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

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

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. The image below is of model Victoria Loren, who I 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 in the photo. 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.

Professional model wearing lingerie = boudoir? No, not really.

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 shot of Victoria above was 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. 

The shot of Victoria is glamour photography, plain and simple.

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 (like the one shown above) 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, shown above, 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 above, 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 above 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.

Questions, opinions, comments? You know the drill.

[Images by Jen Swedhin used with permission]

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16 Comments

Wayne Du Bruyn's picture

Great article Nino , i dont think Boudoir is for everyone , its like a taboo , one i feel should remain that way otherwise it will lose its mystery. With everything "out there" these days it would be nice to still have something "behind closed doors" if you will. Labeling everything taken in lingerie as boudoir would certainly kill the uniqueness of the art hence your article , which i hope many a photographer will read , may put things into perspective for some. Big Up's , love your work.

David Vaughn's picture

I always thought boudoir was sexy photos in a bedroom/living space environment shot specifically for the personal use of the client. EG: Not for a magazine and not for Instagram likes.

Boudoir photography literally means "bedroom photography."

Glamour is commercial. Boudoir is personal. At least that's how I always differentiated between the two.

Anders Madsen's picture

Brilliant article! Should be a must-read for both photographers and clients venturing into the world of boudoir photography.

Stuart Smith's picture

This is probably most useful differentiation of 'Boudoir' from other approaches I have read in a long while!

The focus on approach and intent rather than location and clothing (which is where most discussions on this area seem to end up) makes a lot of sense.

I am looking at the potential of building a boudoir side to my business. As a man I suspect that it will only be a limited clientele but it will be a clientele that wants a 'male' perspective in the composition.

A challenge though is promotion of business. I've made the decision that to promote the business I will use models. This is because as the article points out a lot of Boudoir is personal to the client and to be frank I don't want to reduce that experience by putting a commercial pressure on the client to let me show them in this vulnerable state. Of course the downside of that is it will mean all my promo stuff will be closer to glamour in terms of intent. Does anyone think that matters or am I being to obtuse?

Samten Norbù's picture

I am a Boudoir photographer :)
http://samten.fr/albums/le-boudoir/
( some of the shoots might not reach the center of the description, but most do ... )

I was recently reviewing on our pricing for our full boudoir experience, and Nino, I think you have the time right on. After careful examination over the past couple months, i can tell you that between inquiry and the reveal/image premier, we have 28.5 hours into the session - not including hair, make and retouching. The amount of time spent on coaching vs shooting is significant and starts weeks before the session.

31.25 hours per client averaged over 5 years.
Thats time is split up between my own time (planning, coaching, shooting and post) and my wifes time (coaching, shopping with client, hair and makeup, during shoot support, post shoot support etc).
Thankfully we frequently manage to get 2 or 3 clients together to make a lot of the pre-shoot time combined - a handy benefit of the way we market/promote our business and the clients we cater to.

@Nino - curious if there was any reason why you didn't mention Sue Bryce, who "is" one of the more famous boudoir photographers in the world.

Tanya Greene's picture

Sue Bryce is not a boudoir photographer. She has said this herself on numerous occasions. She shoots glamour.

Aha! So now you gave away the punchline.... thanks for that! I've been following Sue Bryce's rise to stardom for more than a few years, and have heard and read this quote from her often. Interesting that Nino's (and also my) definition of glamour is completely different than hers, and that's why I was being coy in my question.

Tanya Greene's picture

Ah. Sorry lol Coyness doesn't translate so well over text :)

Randal RDCamera's picture

Boudoir wrt photography is not defined in a dictionary - yet. I don't think there is such a thing as a boudoir model commercially. Commercially there are lingerie models, artistic models and models who pose for nudes while wearing gas masks They have been well described In the article. A boudoir model is a first timer, and probably a one timer, non-professional who takes most of their direction from the photographer. Their objective is clear, they are paying for the session and expect the photographer to find their best angles and capture their individuality to the best of their ability. IF you, the photographer can exude and demonstrate the confidence and expertise that is expected of you in this situation, you can call yourself a boudoir photographer. In my opinion, you have missed the point if you are paying a model to pose on a bedspread and calling that boudoir photography.

I appreciate this article a lot and agree with it. It's also clearly and entertainingly written. Props, Nino, and thanks.

Doug Finger's picture

Appreciate the article. Great insight.

Just for the info .. I'm French ... The "boudoir" is the french name for the private lady suites in a property. The sensual term came from a book of the French Author Marquis de Sade (From whom the term sadism was created). The book is named "Philosophy in the Boudoir". As for it's content ... Well ou should read the book !!!! lol

Deaqon James's picture

Very interesting perspective. I've actually made this statement NUMEROUS times that there is a huge difference in shooting "Glamour" and Boudoir. Playboy of old was pretty much "Boudoir" in it's approach of not using professional models.