Readers' Submissions

Photography Series Part II, Photographing Women Nude

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • October 14th, 2006
  • 25 min read


By BKKSW

Well, this sure isn’t night photography with the F30! I very much wanted to get that night photography series done but by the time you read this I’ll have been down in the south (Pattani / Yala / Narathiwat) learning first hand why people are blowing shit up and specifically why tourists have become a target. So, like everyone else work takes priority. Still, I wanted to talk about photography and perhaps one of the most interesting things I do is photograph women nude, either for play (theirs) or fine art. I’ve had many people ask about photographing Thai women and while this submission is about what I was doing in the states and how I was doing it, much of it will apply to the amateur photographer in Thailand. I’m not going to get into the gear or the technique or even the lighting, but more about the interpersonal skills involved in photographing women naked and working with them during the shoot. Also, I want to touch on the moral / ethical part of the job and as a professional / artist where I draw my lines.

FIRST COMMANDMENT OF PHOTOGRAPHING WOMEN NUDE: NEVER LET AN IMAGE BE VIEWED BY ANYONE ELSE'S EYES BUT YOURS AND THE LADIES UNLESS YOU HAVE A SIGNED RELEASE FORM SPECIFYING HOW YOU INTEND TO USE THE IMAGES. Seems basic right? I know at least five different photographers who let images be viewed without written permission who are now a great deal poorer than they started out, all have ruined reputations as photographers. Don’t think this can’t happen to you if you take a naked picture of your girlfriend and it ends up on the web, depending on which country you live in you could lose everything you’ve worked so hard for.

SECOND COMMANDMENT OF PHOTOGRAPHING WOMEN NUDE: NEVER ALLOW ANY IMAGE NOT INTENDED FOR THE WEB TO BE STORED ON ANY COMPUTER WITH WEB ACCESS. The stories I’ve heard… Viruses are the least of your worries, you wouldn’t believe the number of people who have stored naked pictures of their wife / gf in their Yahoo Photo album, Pbase, or some other web based picture service and then act surprised when someone nabs them and they end up on a family member's computer, their children’s computer, or even on a porn site. I got burned once. I have a Pbase account that allows password access. A client specifically requested her pictures be put on a password protected website so her husband who was serving in Iraq could view them for his Christmas present. (She had an album made up as well) I warned her the site I use provides password protection but I couldn’t guarantee their security once they were up and made her sign a release to that effect. I also warned her that “significant others” will often share these types of photos with a “trusted other” and then that person trusts someone else and so on. Well, it was bad enough when this is exactly what her husband did and soon the guy's entire company had naked (and suggestive) pictures of his wife on their laptops including his CO! How do I know? Because I add tracking bugs into the pictures I put on the web that is pretty much like a Trojan, a certain date goes by and if not deactivated sends me the ISP and computer name / info of the machine they’re stored on. By the end of February 214 computers had sent me information. That was his fault. A porn site broke through the Pbase security and nabbed her pics and had them on something like 27 websites. I visited her at home and told her all the bad news and she was so pissed at her husband she let me off the hook, actually she was a bit flattered a porn site wanted her images and later we made more that she sold to some porn sites. Still, the potential for big time legal trouble reared its ugly head so now I won’t even process or store these types of pictures on an “on-line enabled” machine unless I intend to use those pictures on-line.

THIRD COMMANDMENT OF PHOTOGRAPHING WOMEN NUDE: ALWAYS HAVE THEM BRING A FRIEND TO THE SHOOT OR SIGN A WAIVER SAYING THEY KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING AND IT WAS AT THEIR REQUEST THEY’RE ALONE AND NAKED WITH YOU. It would seem common sense to make sure someone other than you and the model is there but in practical terms this is rarely done. Why? Because women have a tough time taking their clothes off for you much less having their friend / sister / mom looking on. “In general” this is what goes on in a woman’s mind during such a shoot. Most women have to work up the courage for such a shoot while at the same time being photographed nude is a major fantasy for women, right up there on the scale next to the male fantasy of a threesome. It’s something they really want to do, but it scares them to death. Women who want to do this will “shop” for a photographer they will be comfortable with. What makes them comfortable? One client put it to me this way, women only take off their clothes for men for three reasons. 1. To make money. 2. For the doctor. 3. Because they want sex with you. I’m not a doctor. I don’t pay women to pose either, they pay me. However, some of them are paying me to make portfolios for them so they can then make money.. but still every woman I’ve asked who’s been in my studio “why did you choose me” gives me as one of the reasons “because you’re the type of person I’d enjoy taking my clothes off for normally.” Ok then.. Makes sense to me.

