So, you’d like to try your hand at nude photography. Most photographers, at some point in time after picking up a camera, ponder shooting the Nude. And they are in good company, artistically speaking, as the human form, the female figure in particular, has been the focal point of artistic endeavour since the dawn of time.
If you are going to photograph the Nude, a little art history is well in order. The advent of photography in the 19th century was first seen as a technological breakthrough that could aide traditional artists in their creative endeavours rather that as a medium of art in and of itself. The realism afforded by photography provided visual artists with reference material that was used as a substitute for live models. Despite the fact that the earliest photographs of nudes were meant to be used as reference materials for other artists, the very best of these early photographic images have come to be considered works of art themselves.
As a genre of photography, the Nude is subject matter that is best tackled when the photographer has mastered all of the technical aspects of their camera and the craft of photography itself. It is no coincidence that most photography programs teach Nude Photography as a course only after students have acquired numerous prerequisites in basic and intermediate camera skills and studio lighting. When you are photographing the nude, the last thing you want to be dealing with are technical issues, both as a matter of good manners and one of logistics. Before shooting the nude you should have not just knowledge but command of perspective, effects of focal length, depth of field and compression. And by good manners, I mean to say that you do not want to be trying to figure out what you’re doing while a nude model waits patiently for you to get your act together.
The paradox of nude photography is that while it may be one of the easiest genres to photograph, it is one of the most difficult at which to excel. World-renowned photographer Ralph Gibson, a famed nude photographer and widely considered one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century, remarked, “If you can shoot the nude and architecture, you can shoot anything.” As photographers we ultimately create images to be viewed by an audience. I don’t need to belabour the point with the observation that there has always been an audience for nude images. Nudes are the low-hanging fruit of the image tree. Hang a nude, you will have an audience. At least for a fraction of a second. You can’t fight two hundred million years of evolution. We are compelled to look. It’s a breast. A penis. A pair of buttocks. But just as quickly as we recognize it, we look away.
A great nude photograph demands that the viewer’s gaze endures, that we pay close attention, it directs the eye, it forces the eye to linger, it has emotional power and depth and asks the viewer to contribute to the conversation. We are engaged with the image on an intellectual, visceral and emotional level. The great nude photograph has content, form and a point of view. It has something to say.
The easiest way for the new nude photographer to say something with their images is to use someone they know as their model. If you have a friend, partner or lover who is willing to pose for you, that will greatly simplify your photo shoot. Your emotional connection to your subject can be a wellspring of inspiration as you attempt to convey your relationship pictorially. Your relationship is a point of entry. It’s also a point of departure.
It will also help you get over the initial awkwardness that invariably happens as you attempt to learn a new skill. Alfred Steiglitz, Edward Weston and Harry Callahan all created iconic nude images with their partners as Muse. As a nude photographer you should endeavour to find a photographic Muse, as the creation of art is always easier with a creative partner with whom you can collaborate on a regular basis.
If you don’t happen to have a Muse at hand, my first advice to the novice nude photographer is to sign up for a class or workshop on Nude Photography. There are multiple good reasons for this. First, it will provide you with a structured environment. If you don’t already have all the necessary photographic skills, or there are one or two gaps in your technical skill set, having a knowledgeable instructor at hand is a wonderful safety net. Your instructor is also probably going to give you assignments or instructions that are a great leaping off point for your own inspiration. If your creativity is a furnace, then think of your instructor as the pilot light that gets you going. Your locations will be provided for you, so all of your logistical issues have already been addressed. Most importantly, you will have a chance to work with models who are comfortable in a classroom or workshop setting.
Posing is a critical aspect of nude photography and working with an experienced model is the best way to ensure that you are going to create good images. Additionally, many of the models in such workshops also work as fine art figure models for painters, sculptors and life drawing classes. This is an excellent opportunity to make connections with models you can work with at a future date. And finally, any class or workshop worth its salt will have image reviews and critiquing as an integral part of the course syllabus. The feedback you get on your images from a knowledgeable instructor is absolutely invaluable to your growth and development as a photographer and an image maker. There’s enough variety in the marketplace that you can choose classes that run from one or two days on the weekend, or that run from ten to twelve weeks as three hours classes on a specific night of the week. Such courses usually cost $500, and when you factor in the number of hours of instruction, the facilities and or locations provided and the access to experienced models, they represent incredible value.
