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NSFW: Working with models, the do’s and don’ts of implied, boudoir and nude photography

About a year ago I started trying out other genres of photography as a way to jump out of my nature photo comfort zone, reshape my style, and give my creativity a kickstart.  This came after some pretty tough personal challenges and dark times that nearly ended my career. For whatever reason, after a few shoots, I found myself drawn to model photography. Beyond the initial shock of having to work indoors while not spending almost all my day knee or waist-deep in swamp water, the biggest surprise of all was how much I enjoyed the challenges of working with people, lighting, and in a studio setting. Specifically, I explored boudoir, fine art nude, and erotic photography, which are about as far away from my original bird photography roots as you can get!

 

This article is a collection of do’s and don’ts for photographers interested in working with models in these styles of photography. I want to share the lessons I’ve learned collaborating with both professional models and photographers. Remember also, this is written by a photographer for other photographers. It in no way diminishes the role of the model in maintaining a professional relationship and standards with the photographer and crew. Rather, it acts as a guideline for the photographer in this realm. While many of the concepts apply to models as well, that is for another article (stay tuned!).  There’s immeasurable value in just listening and developing a rapport with the people you work with to make sure you are acting professionally in their eyes, and they in yours. I hope this article helps you do just that!

Myths of the erotic, nude or boudoir photoshoot

A fairly large portion of the population imagines the moment you put a model and a photographer in a room together, a tsunami of unbridled passion carries them off into a wonderland of uncontrollable copulating, all thoughts of photography forgotten.  

Ummm, no. It just doesn’t work like that. Ever.

We are in an industry where everyone knows everybody. This is also true because stories of behavior, good or bad, gets out quickly, particularly in these days of social media and #MeToo. People who act carnally, or, in other words, think only with their swimsuit regions, rarely make it for long. Sponsors won’t come on board, these photographers won’t get booked, and if they do, it will only be small jobs with little influence and minimal, if any, reward.

Model Scarlett Dawn and I work together on a regular basis, I am the “official” photographer for her Patreon page, and she is a dear friend. While we love working together, we do so as professionals. We also work in some decidedly uncomfortable conditions. Like this surf shot where I am laying on the beach getting soaked and sand covered, or this image at an abandoned building where biting deer flies decided Scarlett was lunch, or this one last shot after both of us had just endured a 20 hour day full of exhausting shoots and travel before we went our separate ways.

 

Photo shoots themselves, are not exactly arousing, sexually charged, events. In my experience, the model has just sat for an hour or more in hair and makeup. The actual shoot is often in a room that never has the temperature close to right. Then the model is asked to pose in ways that look good for the camera but are truly unnatural and uncomfortable for the human body to hold for any length of time. Being a model is hard, physically and mentally demanding, work.  

While the model is in makeup or wardrobe, the photographer has been setting up lights and props in the same uncomfortable room. He or she is consumed with thoughts of camera settings, quality and character of light, modifiers, backgrounds, foregrounds, color, exposure, and composition. During the actual shoot, the photographer is trying to make the image he or she has in their imagination come to life while also adapting and reacting to the poses and mood the model is working hard to create. The photographer gives direction. The model adds her interpretation. There’s a lot of back and forth communication happening all the time.

There’s little thought of anything but working together to make truly great photos, within the amount of time reserved for a shoot. Amorous thoughts definitely are not at the forefront, or even back, of anyone’s mind.

Nerves: Before, during and after

In my articles I often mention developing the ability to previsualize and see the photo before I take it. As important as that skill is, it can also become a negative when you start thinking about the upcoming shoot. I am an over-thinker. I had already dreamed up a thousand ways I was going to look like an idiot, say something ignorant or offensive, and generally cause my first nude shoot to end in disaster.

(Editor’s note: This is true for all of us when we first begin photographing intimate portraits.)

My first true boudoir shoot was with model Charlie Kristine, a true professional who was patient with my lack of experience in boudoir photography.  The image on the left is from our first shoot together, one of the few I saved. It was produced after 3 hours of nervous shooting on my part. The second is from our next shoot and came a little more naturally.  The one on the right left is from a shoot this past spring, we did three completely different looks in one hour, producing shots we were happy with in a short amount of time.  Thanks in large part to our comfort in working as pros together, and respect for what we each bring to the shoot.

