Updated: Apr 16
Hi, I'm Michael. I'm a professional boudoir photographer who gets to work with women from all over New Jersey and the NYC area. Have you been thinking about starting a boudoir photography business? Looks fun, right? Well, it is! There's more to the story, though. This "more" part is the most important, but "not-so-fun" part that people starting off don't want to hear about. Even worse, they think they can skip over steps because it doesn't apply to them. Why wouldn't it apply? Well, we'll get into that, but let's just say people starting a photography business can lack a bit of self awareness, which can really hurt them in the long run. Curious? Take a few minutes to read my boudoir photographer tips-- it may change your fortunes...
It all starts with a dream...
Great! You woke up one morning with your new found passion of becoming a womens portrait photographer. It seemed like it was only a few days ago when your friend Ashley told you that one of the photos you posted on Facebook was "so great, and you should be photographer." "Well, why shouldn't I be?" you thought. You weren't going to just be any old photographer, though, after some quick searches on YouTube you settled on becoming a womans portrait photographer... a.k.a. a boudoir photographer. What a wonderful aspiration and a tremendously fun business. It seems in boudoir photography you're not only taking photos, but you also get to change women's lives! --Or at least that's what the "experts" on YouTube said. Your sudden inspiration has you ready to go... so what's next?
Next stop: Amazon.com You break out your trusty credit card, and pick up a "Pro" camera (because now you're a Pro... you need that kind of stuff.) The only other thing left is your new web site. That's easy. **BOOM** You're now officially a "Pro" and YOU'RE OPEN FOR BUSINESS! Wow, getting all that stuff done was super easy. Barely an inconvenience.
All that's really left to do is talking your old friend Ashley into doing some sample photos for a photo shoot with you, and then the world is your oyster. After that task, it's time to crank up that new Instagram account and start posting "empowerment" posts until your fingers are sore. Let the fun begin!
The fact that you know nothing about boudoir photography sessions shouldn't be much of an issue, nor should the fact that you don't know how to photograph women-- why should it? The real goal of boudoir photography is to help women feel "empowered" and to "change their lives," -- YOU'VE GOT THIS! LET'S GET SOME BOUDOIR PHOTOS!!
...And that's the point where you're pretty much committing to failure.
You just don't realize it, yet. This story (or a version very similar to this) is, remarkably, how most people believe the start to a successful and fulfilling career in photography begins. Nothing could be further from the truth. Want to avoid that crash and burn trajectory and give yourself a fighting chance? The sad news is everything written below is pretty much stuff you don't want to hear... and (according to you) doesn't really apply to you, because you have a "calling." --Well, that "calling" and $4 will get you a cup of coffee in any local Starbucks.
Below are some real world tips on giving yourself a chance.
1. You're Not A Pro...
Great! You're inspired to change lives with your new found passion. You've found your calling! Let's play a game and swap out your desire for being a "pro photographer" and substitute "professional rock guitarist." So you race down to your local Guitar Center, walk in, and exclaim to the nearest sales person, "I'm going to be the best guitar player ever! I want the same guitar Eddie Van Halen uses..." You take your guitar, race home, sit down at your desk, hop on Wix and make your brand new website imaproguitarplayer.com and the offers from major bands should come rolling right in, right?! YOU'RE GOING TO BE RICH... AND FAMOUS!! After all-- you've just declared yourself a Pro!
That just makes sense, right? Err. Well, maybe not. That would seem a bit of an odd expectation, huh? Especially, since you don't even know how to play the guitar. If you had a friend who you told you about such a story you'd probably scratch your head.
This is exactly what "new" photographers do though, right? Wake up with their new found passion, hop on Amazon and buy a fancy Canon 5D Mark IV, buy a new website, and *BOOM* -- I'm a Pro Photographer!
What's the difference between the two? Nothing. They are both just as odd, and neither makes senses. So, there's your first tip. You are not a Pro.
Tip: Buying a camera and having a Wix website does not make you a pro.