If you don’t have a Muse, or a workshop isn’t available, you are going to need to find a model to be the subject of your nude photography. As this is the age of the internet there are any number of places you can find models. You can place Casting Calls on websites like Talpool.com, ModelMayhem.com, Craigslist and Facebook groups catering to photographers and models. In some cases you are going to need to create a profile before you can create a Casting Call. A critical element of your profile is going to be your portfolio of photographs. And of course, if you haven’t done any, or much nude photography, you are not going to have examples of work to show prospective models. The best way to clear this hurdle is to create a portfolio of your most accomplished work. Bear in mind that models will then be judging your photography skills, taste and talent based on those photographs. On Craigslist you are going to need to have a personal website or photography-based platform that shows examples of your work.
In your Casting Call or your Craigslist Ad, you should be very specific about what you are looking for in the way of models, what you hope to accomplish with your proposed photo shoot and what you are offering in the way of compensation. Models are going to want to know the time, duration and location of your photo shoot, your concept, how much they are getting paid, if they are going to receive images for their own use, if you have references from other models, and whether or not they can bring a chaperone. Photographers who don’t like chaperones accompanying models to photo shoots, nude shoots in particular, are raising a red flag. This is especially true if you are an unknown quantity to the model or the photographic community (model safety is a whole other article).
Personally, I always want to meet with models before doing a nude photo shoot. It’s a chance for us to break the ice and get to know one another. A nude photo shoot requires a level of intimacy and trust above and beyond other kinds of photo shoots. This gives me an opportunity to show the models my work, discuss the ideas and concept of the proposed photo shoot, and evaluate whether or not I think we’re going to be able to work together. I assume the model is making the same assessment of me. And when I say I show the model my work, I like to bring a portfolio of actual prints. The rare times I don’t meet with models it’s because they are from out of town, or because we have mutual friends who are vouching for us.
As a novice nude photographer you are almost certainly going to have to pay for your models. You may have heard of TFP, which used to mean “Time for Prints”, but is generally accepted to mean Time for Photos these days, and is the model exchanging her modelling time in return for the photographers photos. As a novice nude photographer you are an unknown entity and it is unlikely that models are going to pose nude for you for free. This is another reason to start out your venture into nude photography with a class or workshop. You will have images to show prospective models.
The going rate for an artist’s model at a fine art school is currently $25 an hour. Most experienced photography models are going to want $75 to $125 an hour to pose nude and they are going to want to book a minimum of two hours. Many models offer special rates for half days and full days of shooting. As you can see, the $500 photography class that gives you 30 hours of instruction over the course of ten weeks and the opportunity to work with a number of experienced models offers excellent value.
As a novice nude photographer the best investment you can make is in an experienced model. The greatest complaint that models have about photographers is that they don’t get enough direction. Models love direction and a photographer who has a very specific vision. Even the most experienced models don’t know exactly how they appear to you through your viewfinder. Nothing pleases them more than a photographer who is actively working with them to ensure that they look their very best. If you do work with an inexperienced model, it becomes even more vitally important for you to have a game plan for your photo shoot.
If you do not yet have a portfolio of work to show your model, you can substitute your work with examples of the work of other photographers who inspire you, or who’s work you would like to emulate. Create a “mood board” with examples of poses and the style of photography you are pursuing for your photo shoot. Web platforms like Tumblr or Pinterest are excellent means with which create collections of work you can show a model.
I shoot studio nudes with studio lighting, indoor nudes with available lighting or strobes, and environmental landscape nudes shot outdoors with natural light. If control of light is what I am after, I much prefer to shoot within the confines of a studio with strobes because I am in complete control of light. Natural light outdoors is the easiest to shoot only in the sense that the light you have is generally what you have. Plus, it’s free! Even outdoors, you can finesse the light with your positioning and reflector. For the purposes of this article for I will discuss shooting the nude outdoors in the landscape.
If your nude photo shoot is going to be outdoors, you need to decide early on what role the landscape is going to play in your concept. That decision is going to effect where you choose to shoot and what kind of location you are looking for. Are you looking for close-ups, bodyscapes, intimate portraits or figures in an epic landscape? Your model may also have an impact on your choice of location. I have shot with models who were so comfortable with their bodies and nudity that if I asked, they would happily doff their cover-up on the corner of the busiest intersection in Vancouver at the height of rush hour traffic! Other models, especially those less experienced, and even more particularly those subjects who are not models at all but who are willing to pose for you as a friend or a partner and join you on your artistic journey, may want absolute privacy. I highly recommend scouting locations before embarking on a photo shoot. You don’t want unwelcome surprises during a nude photo shoot.
