How To Find Your Style As a Boudoir Photographer

Moody boudoir image of mixed race woman lying on settee

You will never stand out as a boudoir photographer, or as any type of photographer for that matter, until you find your own style and master that style. Yes, it’s not enough to just find your style, you have to master it as well. You have to learn it and study it so you become familiar with all the intricacies of it… all the fine details and nuances. Not just the big broad strokes.

Once you find your style, it will set you apart… up until it’s time for you to move on. You stay with your style until you’ve had enough and you start to feel that pull to try something new. Everything has a life span.

But that’s a topic for another time. Right now we’re talking about how you can find your style, one that resonates within you. The one that feels in alignment with who you are as a person and an artist in this period of time in your life.  

It took me a long time to come to my current style… and I haven’t mastered it yet but I’m working on it.

Maybe you can learn something about finding your style by telling you how I found mine. I think it’s worth a shot. Then I’ll give some techniques on how to further help you in your quest to find a look that’s unique to you. 

You Have To Want One To Begin With

First and foremost in finding your style is that you have to want one in the first place (See? That’s why it’s “first and foremost”.) You have to want to stand out artistically because that’s what style is with regard to photography or any artistic endeavor. It’s about standing out from all the others that make up the sea of mediocrity. 

You can’t find something if you’re not looking for it. 

I wanted to have a style. Not at first. At first I was just occupied with learning the basics of photography. One’s style can’t really come until you’ve “learned how to walk” first. 

My Journey

The person who first got me interested in photography was Peter Hurley, the headshot photographer in New York. Oddly enough, I didn’t particularly want to mimic his style. I always liked a sense of depth in my imagery and Peter’s work didn’t really feature that. 

He did, however, light a spark within me to want to shoot headshots… and that got the whole ball rolling to where I am today.

A Cinematic Look

In camera cinematic headshot using high speed sync.

One of my first attempts at finding my style was with headshots.

I was drawn to photographing people and faces and I discovered Dylan Patrick’s cinematic headshot tutorial on the f/stoppers website. I enjoyed pursuing that for a couple of years, and the two big things it taught me was high speed sync (HSS) and my first awareness on how important posing was. 

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the cinematic look that stuck with me, but two elements tangentially associated with learning that style. I would end up using both in another arena further on down the road.

Edge Light King

During that same period I also discovered Joel Grimes and his compositing work with athletes using his two edge light / one overhead beauty dish look. From him I learned mainly how to composite and I began compositing shallow depth of field cinematic backgrounds shot separately with my headshots. 

I’d shoot headshots against a white paper roll in my living room where I had much more control over the environment than shooting outside somewhere. Plus, I now had total control over the colors and tones of the background since they were shot separately and I could tailor them to complement the hair and skin tones of my subjects. 

This was where my visual aesthetic started to come to life and was the first step in the direction of me formulating my personal philosophy on the use of color in my work.

Composited headshot. An old door shot in downtown LA. Subject shot against white paper roll in living room.

I loved having control over this and it took my headshots to a whole new level. 

It was, however, quite an involved process and very time consuming in Photoshop to blend the subject with the background to make it look seamless. But the technique was so good (thanks to my then roommate/photographer friend Casey Hale, and also my very first photography and Photoshop teacher) that you could not tell it was not shot all in camera. It was really something. 

The reason I’m telling you about these photographers who have influenced me in the past is because I took from each of them one or two things that eventually became key ingredients in my current dramatic moody style. 

But wait, there’s more!

Sue Bryce

Portrait with Gravity backdrop.

She’s a force. I discovered her after I discovered Creative Live. She had an influence on me because she was a portrait photographer — not a headshot photographer. I think that’s when I first started to become more interested in portraits than headshots. 

It was her, but also this one photo shoot I had with an actor who wanted to be photographed against a gray background, that strongly influenced me into moving away from headshots and more into portraiture… and I loved her backdrops! They just seemed to elevate her work to another level. They were the ones that Annie Liebovitz used — from Oliphant Studio. 

Dramatic moody portrait

Well, I didn’t buy any of those because they are quite expensive, but I did get some from Gravity Backdrops which were in the same stylistic vein but much cheaper. 

