So, you’re thinking of starting your own boudoir photography business. I know the feeling.
I too had gotten drawn in, like someone walking by a storefront window only to be stopped in their tracks to stare at what was inside.
I was curious but thought, no… I could never do something like that!
What would people think of me? Especially being a guy! And good Lord, what would my mom think?!
Well, I’m happy to report that everything turned out just fine… and my mom, who was at first hesitant about the whole thing, is now my number one fan.
The First Step
I want to start this guide off with a very simple declaration — a kind of Neil Armstrong declaration when he first stepped foot on the moon.
There’s something you need to say to yourself… out loud.
So, go ahead, I’ll wait.
I’m sorry, I didn’t hear anything.
What’s that? You need a clue? All right, it’s the first thing you must be able to say out loud to yourself before you can move forward.
Still don’t know? Okay, I’ll say it with you.
One… two… three… “I want to shoot boudoir.”
There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? You’re still breathing, right? The world hasn’t ended.
Whether you’re male or female, young or old, newbie or pro, saying those words and declaring to yourself that this is what you want to do is important.
It’s important because boudoir can come with a whole lot of stuff. Yes, stuff. And since we’re all unique individuals with different upbringings, experiences, religious beliefs, attitudes about sex, self-image, morals, fears and doubts… boudoir can cause some of that stuff to come right up and look us in the eye.
You must be strong in your conviction, and resolve within yourself that “yes” you want to shoot boudoir… (or at least see what all the fuss is about).
So, now that we’ve placed our own foot firmly on the surface of this new world and recited those intrepid words, let’s get started.
What We’ll Talk About
There are many integral parts to starting a boudoir photography business. With some, you may already have an understanding of, especially if you’re a photographer transitioning from another genre.
For those less experienced with a camera, the learning curve will be much steeper, but fear not, with passion and persistence you too can start a thriving and successful business.
Right now, I’m going to outline the steps needed to achieve starting a boudoir photography business.
- Learn the Fundamentals of Photography
- Understand How To Use Light
- Study Boudoir Posing
- Have Model Release Forms
- Have a Place to Shoot
- Build Your Portfolio
- Create a Website and Social Media Presence
- Have Sample Products
- Promote and Market Your Business
Okay, that’s a lot, especially if you’re coming at this brand new to photography as well. If that’s the case, you’re going to have to learn how to walk before you can run.
If you’re already an experienced photographer then you can probably skip this first step, but you may want to check out the info under, If You’re Already A Photographer.
1. Learn the Fundamentals of Photography
I wouldn’t advise trying to learn photography while trying to learn boudoir at the same time because I feel there will just be too much on your plate at once.
Better to practice the basics without the added burden of having to worry about a subject because you’re mainly practicing getting proper exposure by utilizing the exposure triangle.
Unless you have an extremely patient subject to work with, practicing on inanimate objects is better. Only after you’ve mastered that, do I recommend practicing on human subjects.
You could get a cosmetology mannequin head to practice on, the kind used to train hairdressers with. As opposed to the featureless white styrofoam kind, these cosmetology heads have realistic skin tone, eyes, and hair. They also have a hole in the bottom so they can sit atop a light stand to place wherever you want.
Just go to Amazon and type in “cosmetology mannequin head” or call local salons or beauty schools and see if they have one they’re willing to let go for a discount.
There are plenty of online resources out there for you to learn photography from such as YouTube, Creative Live, and other tutorials from photography educators, so pick one or two and get started.
If You’re Already a Photographer
If you’re an experienced photog already, take a look at boudoir images and see if there’s any area boudoir might present a challenge to you.
For example, are you confident in capturing a silhouette in natural light? Or shooting on a cloudy day with a strobe or flash outside the window to replicate sunlight? If not, then you might want to brush up on these skills.
2. Understand How To Use Light
Once you know your way around the exposure triangle, it’s time to understand how light works.
For boudoir, keeping it simple, we’re just going to focus on natural light, the kind that comes from the sun through a window.
If you have sunlight coming through a window you’ll want to soften it by tacking up some sheer white curtains you can buy at Target for around eight bucks.
These are the very flimsy sheer white curtains that come in a small plastic pouch.
I recommend ironing or steaming out the folds, then storing your curtain draped over a hanger if they can’t stay up permanently. This prevents all those imprinted squares showing up in your photos if you keep it stored in its original plastic pouch. A small detail but it will make your images look more silky smooth.
Light can be deceiving too.
