The Eleven Commandments of the Decorum and Ethics of Photographing Women Nude

By STEVE WELDON

Several years ago I wrote a how-to piece with the intention of helping fellow photographers see behind the scenes of a nude photo shoot in the areas of ethics, legalities and how to adjust their personal decorum to help the woman feel as comfortable and confident as possible. That was the intention. The reality is that looking back and then reading the old piece I felt I came off like a rather crass douche.

Nude or boudoir photography is demanding. It can easily land you in trouble. There are a few rules to follow. Here’s Steve’s how-to:
Why? Because I’ve never stopped learning and I’ve never stopped paying attention to the thousands of details photographers face during even the most simplistic shoots. I’m five years older and I fully expect to be five years wiser and more experienced. Shouldn’t you? Was I good before? I think so, or at least I managed. I certainly did well enough to be recommended often.

Am I better now? You bet I am. We’re not born as photographers. Rather, we develop into being photographers because our life leads us down that path. And ask anyone whose spent time in a darkroom, waiting for your work to develop takes a significant amount of time.

I was asked if we could publish this piece last week and after cleaning up the grammar and punctuation a bit I said to go ahead. The publisher being an astute man could feel I was no longer comfortable with the piece, that it no longer represented my personal take on the subject. He suggested I take some time and re-write it. I gratefully agreed and here we are.

This piece is about everything but the technical aspects of photographing women nude. We won’t be discussing cameras, lighting, building sets, or post-processing. Instead we’ll discuss “should” you be shooting a woman nude, and if you do what you owe her in return. We’ll go over a shoot from the time she walks in your door until the time she leaves so you’ll never miss a beat in helping her feel comfortable and confident. And we’ll discuss copyrights and what you ‘should’ do and not do with the images. All will be based on the 25 years of experience I’ve gained doing the same.

Perhaps the most significant fear held by women which is greater than their desire to be photographed nude, is if the images are mismanaged and are somehow made public or used for purposes other than they were intended. Not only do you as the photographer have to understand with no margin for error the women’s intentions, but you are also charged with safeguarding these images for all time.

And if you do this a lot I guarantee you your integrity will be tested like it’s never been tested before. An 18 to 25 year old woman is just beginning her adulthood and nude photographs and videos, like tattoos, are most often not well thought-out and these decisions are made spontaneously. While many trips to the laser lab can make the tattoo all but invisible, once a nude photograph is misused and placed on the Internet, Facebook, email or anything electronic, there is no way to totally eliminate it. The pictures will be out there forever just waiting to cause strife in someone’s life.

Your responsibilities don’t end there, once the images are captured you now have the issue of storing them safely. Forever, or until you decide they’re more trouble than their worth and destroy them permanently.

Legalities

Every country and often every state/province/locality within that country will have its own laws concerning nude photography, age of consent, copyright laws, usage, etc. I can’t tell you what these are except for the places I’ve lived and personally researched but I won’t even do that. Why? Because I spent my own money to sit down with a reputable lawyer and learn what is legal and what isn’t, what’s required and what isn’t, etc. And during the course of me paying the legal firm for this advice they also wrote all my contracts and releases and took on the responsibility for my retainer which obligates them to defend me in the event I am charged with an offence.

Another firm representing you might not agree with my firms interpretation and therefore won’t be willing to represent you. It’s complicated, but if I was setting up shop, especially in a third world country, and I knew I would be enjoying nude photography, then I’d for sure plan on sitting down with a lawyer. I cannot overemphasize this. Especially with even first world countries stating they have the right to inspect your computer’s hard disk. Take no chances with your personal liberty. Only those things which would infringe on your personal liberty are worth giving up that liberty to protect. (That may be an original quote, you heard it here first.)