When shopping for a studio / photographer women are looking first for integrity (see commandments 1 and 2), next for privacy during the shoot, a photographer they like, and skill. When the phone rings the first questions after “do you do nudes” is “who sees the images?” “Do you send them out to have prints made?” Security questions, they’re looking for someone who has 100% control of the images and takes care in safeguarding the files and has enough integrity to not sell / show them without permission. I’ll briefly go over the measures I take and then invite them over to browse through portfolios. This gives them a chance to see the studio, the office with the stand-alone machine I use just for this purpose, the locked file cabinets where the files are stored, and to meet me. I also explain that the studio doors get locked during these sessions, the “closed” sign put up, and that they’ll have total and complete privacy. If we “click” then they schedule.

At the time of scheduling we go over a few things. First, we decide if they want a hair and makeup lady. Sometimes they’ll get “sprayed” but usually not. Most of the time they want to be natural and will prep themselves before coming and touch up in the dressing room. The pros will often bring their own makeup / hair people who will have already prepped them and then will touch them up once ready and then leave. Anyway, this is their choice. I can use lighting and post processing to much the same effect anyway and we discuss this. I also recommend they not wear any elastic or tight clothes (bras / panties) for at least 4-5 hours before the appointment. The marks from elastic can be quite severe and last a long time. We also touch on hygiene, trimming “hair” (different styles), nails, jewelry, outfits, and what’s involved with the shoot. Physically the shoot can be tough since it really is work and some poses involve a decent amount of isometrics. We’ll also talk about them being nervous (it takes the average woman about 30 minutes to loosen up and get comfortable and into it), natural reactions (nipple hardening, lubricating themselves, air releases) and how ‘normal’ they are and how we deal with them. Finally, we talk about my need to touch them to position them into the right poses, arrange hair, arrange “parts” for some poses, and so on. They need to know exactly what to expect.

And this gets to the third commandment. Get them to sign the waiver saying they’re with you alone at their request and they take full responsibility for anything that happens and that they’ve been told certain things are necessary (spell them out). Because this is a major fantasy for women they really want to be alone and get into the “role” and not have someone they know watching them do so. It’s not at all unusual (though not my any means does it happen all the time) for the woman to outright request your involvement in some way (sometimes offering extra payment), as a “prop” for “special pictures” to asking you to engage in sex with them, more often they’ll be very suggestive hoping you’ll request it. Don’t. It’s also not unusual for them to get worked up which can require some clean hand towels, nor it is unusual for them to touch themselves for some of the pics or get into it so much they get off. I just keep clicking away doing my job and when finished hand them a hand towel and I’ll go change lenses or something. Because ‘after’ it can get awkward, create guilt on their part, embarrassment, etc.. get the waiver signed. I’ve not had a single problem come from this, but I’m certain a handful of problems were averted because of the waiver.

BTW – A husband or boyfriend is not a good person for them to bring as they’ll be “eyeballing the photographer” who’s “eyeballing their woman” and it makes everyone uncomfortable. The only way I’ll recommend a husband or boyfriend come is if they’ll be participating in the posing and then I’ll only ask them to show up for that part of it. This usually isn’t a problem.

ADDITIONAL HINTS: I always provide a clean bathroom for them to use, a guest bedroom for them to lay out their outfits and to change in private, and inside the studio I’ll set up a changing screen and clothes hanger rack. It usually goes like this. When they first come they LOCK the guestroom door to change, perhaps go there one more time before seeing the changing screen in the studio, then carry their stuff into the studio and change behind the screen, and then start changing right out in the open by the clothes rack. By the time 20-30 minutes has gone by they’re changing right in front of you like you’re not there. They just want to have the choice and not feel like you’re making them change in front of you.

