The Power of Storytelling With Light in Boudoir Photography

Boudoir photography can be one of the most powerful ways to bring confidence back to an individual. Challenging their negative thoughts about themselves while repairing their body image is more rewarding to a boudoir photographer than the money itself (OK yes, the money is great but be honest — you love it when they cry those happy tears of joy seeing their images).

In a conversation with one of my most talented boudoir colleagues, Cate Scaglione, we came across the same thought process when we were speaking about how we shoot: In story mode.

We both immerse ourselves into this untold tale of the client as she transforms before the camera. The story itself can be told with mood, emotions, and background. But without the right lighting, the story can become lost. It can take on a new direction, perhaps not in line with the photographer's initial intentions.

I decided to do an interview of sorts to really get to the bottom of Scagilione's personal thought process.

My natural transition to boudoir women actually began because I was creating images that told stories … I wanted them to look like characters from literature, mythology or epic heroines. I would ask a woman, 'How do you feel most beautiful… Most powerful?' And for many, it had something to do with their sensual side. In that sense, the wardrobe (or lack thereof) was actually the smallest piece of the equation. The real elements were more about her expression, her pose and most of all, the environment’s role in the portrait to tell that story.

Scaglione's environment when shooting is either in her clients' homes or her loft studio located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

With boudoir, I work hard to create very natural environments — and that illusion of 'laid back' control helps breed confidence in an otherwise vulnerable situation. My studio looks more like a lived-in residential loft than a photographer’s studio. There’s elements of comfort and plush décor surrounding them — less so with equipment.

In my previous article where we explored how lighting can dramatically sculpt black and white photography, it can also help mold the storytelling aspect of boudoir. Creating the connection between the environment and the client, it unfolds a story only understood by each individual viewer.

The story I am trying to convey dictates how I will control and modify the natural light in my studio by flagging, reflectors, intentional posing for light and shadow.

Scaglione is no stranger to sculpting her imagery with light. She studied under fashion photographer Dallas Logan, who is well known for his lighting seminars "Light is Light." One of the lessons she said she has carried for years from him is that although light is light (referring to natural or studios light) the lighting choices must be aligned with the photographer's intentions.

In the image below, her story sets in either dusk or dawn. The lighting sets a mood of dark and magical. Highlighting the body, yet not the backdrop you still know where the location is meant to take place. She brings a voyeuristic approach with her light intensity, creating a feeling of stumbling upon a scene such as below.

The majority of my clients love the intimate, almost voyeuristic, storytelling approach I take. The majority come in with the goal of creating a storybook album, as if the intimate story is unfolding. But the aspiration some of my best clients is that epic fine art portrait for the wall, and I think this is what people are most familiar with in my work.

Lighting will help support the story you are trying to tell. It can show light and airy, dark and moody, or dramatically influenced. Scaglione's concept and techniques show us that you can play out a still part of a romance novel with being filled wanting to know more. Three key elements I notice with her imagery is her placement, and the quality and the intensity of the light source she interacts with on a image-per-image basis. Typically she shoots with her Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and Sigma Art 50mm f/1.4. The focal depth and range enables for more intimate storytelling as well as leading to a sense of deep voyeurism.

Scaglione's use of light placement in the image above brings the viewer to another moment not only in time, but also seasonality. Accenting the cold highlights, yet the warmth that surrounds the woman inside.

Natural light here only on one side allows the shadowing of her client's body. This gives less boldness in the image, which in many instances becomes the one that woman feel comfortable purchasing as wall art. It takes away from the sexuality of the piece, and makes the client feel more like art. With boudoir work, some clients walk into the studio with confidence beaming through the roof. These clients have no problem with hanging their images throughout their homes. On the other hand, for those clients who are not wanting to be "on display," these anonymous storytelling looks can help put the wall art into their homes, and forever into their lives.

In the image below, she uses the same room, same window light, but yet a different angle of light in which to tell her story. Highlighting the face now can help the client to set the mood. Is she smiling? Is she sad? No. She seems to be looking down past a window, perhaps patiently waiting for her significant other to arrive. (That is my take on it. The best part of this image, anyone can decipher their own storyline from the mood.)

It’s my perpetual goal to normalize boudoir for a woman, allowing her to see herself as art. I want every client to wake up, see herself on the wall and start the day with a sense of fierce, feminine bravado. That’s when I know I am successful.

Cate Scaglione is an award winning and internationally published fine art photographer serving New York and New Jersey. She also writes for The Business of Boudoir and Philosophie Magazine.

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4 Comments

Matt Meiers's picture

LOVE this JT! I do love it when they cry, and when they do, the tears are usually flowing from me as well, because I can't believe how lucky I am to be able to show a side of them that they rarely get to see for themselves.

Jennifer Tallerico's picture

Yes Matt I agree! I am usually tearing up while I am watching them.. We have an incredible job!!

Shawn Black's picture

As a photographer I agree there is nothing better than when the client sees themselves in a whole new light that you helped open them up to. And as someone who has been shot by Cate I can definitely attest to her visual story telling. Even though my session wasn't anything nearly as elaborate as the images you featured you was coaching me through out the session as to how I should feel and bringing out emotion. It wasn't instructions about how to look it because that would come if she got me in the right state of mind.

Cate Scaglione's picture

JT, thank you so much for such an objective and observant article. It's so interesting to me when someone is able to understand the story I am trying to tell in each image... But you took it a step further explaining my intention with some of the technical decisions, through your deduction. Brilliant ! Thank you again for a wonderful article