Updated: May 17
It's not so easy, is it? A few months ago, you were a starry-eyed budding boudoir photographer who was ready to take over the world. There's one small thing "they" forgot to tell you. It's hard...
Boudoir photography has changed so dramatically over the past ten years, and not necessarily for the better. Boudoir was once this almost "secretive" type of a thing. Women didn't really speak of it in public. Making an appointment with such a person as a boudoir photographer was, as worst, scandalous- and at best not exactly something upstanding women would want known.
There was a time when non-disclosures were sometimes requested, and the idea of a woman having a photo in a brassiere was best left under lock and key. Scandalous! --Fast forward a decade or so, and my, things have have changed.
Society has changed, and boudoir isn't nearly the sketchy fringy thing it once was. Heck, now I have women "live streaming" and posting shots to their Instagram accounts while they are with me getting photographed. Women love sharing their albums with friends and even get wall prints from their sessions for their homes. Talk about a one-eighty!
How can that not be a change for the better? Well, there's a bit more too it. And that's where it get a big more complicated. The social acceptance of boudoir has changed. The technology used to capture it changed. Your boudoir photographer has also... changed.
Today, everyone walks around with a great camera on them at all times-- called a smartphone. We're all photographers, in a sense. People take photos by the hundreds, if not thousands. What makes you so special that someone is going to pay for something they can simply do themselves... On their iPhone?
Additionally, over the past six or so years boudoir photographers, and boudoir photography both have taken a strange turn.
I think of it as the "Boudoir Boom." I guess it was like a mini version of the "poker boom" of the early 2000s. The "Boudoir Boom" sprang to life 2011-ish or so, when suddenly boudoir photographers started springing up like weeds in the summer.
High quality cameras were just a few mouse clicks away, and the philosophy was "I just bought a pro camera...therefore I guess that means I'm pro!" All you needed was that crafty Amazon purchase and a Wordpress template and *BOOM!* you were a pro and in business!
Not only that, though, your new found destiny in life was to not only photograph, but to "empower" the universe! Suddenly, you couldn't turn left or right without seeing hordes of boudoir photographers suddenly trying to out "empower" and out "fierce" the other. (Which is confusing, because that in and of itself doesn't really mean anything.)
What presumably started as someones clever marketing idea quickly spread like a cold almost everywhere. Before long, it seemed most Boomers were "all in" on this "empowerment" religion. Everyone was logging in to the same "How To Be A Boudoir Photographer" website for marching orders. It was (and still is to an extent) fever pitch! If you were not out "Empowering" your fellow photographers... you were doing something wrong! Empower! Empower! Empower!
Along the way, the Boudoir Boomers forgot one simple thing: The photography part. Its hard work. Really hard work to get good. The actual "photography" part seemed to become somewhat of an afterthought to their whole movement. I'm all for the spirit of helping people through photography, and the Boudoir Boomers hearts are in the right place, but a camera and a credo don't automatically mean great photography. And, boy, oh, boy, what fun it has been to observe!
Your good social intentions are not enough to succeed.
Just For Example...
What if I woke up one morning and decided my destiny was go become a pro golfer? That morning I got up and ran down my local sporting goods store and asked for the same golf clubs Tiger Woods uses. Now I am a pro golfer! Could I run down to the nearest PGA event walk on and say "I'm a pro golfer now...look at my clubs... I want to play in this tournament."
Doesn't really work that way, huh. (Not to mention I don't even really know to play golf.) I'd probably need years of practice to even approach that level.
To the Boomer, the concept of the 10,000 hours of practice to become that expert somehow got lost in the shuffle... This, among other shortcomings, including a fairly pervasive lack of self awareness, makes it difficult to prosper in a business that is difficult enough in the best of circumstances.
So, business hasn't been really what you thought? You followed your internet boudoir mentor's advice to the letter, bought every Lightroom action you could, and plastered empowerment phrases all over your social media... no luck, huh.
Aside from the general lack of expertise and awareness, there are some other issues which plague modern boudoir. I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of these factors.
You Didn't Find Your Own Vision
Why are you doing someone else's photography? As an active member on social media I see boudoir work all the time. The one shocking thing I notice is how so many starting boudoir photographer's work looks alike... and not necessarily in a good way. I've long thought there must be an online "How To Be A Boudoir Photographer" website out there somewhere where all these people go to get their marching orders.
