of boudoir posing.
Sure, there are a lot of different poses but when you break it down, you’ll discover several standard go-to poses for each basic position (standing, sitting, lying, kneeling) that work every time.
This is your foundation that you can use anytime. I like to think of it similar to storytelling (or screenwriting, which is something I’m familiar with). One story theorists believes there are only seven plots in all of storytelling and everything else is a variation on those seven.
I like to think of boudoir posing in a similar fashion.
This isn’t a lesson on what those poses are, but more of an understanding that posing isn’t just some random thing. I mean, sure, you can try winging it with a client… and I’m sure most of us have at some point (including me) but I quickly learned I needed to learn this stuff.
Now, I also endorse a period of improvisation, which I’ll talk about next, but only after you’ve shot what you know will look good with the client. Improvising and experimenting the whole time with a paying client is like gambling, and we know how that can turn out. (Which reminds me, I still owe my bookie two grand… ouch!)
So learn the basics of what poses flatter the female form in those four categories of standing, sitting, lying down, and kneeling and you’ll be off to a great start.
Oh, and to finish my sentence at the beginning, “The female form looks best when… it’s forming S-curves and triangles.” But that’s a topic for a different time.
Yes, it’s bonus tip time! Can you see the imaginary confetti falling from the sky and hear the “Bonus Tip Music” playing in the background? … No? … Hmm, I can.
Normally people save their bonus tip for last, but why wait? Life is short. (Besides, it compliments tip number four so it makes sense to put it here.) Or as Heath Ledger’s Joker would say, “It’s all part of the plan.”
Allow Time For Some Improvisation
After I’ve shot what I need to shoot with a client in a particular set up, and if there’s time, I like to throw out all the rules, all the posing guides, and just make stuff up on the spot with the model.
Now, some subjects will be able to roll with this idea… and some won’t, but you should try to guide those who are having trouble with this concept.
I’ll say something like, “Okay, now I want to try something a little different. I’m not going to tell you how to pose or anything like that. Right now, I just want you to move and experiment with your body and come up with something on your own.“
“Pretend you’re the highest paid model in the world and you’re getting a thousand dollars per pose, or that you’re your favorite celebrity. What would they do? How would they pose? There’s no right or wrong here, just anything that comes to mind and we’ll see what we get but you can’t do anything you’ve already done before.”
Now, as I mentioned earlier, some of your clients will freeze like a deer in the headlights and not know what to do so I suggest helping them along here a bit. Having them pretend they are someone else (a famous model or celebrity) will free them up and give them license to operate outside themselves.
Another technique is an exercise I did while studying acting in Los Angeles (when I wanted to be an actor, but that’s a whole other story — did you know I was a nude photo double for Matthew Broderick once — true story!).
My acting teacher would blurt out a word and we would have to strike a pose that we associated with that word. The key was to not think about it. It had to happen instantly.
You could do the same thing.
Say, “Okay, let’s try this. I’m going to say a word and I want you to strike a pose immediately. Don’t think about it. Just something you feel best represents that word to you with your body and facial expression.”
It’s somewhat of a game. This is also a good exercise to warm your client up with if they’re having trouble coming up with something on their own.
You could blurt out words like…
“Sassy sultry vixen… with a cherry on top!”
If you make it fun like this you’re bound to get a good laugh out of them and those are great shots to capture as well.
There’s no right or wrong here, just experimentation.
Odds are you’re going to get a lot of stuff that’s unusable but you’ll also get some amazing shots that you never in your wildest dreams could have planned for… and that’s what we’re after.
So, try it next time with a client, either after each set-up or at the end of your entire session with just the last outfit and scenario.
This will ignite your own imagination and creativity as well, and you may even end up incorporating some of those improvised poses into your regular posing routine.
5.) Control Ambient Light With Shutter Speed
If you’re shooting in natural light remember that your ambient light is controlled by your shutter speed.
If you can’t remember that then I’ll have to incorporate some mass mind control technique here and I don’t want to resort to my evil villain days before I became a law-abiding citizen.
When shooting boudoir in natural light you will most likely want to keep your aperture at whatever setting you’ve chosen for aesthetic reasons.
You’ll also want to keep your ISO down around 100 or so as well.
So, if the meter inside your camera (or your light meter) is telling you that your shot is overexposed, you’ll want to increase your shutter speed until you reach the proper exposure.