Any time you embark on a nude photo shoot outdoors, one of the issues is going to be whether or not you have permission to be nude in that location. Municipal, provincial and federal parks and lands all have regulations regarding nudity. Private property is another matter entirely. You and your model should discuss her comfort level before you shoot. Some outdoor locations attract hundreds of visitors on the weekend, but are largely vacated during the week. Many locations are empty at first light, so sunrise can substitute for the sunset that is likely to garner many more people to a particular location. At all times, your primary consideration is your model, and your secondary concern is how the location is going to effect the images you produce. Again, this merely emphasizes the importance of scouting your locations beforehand.
You and your model should discuss how you are getting to the location, and I am all in favour of carpooling, that way, everyone shows up at the same time and it’s good for the planet. Before the shoot, you and the model should have discussed what you desire in the way of hair and make-up, the presence or lack of personal jewelry, wardrobe (if any), etc. Once you are on location, ensure the model has the ways and means of touching up hair and make-up. Runners or good walking shoes are always best if you have to walk for any length of time. If the location is at a beach or near water, a pair of flip-flops are great.
Depending on the time of the year, items like sunscreen, bug spray, a warm blanket, a thermos of hot beverage or a supply of drinking water are all important items to consider. Between shots, I always encourage my models to slip into their cover-up, which, depending on the time of the year can range anywhere from a bath robe to a large beach towel, to a warm blanket and a long coat. If staying warm is a consideration, don’t forget heads and feet, as models can lose heat rapidly through both areas.
Remind the model that on the morning of the shoot, not to wear bras or panties or other tight and constrictive clothing items that will leave marks or lines. An industrial strength underwire brassiere can leave lines that can take up to an hour to fully disappear. Even yoga pants or exercise gear that contains Lycra or spandex can cause an issue with inseams that will leave lines. Loose is best. Lines can result in a lot of photoshop in post-production if you don’t want those lines to appear in your photos.
If you are shooting for more than two hours, you must have water and snacks. And even pack a lunch. Modelling is hard work. Keep your model hydrated and their blood sugar up. Lots of models will not eat the morning of a nude photo shoot. But snacks will help keep everyone focused and alert and happy. You can’t be too happy.
For you as the photographer, when it comes to shooting landscape nudes I recommend shooting as light as you can when it comes to gear. That’s why it’s so important to know what you are going to shoot before you start, and know what your requirements are. These days, the heaviest gear package I would take is a camera body and two lenses, a folding reflector, a filter or two, an extra battery and a tripod. And I only take the reflector or the tripod if I really think I am going to use them. In my vehicle I always carry an Emergency First Aide Kit.
I tell all the models that I shoot with outdoors that I only have three rules.
The first rule is to, “Be Safe”. Climbing on or over logs, or slippery rocks on the beach can be dangerous if you’re not careful. Rock with barnacles, seaweed or mussel shells are the worst. Both slippery and a cut hazard. Hence the need for good footwear. The creation of art and the pursuit of beauty and truth are noble callings, but you don’t want your model to get hurt. It’s just not worth it. And you must remember that you’re in charge of your model’s safety. In their enthusiasm and passion, models may very well want to climb trees and scale cliffs to “get the most amazingly perfect shot ever!”. Don’t let them do it unless it’s SAFE. Also not a bad time to consider whether or not you have any third part liability insurance. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
My second rule for the models is for them to, “Be Comfortable”. If they are too hot or too cold, I want them to take a break. If they are tired of holding a pose, I want them to take a break. If a pose is too uncomfortable I want them to stop. Photo shoots are not sprints. Photo shoots are endurance events and it is vitally important for you to pace your model. You want the photos, poses and expressions at the end of a photo shoot to be just as good as the ones at the beginning. And also, it may take some time for you and your model to get into a rhythm, particularly if you haven’t worked together before.
The third and last rule I tell models is, “Be Happy”. If your model isn’t in a positive frame of mind, it is absolutely going to show in the images. It’s the same reason I always want the model to be comfortable. As soon as she is too cold or uncomfortable, I don’t care how skilled she is, it’s probably going to be reflected in the images.
To repeat, my three rules are:
1. “Be safe.”
2. “Be comfortable.”
3. “Be happy.”
As soon as the model knows that the rules are all there for her benefit, it’s going to increase her comfort level, which should allow her to do her best work. As I tell my models, “I can’t do what I do without you.”
On location, the one thing that I am always keeping track of is the path and the position of the sun. A bright, clear, sunny day at Noon has the harshest, least flattering light conditions possible for shooting portraits and often, nudes. But I’ve also created some of what I consider my most beautiful work in this conditions. There’s just less room for error.