I understand when people are starting in photography they need to learn-- and everyone starts somewhere! (Me included.) I could, however, create a blog post alone of bad copies of photos I see online all the time. It reminds me of TV news clips where they show reporters from all across the country saying the exact same things despite them being on different channels.... marching orders!
How many poorly done shots "through" a low hanging glass chandelier (not to even bring up why a chandelier would be hanging 4ft. over someone's bed to begin with...seems like I'd be banging my head on that every day. 😖) but STOP.
How many poorly done shots of milk baths.... (Pleeaaasse stop!) Dear God.
It's not cute, or sexy, or anything. It's just badddddd. The list of these shots just goes on and on.
So, why do you want to do someone else's photography? And do it poorly?
Find your own vision. Painting like another artist isn't going to make you great. Singing like Cher isn't going to make you a music star. True greatness comes in finding your own voice, and forging a unique path. Why would you want to be doing someone else's photos?
Discover your unique talent and go with it. This takes time. I understand that everyone needs a bit of inspiration to get started and pushed in the right direction, but choose your "inspiration" and mentors wisely. Modeling yourself after bad photography, well, leads to more bad photography.
A $3 online "expert" boudoir handbook, or posing guide is useless. Trust me, if they are an expert, and selling their years and years of accumulated hard-earned knowledge for just $3... well, I can pretty much tell you they are no expert.
Curating your own "style" and "look" takes time, and maybe thousands and thousands of photos. --Which can take years. --Which may be thousands of hours of blood, sweat and tears. That's how you start. Its not going to be found in a posing guide or in a shitty eBook of "secret" boudoir tips from a self-proclaimed photography guru trying to separate you from your money under desperate circumstances. Pose number 16 is not going to bring you riches.
The photography business, as a whole, is ripe with lots of self-proclaimed "experts." There are dozens of life altering Lightroom preset packs out there just waiting to magically transform your photos. A quick internet search will reveal hordes of eBooks and courses chock-full of business "secrets" which promise both riches and the allure of being booked solid. These items are making the creators money... not you.
I see all this happening, and I love it! I want more and more people to buy this crap, and fail. More customers for me!
A true photography mentor/educator who would take you on board and provide actual hands on education and training would be in the thousands of dollars. It would probably take weeks of training. It's work, no way around it. Finding your vision only comes with time.
The point is, there are no shortcuts here. If you're more the self-starter type then it begins by spending money on models (or if you have friends who'll volunteer, and you'll owe them big time) who will volunteer their time, and spend hours and hours practicing poses until you get it right. Which leads us to...
You’ve Got To Grind - Work, Work, Work.
You don't know the meaning of it. When you are sitting up till 1AM every night, writing blog posts, editing photos, updating websites, working on ad campaigns, etc., you'll start to get an idea of what I mean. Literally, I mean every night. --And none of that stuff is even practicing the actual photography. The photography business is a lot of hard work!
If I want to become that great guitarist do you think it happens without practice? Lots of practice? Like, every day?
People often underestimate what it means to "work hard." I have to admit, there are some people who have the business and marketing part nailed, and they've figured out how to bring in customers, and can get by on their marketing skills with marginal photography. They make clever ads. They're out there-- and kudos to them for being great marketers and sales people. They've got that part of the puzzle figured out. They know their customer. They know how to target their customer. --And they create messages that resonate and get responses.
Marketing, in and of itself, is almost a full time job to learn. Do you know your customer? If you had to describe her, who is she? Master that, and your train has slowly started to move forward.
The best of intentions or a new found inspiration in life is not a substitute for skill or knowledge.
If every day you even make one step toward getting better... as the old saying goes a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
You Didn't Realize It Takes Time
Boudoir photography is a super tough business. Building a clientele can take years. Literally. Boudoir, in part, is a big referral based business. Your previous clients who used you when they doing their bridal sessions, will (hopefully) refer you to their friends when it's their turn to tie the knot. They, in turn will refer their friends. --Its like that old Faberge Organics shampoo commercial
In part, that's a big part of how your business will grow. That takes time. So how long have you been at it?
Right out of the gate no one will know who you are, and no one will care. Expecting people to line up is a bit of a fantasy. Waiting for people to randomly stumble across you is not the best way to grow a business.
It takes a long time for your website to develop trust in the eyes of Google and start floating up to the top of the search rankings. You can pay SEO types to tweak your website, but that is only part of the equation.
So, you started an Instagram account. Great! You started blasting "special" offers in your posts. That didn't seem to go anywhere, huh? Well, being Instagram is global, your posts aren't exactly targeted to people in your business area. (By the way, do you even know who your target market is?) Instagram is a really poor tool for local discovery. Do you go on Instagram yourself to find "Thai food near me?" Nope. Neither does anyone else.