The first 20-30 minutes are the hardest for them. They’ll be very shy, insecure about their bodies, and nervous. You can help. First, don’t stare at their “parts” while talking to them. Maintain eye contact, verbal command, smile a lot, and help them feel at ease with generic compliments like “you stay in nice shape” “that teddy goes well with your skin tones” and so on. Do not say things like “you’ve got nice breasts” or “I like the way you shaved your pubic area” and other comments that direct their attention to a specific part of their body and tells them what’s on your mind at the same time. They love it when you joke with them, ask about their family / kids, their work, anything but being naked. Joking (not sex jokes or jokes about their body) works wonders. Soon they’ll drop that “deer in the headlights” look and start smiling as well and start getting into it.

I usually request they bring in images from magazines (FHM, Maxim and the like are great for this or fine art nude books if that’s their desire) they’d like to duplicate, and of course from my own portfolios / bookshelves. Once they get comfortable after the first 20-30 minutes of generic poses and the like.. move them into the poses you’ve already discussed and go to work. You’ll need to move an arm, a leg, move hair, wipe away moisture, and other physical touching quite often if you’re going to do your best work. Just don’t touch them without asking. At first say “I need to move your leg do you mind?” or “Can I arrange your hair?” After you do this a few times and they’re comfortable with things then just tell them what you’re going to do like “I’m going to move your shoulders down just a bit” “let me move your arm here” and so on while actually doing it.

To get their faces / expressions where you want them to be get them in the habit of going to their “private place.” Tell them “since this is a sensual pose I’d like you to think about your husband appreciating you in this position” “Imagine you’re being held as you sit there” “You’re on a beach on a warm night with..” and help them find that place where the expression gives the camera that special look that fits them the best. Don’t’ be afraid to tell them what works or not. Most women don’t look that great with a big smile on their face, big smiles create big wrinkles and causes their eyes to close more. Instead tell them what’s happening and ask them to “half smile” or “quarter smile” or “just purse your lips” or “ just let your mouth open till your teeth show and wet your lips with your tongue” or whatever it takes to get the look you are after.

Pay attention to what poses work best for their body type. Save the raunchy poses for the last 30 minutes or so when they’ll go wild and “Fu-k” the camera. Instead, make the poses classy and arranged in such a way to hide those stretch marks, roll on her tummy, stretch out her butt cheeks with the pose so the “flap” is stretched tight and not left hanging, be careful that when she twists her torso she’s not the type to get “fat wrinkles” that bunch up, same goes with the neck (no turkey necks please), no bottoms of the feet showing, bring the parts you want to show off forward in the frame, and don’t forget about perspective. You can’t be standing above her looking down with the camera all the time. You’ll need to get down on the floor with her, if she’s on a bed in the studio get down on the floor and shoot up, if her raven black hair is splayed out over the white sheets you might want to get a step ladder out and do a “look down” shot. Whatever you do, don’t shoot from the same position the entire shoot. Be creative and be willing to exert some physical effort to get up and down and all around the model.

Music helps, a lot. I’ll always have my Ipod hooked up to the big box and ask them what kind of music they like. My standard sessions are two hours so I have about ten different two hour play lists that reflect different tastes in music that usually start slow, build in tempo, then faster, and then returns to slow. The music never needs to be loud, shouldn’t be loud. She needs to hear your directions and you should always talk softly and touch gently. Just enough volume so she doesn’t hear the fans on your strobes as the only source of rhythm.

Control the temperature. I’ll always ask during the consult phase (it’s on my check sheet) what temperature she’s used to at work / home and then adjust a bit for light / no clothes. When first starting out you might not want her nipples erect so be sure it’s not too cold and do these shots first. As soon as she warms up to things her nipples will go erect and her female genitalia will start to enlarge and moisten so if these parts are large naturally and you want to keep them as small as possible then keep it a bit colder. I keep a few spritz bottles of water on hand, one at room temp and another in the small fridge in the studio, and then use them wisely. Water can look like oil and won’t soil your expensive muslins, seamless, or your props bed sheets / duvets. If oil must be used for the look you’re after you can put down some acetate over things and go for that “reflective” floor look.