Now that you know you should do your due diligence and sit down with a lawyer, I’ll share some general bits and bobs of information we all should know:

First commandment of photographing people nude: Never let an image be viewed by anyone other than you as the photographer and the model herself — unless you have a signed release form specifying how you intend to use the images. I know at least five different photographers who let images be viewed without written permission who are now a great deal poorer than they started out. All have ruined reputations as photographers. Don’t think this can’t happen to you if you take a naked picture of your partner or girlfriend and it ends up on the Web, depending on which country you live in you could lose everything you’ve worked for as well as your personal liberty.

Second commandment of photographing people nude: Never allow any image not intended for the Web to be stored on any computer with Web access. Viruses are the least of your worries. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have stored naked pictures of their partners in their Yahoo or Picasa photo album, on Pbase or some other Web-based picture service — and are later surprised when someone nabs them and they end up in the wrong hands.

And then there are phones and other personal devices. When my son was 12 he proudly showed me how he’d learned to illegally scan for Bluetooth devices within range, break into them and download their phonebooks, messages, photo albums and more. It was so simple and so clean and no one knew. Of course we sat down for a father and son talk and this no longer happens. But the point is, if a 12 year old can do this then certainly can any semi-competent adult.

You must assume that no electronic device connected to the Internet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or any means of communicating outside of itself is safe. You must assume it can and will be breached when you least expect it. So never put anything you wish to remain private on such devices.

Third commandment of photographing people nude: Always have a qualified witness present at the shoot or have them sign a waiver stating their age and that they know what they’re doing and that it was at their request. I usually ask them to hold their ID card below their chin and I’ll take a snap of the person and their I.D. Recently, since DSLRs have video capabilities, I’ll have them hold their license under their chin and verbally state their name, age and intentions. I keep this small video file in the same folder as the shoot. I realize this might spoil the mood or make the woman re-evaluate, and ultimately result in you losing the opportunity, but better safe than extremely sorry.

Why do I take security so seriously? “In general” this is what goes on in a woman’s mind during such a shoot. Most women have to work up the courage for such a shoot while at the same time being photographed nude is a major fantasy for women, right up there on the scale next to the male fantasy of a threesome. It’s something they fantasize to do, but it scares them to death, even though absolute privacy is guaranteed and the doors are locked.

Women who want to do this will “shop” for a photographer they feel comfortable with. What makes them comfortable? Security and professional ethics make women comfortable. And I can’t say enough about recommendations via word of mouth. If you please one model then there is a good chance she’ll share the images (against my advice) with a friend who will soon become your next client.

In one town I lived in I went from no nude photography at all, to shooting about 90% of all nude photography. Why? Because through all of my policies, beliefs and behaviors they walked away with a high degree of confidence concerning not just my photography skills, but also my personal integrity.

One female client put it to me this way: Women only take off their clothes for men — not their husbands/boyfriends — for three reasons:

  1. To make money
  2. For the doctor
  3. Because at some level you’re the type of person they’d normally take their clothes off for.

The first and third reasons applies to photography but let’s focus on the first reason. I’ve been hired as the photographer to shoot photographs of women who are being paid to be photographed nude. The best I can say about such practices is that my skills helping women feel secure and comfortable are put to good use during the short time they’re in front of my camera. In what is often a demeaning and humiliating process, they really appreciate a photographer who shows them respect and helps make the process comfortable.

Let’s compare this to another extreme where men visiting Thailand employ make believe girlfriends who like the women in the paragraph above are just there to earn a paycheck. Do they want some guy pulling out his $200 point-and-shoot and snapping pictures of them nude and then often while they watch upload it to the Internet to share with others?

Of course not, but they smile and look forward to their time with this person being over so they can move on. To the guy it’s a bit of fun, nothing will happen to him. To the girl it’s a constant source of worry. With the laws being what they are in Thailand and the corruption they’re praying hard so these images don’t end up in the hand of anyone who would blackmail them. And unfortunately this would be about everybody.

