Why Shooting 'Sexy' as a Subject Is Making Your Photography Forgettable

Why Shooting 'Sexy' as a Subject Is Making Your Photography Forgettable

The critical value created when shooting a great portrait is tied to building impact that lasts. Psychologically, humans have evolved to take notice of sexually attractive people, focus on them briefly, then completely forget. This phenomena helps maximize genetic quality in a population but can also have an impact on how viewers remember your sexy photos.

There is nothing wrong with shooting sexy subjects, rather, shooting attractive images can be tremendously rewarding to the client. However, it is your job to add more depth to the image than just being “sexy.” Sexy needs to be limited to being an aspect of the image rather than the primary focus of it.

The Psychobabble

Mammals have evolved to instinctively gravitate towards the most attractive potential mate in the immediate vicinity due to our innate need to combine our own genes with the highest quality genes available through reproduction. This, largely, is what drives evolution.

An important aspect of this process, though, is that we need to be undaunted by memories of, presumably, more attractive potential mates that we have encountered in the past. As a result we have developed the tendency to key on the most attractive man or woman nearby and completely forget about them later. The only exception to this being if we engage in some sort of direct interaction with that person which triggers a more meaningful and lasting connection.

Check out this video by Prager University which delves more deeply into the psychology with references to studies. Most importantly, though, think back to your own experience looking at photos. Are any of the most memorable photos you have ever seen unforgettable because they were sexy and only sexy? Even beer companies, who are notorious for using sexy female models to market their product, know that they need to inject something beyond “sexy” to create brand retention.

Sexy As A Subject Is Boring

Shooting sexy as the sole purpose of the photo is a bit like creating a book that only has a cover but nothing inside.

Sexy is great for sparking attention for a fleeting moment, however that attention is lost almost immediately unless there is more depth to the photo that bridges a connection of interest with the viewer.

Shooting "Sexy" In A Memorable Way

Create A Sense Of Story

Nothing brings a sexy image to life more than adding a sense of story. Those aforementioned beer companies make great use of this technique by often adding a simple, humorous story into their sexy campaigns. Find a way to make your sexy shots more than just a pin-up; have something going on in the image that sparks the imagination of the viewer and inspires them to expand on that story within their own mind.

Reveal Personality

When presented with an attractive potential mate, humans tend to immediately look to bridge a connection with the person they are attracted to. Find a way to reveal the personality of the model or character in your image and reveal it in a way that triggers a genuine kinship with your audience.

Focus On Expression

Strong emotion, even when it is negative, can have a profound impact on the viewer of an image. Expression reveals emotion, emotion has impact, and impact is memorable. Don’t just place your model in the scene with some unrealistic pose and blank expression. Instead harness the emotion of a fictional or real scene.

Mystery Is Unforgettable

Curiosity lingers. By making your viewers wonder what is going on you are demanding that they become part of the story of your photo. By adding a sense of mystery to your sexy shots you ensure that viewers will be thinking about your image even after they have stopped looking at it.

A Golden Question

Shooting memorable, sexy images boils down to a single simple question that you should ask yourself whenever you are shooting sexy shots: Is the sexuality of the scene the primary subject overshadowing everything else? If the answer is yes, then you just might be creating a beautiful, yet forgettable photo.

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Patrick Shipstad's picture

I couldn't agree more!

Michael Comeau's picture

If you shoot women, I highly recommend looking at Sante D'Orazio's work.

His work is definitely sexy, but it has a unique sense of intimacy that keeps it well out of glamour territory. (just not my personal cup of tea)

For under $3, you can't go wrong:


His work has a real "oh, I walked into this hut and there's Christy Turlington naked. I should probably take a picture" feel to it. It's just so natural.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Very interesting! Great share!

Mitchell Flores's picture

wow awesome, idk I've never heard of him. He just inspired me a lot!

Jay Allan's picture

Sante is amazing. I discovered him though his work for Playboy. He has always been one of my inspirations.

Keith Axelrod's picture

Always easy to take ordinary photos of beautiful people but the art is to make beautiful images of ordinary people.