2. ABC... 123
When you know nothing about playing the guitar what do you do? Take lessons? Or do sit around with the expectation that Maroon 5 will be calling you to go on tour this summer? (Again- knowing that you have no idea of even how to play a guitar?) Well, the first order of business is probably taking lessons. How can you play in a band-- let alone play anything-- before you even know anything about a guitar? You seek out a local guitar teacher and sign up for some lessons, or if you've really a self-starter purchase some guitar lesson books or online courses about learning the basics of guitar. Then you start to grind it out.
So, you know nothing about taking photos, but yet you're a "Pro" now, right? You, too, need to take lessons. Lessons?? OMG How boring. You're right, Mike, I don't need that. SKKIPP. Well, becoming a photographer isn't any different than becoming a guitar player-- it takes practice. The first obstacle to overcome is your lack of self awareness, that, well, you don't know anything about photography, or the photography business. Keep on thinking about that poor guitarist I mentioned above. Find a community college that has a basics class or local professional photographer who offers mentoring or workshop classes... and become their best friend. At this point there is still a long road ahead. Your "real world" chance of success at this point-- 1%. Remember-- you're the "pro rock guitar player" who doesn't even know how to play.
Tip: Start with some camera instruction and learn the basics.
3. Practice Makes Perfect
So, you've had your guitar a whole month! You've even learned a chord or two! So, are you a guitar Pro NOW? Well, that's still a long way away. Taking Spanish lessons for a month doesn't make you a professional translator, and practicing guitar for a month doesn't make you a pro. Keep yourself locked in the bedroom every day after work. You just have to practice, practice, practice.
This is the step where many people will start to fall by the wayside. --And, that's OK. After all, what does actually learning how to shoot boudoir photography have anything to do with being a professional boudoir photographer?? --Or learning the photography business!!?? After all, you're on a mission to change lives! You're destiny is to make women feel great about themselves! -What does any of this practice HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING! This is all crap, Mike, I'm not going through that... Seriously, I don't need this. My camera takes GREAT photos... its the technology.
Well, keep in mind the story of the guitar player. You think you're ready to try out for pro guitar auditions after a month of handling a guitar? At this point your shitty photography isn't going to empower anybody. I know you think you're ready to change lives... but you're not. Gee, Mike, you're not making this sound very fun, or easy... Sorry, its not easy.
Tip: Self awareness is your life preserver.
4. OMG This Is Really Work...
Callused fingers. Hours and hours hidden away strumming in a bedroom. This is where even more people fall by the wayside. Learning music is a hard, slow process. Learning songs is a long, slow process. The fun has long faded away, and this is the point where for many what seemed to be a sudden passion, starts to change. For those who keep up the work, its not about just learning a song, its about learning the song right. The proper technique, the proper fingering, and playing the song correctly.
So, you're starting to get a handle on some camera basics. You see how shutter speed works, you see how the aperture can affect your photos-- but there is more. When I first started I had a drive to make beautiful photographs. I knew I couldn't do it at that point, but I studied other photographers like crazy. I knew in my mind what I wanted to create... but I wasn't able to do it at that point yet.
I wasn't thinking about customers, or being a "pro," or "changing lives," I simply had this inner drive to make great beauty photos. I sat for hours analyzing photos, and trying to recreate them in my spare bedroom with a mannequin. You would think I was a crazy person by what I did. At this point there was no notion of even starting a business, I just had a passion to learn to be the best at this type of work...and not only that, I was having a great time doing it.
Tip: If you're sitting up at your computer at 11PM regularly analyzing your images and thinking about how to get better, there may be hope.
5. Who Can Say How Long That Will Take...
If you're still plugging along at this point, there's a chance you may have what it takes. There is no set time period to competency. It may take you two years or longer of doing photos on weekends, or after work. It may take you 10,000 beauty frames before things start to click. Your long term motivation is not money or customers, but, purely becoming the best artist you can be. Don't focus on the finish line-- Focus on the starting line. If you can build those skills, other things will seem to just fall into place.
