Deciding to dip your toes into the (skinny dipping?) pool of nude photography can be one of the most daunting decisions you can make as a photographer. I can not think of a genre of photography I have tried that is more stressful than shooting nudes. The human form is a beautiful thing, and if lit with care and consideration can yield images that range from abstract to sensual, flowing and erotic. Where do you start? What kind of gear do you need? Let’s talk about it…
I started shooting black and white film in 1986 and moved into shooting primarily nudes in 2004. My Landscapes of the Body project features abstract black and white images and has been featured in numerous photography publications and made the rounds in news stories nationwide. I often lecture on this body of work, and love to share my years of experience shooting the nude human form. Oh, and did I mention I am almost completely blind?
What not to do
I would like to start this series out by taking a deep breath and sharing an image from early in my career shooting nudes. I’m not particularly proud of this image and it is taking a lot for me to share it with you. I had spent a lot of time with clothed models and I thought I knew my camera inside and out, but looking at this image years later It can clearly be said that I was not able to see the light in my composition. My early frustration with nude photography was one of the contributing factors to me going back to school to complete degrees in fine art photography and studio art photography. I had watched a million tutorial videos and read what felt like a million books on the subject of photography, but my work as not coming out polished like other photographers.
This was one of my first attempts at shooting nudes. In terms of composition and technical execution, there is a lot wrong with this image. First and foremost, the image looks and feels like a typical snapshot. The even frontal lighting reduces any dimensional feeling of the subject and the uneven line of the headboard and lamp make this feel like something that anyone with a camera could take. Sure, there is a sexy model in the shot, but it didn’t feel like art, it felt like something out of an adult magazine – albeit with less staging in the background items for the composition. So, the background is a mess, the beige blanket on the bed is tacky and feels like it could be in any low-end motel room in america and even worse the lighting is abysmal. If I remember right, I was blasting unmodified light from the top of my camera (hence the snapshot feel) and in the process creating harsh highlights on the poor model’s face and the background components. The only redeeming qualities for this image are that the model is posed reasonably well and she looks comfortable, evident in her facial expression and her hands. I likely had the camera on pretty high ISO and small aperture so the background components are in equal focus to the model. The end result of this shot, is little definition and separation of the subject from the background. I did not use any technical skill to separate the model from the background. This gave the model the same level of importance in the composition as the ugly lamp on the left side of the frame. This was actually one of the better shots in the series, because I had a lot with huge shadows on the wall behind the model because I didn’t have a clue about light or how to work with a model near or against a wall.
I most certainly could take this image into Photoshop and cut her out and put her on a more pleasing background. Photoshop can also relight the composition (to an extent) which might save this image, but it still would not be that interesting. After this shoot I learned a few things: I didn’t know as much about my camera as I thought, I knew little about light and how to control it and I needed to work on composition and background components in my work. There you have it, I am completely embarrassed by my early terrible work, if you are reading this I am betting you have created similar images to this one and like me, are/were looking for ways to take your photos to the next level.
Guy with a camera
When first starting out, the biggest hurdle you will face if you are male, is the perception that you are just a guy with a camera looking to ogle naked people. This comes from pervert guys going to big box stores and buying a cheap camera with the intent of photographing nudes. After interviewing numerous models on this subject, the consensus is that the guys buy the camera, don’t take the time to learn how it works, then set up a shoot with a model. The guy spends his time fiddling with the camera trying to figure out why it is not taking good photos while the model sits there naked. It ends up being uncomfortable for the model and embarrassing for the guy. The lesson to learn here is 1. Don’t venture into a nude shoot until you are ready and know your equipment inside and out, and 2. Models have “been there and done that” many times with the “Guy with a camera”, so be ready to be judged if you don’t act professionally during the shoot.
Female photographers generally don’t experience the same issues as males do when shooting nude models. The models I have spoken with (especially female models) about this phenomenon attribute it to the fact that models are more comfortable working with female photographers when posing nude. They generally feel like the female photographer is not just ogling the naked bodies and that they are there to create something beautiful. Many models feel like the male photographers will end up with shots that look like they came out of a tacky adult magazine.
The adage that “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” does not really apply to shooting nudes. Many models consider the seriousness and skill of a photographer being directly proportional to the the size of the camera and the quality of the gear he is shooting with. Yes, I have heard the arguments about sensors these days and micro four thirds cameras with excellent resolution and that mirrorless is the rage and why use a big DSLR etc. The truth is, if you have a tiny camera with a tiny 50mm lens, you are going to be judged as little more than a perv with a camera just out to ogle the naked models. I shoot with a Canon 5DmarkIV and a 70-200 f2.8 IS II and Profoto strobes. It should not be about the gear, it should be about the images, but for some reason that is not the case when talking about nude modeling. Make sure that if you are venturing into this genre of photography that you have some impressive looking gear or expect poor first impressions.
Depending on what kind of images I am after, I will either shoot with a 24-105mm or 70-200mm lens on a Canon 5dmarkIV or 7DmarkII body. The 90D or 6DmarkII series is also more than acceptable for this kind of shooting. In terms of lighting, most times I will shoot with a couple Profoto B10 plus, or Godox AD200 units if I am on location, otherwise my studio work is all Profoto D2 strobes. The Profoto gear is significantly more expensive, and out of range for most people just getting into nude photography, but the AD200 can be had for about 300 bucks and is a very viable solution for most applications. The unit puts out light equivalent to two camera-mounted flashes and has rechargeable batteries. The photography community has accepted the AD200 with open arms and there are a ton of cool aftermarket accessories available. I have a budget portrait lighting setup article you can read here which will give you links to my whole (non-Profoto) setup.
As a neophyte photographer, I can clearly remember the times I told my friends about my new project and that I would be shooting with nude models. Most of my friends (male and female alike) all of which are not photographers had the perception that shooting with a nude model, (especially female) was going to be a big orgy. This was far from my perception of what it would be like, I imagined a big studio set like a Victoria Secret shoot. In reality it is generally the photographer, a makeup artist and the model in a small home studio space. Not as glamorous and depending on the situation and the skill of the photographer, I can imagine why many models have a negative impression of shooting nude alone with a male photographer.
Where I am at today
Here is an image form a recent shoot. I love low key lighting and have learned to reduce my available light to zero while using the strobe power to sculpt and model the curves of my subject. This is an image that did not make it into my Landscapes of the Body project, but I will like the way the light is sculpting the body here. I hope you can see the difference between the two images, and that this one is leaning much more toward art than the snapshot above. As we journey through this series of articles, I will cover some basics for getting shots like this, as well as many other aspects of shooting nude photography. Next time we will talk about how to find models willing to take their clothes off for you. I have added links to the equipment mentioned in this article below. If you decide to purchase it, I would love to hear what you think.
If you have a subject you would like me to cover in an upcoming article, please feel free to follow and message me on Instagram or Twitter @nedskee I love photography blogging, I love to hear from my readers! Feel free to contact and follow me on my social media sites, I will happily follow you back. I would love to hear your thoughts on this or any of my other articles! Until then, get out and get shooting!
My Photography site: http://www.tahquechi.com/
My Bodyscapes project: http://www.bodyscapes.photography/
My travel site: http://www.blindtravels.com/
Instagram and Twitter: @nedskee