I also got a real appreciation and love for portraiture from diving into Sue’s world for a period of time. Thanks, Sue!

Losing the Kicker

Headshot with no kicker or edge light.

It was some time during this period that I began to lose the kicker light. The kicker (also known as an edge light) is used almost exclusively in Dylan Patrick’s cinematic approach and I just decided one day that I didn’t want it anymore… I didn’t like it anymore, and that was a key moment for me looking back. 

Seems rather trivial but it wasn’t because it was the first time I really began to forge my own path. At least that’s the way it felt to me. I began envisioning a destination off in the distance of a look or style that I had a vague concept of but wasn’t quite able to grasp yet.

Losing that kicker light started me on that journey. 

I was still using a large octo softbox at roughly 45 degrees to my subject. That was it though, just one light with a white bounce underneath. 

Highlights and Shadow

Portrait with negative fill.

I began falling in love with what you couldn’t quite see in the shadows. Perhaps part of one’s face or body fading off into the darkness. I could feel a mood that was being created… a mood and an emotion. 

Then I learned of Mario Testino. Not a big influence but it was the first time I’d heard about negative fill. Negative fill is just the opposite of using a white bounce. It’s basically a black piece of foam core or flag or cloth of some kind that absorbs light enhancing shadows.

I began experimenting with that, using more shadows now. As I began introducing more shadows into my work, my lights became brighter, or rather more pronounced. I now had quite a bit of contrast going on in my images — bright highlights with dark shadows. Hmm… I liked it.

I liked it a lot.

I liked it so much that I didn’t care if anyone else liked it. 

A Mirage in the Desert

Freeing myself from the approval of others and planting my flag into the ground allowed me to psychologically break away from the herd mentality of doing what everyone else was doing (another key component to finding your own style). 

I was off and running into unknown territory now. I was chasing something I didn’t have a clear vision of yet, but was getting closer. I could feel it.

And not caring about what others thought was key. Before, I kind of needed “permission” to veer outside the box of what others had done. I had watched hundreds and hundreds of hours of tutorials on YouTube and from courses I’d bought and was always following someone else’s teachings.

But not any more. For the first time I finally had enough confidence and knowledge to start experimenting on my own, and combining different elements from everything I’d learned up to this point. 

The Overhead Light

I don’t remember what prompted me to dig out my beauty dish but it was probably a Joel Grimes video. He uses it a lot and I had tried it too but didn’t like the results so I put it away for a long time. I obviously hadn’t used it right.

Moody boudoir image of young black girl in blue hue

But I pulled it out of my closet for some reason. I probably wanted to give it a second try since Joel Grimes used it so often with amazing results. I wanted to figure it out. 

I can’t even remember what made me put it directly overhead of my subject. I may have thought I was positioning it “correctly”, the way Joel did, and just got it “wrong”. But Joel doesn’t do that… at least in any videos I’ve seen. 

It may have been one of those fortunate mistakes.

I’m not sure which session I first started doing this in, but I became mesmerized by the results. I discovered that with the beauty dish directly overhead there was a sweet spot the subject had to be in, in order for the light to hit them just right. 

It took trail and error, and still does every time I use this set up. Some shots work, some don’t. You have to finesse it. 

Minimalism, Negative Space, and Japanese Gardens

I’m drawn to minimalist imagery and negative space. In art, in architecture, in cinematography, in photography. I bought an 18-35mm lens and began capturing wider images of my subjects along with the settings they were in. I began incorporating negative space into my framing.

Rob Daly, a photographer in LA was a master at this. I love his work. He fused motion with stillness and used negative space like no other.

Unfortunately Rob passed away due to cancer in September of 2020, but his work had a big influence on me. Check him out on Instagram @robdalyphoto

I also like Japanese gardens. Very beautiful in their simplicity. Everything has its place, a sort of organic feng-shui.

Moody portrait of young black man in dark peacoat
Dramatic portrait with negative space.

This was also when I started to get into unconventional posing with my subjects. I was drifting into environmental portraiture with dramatic moody lighting and body language now that I was capturing more of my subject.