As you build a following, you will develop nearby followers who may be potential clients, but people tend to follow Instagram accounts they already know about... not ones they don't. Building a following in Instagram is hard. It's another (which is about the third or fourth) full time job in and of itself. (See the previous section about The Grind.)
Blogging? Oh my God, those guru websites you've read said you have to have a blog. Everyone does, right? Well, blogging is yet another full-time job, with sloooowww returns. (Remember... no one knows your website even exists!) Essentially, you'll be writing posts to no one at first. --But remember, this is a section about "It takes time." Writing lengthy, informative posts will draw readers over time. Google loves long posts, but long posts can take weeks to complete.
Pro Tip: Nobody cares about "Miss A's Boudoir Session" blog posts, nor does Google. That's not the strongest way to build traffic for your business.
A blog is a weapon. Blog posts aren't random rants or posts. There is a definite structure involved in using a blog as a force to drive people to your website-- That's its only purpose. Yet another thing to learn and study. Forget your online photo mentor's advice, and stick with a real expert, such as Neil Patel.
Advertising? Sitting around waiting for people to come to you is a bit of a death sentence. What was your marketing plan? Over time I've spent more and more every year on marketing. Client acquisition costs are pretty high. If I told myself back then what I would be spending yearly on advertising now I would have just shaken my head in disbelief. It took me a while to figure it out, but I did.
Were you ready to be spending $20 per customer? $30? $40? $60 to bring in each person? Is spending $75 worth it to make $1300?
My marketing costs are now in the thousands yearly. We're you prepared for that? Did you work hard enough to figure that whole marketing business game out? ...It takes time. If you never defined your ideal client, you certainly can't sell to them.
You Didn't Step Up Your Game
I understand your life's goal was to make women beautiful...and you've got a whole list of internet "empowerment" catch phrases artfully blasted out on your Instagram feed daily, but is your photography equal to your message? And after all, isn't the photography what it's all about?
The funny thing about the womens portrait business over the past few years is that the photography part doesn't seem to be the main focus of the "Boudoir Boom" photographers. The photography part seems to be a bit of an afterthought while the more important part is the message about "changing lives."
Let me give you a bit of harsh reality: Bad photography isn't changing anyone's life.
To use another example-- If I woke up one morning and decided my life's passion was going to be an amazing rock guitarist-- the best ever-- and I sprung up in the morning, and ran down to the nearest Guitar Center and told them, "I want the best electric guitar you have." Would that make me a professional rock guitarist?
Do you think if I ran home, put up a website www.MikeCassidyKickAssProGuitar.com advertising myself as a "professional rock guitarist" that means offers should come streaming in for me to star in rock bands? (Even though I've never really played in my life?) Do you think I qualify as a "pro" just because I think I am?
Why wouldn't it? I put up a freakin' awesome heavy metal website and "Rock On!" is plastered top to bottom across it. That means I am rock! Rock On! I have seriously decided I am going to change the face of Rock... I know it!
...Well, maybe not. It takes years and years to become an adept guitarist-- not to mention you'll need that natural ability to excel, and thousands of hours of practice, and finally, a bit of luck.
Contrast that with how people wake up in the morning and suddenly label themselves as "professional photographers." Two months ago you were the star of an at home cupcake business, and now you are a pro boudoir photographer. Amazing!
Just like Van Halen wouldn't be calling you to come join the band and play guitar two weeks after the first time you picked one up, neither would tons of boudoir clients be knocking down your door to take advantage of your scary-good photography skills two weeks after you picked up a camera.
Does that make sense? I'd say a good idea before slapping the "pro" label on yourself, try taking a few thousand carefully thought out practice shots of friends over a year or more to build up your chops and abilities before offering yourself up to the masses.
Even though your heart is set on "empowering" the women of the world, good intentions only go so far. Once again, bad photography isn't helping anyone.
Back in the good old days...
I remember when I was just messing around when I started to take an interest photography. One thing that still fascinated me, though, was how I could be the best I could be.
I knew I sucked. (Everyone sucks when they first start...) I would study photography for hours and hours and hours...literally. I wanted to know why some photos were good, while others weren't. I wanted to learn how to take those good shots.
When someone first asked me to photograph a woman, I pretty much knew I had no idea what I was doing. Call myself a "pro?" Heck no. I remember I had a mannequin I used for selling some clothing on Ebay at the time and I laid the mannequin out on my spare bed and used it to practice.
