And it’s all done in the best possible taste!

John Picton talks ‘Boudoir’
This week I’m going to be trying something new … Boudoir Photography. I have to admit that I’m slightly nervous – even though I’m staying firmly BEHIND the camera. I’ll be helping John Picton of at a Country House shoot on Wednesday and, in preparation, I asked him to write a little something about the challenges of the glamorous life he leads …
Over to you John:
Boudoir photography is big news today in the UK. It’s been popular for years in the States, and it’s finally made its way over to the shores of good old Blighty.
My boudoir photography packages evolved from our contemporary portraiture business, where I produce classy images in a fashion style – the kind of thing you would see in Vogue or Cosmopolitan magazine. My customers arrive at a luxurious venue (usually a country house hotel) and bring a load of their favourite outfits with them. I provide a hairdresser for the session, and after setting up the studio lighting, spend a couple of hours taking some great shots. It’s a lot of fun, and although my customers are usually a little nervous at first, they quickly get into the swing of things and genuinely enjoy the experience.
Boudoir is all about capturing flattering and sensual images of a woman, traditionally featuring lingerie and sexy outfits, but never revealing too much. They should be the sort of image that they can proudly show their girlfriends without being embarrassed. The images are often taken for a ‘bride to be’ to present to her man as a gift, but there doesn’t need to be a reason for doing it. Some just do it because they want to, and that’s as good a reason as any.
However, the problem I have with some boudoir photography is that it is just awful. There’s a fine line between producing a classy, sensual image that shows a woman off to her feminine best as opposed to a tacky, cliched, ‘lads mag’ shot. Some photographers produce outstanding results. A lot don’t. It simply isn’t enough to take a picture of a woman in her knickers. That’s just not what it’s all about. It’s more about the look in the eyes, or the suggestive smile, and combined with the right outfit and subtle lighting that’s what makes the image work.
I’ve approached my boudoir shoots in the same way as my portraiture packages by producing images in a fashion style. I first of all ask my clients what sort of thing they are looking for. What kind of images are they wanting from the session? Are they looking for a classic black and white, or perhaps a retro cross processed look? Are they looking for a bit of both, or something completely different, or are they not sure? I think that it’s important that for something as personal as a boudoir shoot we have a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve. When everyone knows what’s going on it makes things much easier, and avoids any embarrassing moments later on.
Boudoir has definitely been a learning curve. It is a difficult one to get absolutely right, as not only do we have to bear in mind all the points already raised but the image also has to be technically perfect. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to experimenting with different lighting set ups to find out what works best for me. I didn’t want a traditional studio set up, I wanted to shoot on location but in a style that really brought out the best in my subjects.
I booked a model for the day and decided to spend the entire session just testing out lighting. I used a couple of Multiblitz studio flash heads, but wherever possible blended these with natural light. I also wanted the flexibility to shoot at wide apertures so I can control depth of field. Often with studio flash heads this is difficult as they have such a powerful output, even on the low settings, but I’ve found a way of controlling the lights using a combination of modifiers (like softboxes, umbrellas and reflectors) with neutral density gels. This lets me produce a beautiful soft light which I can balance with daylight, and it illuminates the female figure beautifully. Trial and error was really the only way to work this out, as the book hasn’t been written on this combination yet.
All of this means nothing though if you can’t communicate with your subject. Boudoir photography can be an intimidating and nerve wracking experience for your model if not handled delicately, yet confidently. In a previous life I had a career as a manager in the hotel industry, and I greatly value the confidence and ‘people skills’ it has given me. It’s hugely beneficial as a photographer, in fact I would say that it is of equal importance of any other skill in the whole photographic process. A technically perfect image means nothing if you have been unable to truly engage with the person you are photographing.
I read quite often about whether it is better to have a female boudoir photographer or a male one. Some articles suggest that only a woman can take a sensual image of another woman, as only they can understand how a woman feels about her body. Some think that men are ‘different’ and don’t have the concerns about their bodies that a woman does. They therefore theoretically can’t relate to photographing a first time boudoir model nervous about her appearance, but this simply isn’t right. Granted, men don’t talk about their feelings as much, but they are certainly there, and to say we don’t understand is quite a blasé statement to come out with.
I believe that ultimately we should be judged by the images we produce, and I’ve seen both good and bad images produced by both male and female photographers. It’s not about the gender, it’s about trust, and with that trust you can create beautiful images. Without it you might as well pack up and go home. I cover all bases and at every shoot have a male and female on set, as I like creative input from both. I want the images to appeal to a female, but ultimately they are usually for a man, so to me this just makes sense.
You can’t not comment though on the fact that you have a man taking photographs of a woman in a state of semi nudity. It’s a teenage boy’s dream job, and even today friends of mine can’t quite believe that while they are working on their spreadsheets and attending their sales meetings I’m discussing with a client whether they should wear hold-ups or suspenders. What’s even more incomprehensible to them is that my wife works with me on these projects and fully supports what I do!
But believe me, this superficial perception isn’t a reality. My sole aim is to produce the finest image possible, and I’m very focussed on this. It requires concentration, technical ability, communication and above all professionalism. There’s no room for innuendo or titillation here, it’s far too important for that. Whilst taking an image there are many things to consider such as the lighting set-up, the exposure, the choice of lens, the framing of the subject, the pose, hair and make-up, clothing, making sure there are no background distractions, checking the settings on the camera are right, and so on. Ultimately, the image produced has to give a universal reaction of ‘Wow, she looks amazing!’ from both a male and female perspective, and most importantly from the model herself. If it doesn’t then it’s failed. The female form is a beautiful thing, and it shouldn’t be objectified into something vulgar.
So what is it about boudoir that I really like? Ultimately, it’s all about creating a truly beautiful image that really means something to the person it was intended for. I’ve heard back from previous customers who have told me that their husbands were literally speechless when presented with their special gift – completely blown away. Having the ability to produce a reaction like that is what drives me to produce the best work I can.
Mixture of studio lights and natural light. 1/60 sec at f2
Fuji S5 Pro, Nikon 50mm lens
Cross processed film effect via Adobe Lightroom
Studio lighting, 1/125 sec at f4
Fuji S5 Pro, Nikon 50mm lens
Converted to mono then sepia toned
Studio lighting, 1/125 sec at f2
Canon EOS1D, 24-80mm
Converted to mono
You can contact John to book a session of boudoir photography at

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