You might think you don’t have enough light coming through your window because the sun is not directly shining down in that direction, but you may be wrong.
When I first started shooting boudoir in my living room, I didn’t think I had enough light because of that exact scenario but that turned out to be wrong.
There was an apartment building just across our shared driveway that the sun bounced off of then back into my living room to provide more than enough light. So, take some test shots if you’re not sure before thinking your set up won’t work.
3 Ways To Use Window Light
There are three basic ways to light a subject (or mannequin head) using diffused light coming in through a window.
Have your subject stand perpendicular in front of the window, so light is cast across her body. This will create a hard white line on the edge of her that’s closet to the window that then gradually fades and gets darker as it makes its way across her body to the other side.
This kind of lighting creates highlights and shadows and a gradation of light between those two extremes, showing depth and dimension in your subject.
It’s the same kind of light the old master painters used centuries ago, like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer.
Have your model stand facing the window head-on with you in between her and the window. This will cast soft even light onto her face and body.
This light flatters older subjects who may want to minimize wrinkles and folds since it floods the subject head-on with light, preventing any shadows being cast from wrinkles or folds.
Place your subject with her back to the window with you positioned in front shooting into the light. Now, you can shoot this in two ways — as a dark silhouette or as a partially silhouette.
Adjust your settings according to your preference.
You may have to adjust your exposure compensation setting to get the desired exposure you’re after.
In other words, since so much light is hitting your sensor, your camera is going to be reacting to all that light from the window as opposed to what little light (if any) is coming off your subject. You may have to increase your exposure compensation setting to expose more of your subject and avoid a completely black silhouette.
I prefer the partial silhouette as opposed to the all black silhouette because it’s more three dimensional and adds mystery to the image by what the eye can see, barely see, and not see at all because it’s hidden in shadow.
3. Study Boudoir Posing
I can’t stress the importance of posing enough when shooting boudoir.
Knowing how to properly pose subjects of different shapes and sizes so they look their best is a skill that takes time to learn with practice.
Just like a dancer learning a choreographed routine, they go through the motions slow and awkward at first, then over time with much practice, make it appear seamless and effortless.
Posing subjects for boudoir is much the same thing.
Have a Posing Guide Handy
You’ll need some type of posing guide you can refer to when practicing and even during your paid shoots you can refer to whenever you draw a blank, or can’t remember what the hands are doing in a particular pose.
It also helps to have a guide handy to show your subject what you’re going for if you’re unable to verbally explain what you want or demonstrate the pose yourself.
Personally, I do both. I show them a picture of the pose, then sometimes get into the pose myself. It depends which is faster to communicate the information.
For example, standing poses are easy to demonstrate since I’m standing too.
However, if the subject is lying on a bed, it might be too time consuming for her to get off the bed, have me get on the bed to show her the pose, then get off the bed, then have her get back on the bed (uh, even this sentence is taking too long).
Whichever way is faster is usually what I go with.
She’s Not Going To Know How To Pose
Odds are your model is not going to know how to pose and it’s up to you to be the authority and show her.
You need to study posing and have about a dozen or so poses at the ready you can direct your her into. Store them on your phone, make a Pinterest board, or have a binder of images you’ve printed out from the internet.
I suggest having two or three poses each of standing, kneeling, sitting, and lying on a bed to begin with and shoot them all wide, medium, and close-up to get a good variety of images.
When you’re starting out, your mind is going to be thinking of a million different things and having a reference guide of poses to refer to will help you tremendously — and don’t be concerned about having to refer to them during a shoot in front of your subject.
In the future, you’ll have memorized most, if not all, of them and everything will go a lot smoother and quicker.
4. Have Model Release Forms
You’re going to need some model release forms for your models to sign, and when I say “models” I’m just referring to all the people you’re taking pictures of. You want to be able to pick out a few images you can start to build a portfolio with.
This needs to be discussed beforehand while setting up your free or TFP shoot.
This is critical for starting your portfolio and you don’t want to let any shoot opportunity go by without getting at least some images you can use publicly.
My 3 Different Model Releases
Most boudoir photographers have only one type of model release (the all or nothing kind) and I think this is a mistake.
Personally, I have three variations on roughly the same release because you’re going to encounter basically three different types of women with regard to having their photos displayed publicly.
General Model Release
This is the all-or-nothing type of release. In it, the model grants permission to the photographer to use any and all images from the photo shoot for marketing purposes for the photographer’s boudoir business.
This includes any website or social media platform associated with their brand, so Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or any new platform that might pop up is covered here.