I took so many photos I couldn't even tell you how many. I messed around lighting and posing the mannequin in different ways. In a manner of speaking it was the perfect model!
I would have never even thought about charging someone at this point! I did quite a few sessions at first just trying to figure things out. Every session was a mission. I studied those damn photos I took like I was trying to save the world. I made notes on how I messed up, and what I needed to fix. I made shot lists. I wanted to get better with each session, and I still follow that philosophy today.
If you haven't been sitting up till midnight (or later) analyzing photos, editing photos and trying to figure out to get your photos to where they need to be, you haven't been putting in the work.
You're "Geographically" Undesirable
Mancos, Colorado. Essex, Connecticut. Wallace, Idaho. Is that where you're working out of? They're all cute places, but you're most likely in a geographically undesirable location.
Despite what you think, boudoir photography clients are just a small subset of photography clients in general, and photography clients are just a small percentage of your population. The smaller your metro area, the smaller the pool of possible clients are available for you.
If you live in a small town, or community, you are at an extreme disadvantage to the potential client base to someone in a much larger metro area. You're starting with two strikes against you.
Will people travel to you? Maybe. Can you travel to clients? Sure. It may help, but if you're not near a larger metro area, it may get pretty tough.
The Boudoir Audience Is Small
This is, in a way corollary to the bullet point above. The potential client pool for boudoir photography is small. Pretty darn small. Did you know that? ...Not only that, it can be fairly seasonal, as well.
Despite what you may believe (or have been told), boudoir is a niche business. In the battle of the fittest, the strong will survive. With a small pool of potential clients, the battle is on to win them. Each client is valuable. Each has to be carefully brought in through your sales system (whatever that may be) and closed. You left the station half prepared... and someone like me is going to eat you alive, and have fun doing it.
Your Business Plan Was Poorly Thought Out
...Or maybe there was none. After all, you started with a website and a dream. Did you know about 95% of the photography business takes place with no camera in hand? I mentioned a bunch of non-photography related tasks above, and there are lot's more. You need to be not only an expert at photography, but you need web site skills, social media skills, marketing skills, sales skills, people skills... the list goes on. It's exhausting!
We started from the bottom now we're here.
It's like that old saying-- how are you going gain experience as a photographer... when everyone is mostly shopping for photographers with experience. It's a tough problem to crack, but it can be done. How do you get going? What exactly does it take to get over that hurdle?
How do people behave when they are on your website? You don't know? (There is another skill you need to learn and use.) Head over to your Google Analytics account and see how people browse when they are one your website. Which page(s) get the most views? Most likely it is your gallery.
Your images are a big part of what starts the interest in your business. Did you know that? Your gallery needs to be sharp to attract attention. Super sharp. Do you think marginal work is going to draw attention?
If you think people aren't shopping around, you're misleading yourself. In this internet age of shopping and online reviews people overthink and over analyze everything. Not only that, people are poor shoppers. They are. People are horrible when it comes to shopping for certain things...especially service based businesses like photography. People have been trained their entire lives to spot the lowest price-- and that must be the winner. The difficulty with that methodology is that it doesn't apply equally across all purchases. Hey, if you're trying to find a deal on a Nikon Z7, and you can save yourself $100 grabbing a flash deal over at B&H versus Adorama, that's great! A hundred bucks back in my pocket-- I'll take that every day. You would have received the exact same item making either purchase,.
This system doesn't work so great when trying to compare pricing on two or more things that aren't necessarily that same....or in situations where we have incomplete information. For instance, if there were two homes for sale and one was $125,000 and the other was $195,000-- which is the better deal? In that instance, it's impossible to know the answer. We need more information. I know the $125,000 is cheaper...but is it really better? How many bedrooms in each home? Where are they located? In a situation like this knowing the price isn't necessarily enough to make a smart decision on buying. People are so programmed to make decisions based on price from birth, they will often not pay attention nor care about any other details of what they purchasing. Look at how you shop in a grocery store...
That's why the food on your grocery store shelf keep getting smaller...and crappier. Ice cream containers and shrinking. Yogurt containers and shrinking. Candy and snack packing is getting smaller...and smaller...and smaller (and yet somehow people are getting bigger??)
