What Is Boudoir Photography and Why Is It Critical You Know?

Boudoir image of woman in red bra and panties lying on bed


We’ve all heard the word and have tried to pronounce it. Granted it does take practice… at least it did for me. It is, after all, a French word that means a woman’s bedroom or private dressing area, usually right off from the bedroom.

But what does it mean today… in the modern world?

We understand it has something to do with women in sexy lingerie, taking pictures, and bedrooms.

What Is Boudoir?

If I had to break it down into one sentence, I’d say boudoir is a genre of photography where everyday women get sexy photos taken of themselves in lingerie or other intimate apparel in usually a bedroom setting to celebrate, acknowledge, and express their sexuality, their beauty, and their bodies.

Dark and moody boudoir with dark sheets and lingerie

These private images are then artfully displayed in an album, assembled in an image box, or printed for wall art either as a gift for a significant other or to enjoy themselves. 

At least that’s how I see it… but who am I? 

The “who” behind this article is a professional boudoir photographer — male, in fact, and in the following paragraphs I’m going to explore everything that boudoir is… and everything it is not (which may be somewhat controversial among my fellow boudoir photographers).

Why is it important to clearly define and understand what boudoir is, and why should you care? 

It’s important because in order to understand what something is, and I mean truly understand it, one must have a very detailed and reliable definition of it. By defining what something is, it sets boundaries, artistic boundaries, in which to operate. I’ll be going over the importance of all that later on but for now, let’s return to our main topic about “what is boudoir?”

Origins of Boudoir Photography

Images of scantily clad or nude women have been around for centuries in one visual form or another from Greek statues, to oil paintings, drawn illustrations, and photographs. Capturing the feminine curves and coquettish expressions of females has been and probably always will be part of our human experience. 

Boudoir photography is just an extension and evolution of what’s been going on for hundreds if not thousands of years.

What Are the Origins of Modern Boudoir Photography?

One of the original founders of modern day boudoir photography was American photographer Albert Arthur Allen. Originally from New England, he moved to California in 1907 at the age of twenty-one then opened the Allen Art Studios in Oakland in 1916. 

He photographed women, alone and in groups, who were mainly nude in the 1920s both inside and outdoors. At the time it was considered scandalous. Among the wide variety of photographs he took, some look very reminiscent of modern boudoir images of today with women posing on beds, settees, and in front of windows.

What Boudoir Is Not

Shooting Outdoors Is Not Boudoir

Are sexy images of half-naked women that are taken outdoors considered boudoir? Some say yes, but I say no. Just because someone is dressed in lingerie or sexy underwear and posing outside does not, in my book, qualify as a boudoir shoot. I would say those are modeling shoots. 

Here’s why.

First, let’s take a closer look at the word “boudoir”. It means a woman’s bedroom or changing room. Those two locations are private intimate spaces“private” being the key word here. The setting is indoors for that very purpose, to be private.

When you photograph a scantily clad woman outside anywhere, even if you’re in complete isolation, the fact that you’re outside opens oneself up to someone coming along and invading your privacy.

With that scenario comes an underlying element of exhibitionism, whether one’s aware of it or not. When you’re outside your privacy is not guaranteed. That, for me, changes a key component of what a boudoir shoot is all about — which is shooting in a private intimate space, like a bedroom or changing room (a boudoir). 

I’m not casting judgement. I would just call that an outdoor modeling shoot.

A boudoir shoot should take place indoors, in a bedroom or other space within the house where privacy is not only expected but guaranteed.

Shooting In A Warehouse Is Not Boudoir

Another location I’ve seen where a “boudoir” shoot has taken place is in a warehouse. A warehouse… really? I don’t think so. In fact, I would classify any shoot that happens in a large open impersonal space like a warehouse, barn, factory, airplane hangar, etc. as not being boudoir. 

First of all, those locations have nothing to do with a bedroom or changing room, nothing to do with an intimate space, and nothing to do with perceived privacy. And like shooting outdoors, placing yourself in any of these environments in intimate apparel implies to the viewer a message of exhibitionism — not a woman alone in her bedroom, discreetly expressing her sexuality for an audience of one or possibly a few close friends. 

Again, I’m not passing judgement on these kinds of shoots, I just wouldn’t classify them as boudoir.   

The Pressure Cooker Effect

Let’s take another look at why a small intimate space works so well for boudoir.

The confinement that a bedroom provides with four walls and a ceiling, keeps the woman’s sexual energy contained and under pressure. It creates a certain feeling, albeit subconscious to the viewer.

And since modern boudoir is not restricted to just the bedroom, any room in the house can work just as well like the kitchen, a small nook, or a tight corner. 

A great example of how this can be felt is to take the same woman and place her outdoors and photograph her in the same outfit in the same pose. Once outside, all sexual pressure is released because there’s nothing to contain it. 

Does this sound crazy to you?

Try it.

Feel the difference yourself.

So, “boudoir” — a private bedroom, changing room, or intimate space within the house where we get to witness, through photographic images, a woman expressing her hidden sexual side.

This is probably a truer definition of the word compared to the rather clinical version I gave above. 

Following these conventions has real power.  

Following these conventions will deliver a knockout every time.

This, to me, is boudoir. 