I always present this release first when offering a free or trade shoot… and so far, it’s the only one I’ve used with these types of shoots.
This usually works because the subject, usually an aspiring model, wants professional images taken of her and she’s willing to grant you permission to use all the images in exchange for not having to pay for an established professional to do it.
And honestly, I don’t think they’ve really ever been exposed to any other kind of release.
Limited Model Release
This kind of release grants permission to the photographer for only a select number of images they can use publicly for marketing purposes.
It gives the model control over which images she’s willing to allow the photographer to use.
There may be some images she doesn’t want made public for whatever reason, and this type of release allows her to keep those private, but she’s still willing to grant you permission for others.
This type of release can be used for free, trade (TFP), or paying clients, but the time at which you present this option to them is different for both. To read more about this just refer to my article, Why You Need 3 Types of Model Releases For Your Boudoir Business.
Limited Anonymous Model Release
This release can be used as a last resort with free or trade shoots. However, if they’re unwilling to sign then there’s little point in doing the shoot unless you just want to practice, but you won’t be able to use any of the images for your portfolio.
This type of release with a paying client would be used with someone who is willing to grant you permission to show her images… just as long as she’s not recognizable in any of them.
She wants to remain anonymous.
This is a good sign actually because she’s happy enough with the outcome of her shoot that she wants to show them off a bit but she may hold a position in the community whereby revealing her identity could be detrimental to her reputation or a threat to keeping her job.
This release gives her control over picking the anonymous shots that she’s willing to release to you to use publicly.
And just to make it clear, anonymous shots are any shots where the face is unidentifiable. So, perhaps her head is turned away from camera or cropped completely out of frame, or has her hair, arm, or hand hiding it.
Really anything she thinks makes her unrecognizable.
More On Model Releases
5. Have a Place to Shoot
Boudoir requires a private space where you and your model feel comfortable shooting and has good light. There are many options available and I wrote extensively about that in an article called, “Where Can I Shoot Boudoir If I Don’t Have My Own Studio?”.
In short, places you can shoot are: in your home, in a friend’s home, at your client’s home, a rental studio, your garage, an AirBnB, a hotel room, or a yoga, dance, or art studio.
For a more in depth explanation of all these, check out my article here.
6. Build Your Portfolio
All this work we’ve done so far is so that you can start building a portfolio of images so you can market yourself as a boudoir photographer.
— you’ve learned the fundamentals of photography (enough to know how to get proper exposure).
— learned about light
— have a posing guide
— have model releases ready to go
— a place to shoot
Now all we need is a subject to shoot.
How to Find People to Shoot
When starting out it’s best you explain to whomever you’re going to shoot that you’re new at this. You don’t want them expecting a well-oiled photography machine that’s knocking it out like there’s no tomorrow.
That’s why if you can get a friend or someone you know to be your subject, they’ll be a lot more understanding as you’re fumbling with your settings trying to get the right exposure for that backlit shot into the window.
This is your time too, that’s why the agreement up front needs to be understood as to just what type of shoot this is going to be.
Places to Find Models
(Again, when I say “models” I’m just referring to anyone willing to be your subject.)
family members (when appropriate)
Local Facebook groups for “Models, Photographers, and Makeup Artists”
Friends of friends
There are a lot of aspiring wannabe “models” in every city and town all over the world. Most of these will be more than willing to not have to pay to have a professional photographer take pictures of them for their portfolio — and that’s what a TFP shoot is.
TFP stands for “time for prints” or “time for photos” and it’s an I’ll-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-my-back arrangement.
You get a subject to shoot (and images for your portfolio) and she gets a professional or semi-professional photographer to take pictures of her (with something other than a smartphone) and images for her portfolio, and everyone walks away happy.
Just make sure they’re at least 18 years of age, or whatever age is legal where you live.
Pay a Model
Another way to go if you have no luck in finding anyone is to pay a local model. Tell her what kind of shoot it will be and if she’s okay with signing a model release.
As you do these free, TFP, and paid shoots you’re not only building your portfolio, you’re also gaining valuable experience working with subjects and building confidence in your abilities.
You’ll know when you’re ready to start charging real money but if you don’t then I recommend you take a look at an article I wrote called, When Should I Start Charging For My Boudoir Photography?
And you don’t have to start out charging thousands of dollars as if you were someone whose been doing it for years. Gradually work your way up. The important thing is that you provide great images with a great experience for every single person you work with.
You don’t want anyone to feel they got ripped off because you’re charging way too much for the quality of images you’re currently producing. That doesn’t make for happy clients and word of mouth travels fast.