Caleb Kerr's picture

Yes. Thank you.

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

This post tackles the era we live in very well. Loved reading it.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Thanks dude! I'm glad you like it! :D

Anonymous's picture

This is a great summarized explanation. What makes images sexy, or erotic is a complex -- often subjective -- topic, and making an image memorable only adds to the complexity.

What is very relevant is observing the jury process for the Seattle Erotic Art Festival (est 2002). The jury is randomly selected every year, but consists of gallerists, artists, and more. One of the first things almost all jurors filter by is "Does the the work rely on the (usually female) model to make the work beautiful or is there something more to it?" (or more simply "Is this just a common nude of a beautiful person?")

Really, most people can capture beautiful images of people in sexy poses. Few can tell a story or convey abstract concepts with an image. Even fewer do it with a variety of genders and body types. When you see those images you remember them.

David Geffin's picture

Really well written and hits the nail on the head. I would also agree that this applies to many forms of photography today - the best work i see is those who create mystery, ambiguity or story in an image.

Doc Pixel's picture

Here's a whole list of erotic photographers that know what sexy and sensual form is... many not going further than that to tell a story. Not to say that your essay is wrong.... it has many great points... but it's not the only way.


I'm personally an Avedon, Ritts, Newton, Lindbergh... and especially Jeanloup Sieff fan for years.

Anonymous's picture

Ellen Von Unwerth's revenge, Araki, Daido Moriyama all the way up to Petra Collins, Richard Kern, and Erin Elizabeth Kelly. - Here's the thing...Half of Ellen's photos are out of focus, Petra's are snapshots taken with a Contax t2, and Richard Kern always gets the "anyone can take that photo" argument.

But, guess what? Their photos are amazing. Mostly because they don't get caught up in the technical and whatever else this article is saying you 'should' do.

Not all photography of people has to be "tastful" or "art nude" or "whatever else people say it should be" - Most of the stuff above looks more contrived than natural. "Reveal Personality" with a photo of a woman in a bath with a dress on and full make-up and...flowers.

Ryan Cooper's picture

In many ways, yes, though I think you will find that many of the images which made all of the above photographers famous have tons of mystery, story, emotion, and personality in them. That said, even clicking on that link I see several photos that are rather forgettable.

It is also important to consider generational "shock" value as another memory trigger. Some of the images at that link would likely have been extremely "riské" within the context of when they were shot which would make them memorable for that audience, however, some of those same shots been taken today I doubt they would even be taken notice of.


Anonymous's picture

This trite argument again? Why does no one take these shots at Landscape photographers who all stand in the same place? Or the street photographers who exploit the homeless? Or the kid photographers who make everything warm, shoot in leaves at 2.8 on their 70-200 and still add fake blur? Why is this stigma so picked on when people shoot pretty people?

Ryan Cooper's picture

Those landscape photographers aren't generally shooting to build an audience, they are shooting to create something for themelves. The landscape artists who have made a career of it know very well that shooting the same frame everyone else has won't lead to many sales.

I think the homeless one is tough as it actually generally does a lot of what I said above. Sure people tend to use the same gritty feel but those photos are almost always about emotions and story. They thrive on it.

As for the kid shots they are a completely different objective. They create that connection by being picture of a specific child, the audience's child. Parents adore these sort of photos of their own child and when they see ones of other kids they emotionally replace the child in the frame with their own which often leads to them hiring the photographer.

Though really the argument isn't about shooting the same, while being unique is great, it is also quite difficult. I could really do what you have done thousands of different concepts across the many types of photography. Just because a photo is within a genre doesn't mean it fails to impact. Even looking at the examples you gave in each list there are one or two shots that stand out from the others because the photographer has gone above and beyond his or her peers to add more interest to the photo.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Great post Rob.. You nailed it!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Rob, I logged in to just like your comment. I agree 100% with you.

Doc Pixel's picture

Perfect response Rob!

David Vaughn's picture

I feel like this is a strawman (maybe? I'm not good with logical fallacies). The author didn't bring up any points about landscape photographers or children photographers because...Those types of photographers aren't the point of the article.