I always try to shoot with as high a shutter speed as I can get away with to reduce camera shake. This helps keeps my images as sharp as possible without resorting to a tripod, which is rather impractical when shooting boudoir.
So remember when shooting in natural light to increase or decrease your shutter speed to control the ambient light.
6.) Be Careful Shooting At f/2.8 or Lower
We all like the look of a shallow depth of field and it’s used quite a lot in boudoir, especially when we’re up close shooting the face with the landscape of the body falling out of focus.
You can get into trouble though if your model’s face is angled sharply towards camera, where she’s kind of looking over her shoulder at you so one part of her face is closer to your lens than the other.
If this happens and you still want that shallow depth of field look, you might want to close down your aperture to something like f/3.2 or f/3.5 to make sure her entire face is in focus — assuming you want her entire face in focus.
You can still get a shallow depth of field with slightly higher f-stops, just not to the degree you would get with it lower, obviously.
Personally, I’m not a fan of having only a portion of the face in focus while the rest goes soft or falls out of focus. If I’m looking at an image of a face, I always like to see both eyes in focus, not just one. I don’t even like the ears falling out of focus, but that’s just me. You have to decide what aesthetic you like and shoot accordingly.
Now, if the plane of your model’s face is parallel with the plane of your lens then you won’t have that problem at f/2.8.
So, plan accordingly and take into account the angle at which you’ll be shooting your client at.
Keep in mind also that distance from your subject plays a part in your depth of field as well. The greater the distance becomes between you and your subject, the more your depth of field will increase.
Boudoir, however, is a rather intimate shooting experience. For the most part, we’re probably never more than between three and twelve feet away from our subject. But bear in mind that the opposite is also true about depth of field, and that is, the closer you get to your subject, the more your depth of field will decrease.
7.) Use At Least Two Different Lenses In Every Shoot
Variety is the spice of life.
Yes, it’s cliche but cliches are born from a repetitive abundance of the truth.
Along with all the different poses, outfits, and lighting you might have during your session, it’s smart to incorporate at least one other focal length into your shoot.
If your main go-to lens is a 50mm, then moving in for tighter portrait type shots with an 85mm or 100mm will add some nice variety to your images.
Personally, I like to go wider with something like a 35mm to capture more of an environmental type shot where we get a sense of space and location.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. If you can shoot both wider and tighter as well as at 50mm that would be ideal. It really depends on how many lenses you have and what your budget is for acquiring new ones… and what you personally like.
But having at least two different lenses with different focal lengths will go a long way to mixing things up and making things more interesting for you as a photographer, as well as, providing a greater assortment of images with a different feel that your client may not be able to live without. (Translation — you’ll sell more images.)
8.) Shoot Detailed Shots For Emotional Impact
Detail shots will add variety to your shoot, just like shooting at different focal lengths will. But do you know why detailed shots are so captivating?
It’s because we’re seeing something that doesn’t naturally exist in real life, and thus, (I love using the word “thus”) … and THUS, it creates interest… it’s artistic.
Take for example a detailed shot of a woman’s hand gently caressing her décolletage. When we view that normally, with the human eye, we’re seeing the whole thing, as its exists before us — the woman, the room, everything.
But with a detailed shot, we’re taking out all that’s not important, forcing the viewer to focus only on the hand caressing the upper chest area. That “image” does not naturally exist in real life, it only exists because the photographer framed it that way.
It’s because of this hyper-focused view that detail shots can deliver such an emotional punch.
One of my favorite detail shots is capturing just a woman’s mouth along with a portion of her décolletage (I say “decolletage” because I want to sound fancy).
The fact that the shot is anonymous, because the upper half of her face is cropped out, is what gives the shot its mystery and intrigue because the image is holding something back your mind is trying to fill in.
It’s creating mystery and intrigue and engages the viewer on another level.
Another technique for creating a detailed shot without cropping something out (but has the same effect) is the use of a super shallow depth of field.
You can photograph a woman’s legs while she’s reclined so that her upper body and face fall out of focus in the background. The fact that we can see there’s a person back there but can’t make out her identity is what grabs our attention and makes the shot intriguing.
Again, that kind of shot doesn’t exist naturally in the real world with our eyeballs when viewing that same woman in that same pose. That’s why detail shots grab our attention.
So, you can create detail shots in two ways, one is by physically cropping out what’s not important, the other is to “crop” with a shallow depth of field so our eye can only make out what the photographer wants us to focus on.