Why is this? Because people are trained to look at one thing-- Price. When two ice creams are next to each other on a grocery store freezer shelf people are going to grab the item with the lower price, ("What's on sale this week, Agnes?") That's why your containers keep getting smaller-- So manufacturers can artificially manipulate the price to keep it the same, or make it lower. Not only that, the problem get compounded because due to the fact that what is in the packaging gets manipulated to the point that you may have a tough time finding real ice cream! The products are shrinking, and real ice cream has long been replaced with a crappy slurry of fillers, air, hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers, etc., to make them cheaper. (Did you ever look at an average grocery store ice cream ingredients label lately? Frightening. You wanted to know why people are getting bigger?)
So, not only is food packaging getting smaller, but what is in the package is getting shittier and shittier. That's another trick. Manufacturers know that en large, people do not care what they are buying... as long as it is cheaper! Grocery shoppers are manipulated like sheep to buy shit...and they do.. no questions asked! Because it was a few cents less!
What does this have to do with photography? Everything. It's a situation you have to deal with every day. Are you prepared? So, what was your move? Discount your prices! Wrong! What? Didn't you just saw people buy because of lowest price? Let's take look.
The Race To The Bottom...
This is the number one failure of most photographers (other than being self aware about their work.) This all circles back to knowing your customer, having an outstanding level of excellence, and having a business plan.
You looked around and told yourself, OMG there are so many boudoir photographers in my area and some of them are practically giving away free sessions....how can I charge people any money when Cheesy Boudoir is offering $49 sessions? You then went the "grocery store" route and started charging less and less to get someone (anyone!) to buy your ice cream. You joined the race to the bottom! Congratulations, you committed to a path of certain doom with all the others.
So, those $49 boudoir sessions didn't really work out quite the way you thought? What about those fake model calls? You know, the ones where you mislead people by offering "free" sessions, and try to stick them buying photos afterward... That photography mentor swears she makes soooo much money using that tactic. Hmmm. That's a shame.
You were so confused. You followed your internet mentors step by step... what went wrong! Even if you did get a client here or there, netting yourself $2 or $3 an hour (or less) isn't going to pay the bills. Or make a living. You thought, It's impossible to make money in photography when there are sooo many people around me doing photoshoots for practically free or super low prices. I cant compete.
As I mentioned, you're not alone... this is the part where many photographers fall by the wayside. The race to the bottom isn't going to bring you riches. I told you at the beginning of this article boudoir photography was hard.
So, what's the solution? Is there one? Why yes, there is, and it should have been part of your business plan from the start. Being I am no internet photography guru (nor do I ever care to be one) I am not going to give you the solution to this conundrum, but I will give you a hint. (After all, my expert knowledge isn't something I offer for free...)
Every hear of Gucci or Louis Vuitton? Sure. Let's say that Marshalls decides its going to start selling a line of women's hand bags for $29. Do you the executives in Gucci are sitting in their meeting rooms going "Wow, we're not going to be able to sell bags anymore... bad news, Marshalls just started selling a bag for $29... we might as well shut down." Not likely.
I'll leave that for you to think about....
Is there still hope for a failing boudoir photography business? Sure there is. I'm always a bit put off by reading blog posts or articles about the photography business that give the impression that its so simple. It's exactly the opposite. It's an industry that is in decline. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the photography industry will get hit hard over the next decade, losing thousands of jobs. With everyone walking around with a camera in their hands 24/7 in the form of a smartphone why do they need you?
All of the self-proclaimed photography mentors belting out how easy it is to book clients, make money, and sell more products are often just placing themselves in a position to try to sell their "solution" to newbie photographers desperate to get a start in the business. If they were so successful, trust me, they'd be too busy taking care of their clients. If you were walking through the forest and found the money tree...would you run home and start telling everyone else where it is? Don't think so.
The path to success will be different for everyone, but the one thing to remember is that just because you suddenly woke up with new inspiration to change lives, doesn't mean its owed to you. It isn't as easy as you were led to believe. Initially, it involves a certain degree of self awareness that you are new at what you are doing, and lack the technical expertise and practice to be a great boudoir photographer. --You aren't a pro golfer just because you bought a fancy set of clubs. It takes tons of practice and a bit of natural talent mixed with a relentless desire to become the best.
If that's you, you'll know, because you'll be sitting in front of a computer monitor till 1 to 2AM studying boudoir, and teaching yourself how to make great photos.
Find your own vision.
Grind it out to do what it takes to power your business forward.
Understand it takes time for results to even start take shape.
Step up your game and master the technical aspects of boudoir.
Create a realistic plan that covers your trek to success.
It's not too late...