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Boudoir Photography Definition - Why So Many People Get It Wrong 🤷

Updated: Apr 12

Hi, I'm Michael. I am a womens portrait and boudoir photographer from New Jersey who works with wonderful women from all over my home state and the NYC area. I've been involved with boudoir photography for a long time and I've witnessed it's growth in popularity over the past 10 years. We all know a boudoir photo shoot is a unique gift for a wedding day, anniversary... or just for yourself. Even with it's increase in appeal I've encountered clients (and photographers!) that may still not really understand what boudoir is. Turns out, there may be a bit more to the definition than that you think. So, if you've been wondering what it's really all about-- you've landing on the right article.

I've worked with many clients throughout the years, and I'm still a little surprised when someone comes in for a boudoir shoot and really doesn't actually know what it's all about. Although many people may have an idea-- that somehow its pictures of women in underwear-- it seems that most don't really know the correct definition of boudoir photography. The real answer may surprise you.

Even though I talk to clients extensively, and have tons of information on my website about the subject, sometimes clients have a different experience in mind when they show up. On some level this would make me feel like I failed-- in the sense that I have not communicating properly with the client. Perhaps I didn't ask the right questions and clearly set expectations. --Or maybe, the client really didn't understand what boudoir photography really was about, from the git-go. Let's take a look...

So, that leads us to the question-- What is the definition of boudoir photography? Well, you can search the interwebs, but its sort of tough to find an exact boudoir meaning. Today we'll attempt to define the boudoir photography meaning. Google grabs their default definition from The Knot (a wedding website)-- which may not be exactly the best source of boudoir photography information.

I guess maybe... that's sorta... kinda... in the ballpark --But not really. 🤷 Hmm... so if Google isn't hitting the nail on the head, what hope do any of us have?

Well, I think what happened is that the term "boudoir," which is a fairly specific type photography, has been adopted and applied to a whole larger genre of photography, that technically isn't really boudoir. It's become, in a way, a proprietary eponym-- a situation where a successful product has come into general use to refer to a generic class of products rather than its specific brand type. For example, how Kleenex is used to describe lots of different tissues. Boudoir is used to describe lots of different types of photography...that may feature women in lingerie... most of which, though, aren't boudoir!

I think lots of people have in their minds that boudoir is the all encompassing term for taking photos in little or no clothing. ...That's not exactly what it is.

What is the definition of boudoir photography?

Well, let's start with the word "boudoir" itself. It's easy enough to see where the foundation comes from. It's a French word that means "a woman's private sitting room," or "woman's private dressing room," or "woman's private bedroom." The words derives from the French verb bouder (to sulk or pout.) The space was one for sulking in, or to withdraw to.

The word "boudoir" eventually got attached to a certain type of photography-- which we know as boudoir photography-- which is an extremely simple, but yet very misunderstood, and often misrepresented, genre of photography. The main construct of boudoir is that - as it’s name implies — typically takes place in a women’s “boudoir,” or bedroom, and contains elements of voyeurism, in so much that the viewer is observing private moments and there may be indications that she may, or may not know the viewer is watching.

Boudoir is foremost about beauty, passion, and simplicity. Boudoir is photographed in a very simple organically lit style, and may be beautiful and passionate. Boudoir is about body language and soft curves.

Well, lets dissect this a bit, and see if we can find out exactly what the definition of boudoir photography is... so we can know better what it isn't.

boudoir photo of a woman in fishnet stockings

Where do we shoot a boudoir photography session?

We can start with the word "boudoir." Boudoir is defined as a woman's bedroom or private room-- an intimate setting. It's a Where. Boudoir photography is photography that captures a woman in her boudoir, or bedroom. OK, so know we know where boudoir takes place... perhaps a bit about the Why.

Why do we shoot boudoir photos?

Well, boudoir is about capturing a woman in this intimate setting. It certainly has voyeuristic overtones. Its a look in on a woman's private quarters. It's her caught in private moments-- perhaps not meant to be seen-- creating a sense of allure. Is she smiling, or looking into the camera? Well, perhaps, but there's just as much chance that she isn't. It's for her private enjoyment.

And now, the How. How is boudoir captured?

Well, given the paragraphs above we know the Where, and the Why-- and we can use those to piece together the How. As boudoir is a simple and pure form-- so is the How. It is captured in a simply lit style, which may often be natural light, which is beautiful, organic and flowing. It tells a story and makes you want to know more. It creates allure.

Those are the three core parameters of boudoir, as defined by me. --And who else better to do it! Can there be exceptions? Of course there can. Art being art, there can be many interpretations of a boudoir photo shoot.

But there is a bigger issue...

As Stuart from the Big Bang Theory so elegantly put it "It's a little wrong to say a tomato is a vegetable, it's very wrong to say it's a suspension bridge."

There is a general lack of knowledge about boudoir photography-- from people who claim to photograph it (and want to charge people for the experience.) What some photographers are promoting as boudoir shoots are "a little wrong," while others are well into the "suspension bridge" category.

I've personally seen photographers advertising a studio session as a boudoir photography session-- and are taking photos of clients in front of pull-down backgrounds. As we've seen, that's not a boudoir shoot.

Now lets take a look at a few situations of what a boudoir photo session isn't.

What boudoir photography "technically" isn't.

boudoir photo of a woman in purple lingerie

"So, smarty-pants, you're telling me that the photos I took with my photographer in his/her studio on that velvet couch with all those fancy-schmancy lights and jacquard backdrops wasn't a boudoir photo session?"