I think the premise of the article - technically amazing, but seemingly soulless photos - goes beyond just shooting models and can be applied to many areas of photography.

I mean, it's not like Peter Lik got a whole lot of praise from the photography community when he converted a decent, yet uninspiring landscape photo to B&W and sold it for millions.

There isn't a war on one of the most popular genres of photography (models and beauty) just because you were offended that someone thinks many photos of pretty people shot with pretty light in pretty places are generic.

Not every photographer can inspire a generation. Sometimes a photo is only as good as how well it fills its purpose, and that's not a bad thing.

Stefano Brunesci's picture

There used to be a time when I thought that the articles on Fstoppers were interesting. Either I've moved on or the editorial standards of this site have slipped dramatically.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Hi Ryan,

You're right that sensual imagery is quickly forgettable. But it's also highly "addictive" which makes it the perfect type of imagery to shoot for profit.

*I'm playing devil's advocate*....Coca Cola and Pepsi might taste good while they're being consumed, but the good taste disappears as soon as the product is gone. In other words, drinking a soda is a completely forgettable experience. However, soda companies have found that people become addicted to the momentary sensation and will continue to buy more and more sodas. The addiction creates a huge market of customers that can never be satisfied. From a business perspective, there is nothing better than a customer that will keep buying because he's never satisfied.

The same basic idea that applies to soda consumption also applies to sensual imagery. Viewers will see a sensual image and quickly forger it. But, they will immediately start looking for another sensual image. This creates plenty of work for photographers because the need can never be satisfied. Therefore, there is no amount of shooting that is ever enough and, theoretically, photographers can continue producing this kind of content forever.

An artist might have a good reason to create a memorable image, but a commercial photographer looking for profit is often better off creating "disposable" images because then the market is never satisfied and clients will continue to seek him out for more work to devour.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Yup, you are absolutely right. My focus when writing for this article is to help people who feel forgettable is a bad thing. If your goal isn't to create a lasting impression then there is nothing wrong with creating images like that. A forgettable image isn't necessarily a bad thing, it is merely an aspect an image may or may not have.

Take Maxim, for example, people don't usually see a maxim cover then return to buy it later. Maxim focuses on channeling all their images into making the sale right now. The entire magazine is designed to convert customers at first glimpse. Personally, I can't remember any maxim covers off hand but I know there have been many that caught my eye.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Good points. I can't remember any Maxim covers either, but I definitely used to look at them every time I was in a magazine aisle.

Jay Allan's picture

I shoot sexy imagery for a living. Have been since 1992. A lot of shooters think just because I have a sexy beautiful woman in my viewfinder it is a great shot. That is a big common mistake. Very interesting points about how the brain works. I agree with most of this article. My work at www.sexandshadows.com

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

please get rid of the music on your site ASAP.

Doc Pixel's picture

Impressive work! I do believe you've found a new fan ;)

About the music: I actually didn't find it bad at all... although, it's surely not necessary to enjoy your site.

Jay Allan's picture

Thanks guys! Music is very subjective for sure. I have had more positive feedback about it then negative and I get plenty of work so for now it stays. I do have it set to the lowest volume automatically as I not a fan of self playing music of videos on sites generally. I don't thing it is really a question of is the music bad or good. I good question might be, do I need music in my portfolio? That would be a cool article for FS! :)

Jason Ranalli's picture

This article really nails it. Sexy has to involve some sort of mystery to keep people coming back - this is why photos with some girl who is just naked spead-eagle come off as cheap and classless to me no matter how hot the girl is. There's a fully clothed girl in another photo with a really alluring look that will make me go back and view the photo every time. And for the record, I'm not against nudity but there has to be a balance.

David Coo's picture

I'll keep this in mind as I get more serious with photography: no sexy women. But seriously, it's a good point. Now that I'm learning all the photography secrets from that trick photography book (review of it here: http://steamspoils.com/trick-photography-and-special-effects-review/ ) I might just try and photograph some women JUST TO SEE if I can use all the cool techniques to produce memorable artwork with cliche subject material.

taytus's picture