NO MATTER WHAT do not blink, speak, or acknowledge in any way when they expel air. If they’re moving around a lot and have gotten moist a bit air will often get sucked in and almost any repositioning can make it come out. Same if they pass gas (though the smell from this is rather obvious). If you act like you didn’t notice then they’ll recover quickly and not miss a beat, but if you make a joke about it then they’ll often get really embarrassed and it will break the mood and disrupt the flow of the shoot. Sometimes.. not so much in Asia as they use the hand bidets.. some tissue will be stuck in their “parts” and require removal. Just be tactful. If you’re at that stage where you’re “doing while saying what you’re doing” then remove it yourself, if not ask her to do it. This stuff can be hell to touch up later.

More on the mood. Make sure the phones are off, your instant messenger on the computer has the volume turned down, the closed sign is up, and no one will disturb you. You’re working hard to get that “right mood and expression” to make the shoot for a long time and you can lose it in an instant if your mobile phone goes off, especially if you do something dumb and answer it. Remember, this sort of session is very intimate and should be relaxing and enjoyable and you’re setting a mood just as much as if you were having sex with her. In fact, that’s the mood you want her to be visualizing for the best results.

During the shoot it can help ease tension, fill a void or awkward moment, build confidence, whatever.. if you share your work. When you see a particularly good image bring it up on the LCD and walk it over to her and show her and work in a compliment. A few good previews and she’s well on her way to having a ton of confidence and the close proximity of you sharing the cameras LCD with her helps ease tension. Often, I’ll either be shooting tethered to a laptop (if on location) or to a PC in the studio with a big 21.5” monitor attached where they can watch ease pose in real time as the images are captured. Women love this! To them it’s like looking in the mirror and they’ll make small adjustments and start “working the monitor” big time. If I ever set up another studio I’ll be putting in a 50” plasma just so they can see themselves in real time.

Keep refreshments on hand. Coffee can keep them alert, juices and bottled water well hydrated. I NEVER serve them alcohol for obvious reasons. You might want to have a few Danish’s or perhaps a tray of small breads and cheeses available. Women, especially women who maintain “modeling weight” can really have their mood changed by hunger or even a drop in blood sugar. Keeping them hydrated and their stomachs happy pays off big time. Be aware that even a small amount of food might prompt a bathroom break for a bowel movement so only encourage enough to keep working and to maintain the flow.

When finished with the session (usually signaled by letting her know this is the last post, time is ending, or she’ll just tell you she’s tired) make sure you compliment her on how hard she worked, how great she looked, talk about when she can view her soft proofs, and answer any questions that might have come up during the shoot. Have a large soft bath towel standing by to hand her when the shoot is over and before you start talking to her so she can cover herself and if you have shower facilities let her know it’s ok to use them and that she knows where they are and how everything works. Don’t hang out around the shower / dressing area during this time. Grab your flash cards and head to the office and save cleaning up the studio for after she’s gone. After she’s back in street clothes she’ll come out and you’ll get a last chance to compliment her and tell her how great the images will look when you have them ready, and then slip her a print pricing sheet and appointment card for the soft proofing appointment. While you might have gotten “familiar” with her during the session now is the time to put back on that professional face and demeanor to match her change of mood as she’s leaving the studio. Wait until AFTER she’s gone to go check the studio for panties and bras and teddys she might have left behind. If she did bag them in a brown paper bag (not a clear plastic bag where bacteria can fester and can be viewed and embarrassing later) and write her name on it and save it for next time. Some of these garments can cost hundreds of dollars each, she’ll be very happy to have them back.