Fourth commandment of photographing people nude: Don’t shoot women nude unless you have the photography skills necessary to do her justice. Do not do this for fun and games, these photos can and do hurt people. Find something else that’s fun or another game to play. I travel around Thailand quite often, in fact it’s my favorite thing to do while in the kingdom. During the course of my travels I’ll come across women who upon learning I’m a photographer ask to see my portfolio. I’ll share my portfolio with them, and sometimes if the woman has an interesting look, or we’re in an interesting setting, I’ll offer to shoot her and provide quality prints to her via the mail. Of course I have her sign a release and I’ll safeguard the photos until such time I no longer want them.

And finally the third reason, Because at some level you’re the type of person they’d normally take their clothes off for. The woman must like you, and to some extent be attracted to you, or she won’t pose or pose with a comfortable confidence. If you creep her out for any reason — there are many ways to creep out a woman and I’ve watched many guys do this — she won’t pose. The synergy between you and the model must click. I’ve often send lucrative clients to the competition because I could tell almost immediately we wouldn’t click for one reason or the other. But when we do click it’s a great experience for all involved.

I’ve lightly covered the basics concerning the legalities and many of the ethics. Of course one size won’t fit all and I won’t pretend they do. Each country is different and inside many countries each local jurisdiction is different.

The Basics

Let’s move into chatting about decorum and the process of a shoot.

Fifth commandment of photographing people nude: Never agree to shoot someone nude the same day they approach you. There’s many legal reasons for this but there is also the ethical side of things because now you know the decision to be photographed nude is often spontaneous and not completely reasoned. And it should be. A nude shoot should be a lot of fun, relaxed, almost a celebration. And it will be if you gently guide your clients/subjects through an honest look at the process, the warnings, and everything else germane.

Sixth commandment of photographing people nude: Be prepared. Remember, it’s also a business or for an amateur a process that culminates in a finished work you’ll derive satisfaction from for decades to come. You don’t want to do the shoot at anything less than 100% prepared in all respects and then find out you have to reshoot it, or worse they’ve changed their mind. Give them every opportunity to change their minds before the shoot.

This means you’ll need a consultation, whether it’s a conversation over dinner or a formal meeting in your office. The point here is to let them know what to expect of the process and final work (prints). I’ve had plenty of such meetings in the space of five to ten minutes over lunch, and others in my studio office would go much longer. You’ll find a paying client is much more interested in the details than some girl you’ve just met looking to have a fun time.

Seventh commandment of photographing people nude: Select your style and poses, and shoot your style and poses. During the consultation lay out several portfolios covering what you think they’ll be interested in, from glamour to fine art nudes to fun shoots. On the back of most of my portfolio shots I’ll also have a picture of the entire set including all the lights and their placement, the camera, subject and relevant light/camera settings so I can duplicate the image in minutes. I’ll show them this picture of the set so they’ll know what to expect. I can use lighting, gels and post-processing to much the same effect and we discuss this.

If I’m chatting with someone I met and will photograph privately, say while on the road, I’ll be carrying my portfolio on my laptop and I’ll only show them images I can make with the equipment I have on hand. I never deceive or otherwise embellish what I’m capable of and my word is gold. Any and all promises should be kept. And it should go without saying you should never misrepresent yourself in any way.

When I do this for clients I’ll also bring up if they prefer to have a hair stylist and/or make-up artist arranged. If you want truly professional images, at least images we’ve grown to accept as professional, you’ll need both. For clients with anything more than light tan lines you’ll also want to arrange for a tanning specialist who will apply a spray on tan good for just a few hours up through a few days.

We’ll also discuss the subject of elastic. And not to wear any for the last four to six hours before the shoot. Elastic underwear, pants and hose will make marks in the skin that are frankly hard to touch-up in Photoshop. I keep some samples to show them what it looks like. I recommend they wear loose draped clothing instead. And if you’re not shooting from an equipped studio with a modern wardrobe department then you’ll for sure want to discuss what they’ll be wearing during the shoot.

