Why You May Not Be A Boudoir Photographer Even Though You Think You Are

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Recently, a fellow photographer (who shall remain nameless) posted a rather beautiful image on his social media, and added “Shot a little bit of boudoir this weekend…” as the caption. This made me take pause and ponder about what boudoir is, or rather is supposed to be, and how it could very well be the most misunderstood labels in portraiture.

First off, let’s hit the etymology of the word boudoir. A Wikipedia entry on the word seems to indicate that boudoir “derives from the French verb bouder, meaning “to sulk” or boudeur, meaning “sulky”…”

Which is about as sexy-time as a traffic accident.

The same entry then goes on to say that the word boudoir is “A cognate of the English “bower”, historically, the boudoir formed part of the private suite of rooms of a “lady” or upper-class woman, for bathing and dressing, adjacent to her bedchamber, being the female equivalent of the male cabinet. In later periods, the boudoir was used as a private drawing room, and was used for other activities, such as embroidery or spending time with one’s romantic partner.”

Ah yes, now it is starting to sound more familiar.

Still curious about the etymology and demanding further clarification, I hastily texted my friend, French born fashion model Ava Miura to ask her. Like a standard-issue naive American, I pressed her for said clarification. Interestingly, she informed me that the word is considered “old” in France, and seldom used. She then flat out added “Honestly I only know that word the same way [Americans] do. I only know the use that Americans have of it.” So, there’s that.

So what the heck is Boudoir then?

To really get right down to it, boudoir photography is mostly an approach, and not a genre. For whatever the etymology states, and for whatever it meant two or three decades ago, here in 2015 boudoir is an approach to intimate portraiture that involves a multi-step process heavily involving customer service, marketing, psychology, counseling, photography skills, retouching skills, and an overall willingness to make people do what they never thought they could. So, no, it’s not simply a style of lighting or specific wardrobe options in portrait work.

Let’s explain this a bit further. Common images are of model Victoria Loren, who were shot in Houston recently. This shot, and countless others like it, are often mislabeled boudoir by many photographers for one silly little reason: Victoria is wearing lingerie. See, if you were to swap out the lingerie in the shot for a swimsuit, and leave the lighting, the pose and of course the model precisely the same, almost no one would call the image boudoir.

The mistake is easy to make, and easy to understand why it’s been made many times. Almost all boudoir photography subjects are seen wearing intimate apparel, which can range from simple underwear to elaborate lingerie ensembles to totally nude. But the real mistake is in overlooking the premise, or the intent, of how and why the photo was produced, and not who happens to be in the shot and what they happen to be wearing.

The shots were created under these circumstances:

  • Fast-paced shooting with several wardrobe changes
  • Large, commercial studio
  • Assistants and studio hands on set
  • Magazine publication being the goal
  • Agency portfolio expansion for a pro model

Those five reasons alone are precisely why the shot is decidedly not boudoir. What boudoir photography is, or more accurately has become, is a service primarily catering to people (yes, mostly women) who want to have sensual photos of themselves taken for many and varied purposes. The vast majority of boudoir clients have never been in front of a camera with lingerie or underwear (or totally nude), let alone trying for any modeling endeavors. The whole point of booking a boudoir session is to do something perhaps a bit exciting and daring that you’ve never done before, that is, have someone take a photo of you in your underwear.

It’s not that simple.

However, boudoir is not as simple or contrived as taking a photo of yourself in your underwear. In fact, the proper boudoir photography experience usually begins with a consultation (often several in fact) and can continue with many other pre-shoot activities such as wardrobe shopping with the photographer and/or assistants, creating mood boards of images that inspire you in your session, an elaborate and pampered hair and makeup session immediately prior to shooting, some boudoir specialists offer wine and snacks before the shoot, and of course the shoot itself. Following the shoot, further meetings are often scheduled to review the images and select finals for printing (such as albums, enlargements, etc.) and perhaps a final meeting to personally deliver the final product(s). A boudoir photographer can easily commit as many as 30 total hours to a client after all is said and done.

Glamour Photography

In contrast, as a glamour photographer, I spent all of 2 hours creating images with Victoria in a commercial studio after having met her only briefly earlier this year in Dallas. Mind you, it was a personable experience, and I believe strongly in creating a great rapport and overall flow and vibe with a model on set, but a commercial glamour session couldn’t be further from a boudoir session, and I’ll explain why.

A glamour or fashion model generally meets these criteria:

  • Intentionally sets out to pose in front of cameras as his or her career.
  • Has posed in front of cameras many times, in some cases thousands of times.
  • Has posed in front of cameras in various states of dress and undress, depending on their specific industry goals.
  • Has had professional hair and makeup artists work on them numerous times.
  • Has every intention of getting paid to pose in front of cameras, or is already doing so.
  • Has been published in magazines or websites or has intentions of being published.
  • Spends a great deal of time on their physique because their bodies are a big part of their career success.
  • Are mostly younger than mid 20’s.

This is not boudoir, proper. Heck, this was shot during a glamour photography lighting class I was hosting in Houston with pro model Nicole Papageorge, and something like 12 attendees all on set, including 2 assistants. This is glamour.

Almost no one would refer to this a a boudoir image, and it’s clear why. No lingerie, no bedroom, and nothing casual about it. Pro model Amanda Paris, who I shot in Chicago, rocks this commercial glamour image (for Kandy Magazine) the way only a highly experience glamour model could. This is not boudoir, obviously.