Erotica Is Not Boudoir

Erotic black and white image of two women lying on bed.

Now that we’re clear on what my definition of boudoir is, we can contrast that with erotica.

In my opinion, erotic photography has more of an exhibitionist intent. It wants to stand up and be noticed, unapologetically, and does so in your face. It can be uncomfortable, shocking, and disturbing… but that’s what defines it. 

I don’t have any experience in this genre other than what I happen to come across on the web or on another boudoir photographer’s website. Some call what I consider erotica to be boudoir, and that’s fine, I’m not going to call the Boudoir Police and have them arrested. That’s not the point. 

The point has to do with what I hinted at in the beginning with defining certain genres in great detail and artistic boundaries and such, but more on that later (I promise).

Erotic photography is kind of like boudoir’s brash cousin. It exists between boudoir and pornography and those lines can get blurry real fast.

There’s usually nothing subtle about erotica. Its visual presentation is there to shock you with explicit and “forbidden” imagery that’s done in an artistic way. Whereas boudoir is primarily focused on one woman, erotica often invites others to the party, both men and women. 

Themes of submission, domination, and masochism are common, along with images of women pleasuring themselves. Any touching of oneself in boudoir is much more subtle, innocent, and indirect.

Where does the line between erotica and pornography begin? Who’s to say? I believe that’s up to the individual to decide. 

Erotica tends to focus more on sexual body parts and implied or blatant sex acts more than just the female form in lingerie. You’re going to encounter leather and studs and a riding crop or two with erotica as well, and that’s just for starters. 

Erotica has more of an agenda. It will challenge you and push you to think about sex differently. It will force you to ask yourself, “Do you approve? Are you one of us?” then boldly give you the finger and tell you to F-off if you’re not. It’s interactive in its silent give and take exchange between it and its viewer. 

Subtle to super aggressive and everything in between, just like sex itself, erotica is really about showcasing sex and sexual pleasure whereas boudoir is more about the anticipation of sex by creating desirability through the female form. 

Pinup Is Not Boudoir

Difference between boudoir and pinup

Pinup is a very stylistic type of shoot.

You’re recreating a vintage look from the 1930s, 40s, or 50s with period hair, makeup, and wardrobe.

There are a number of other differences between boudoir and pinup as well, which you can read about in this article here if you’re interested, 9 Big Differences Between Pinup and Boudoir.

So, What’s the Point?

Ah, good question. What’s the point of all this detailed analysis of what boudoir is and what it’s not? 

“I just want to shoot women in their underwear and get paid!”

Okay, I hear ya’, but the reason I go through such painstaking detail into each of these closely related genres is for two reasons.

One is, as a boudoir photographer it’s important to know the rules and conventions of what it is you’re trying to capture for your clients. Your clients are paying you good money for a boudoir session so you need to know specifically what that is and what it is not.

You are the expert in this field and your clients are relying on you to know your stuff and deliver. The rules and conventions are there to serve and guide you down the right path so your outcome is consistent and appropriate. They are your boundaries for success.

They’ll also help you determine for yourself what it is you want to shoot or not shoot. For example, I personally do not shoot erotica. So, if someone came to me asking to be photographed in a certain way, I know where my boundary is. 

I could then tell them that what they’re asking for falls under a different genre, which is erotica, and that’s something I don’t do. However, you could refer them to someone who does.

Transcending the Genre

Another reason it’s good to have well-defined rules and conventions of your genre is so you can transcend that genre to create unique and exceptional work — if that interests you.

Okay, stay with me on this because we’re going to dive deep with this next concept.

What Does It Mean to Transcend the Genre?

Every art form whether it’s photography, writing, painting, dance, music and so on, follows strict rules and conventions within the genre they’re working in, but there are some artists that put such a unique twist on those conventions that it appears as if they’re breaking all the rules, when in fact, they’re not. They’re just hidden under the shiny new surface. 

How The Beatles Transcended The Genre of Pop Music

The Beatles started out just like every other band writing songs and performing simple catchy pop tunes. And they became quite famous for that.

But in November of 1966 they went into the studio to work on an album called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and changed pop music forever. 

They put such a unique twist on song structure, what they sang about, instrumentation and arrangement, and recording techniques, that it appeared as if they “broke all the rules” when in fact they didn’t.

The rules and conventions they followed were — songs were still songs with people singing and playing instruments. The lyrics still made sense, although what they sang about was completely new for pop music. They recorded all the music in a standard recording studio with live musicians playing all the instruments. Their songs were roughly still the same length as a standard pop tune, about three to five minutes. 

Those were the underlying rules and conventions of their genre of pop music. They just did those things in such a new and different way that they transcended their genre. 

And the result was ground breaking. 

How To Transcend the Boudoir Genre

If you’re interested in raising the level of your game with boudoir, first, understand the clearly defined rules and conventions of the genre. Then find new ways to execute those same rules and conventions in a way that’s never been done before. Borrow from other art forms. Combine techniques. Push the envelope. Experiment. What you try won’t always work but learn from it and try something else. 

This is how art evolves.

This is how new styles and new genres are born.

And this is how you create a masterpiece… and become a true artist.

Thanks for your time!

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Charles Mitri

Founder / Lounge Boudoir

Charles Mitri

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

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