Do you think you can become a successful beauty photographer without great skills? You are fooling yourself. You'll just be one of hundreds of bad boudoir photographers posting shitty photos on Instagram. When I see that, I love it. I see it a mile away, and I use your weaknesses to destroy you in a potential clients eye. After all, your posting your weak work right online. You're the low hanging fruit. You're giving someone like me ammunition to put you out of business. --And someone like me... that's exactly what I'll do. 😀. Sorry, not sorry.
You live in an age where there are millions of photographers. Everyone walks around with a smart phone in their pocket that has a great camera. What makes you so special?
There is no outside reward in this part of the pursuit. You will come to a point as you start to look at some older photos and think, Geez, that was pretty bad. This is a good thing! You'll start to see a bit of a change in the quality of work you produce.
Oh, no, Mike. Gotcha here! See I found a $249 online course that is going to teach me EVERYTHING about running a boudoir business. THE WEB PAGE SAID SO.... IT HAS BOUDOIR "SECRETS!" Really? What a surprise. You're telling me you found someone else who realizes how difficult this is, and is taking advantage of people's natural inclinations for "shortcuts" for a cash grab. (And probably a fairly lucrative cash grab. Hmmm... maybe I should do that too. I'd be happy to take that money.) I suppose you're the kind of person who would love to be a body builder... but skip all that weight lifting and training "stuff."
Tip: People who think beauty photography is easy, are those who don't understand beauty photography. There are no "shortcuts."
6. OK. So You Had Your First Paying Gig...
It finally happened. Your coworker Debbie happened to mention to her friend Kiersten, who is getting married, that you do boudoir photography. One thing lead to another, and now Kiersten is popping up in your email inbox seeing if you can put together a bridal boudoir photo session for her. Great! Now what?
How do I charge her? Where the heck do I get photo books from? WHERE AM I GOING TO PHOTOGRAPH THIS SESSION!! This opportunity suddenly brings up an entire new series of things to work on.
So, what do you do? You tell Kiersten, "Thanks for the opportunity. I'm just starting out in this business and I want to tell you up front that you're one of the first clients I've worked on outside of my immediate friends... and together we'll get through this. OK?"
Why would you say that, because Kiersten is going to be nervous, and she'll see you're nervous, and now you'll be thrown into the fire and be presented with another entire aspect of boudoir photography you may have not even considered until this moment... client management, posing, dealing with anxious customers... and a host of other things that are part of a session.
You knuckle down, and manage to pull the whole session together. Now do you see why you have to be super competent in your camera skills? There will be so many other things to manage during the day, your camera skills need to be on lock down. You have to be Jean Claude Van Damme fighting Chong Li in Bloodsport.
...and then, BOOM, the first session is over.
Tip: If you can beat Chong Li fighting blind, you're on the right path.
7. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.
You made it through! It definitely wasn't the smoothest thing ever, but thankfully Kiersten was an accommodating client. At this point you think you probably even blacked out during part of that session and can't even remember some of what happened. Yeah, yeah, you forgot to do some shots you wanted to take. Some shots didn't turn out quite they way you wished, but you survived.
Now, some of the real work begins-- and I don't mean editing. I mean taking stock of how that first session went, and making notes of what went wrong-- and how to fix it. Write down all of the little things that you didn't expect to run into but did, or that you forgot to do and make yourself a checklist.
Create a "workflow" plan for your sessions. From the very start... to the very end about how you want to create an ideal customer experience-- and learn it. Live it. Work on fixing one small thing for each session, and before long things will become easier. Hmmm.... so there are other entire things I need to master other than taking photos, huh? Yes, there indeed is.
Actually, there's a lot going on during a session. Taking photos is only part of it. There's managing nervous women. Remembering to get all the shots. Dealing with all you gear. Helping women with their outfits. It will be cloudy. It will be too sunny. All the while the client is looking to you to guiding her through this experience. If you seem unprepared and nervous-- she'll be, as well. This is tougher than you thought! --AND you have to get cute photos through all of that. After all, that's why they are there.
Tip: Progress is all about making the small improvements session over session, and making them a habit.