Generally I prefer first and last light. A consideration for nude photographers, and something to always bear in mind, is that sunrises always attract fewer people than sunsets. A location that you might never be able to shoot at sunrise, you can shoot before people arrive in the morning.
I love shooting in fog, mist, and on drizzly, overcast, rainy days. In most cases, the biggest task is convincing a model that she will not turn blue on such days. This is why proper planning ahead for the weather conditions is so important. Dress accordingly and come prepared. You can shoot in the snow for several hours if you are well-prepared and have planned ahead for the cold.
During the day, if the sun is very bright and high overhead, I am working in open shade and/or along a shade line. Nature can provide many varieties of light modifiers and diffusers and you have to constantly be on the lookout for them. I love the effect of dappled light streaming through the leaves of a tree.
At the beginning of the shoot I make a point of getting an attractive shot of the model as soon as possible, even if the image is not exactly what my artistic aim is for that day. I want to show the model something on the back of my camera as soon as possible to give her confidence. She’s your creative partner and you need to make her feel that way as soon as possible.
I give the models and subjects I work with a lot of direction and a lot of vocal encouragement. To me that seems so obvious that I am always astonished to hear that not every photographer works that way. I also make extensive use of the back of the camera to illustrate for models what I am after in a pose. As in, “if your arm position or leg position were here, that would be stronger.”
When posing models, it is vitally important to communicate exactly what you want. Not all poses are straightforward, so I don’t hesitate to model the pose I want for the model. I have no problem looking ridiculous. The model, after all, is nude. As a general rule of thumb, never physically adjust a model. Occasional a model will be in a pose and I will ask her permission if I can remove a strand of hair from across her face. But that’s only if she can’t do it herself because she is hanging upside down, and I ALWAYS ask permission before doing so. You must respect the physical space of the model. The same goes for offering assistance. As in, “would you like a hand up?” Every model is different. You must respect what each model feels comfortable with. Again, I can’t emphasize how important is to communicate with your creative partners. Communication can help prevent misunderstandings.
During the shoot, make a point of being solicitous of your model’s happiness and well-being. Make sure she is warm, well-fed and well-hydrated. I regularly take breaks and use that opportunity to review what we’ve created together on the back of the camera. Encourage your model to give you feedback. Some the best shots I have in my portfolio came from ideas that models came up with and suggested.
If you are working in and around water, you must be extra vigilant of the safety and well-being of your model. If the water or air temperature is less than balmy, you want to ensure that you don’t let your model get too cold. And she (or he) will be too cold BEFORE their lips turn blue. If they get too cold while shooting on location it can be very, very difficult for them to get warm again. If you want water shots, make sure the model knows that before the shoot. And that they are comfortable with them. And plan for them to be the last shots of the day.
As the shoot progresses I have a mental checklist I go through for myself. Am I getting the images I wanted? Do they fit with my concept? Am I telling the story I wanted to tell? Who is my model? Who is she? What is her story?
After a shoot, if i don’t have it already, I get all of the model’s contact information. And settle any outstanding account we might have and take care of the model release. I then tell her when she can expect edits. My standard position with nude shoots and models is that I will not post, publish or print anything without showing the models first. Because the post-production can take so long on some of my personal fine art work, I try to get a model a shot or two within a few days of the shoot. Some models don’t care, but for most I think it’s exciting to see an edit from the images that we oohed and awed over during the shoot. Again, I am thinking of my model as my artistic partner. The other consideration is that when I have a good working relationship with a model, I will want to work with her again. Model are a bit like dance partners. The first time you dance with someone you are learning their moves, idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses. It may take a few dances before you have learned to read and anticipate each others’ best moves. If your first photo shoot together with the model is a success and a pleasant experience, the greater the likelihood that a second photo shoot may be possible. I have shot with one model more than three dozen times and a number of models more than a dozen times. And it absolutely shows in the work.
A couple of other considerations to think about during your photo shoot. During a nude shoot I will often shoot some close up portraits of the model, especially if the light is particularly beautiful or flattering. I will also shoot some poses so that the nude is implied rather explicit. The portraits and implied work is there to give the model more choices when it comes to images she might want for final edits, and if she is a professional model, it gives her new material to post on her social media. It also helps you build a long term relationship. Quid pro quo.
Finally, when it comes to social media, have a very specific conversation with your model about posting and tagging her images. Some models will want to be tagged, some will not. Many professional fine art nude models will have a modeling name, or stage name that is different from their legal name. Always be respectful of their pseudonym or artistic nom de plume.
Although this may seem like a lot of information, it’s been my experience that the more you plan the shoot, the happier you will be with the results.
Have a great photo shoot!