The Evolution of Boudoir Photography
Thursday 20th June 2013
|| The Evolution of Boudoir
Sue Altenburg gives the perspective from the USA
I remember the exact day I decided to start doing boudoir photography though it was over 25 years ago. I had just graduated with my degree in photography and was working on building up our family business. At that time our studio income was 95 per cent wedding photography. A new photographer moved to Las Vegas from New York City and started displaying what he called 'boudoir' photography at bridal shows where we were promoting our weddings. I had never heard of boudoir photography and frankly I was a little uncomfortable when our brides started enquiring about whether or not we could do a boudoir portrait for them to give to their groom as a wedding gift. At that time in the 80s the idea of photographing women in their lingerie was still a bit scandalous even for Las Vegas. I had no idea how to make women look good in lingerie and so I dismissed the idea as a passing fad.
Above: Hair and make-up styling for boudoir portraits helps create a variety of looks for the clients and reduces our retouching costs.
Later that year I booked a wedding of a well-known local businessman who reserved my top package. I was trying to move up in the wedding world so that I could raise my prices accordingly. This was the kind of wedding that I knew would give me great referrals and get me into the right circle of clientele. When his bride called me before the wedding to ask if I could do a boudoir portrait for her to give to her husband, I gave her my standard answer that I didn’t do 'that type of photography'. I had forgotten about her request on the day of their wedding. They booked a full-day coverage, which began with a trip to their home for 'getting ready' photos, then to the church for a full mass, portraits afterwards in the church and then to a park. By the time I made it to the reception I was already tired and when the announcer said that they needed the groom to come to the centre of the dance floor for a special surprise from his bride, I had no idea what was going to happen. Two groomsmen carried out a large box with a huge bow and the groom pulled out his wedding gift, a 24x30 canvas wall portrait in a gold gilded frame of his bride. It was a beautiful, soft, head and shoulders boudoir portrait (showing only a tasteful bit of cleavage) that looked like an oil painting. The groom cried, the bride cried and everyone went crazy. The rest of the night I was asked over and over if I did that gorgeous portrait of the bride and I had to say, while mentally kicking myself, 'No, I don’t do that kind of photography'.
Above: Our fireplace set is our most popular. The red brick wall is inset with a 24' X30' Duratrans of a fire that is backlit by a studio flash.
Above: Retouching is essential on boudoir portraits.
That night after I finished a few more hours of photographing their reception and I was finally able to put my aching feet up on my desk, I pulled out the boudoir photographer’s price list. I nearly cried when I realised that he had got more money for that one canvas portrait and frame than my whole wedding package! He probably spent a total of two hours with her and I had spent eight hours at the wedding already and the bulk of my production work hadn’t even started. That was the night I decided that uncomfortable or not I was going to learn to do boudoir photography!
I launched into a learning phase on posing, lighting and how to build sets in my studio to help create a mood. As an all-female studio I learned that we had the upper hand in getting women to be more comfortable in front of the camera. Our brides loved the idea of a romantic, personal gift they could give to their groom for the wedding. The grooms loved the fact that it wasn’t a male photographer who was looking at their woman in lingerie!
We set up some guidelines for our boudoir photography that have served us well through the years. We decided that above all our boudoir photography would be soft, sensual and flattering to the women that we photographed. Essentially, we would do photography that was pretty enough the women would like it, yet sexy enough their men would appreciate it too. We would stay with poses that were classic and not trashy. We always tried to remember that 99 per cent of the time we would be selling to the woman, therefore pleasing her was the most important thing. My motto became 'if it looks good, show it and if it doesn’t hide it.' I learned many little tricks to make women look thinner and to disguise problem areas with posing, lighting or the addition of a strategically placed prop. I also learned that the right style of lingerie can make a woman look 20 pounds thinner, so doing clothing consultations with the client prior to the photo sessions became a necessity.
My goal was to sell wall portraits so I opted for a little more conservative approach to clothing and suggested that the women wear lingerie that covered 'at least as much as a two-piece swimsuit' would. That suggestion helped sooth their nerves about displaying a portrait of themselves in lingerie on the wall and increased our wall portrait sales.