--Um....well, not really. ...And therein lies the confusion.

If we follow the guidelines above, and take a look at the Where, does it fit with our definition? Not really. A dark photography studio isn't exactly a women's private dressing room.

Now, once again, and with that being said, I know photographers who have bedroom vignettes beautifully put together in their work spaces, so just because you visit a photographer's studio doesn't automatically disqualify you from the boudoir photo shoot experience. A nice hotel room can work equally well. Just ask them exactly where the photo shoot will take place. If they have a bedroom vignette, you're good to go.

If we take a look at the Why in your session, are we capturing a woman in an intimate setting-- peeking in on her private quarters? Well, no, again. And, because your session fails the Where, seems you automatically fail the Why-- we would lose any voyeuristic overtones.

As far as the How goes, well, in my opinion, studios sessions are never captured simply. Lots of flashing lights and equipment are mandatory-- and sometimes waaay too many flashing lights, and lots of cables, and other gear- well, doesn't seem to simple or organic, does it? It may be an impressive display of expensive hardware, but its probably not aiding to create a beautiful story. (And trust me, having lots of lighting equipment in your clients face tends to really kill the transparency and mood of a session.)

"OK, then, smarty. If it wasn't a boudoir session, what did I just pay all that money for? Huh!?"

Well, from sound of it, you may have just taken part in glamour photography or studio photography. --Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Honestly though, from seeing many of that particular style of "jacquard backdrop" photos, I'm not really sure what they are exactly supposed to be...

Boudoir has a beautiful setting

Let's look at another example.

As a second example, a boudoir session is not necessarily defined by what someone is wearing. Plopping a mostly nude woman down on a mattress shooting away does not necessarily mean it's boudoir. Lingerie is not the defining characteristic of a boudoir photo.

You can open any edition of Maxim, or similar style of men's magazine, with model photography and see lots of photos of women in various states of undress in bedrooms, and none of them are boudoir.

Look at this way... If you wanted to take some beach photos, and I said to you "Come on over and wear a bathing suit and we'll take some photos in my back yard." Would those be beach photos? Not really? Well, you were wearing a bathing suit, right? Wouldn't that make it a beach photo? There's a bit more to it... like the setting. We'd need a beach! Well, there you go. A bathing not is not the defining characteristic of a beach photo just like lingerie is not the defining characteristic of boudoir photography. Make sense? 😀

A boudoir session is about beauty. Although there may be underwear, lingerie, or sometimes even nudity in a boudoir photo, the focus of boudoir is not constant sexuality or what the women isn't wearing, but creating beauty. As stated earlier, the perspective is looking-- in an almost voyeuristic way on someone's private time and seeing them in an alluring moment... perhaps you were never meant to see.

Can a boudoir shoot be a bit racy? --Of course. There can be sexy poses, implied nude, or erotic images. The definition is certainly open to a bit of interpretation. --And that is perfectly OK. I can look at a photograph and in 1/2 second tell you if its boudoir, or not. With a bit of practice, you can, as well. If are looking at a photo and your first reaction is, Wow, she looks beautiful, or that photo is quite alluring, then you may be looking at boudoir images.

Oh, and in case you were wondering... no, there is no such thing as outdoor boudoir.

In Conclusion

boudoir photo of a woman pulling up her underwear

The bottom line is that a boudoir session should be fun.

I may be more of a purist than most. I shoot my photography and run my boudoir photography business in a certain way in a certain location, with a certain photographic style-- all the while creating a story. That is how I chose to operate. Is it better? No, certainly not. It's merely a decision I made to create a "truer" boudoir experience. That's how I enjoy working.

That being said, there is plenty of room for non-boudoir shots in a client session. This is where the confusion in. There are some clients who may not be looking for a true "boudoir" session, after all. They may have come across photos online and thought they were "boudoir photos" when they weren't. When I have women showing up with lots of props, or sending me pin up style, glamour shots or pictures they saw in fashion and glamor magazines as boudoir photo ideas, most of the time they don't know the difference! --But that's OK! It's all about having fun and keeping clients in their comfort zone.

I'll be the first to admit, it's fun idea to grab a few shots of a client in her husband's Jets jersey to include in her album. First, it's an important connection she wants to make as a way of "including" her husband in the process, and secondly, (and ultimately) a boudoir photoshoot is about creating a fun atmosphere for your client and letting them have a great time. I enjoy doing it.

As a matter of fact, shooting true boudoir is an extremely challenging and difficult style to master. That's part of the reason why there are actually not many "true" boudoir photographers out there-- despite many photographers categorizing themselves as such.

Is it easy to find someone who works in this sort of fashion? Not always. It is difficult form of photography that few do well. Inexpensive? Not quite. You are certainly going to pay for the expertise of the photographer

Being an educated client can help you make a smart decision.

The important note for those out there shopping for boudoir is to be aware that there are many boudoir photographers out there selling boudoir photoshoots-- that aren't. And often the photographers, themselves, don't even really know the true definition of boudoir photography and can be inadvertently misrepresenting what they are selling. Being an educated client is important, so you can spot these situations and make an educated decision before spending your hard earned dollars.

Remember the Where, the Why, and the How that makes a real boudoir photo session.

Hopefully this shed a little light on the subject of boudoir. If there is one takeaway: Posing in lingerie does not necessarily define boudoir. To have a complete boudoir session experience, requires the right setting, the right mood, and the right methods.

What are your thoughts? let me know below.

If you have any questions about boudoir, please visit my website at Mike Cassidy Photography.

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