I began moving away from just portraiture to environmental portraiture. Capturing more of the setting that told a story. 

I discovered Mark Seliger’s work with the Vanity Fair Oscar Party photoshoots of celebrities, and how they would build a set just off from the party and pull people in to shoot for a few minutes. 

That got me thinking about setting more and I wanted to incorporate more of that into my imagery. I wanted a greater sense of depth and place as well. It helps in telling more of a story with the photograph and is an area that I’m still currently working on.

One rough example of this was when I shot a session where I included the backdrop stand, a bit of the modifier, and my negative fill board in the shot. It was sort of a behind-the-scenes type image along with the shot itself… and I liked it. I thought it looked cool. I’m sure I’d seen similar images in the past that were living somewhere in my memory.

Dramatic moody environmental portrait

Most certainly influenced by all those BTS (behind the scenes) shows about how movies are made.

Moody portrait of young woman with blue hue.
Moody portrait shot with blue gel on beauty dish.

I was off and running now. 

I attended a seminar of a fellow photographer in LA (Isaac Alvarez) who’s work included using colored gels. I was never a fan of gels before, but then I saw how they could be used in dramatic portraiture. I began experimenting with them and incorporating them into my dramatic moody lighting set up. 

The seminar jumpstarted my imagination in other ways as well. I also learned about polarizers and when used on your lens could soften skin in camera. I didn’t have a polarizer but instead had some polarizing gels and began layering my colored gels with a polarizing gel and taped them to the front of my speedlite. 

Wanting to knock out more ambient light I was already using HSS from way back, increasing my shutter speed beyond my normal sync speed. I’d learned how to do that shooting cinematic headshots some time ago.

I began applying textures onto my solid gray wall I’d shot so many people against from Joel Grimes which gave me infinitely more variations than my three Gravity backdrops could provide. 

Being able to adjust the color tones and textures of my backgrounds in Photoshop was similar to when I shot backgrounds separately then composited them with headshots to create a cinematic look in post that I’d learned from my ex-roommate Casey Hale

I began pulling all these techniques I’d learned from shooting other styles out of my bag of tricks and began mixing them together into a new formulation… new to me, at least.

I discovered Sean Archer’s work (rather late in the game) just about six months ago, and learned how he would apply backlighting and highlighting on the face in post. Wow, highlighting the face in post comes in real handy.

I soon began incorporating portions of his post-processing techniques into my post-processing workflow. 

I got into boudoir after discovering Michael Sasser in LA and wanted to apply my dramatic moody lighting and interest in body language and expression to boudoir. 

Never much of a tech-head, I recently got into it more learning from Ken Wheeler on YouTube about different cameras and vintage lenses and how some lenses and cameras are better suited to capture micro-contrast making your black and white photos come to life.

I’d been shooting for years in manual mode already, but always in auto-focus, but now some of these vintage lenses are manual focus only, so I’m trying my hand at focusing manually now. 

Wow, what a concept, a photographer using manual focus, ha! (By the way, I had always shied away from it because of my eyesight.)

Mastering My Style

Moody boudoir image of young black girl in blue hue

I’m finally in a place where I feel I’ve got the broad strokes covered with my current style, and working now on the intricacies and fine details of that look. 

As you can tell I also have a thirst for knowledge, almost unquenchable. There are just so many talented, great, and generous photographers out there sharing their techniques that I wanted to contribute my own resource and share with you how all these experiences led me to where I currently am today. 

Maybe this will help you on your journey.

All these photographers contributed to me finding my style in a rather circuitous fashion. I find someone whose work grabs my attention and I start to explore what they’re doing to achieve that. Sometimes it’s obvious, like with framing a particular way, other times their technique is more subtle and hidden. 

I usually end up using one or two elements of their technique or method and apply it to the look I’m cultivating… if I think it will improve and add to it. 

An Open Book

I’ve never really read anything like what I’ve just revealed to you just now, naming names of other photographers who have had a major influence on me. I think photographers like to keep their sources secret, to appear that their talent has just sprung from their own “greatness”, but we all know that’s not how it works. We’ve all been influenced by someone. We’ve all been taught by someone. We’ve all wanted to be just like someone else at least in part.