We also decided to start projecting and do away with proofs. We used slide projectors and slide proofs to show the images in our studio. I wanted to sell to the client when they were most excited and that was when they first saw the images. I didn’t want them to be able to take home proofs and get the enjoyment out of the images without having to purchase them. To make projection a positive thing to our clients I would tell them 'we don’t want anyone to see a portrait of you that’s not perfect!' I also wanted to avoid sending out proofs that showed cellulite, stretch marks or any other imperfections and have them show their friends. That wouldn’t be a good advertisement for our photography. We set the policy that no portrait would go out of our studio without being fully retouched and finished. From the beginning all of our boudoir prints were priced sufficiently to include full retouching.
I learned right away that you can’t take a woman in every-day make-up and hair, put her in front of a camera, and have her look glamorous. I enlisted the aid of a friend who was a hair and make-up artist and started offering professional styling for their photo sessions. Showing clients before and after photos of the tremendous difference the professional make-up and hair made in the finished product, sold them on having it done. They would go to the salon first and have their hair and make-up done and then come to the studio camera-ready.
Promoting at bridal shows, on radio and even TV, within two years we topped out at 365 boudoir sessions in a year. With all those new boudoir clients coming in we received some unexpected benefits. I found that there is no more loyal client than a happy boudoir client. I learned that if you can please a woman in what is undoubtedly the most uncomfortable photo session ever, you will be her only photographer for life. My boudoir clients became my best advertising by referring me to their friends and family. When they had their own children they would come back to us. I found that my maternity, children, graduate and family portrait business kept steadily building as a direct result of my enthusiastic boudoir clients.
Now, some 25 years later, our boudoir business is still going strong. In fact, it is now our studio’s second biggest income producer just behind family portraits. We find that there is always a fresh crop of brides who are looking for a great gift to give their groom. Though we still advertise in bridal shows, now it is only for boudoir clients and we pass their wedding photography onto someone else. Our web site and internet placement also helps us to attract out-of-town clients who are looking for a unique experience when they are visiting Las Vegas on vacation, or while in town, on business.
Above: A classic fireplace look and setting.
Long gone is the look of the 80s big hair, lacy, frilly, lingerie and very elaborate sets. We’ve opted for a look today in our boudoir portraits that is current and reflects what women see on TV and in magazines. We’ve updated our sets over the years, replacing our white, country bedroom set with eyelet bedspread and pitcher of tulips with a contemporary, sleek white futon. We’ve gone back to the classic Hollywood era for satin sheets in burgundy, black or gold for overhead portraits. Pin-up style and vintage-inspired portraits have become very popular so we have added sets and props to create portraits with a retro feel. Always looking for something new to offer our clients, we’ve recently added custom body painting as another option.
We now have a complete hair and make-up area in the studio and our stylist stays with the client throughout their entire session. By offering sessions that include between four and six background and clothing changes, we can give the client a variety of looks in hair and make-up from classic to urban to vintage or pin-up. The more different looks we can produce in one portrait session, the more prints we sell!
We still project all our portrait images, now with the use of a digital projector. For local clients we opt to have them come back for their viewing two or three days after their session. That gives us time to fully retouch and enhance one or two images of our choosing to show them at the start of their viewing. Showing their own personal 'before and after retouching' helps them visualise what a finished portrait will look like and stops them from concentrating on their flaws. For out-of-town clients we can show the images immediately following their session and ship them their finished portraits.
I think it’s an empowering experience for any woman to realise that she can look just like the women she sees on TV and in magazines. So often as women we compare ourselves to the ideal image of what we think those women look like and feel unworthy. I tell our clients that we offer them all the same benefits that the celebrities have: professional hair and make-up, professional retouching, and great posing and lighting. Boudoir photography touches that little girl in all women who loved to dress up in mom’s high heels and put on make-up and jewelry and pretend we were glamorous women. It’s the experience that sells and I know that I’ve done my job when they leave the studio telling me 'This is the most fun I’ve ever had'.
Above: Contemporary furniture pieces can create a stylish, modern look.
Above: Simple props such as a man’s white shirt and tie reflect the 'Maxim Magazine' look that is popular with our younger clients.
Above: Vintage looks can be created with period hairstyles and clothing with a retro feel.
Above: Body painting creates a custom lingerie look for the client. Painting is done with temporary tattoo ink and applied by hand and with airbrush.
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Society of Fashion and Glamour Photographers, 6 Bath St, Rhyl, LL18 3EB