8. Make Every Aspect Of Your Business Better With Each Customer
You will fumble through the first few clients and make mistakes. It's quite normal. There is no one size fits all answer here. It's not a math problem like 2+2 = 4. Everyone works differently. Every client is different. After you have been working with your first couple dozen clients you will start to settle into a system that works best for you.
It will become easier. If you have to-- bring your "workflow" along. Make yourself a "cheat sheet." You will become more relaxed, and more confident, and better able to focus on what you want to do best-- beauty photography. Life is full of curve balls-- but you won't be reaching for the panic button. What do you do when you have your first older client? What do you do when you have a heavier client? What do you do the first time when you have a client who has gone through a tremendous weight loss? There are so many different body types and each needs to be approached in a different manner.
After each session, a big part to having success is to take stock of that days activities, what went right, what didn't, and find solutions. Always getting better.
Your boudoir photo shoot is an "experience" for your clients. You need to learn to make alllll of your gear and hard work "transparent" to the process and not get in the way of your customers having a fun time. They don't care about anything technical. The more wires and stands and other crap that is in the way takes away from their day. Trust me. At this point you want to reach a new level of work. Less gear. Less interference. Making it as seamless as possible between you and your subject. The ultimate goal of "boudoir zen" is out there... and you keep pushing to get to that level.
Tip: Running your photography business is a never ending series of challenges that require solutions. There is no finish line. There is no end to learning.
9. Wait, There's Still More???
Yes. You will always be in a state of working on improving and learning. It never stops. You are never "done." You are always working to create that "Boudoir Zen." For both you...and your clients.
The photography business is hard, and boudoir photography is even harder. You've had the crash course of dealing with customers, and although it took a while you've begun to handle pretty much whatever clients can throw at you. That's good.
There is so much more. It's a new phase of your business. It could be called the "Growth" phase. It make have taken you years and years to get to this point. Not only are you editing great work. You have developed a "style." You're still staring at client photos thinking "How could I have made this shoot better?"
There is the "technical" mastery. Learning your gear inside and out. Learning your gear so it doesn't interfere. You need to control your gear, so it doesn't control you.
There are the standard business skills, like marketing. You want more clients, right? Web sites & social media: You've gotta be out there in the 2020s. Your claiming your place in the universe of boudoir, and developing a brand position. This article is only touching on a few of these necessary skills that are out there to master. These skills are many, and they are involved.
...And perhaps there is the ultimate goal. As I mentioned before, there is the "Boudoir Zen." The Boudoir Zen is the ultimate state of a boudoir photography session where you are totally there for your clients. Your gear, and everything "disappears" making your work virtually seamless with your client. You are one on one guiding them through your session. Helping them bridge the gap between how they see themselves to how they actually are. The shocking thing is that this gap is relatively small, but the rewards to making this connection are larger than you can imagine.
It is at this point you can start to feel comfortable to "empower." No sooner.
10. There Is No Guarantee Of Final or (Financial) Success
Boy, Mike, you're just full of good news. Let's go back to our guitar scenario. Ask yourself, how many people do you personally know that make a living playing a guitar? Lots of people play, but how many people play for a living? Many do it for just personal enjoyment. Some play in amateur bands on weekends. Some venture to play in coffee houses. How many end up being pro rock guitarists? Very few.
The reasons for that may be many. ...And it doesn't necessarily have to due with skill-- or lack thereof. Bills need to be paid. Families need to be taken care of. It is not simple to make a living with a camera. Despite what the internet wants to tell you, the reality is it's quite difficult.
The wonderful thing about beauty photography, or photography in general, is that it is so flexible. Photography is a wonderful hobby. A wonderful part-time job. Or a wonderful full-time job. The satisfaction you get from working with a client through a beauty session is not raised, or lowered, by how you classify yourself. They joy is the same whether you are just part-timing it or full-timing it.
As with so many pursuits in life. Money is the wrong motivation.
Tip: The universe works in weird ways. The journey is all part of the fun, and the adventure.