 

Overthinking and getting nervous before a shoot is easy. It is hard to talk yourself back off the ledge, so to speak. If you are uncomfortable, your model will be too. Get a grip, you are there to make art, not save the planet from an impending meteor strike. You are an artist who is working with another artist, to create art.

This isn’t a date, this is a photoshoot

You are entering a workplace where a professional relationship and project are going to be developed and completed. Don’t confuse this in any way with a first date. There’s a fine line between developing a rapport and joking together, versus flirting. Flirting from either party in this situation is really uncomfortable.

Further, keep your hands to yourself. Not to sound accusatory, but too many photographers are disrespectful by not asking if they can brush the hair away from the model’s eyes or adjust a strap that’s moved, they just jump in there and start touching. This is really not okay. Always ask the model to make the adjustment themselves. Most often this will not work because in moving to fix whatever the issue is they change something else. Simply ask if you can touch him/her to do what needs to be done. They’ll say yes, and respect you for respecting them.

It’s still not a date, its a professional follow up

After a shoot, don’t blow up the model’s phone or inbox with messages gushing over the shoot, or your billion ideas for future one’s. Be a pro. Send a sincere thank you, provide a speedy delivery of images if contracted to do so, even express interest in collaborating in the future, if that’s the case. Don’t send every image you took, every idea you come across on Pinterest, or expect and try to engage in more interaction than you would have with any other professional after an appointment. Yes, you may click with some people you work with (pun, pun, pun…), they may become close friends, but don’t try to force it with everyone you work with. Odds are you don’t send your dentist pics of your dinner and inspiration for your next teeth cleaning appointment. Give your model the same respect you would any other professional.

All that said, it’s very OK to put together mood boards for a future project you want to do with a model. As a matter of fact, this shows professionalism and encourages engagement on what the model wants to add to the work.

If the first shoot with a new (to me) model goes well, I always like to book a second session. I feel we will produce better images now that we know what it’s like to work together, and know that neither one of us is a “creeper”.  I’ve worked with Alicia Fields a few times, and plan to do so again soon, as our images together get better with each shoot.

Expect gossip, rumor and chatter

Chances are you’ll start hearing the whispers and the grinding of the rumor mill the moment you do any type of boudoir or otherwise erotic/risque photography. I expected to be immune from this. Wow! I was so naive. It didn’t matter how high I held my standards, as did the people I worked with. People gossiped. No matter who you are or who you are working with, people can’t resist nattering on about what they imagine is happening, while not realizing the hurt and damage their words can cause.

I know. It’s insulting. It seems like a direct attack on your professionalism and personal integrity. It’s petty, and it’s juvenile. But it will happen, and come from even your closest friends, family, and colleagues, who know you would never do anything of the sort. The best you can do is confront it head on (like writing this article about it…). Be open about your photography. Be open about your creative interests. Dispel the rumors as best you can to those that matter to you by holding yourself to the highest professional standards.

No naming names…

In the age of social media, these platforms give us the feeling we can say anything we want without repercussion. There’s a level of detachment that dehumanizes everyone we interact with online.  For some reason, in the photographic industry, it’s become almost standard to call out models and photographers for even the slightest infraction or other imagined issues.

Nothing good will come of bashing someone in the photographic industry online.

…except when it’s the only right thing to do

That being said, there are some people who need to be called out. Anyone who engages in inappropriate touching, harassing, demeaning, or dangerous behavior should be shared with the community at large. Sadly, there are stalkers, GWC’s (guys with cameras), opportunists, etc. These people are not pros, they are predators. Outing them helps keep everyone safe.  

Working together

In the time I have been shooting with models, I found some of the most amazing, driven, and creative people it’s been my privilege to work with. While I’ll never give up my love of nature and capturing every facet of it, I deeply enjoy this style and creating works within it.  By learning how to work with models and other creatives in a way respectful of the art happening on either side of the camera, together what is created is that much more cool, artistic, and impactful.

Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

Credits

Links below are Not Safe for Work (NSFW)

Models (in order of their first appearance)

Scarlet Dawn, Tasha Nickole, Charlie KristineAlicia FieldsIlvy Kokomo, and Lilee Black

All photos are by me, you can see more on my Instagram page or Model Society portfolio

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