But I get it, and I understand why that is. It has to do with ego… and hey, I’m not immune to it myself. I had to push myself to even write this article, brushing my ego aside.

And there have been others. Those who have influenced my work that I haven’t even mentioned here, but the ones mentioned above are the main ones — the ones that caused me to go in a new direction or which elevated or innovated my work to get me where I eventually want to end up. 

Will I know when I get there? I’m not sure. I hope I can step back at some point and say I’ve pretty much exhausted my exploration of this particular style, but not yet. 

Build Your Own Launch Pad

Rocket headed for space at a great distance in night sky

So, by going through all these machinations of technique, and learning from all these other people’s styles, it has all contributed to building my launch pad from which I am now able to venture out into my own creative universe.

I’m sure I’ll always come across someone new whose work will influence me in some way. It’s inevitable. We don’t live in isolation. 

So, that’s how it all came to be. That’s how I came to the style I’m currently shooting in. For me, it took about five years… and I feel I’m just getting started right now. To come to a style, a look, a mood that feels right for me… that’s in alignment with who I am as an artist at this point in my life. 

And what a journey it’s been!

I can’t wait to see what the next five years will bring. 

Breaking It Down Even More

Looking back at the people, styles, and mindsets that influenced me, I suggest you do the same. Dive into their method and pull out what you feel will be of value to you. 

The Artist’s Way

Green man stuck on green wall

In Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way” she encourages you to take a “field trip” of sorts, all by yourself, to explore and experience something new each week. It could be a trip to the zoo, a museum, a botanical garden, or an art gallery, just anything that strikes your fancy really.

This is to stir up your imagination, to serve as an unending source of inspiration, a way to get new ideas you can apply to your work. And it’s important you go by yourself so you don’t get distracted from the task at hand.

Listen To That Inner Voice

Another key component to finding your style is to listen to your inner voice, your intuition. It’s very quiet so in order to hear it, it helps to just sit and be silent for a while and think about or meditate on your photography. Ask yourself what you like and what you don’t like about it and think on ways to improve upon it.

A little exercise I do every now and then in the morning when I first wake up is to sit up in bed, close my eyes, and just let my mind drift. After about five minutes I’ll start to focus on one thing and I’ll mentally examine that one thing for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Sometimes when I open my eyes I find that I’ve been meditating for 30-40 minutes. 

Time seems to fly by once you get the hang of this. The cool thing is that I always gain a new insight, idea, thought, or approach to whatever it is I’m focusing on. You can do this with anything too, it doesn’t have to just be about your photography. 

I wish I was disciplined enough to do this every morning because it really is a great resource that’s available to everyone. So, give it a try. It takes about 5-10 minutes for your mind to settle down and calm itself. Then you can direct it to one specific topic, or a problem you want solved.

Don’t Be Afraid To Go In a Completely New Direction

At some point, you may discover that one of your temporary explorations may permanently lead you down another road, one that you’ll never return from. In other words, it could happen that you want to make such a drastic change in your style that your old style or genre will be like a layer of dead skin you just slip out of and leave behind forever.

Blue sports car on black road

It happened to me… and it took a while to admit to myself that I wanted to change both styles and genres completely, because I had invested so much in something else… but that something else wasn’t fulfilling me like it used to, or rather, this new direction just felt better.

It’s almost like breaking off a relationship with someone. You have these feelings of guilt of abandoning what’s familiar and comfortable, but fortunately no one gets hurt with this kind of change. You just have to believe what your intuition is telling you and take the plunge.

You can always go back to what you were shooting before, but chances are that period of your photographic life has played itself out and it’s time to look for a new horizon. 

Your intuition is never wrong, and it may be painful, and you may feel lost making the transition, but if that nudge is coming from within trust that it’s not leading you astray… but closer to home. 

If you found this article helpful, pass it along to someone who may find it useful as well.

Thanks for your time!

Charles Mitri

Founder / Lounge Boudoir

Bella Mitri Boudoir

Charles Mitri

Charles Mitri is an award-winning boudoir photographer and also founder and writer of, an educational blog and resource website for boudoir photographers worldwide. He lives in Yorktown, Virginia.

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