Remember, you’re also building your reputation here as well, and it’s built one shoot at a time whether you’re shooting for free, TFP, or they’re paying you for your services.
This takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. I think there are way too many boudoir photographers who are being pushed by online boudoir gurus selling products to charge high prices when their talent and skill as a photographer doesn’t yet warrant it.
You don’t go from learning how to play baseball in Little league to expecting to get paid millions of dollars in the majors. That’s too big a leap.
From Little League you play in high school, then college, then the minor leagues, then the majors. There’s a progression of compensation as your skill level rises accordingly.
The same is true with boudoir photography. It’s not as easy as it may appear from the outside looking in. There’s a lot to learn and it’s not all technical in nature.
Remember it’s better to under promise and over deliver than to do the opposite. Strive to exceed your client’s expectations every time with both their experience and products they end up buying.
7. Create a Website and Social Media Presence
You need a website and not just a Facebook page to promote your business because you don’t own your Facebook page, Facebook does and they can change their policy at any time and decide your content does not meet their standards and shut you down.
If you’re willing to learn WordPress, I recommend building your site there but if you’re not I understand. Use one of the easy to build drag-and-drop ones like Square Space but have a site, display your work, and make sure people can contact you by phone, email, or a form they fill out.
Put your stuff out there.
Start building awareness.
Keep learning and growing as a photographer.
Read About SEO
SEO stands for “search engine optimization” and if you want to rank high on Google then you need to be aware of SEO.
SEO is nothing more than optimizing your website so Google ranks it as high as possible in the area you live in so when people are searching for “boudoir photography” your site shows up in the search results… hopefully on page one.
Here’s a joke, “Where do you hide a dead body?”
On the second page of Google.
So, knowing about SEO is vital to getting your page to rank as high as possible so you don’t have to spend money advertising on Google.
You may want to anyway, though, because it takes time to rank… months… sometimes longer. It depends on how much competition you have in your area.
Ranking number one in Dallas, TX for boudoir is going to be harder than ranking number one in Punxsutawney, PA.
Start an Instagram (business) account. The language of Instagram is pictures so that suits us photographers just fine. Learn how to use hashtags (#) and start building awareness.
In addition to just showing off your images, you can utilize the Live Story feature and promote specials, behind-the-scenes footage, or just random fun stuff that will help people get to know you better.
It’s building a virtual relationship. The more you share about yourself, the more people will feel they know you and more likely to contact you when they need a boudoir photographer.
Keep a balance, though, between your personal posts and boudoir posts. I’d say something like 70% boudoir to 30% getting-to-know-you personal stuff.
8. Have Sample Products
Some of your free and trade shoot models may want to buy an album or prints even before you start attracting paying customers.
In any event, you’re going to need sample products on hand for your clients to see and touch so they know exactly what they’re getting.
Having two different album sizes (8×8 and 10×10) and three different print sizes (12×18, 16×24, 20×30) is enough to get you started.
You don’t have to go crazy on the albums either, four to five spreads (8 to 10 pages) is fine, but stick with one model per album. Don’t mix in a bunch of shots from different shoots into one album.
Promote and Market Your Business
Marketing and promotion… ugh!
That’s an endless topic. I’ll briefly go over ways to do that both free and paid.
Get good at SEO — if you can get your site ranked on the first page of Google, then you don’t have to pay Google Ads to do that for you.
Start a private VIP Facebook group for women who have already had a shoot, or who are thinking of getting one eventually.
Referral by word of mouth — treat each client like they’re gold, exceed expectations, deliver a great product at a fair price and word will spread.
Attract followers on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.
Facebook ads — there’s a whole science to running ads on Facebook so you might want to check out a course that specializes in doing just that.
Google ads — you can pay to get your website shown on the first page of Google when someone searches “boudoir” in your area.
Congratulations, you made it to the end! That is an achievement in itself and tells me you’re serious about starting your own boudoir photography business.
As you can see, there are indeed specific steps needed to reach this goal. I hope I’ve shed enough light on each one to get you headed in the right direction.
Does this guide cover everything? No, that would be impossibly long, but it does cover the broad strokes that will lead you down the right path.
All the other learning will have to come from your own experience. I can’t teach that, and no book or course can either.
I wish you all the best on your journey and just remember… you’re so much more than you think you are.
Take care my friend and perhaps our paths will cross at some point in the future.
Thanks for your time!
Founder / Lounge Boudoir
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