Boudoir Photography

​A boudoir client generally meets these criteria:

  • Has never posed for a camera beyond family, school or vacation photos.
  • Has never posed in front of a camera in anything but being fully clothed.
  • Has never posed in front of a camera in intimate apparel.
  • Is generally a bit nervous to utterly frightened of posing in intimate apparel on camera, let alone “looking sexy”.
  • Spends some or no time on their physique because they don’t pose in front of cameras for a living.
  • Are mostly in their late 20’s or older.

This boudoir image, captured by Jen Swedhin in Denver, showcases her client, Nikki, on a bed, wearing nothing but a white sheet. Since Nikki had never been in front of a camera naked before, this was a daring and fun thing for her to do to celebrate herself, plain and simple. (Photo copyright Jen Swedhin, used with permission)

Which of course begs the question “Why do it then?”. After all, if you’re like me (39 years old, pudgy in the middle, balding, etc) why would you subject yourself to a ruthless camera’s condemning clarity? That, friends, is exactly where a legit boudoir photographer comes in.

When Jen Swedhin shot her client, Nikki, she was faced with shooting a client who had no experience in front of a camera modeling, let alone doing it naked. The client wanted to do these images, make no mistake, but the prospect of doing such a thing is often terrifying. I’ve always said glamour photography depicts fantasy. Boudoir is no different. In Nikki’s photo, to me, I see (perhaps) a scene that a man may encounter after emerging from the shower with the intent of heading to work one morning. Based on this photo, however, I think that guy was late to work, if you follow me.

What is sexy?

We live in a culture where physical beauty is both celebrated and vilified. We all want to be on the cover of a magazine looking sexy as hell, but we also want to feel as if we should aspire to more than mere physical attractiveness. We condemn overly edited photos of celebrities, and we roll our eyes at the apparent physical perfection of fashion and glamour models, dismissing them with such comments as “Well, shit, if I were born looking like that I could do that, too.”

But the fact is, anyone is a boudoir client. Or rather, anyone can be. And each one of us has an outer beauty we should try to celebrate if we choose to. From a guy’s point of view, I can tell you this with confidence: 99% of men do not hold women’s beauty to the apparent standard that celebrity seems to.

Everyone wants to feel attractive and confident.

That’s a fact. Everyone I’ve ever met would be totally ok with a photo of themselves that made them look attractive, alluring, even flat out hot. However, 99% of those have no idea how to go about getting such images of themselves created. Or they feel they aren’t attractive enough, or too overweight, or too old (or too bald). Very few of us can slam a glass of wine down and become brave enough to get naked on camera, let alone pay for such a service. But deep down inside, most of us secretly want to look hot in a photo, and perhaps show their significant other (or the whole damn internet) that they can rock the sexy as well as anyone else.

Boudoir clients are less experienced on camera than even those most amateur models, if you want to think about it that way. So if you approach a boudoir client like a glamour model, failure is almost certainly the end result.

Jen Swedhin states “I’m a sensual woman, and I can get people there through my experience, but I am not a glamour shooter. Women who opt for a boudoir shoot, well, its really scary for them. They have to be open and exposed with a total stranger. It’s a process; they have to drop all those walls to get to that sexual/sensual place. If they don’t get there, then the photos are simply pretty pictures at best, and not, perhaps, what they were hoping for.”

Swedhin goes on to discuss the differences between [most] men’s perception of sexy and how it often differs from [most] women’s perception of sexy. “Glamour is really sexy, sure, and men see super-sexy differently because it’s for men,” she says, “But boudoir is [generally] softer, and women see that differently. I cannot coach women into sexy glamour poses from a my perspective. That’s not who I am, I am not a glamour model.”

She further mentioned that aligning yourself with your boudoir client, who are mostly women, is the most vital aspect of boudoir. This is also why so many female boudoir photographers succeed where male boudoir photographers face challenges. Specifically, many female would-be boudoir clients aren’t going to hire a male photographer, regardless of the caliber of his work. That’s not so much sexism as it is comfort level; after all, we have separate dressing rooms at the gym in our society for a reason.

Where the fellas at?

Swedhin is unique in that she also specifically focuses a large portion of her business on intimate portraiture for men. This is also a boudoir approach, if you will, because most of her male clients have never posed in front of a camera for anything sexy before, either. And macho man or not, they are just as terrified to do it when they show up to the studio.

Male boudoir photography, sometimes referred to as dudoir (an obvious, if not corny, portmanteau of dude and boudoir) is far less common, but also increasing in popularity in recent years. This casually sensual shot represents what almost any man could do on camera, even with no prep and no experience. (Photo copyright Jen Swedhin, used with permission)

Russ Allen, male model and bodybuilder, is accustomed to being on display, as it were, and comfortable on camera. Most men aren’t built like Russ is, and Swedhin captured here what is essentially a male glamour image, not derived from a boudoir approach. (Photo copyright Jen Swedhin, used with permission)

Summary

Boudoir is not a genre; let that sink in and keep telling yourself that. In fact, the images I showcased could arguably be called boudoir had their premises been different. Is it possible to experience a boudoir client who has never been in front of a camera, is nervous to do so, but also happens to look, head-to-toe, like Alessandra Ambrosio? Sure, it could happen. Could you perhaps experience a boudoir client who is 100 kg overweight but rocks the hell out of the camera in an outrageously sordid display of confident exhibitionism? Absolutely possible.

There aren’t really hard and fast rules about boudoir, but the premise, the intent, the impetus of the session are what defines it as opposed to glamour, or fashion or anything else. Boudoir is personal, and often life changing. Glamour, well, glamour is sometimes “just another modeling gig” to your client.

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