In ending this I want to touch on some of the more obvious moral ethical issues. We’ve already talked about never sharing (with anyone, not our wife, co-workers, anyone because it has a way of biting you on the ass) images without written permission, but what about what I call the “grey line” decisions, letting an of age high school senior turn the last half of her senior portrait shoot into a cheesecake shoot? Or maybe the husband / bf shows up for their part of the shoot and starts having sex during the shoot with the model, or the model asks to use “part of you” as a prop? What about if the model tells you before hand that her husband strongly disapproves of her posing nude but she’s going to do it anyway? Or if the husband / bf shows up and wants to buy prints? All kinds of stuff happens. I’ve had couples show up armed with “toys” and tell me they just want me to photograph them having sex and not to stop clicking until they do. One guy brought his first cousin to give him oral sex for his birthday and he wanted pictures of the act. I’ve had husbands and wives argue over who owns the images, often the husband who paid for the shoot thinks he does and sometimes they want to use them in divorce court. Here’re some guidelines.

1. Don’t even do or allow anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about in court. Simple enough eh? Court is where some of these issues get resolved. If you’d feel embarrassed explaining to a jury that first cousins were getting it on while you clicked away then I wouldn’t recommend it.

2. Whoever has to legally sign to release the images (the model) owns the images unless you’ve been provided a legal contract beforehand and the situation clearly is mutual. If someone shows up with a legal contract after the fact and wants the images I won’t release them until I’ve talked with the model and know she’s aware of her rights. It would take a sheriff's deputy at the direction of the court to make me turn over any images to anyone except the model under such circumstances. I will never surrender the original files, or even copies of the files, nothing but actual prints, unless agreed to beforehand or at the direction of the court and my lawyer. Unless otherwise arranged by contract if you took them, you own them.

3. If a person shows up for one type of session and tries to turn it into another I’ll request they simply schedule an additional appointment. I’ll even offer them a significant discount on the second sitting fee. On their way out I’ll schedule the additional appointment AND get her to sign any releases / waivers that day. If you allow the appointment to turn into something different you won’t be legally prepared by having those documents prepared and signed. Don’t give into temptation just because she’s hot and is asking.

4. It doesn’t matter to me if a husband or wife doesn’t want the other to get their pictures taken. Adults have freedom of choice. What I will do is ensure the person is really comfortable with things and not acting on impulse.

5. Again, I won’t even sell prints to husbands even if the woman calls and says it’s ok. She must come in and get them herself.

6. I don’t allow people to have sex in the studio unless it’s pre-arranged and additional waivers / forms are signed. I know a photographer that was successfully sued for partial child support after a couple claimed he “encouraged” them to have sex and they conceived on film! Unusual yes, impossible no.

7. NEVER allow yourself to be used as a prop on a paid shoot. Amateur stuff I don’t know about but I’d gather it wouldn’t be much of a problem unless someone got vindictive. If you can’t help yourself from boffing the model do so knowing you’re opening yourself up for grave legal troubles. At least try to have her come back later (at a time other than her appointment time) for the boffing.

8. Have your lawyer go over all your contracts / waivers / notices. Make sure they’re valid for your state and current. If given permission to sell nudes this is especially important. I once shot the entire cheerleading squad for a popular college football team, both group and individual sessions. As part of my payment I obtained permission to use the photos commercially in any way I saw fit. Fortunately I had my paperwork in order and when the college tried to sue me to take the files from me so they couldn’t be used they ended up paying my legal fees, fees for the photos, and for an arbitrator to observe me destroying the images. I never was ordered to turn over the originals.

I hope this has been of some use to you. I realize that most of you will be shooting in your homes vs. studios but I’m sure you can adapt most of this as needed. This certainly skips ahead many articles into the future but this is where my mood took me today. I’ve had many people ask about photographing women naked while here in Thailand and these techniques would certainly apply. I wish I could answer the question about transporting the files through customs and I did make a phone call to U.S. Customs and was told signed releases should accompany the files. This also applies to the mail, though they’d probably confiscate the images vs. charging you. Good for you, bad for the woman who’s now a screen saver on every custom agents laptop.

Until next time..

Stickman's thoughts:

Really interesting stuff!