9.) Have A Most Important Thing In Every Shot
What is the most important thing in your shot? Do you have one? Do you know even know what that means?
I thought of this a while back because I spend a lot of time perched high atop a mountain thinking about photography and on ways I can improve. I’m sure it’s not an original thought, more likely a culmination of knowledge I’ve acquired over the years from many different photographers that somehow coalesced into this one concept and for whatever reason the “idea fairy” picked me to bring that idea to life.
(For a great theory on where creative ideas come from, read Elizabeth Gilbert’s, “Big Magic”.)
Anyway, I digress.
The idea behind this concept is that there is one thing, above all else, that is the most important thing in the photo. One thing that stands out above all other elements. It’s about recognizing what that is and then maximizing that to its greatest effect or potential.
(In practice, there can be two or three “most important things”, but to keep things simple we’ll start with just one here.)
So, for example, you want to capture a close-up of your client smiling. The most important thing in the shot is her smile, so you want that smile to be as great as it can be and that means creating a situation where she smiles authentically, as opposed to something forced and fake… like, “Okay, now say cheese.”
The most important thing is to capture an authentic, joy-soaked smile.
Knowing that is your goal, as opposed to just capturing a “smiling shot” kicks everything up to the next level.
Now you’re focused on a much more defined definition of what you want to capture so your approach is going to have to be more focused to achieve it.
This method takes you from being “general” to “specific” and it’s in this specificity that makes images more interesting and engaging. You’re saying, “this is about something”, and that something is your most important thing.
It’s a bit like hot sauce… yes, the kind you douse on tacos.
You can have weak hot sauce that doesn’t really do much for you or for the taste… or you can have more potent hot sauce that’s more specific and defined that will give your taco some real zing!
One is more hot sauce than the other is hot sauce.
Going back to our smiling close-up, capturing a genuinely authentic joy-busting smile is more a smile than just a shot of your client “smiling”.
It’s the most important thing in your shot so cultivate that to its fullest potential to make your image have more zing… or hot sauce!
For further reading on this topic refer to my article, “How To Shoot Boudoir With Intent And Create Better Images” … (or not, maybe go check your Facebook page).
10.) Create Directional Light With Negative Fill
You have a boudoir session today and it’s overcast. The light is flat and drab and just not punchy. It’s like a dull fog of light, there’s no directionality to it. It’s not going to fall across the body to create shadows and highlights well.
What’s a boudoir photographer to do without resorting to off-camera flash? You don’t want flat non-directional light, do you? (Please say no.)
The answer is negative fill, or more appropriately, light-absorbing fill.
Just like a white bounce will direct more light onto your subject, a black bounce will absorb light, taking it away from your subject and make the lit side of your subject look brighter, thus giving you directionality (of light).
By placing a negative fill, like a black V-flat, on one side of your model, the other side will automatically appear brighter because you’ve made the other side darker… and so, you’ve created directionality from the flat light you were given to begin with.
This is a great technique I learned from one of the many Creative Live classes I’ve taken on photography. If you’re not familiar with Creative Live, check ‘em out by clicking on the link graphic below .
By the way, I do receive a commission if you sign up, but I only recommend products or services that provide good value and have helped me in my photography education (which is never ending, by the way).
Wrapping This Sucker Up
Are you still with me?
That was quite a read but I hope you got some unique and useful ideas and didn’t feel like it was just some re-hashed regurgitated “Best Boudoir Tips” blah, blah, blah, nonsense article that someone rewrote from someone else’s article that they rewrote from yet someone else.
There’s a lot of junk out there I’ve come across that’s not even written by photographers, let alone, boudoir photographers. Some BIG websites that are ranked number one on Google, in fact, disseminating the most god-awful articles as a means to suck you in to sell you something.
They just hire “writers” to quickly research a topic they know nothing about and have zero experience with to provide hollow, and often times, inaccurate content for their website.
Now, I’m not opposed to affiliate marketing because I do it myself with my own website (Lounge Boudoir) and in fact, in this very article… but I take pride in coming up with unique topics, well-researched and thought-provoking articles, and just plain life-in-the-trenches as a boudoir photographer experience to give it to you straight and to provide quality and value.
And I’m the sole writer of every word on this site.
There, I said it… and it feels good because it needed to be said.
I think I’ll write an entire article on this topic.
Vive la revolucion!
If you found this article helpful please pass it along to someone who may also benefit.
Thanks for your time!
Founder / Lounge Boudoir
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