We also touch on hygiene, trimming hair, nails, jewelry, outfits and what’s involved with the shoot. Physically the shoot can be tough since it really is work and some poses involve a decent amount of isometrics. We’ll also talk about them being nervous — it takes the average woman about 30 minutes to loosen up and get comfortable and into the shoot.

Eighth commandment of photographing people nude: Don’t get creepy. Finally, we talk about my need to touch their shoulder or maybe an arm/leg to help position them into the right poses. They need to know exactly what to expect and I’ll have a pose book handy to illustrate. I’ll also let them choose their poses and help them select a good representation which fits their body type and fitness level the best. The worst thing you can do is start throwing them into slutty poses right off the bat, don’t do it. If they request something then fine and I’ve had requests you wouldn’t believe. But you’re the guy with the camera and with that comes inherent responsibilities to do right by your subject.

The short time you spend together during this “consultation” will start the comfort and bonding process and when you consider the length of a photo session this short time period becomes critical.

Pre-Shoot

Ninth commandment of photographing people nude: Do yourself a huge favor. Clean your room. No, I’m not your mom but do take the time to clean your studio to a professional level and if you’re doing this on the road it pays back in dividends if your smaller hotel room is cleaned, maybe buy some flowers and spread them around, scent the room, clean up all your personal chaff, put your dirty drawers in the laundry basket and close your bags. Answer your door dressed like you’re going to work, even if it’s a hotel room. Do not answer the door with a towel around your waist and a camera in hand. I know someone who did that and he just couldn’t understand the subjects reaction. The moment she walks in the room she’ll be a bit frightened, apprehensive for sure, and I’ve seen any number of small things freak them out and send them running.

Helpful hint: I always provide a clean bathroom for them to use, a guestroom for them to lay out their outfits and to change in private, and inside the studio I’ll set up a changing screen and clothes hanger rack. At first they lock the guestroom door to change, but soon they’ll be changing in front of you for the convenience. By the time 20 to 30 minutes have elapsed, they’re changing right in front of you like you’re not there. The point is when working with amateurs provide choices and let them work it out for themselves.

The first 20 to 30 minutes are the hardest. Your models will be very shy, nervous and insecure about their bodies. You can help. First: Don’t visually focus on their “parts.” Maintain eye contact, verbal command, smile a lot, and help them feel at ease with generic compliments like “you stay in nice shape” or “that teddies goes well with your skin tones.” Do not give personal or specific comments relating to body features. Talk about their work and kids. Humor — not cheap jokes — works wonders.

Help them find that special place where the expression gives the camera that special look that fits them best. Don’t be afraid to tell them what works or not. Most women don’t look that great with a big smile on their face. Big smiles create big wrinkles and cause their eyes to close more. Instead tell them what’s happening and ask them to “half smile” or “quarter smile,” “just purse your lips” or “just let your mouth open till your teeth show and wet your lips with your tongue.”
Or whatever it takes to get the look you’re after.

Remember, make the plan and then shoot the plan? Shoot the plan and pay attention to what poses work best for their body type. Save the more uncommon poses for the last 30 minutes or so when they’re warmed up. Go for classy poses and arrange in such a way to hide those stretch marks, the tummy, don’t let the “flap” hanging and be careful that when she twists her torso she’s not the type to get “fat wrinkles” that bunch up. If they are you simply move them into a more flattering pose.

The same goes with the neck. No turkey necks please. No bottoms of the feet showing. Bring the parts you want to show off forward in the frame, and don’t forget about perspective. You can’t be standing above her looking down with the camera all the time. You’ll need to get down on the floor with her, if she’s on a bed in the studio get down on the floor and shoot up, if her raven black hair is splayed out over the white sheets you might want to get a step ladder out and do a “look down” shot.

Whatever you do, don’t shoot from the same position the entire shoot.

Be creative and be willing to exert some physical effort to get up and down and all around the model.

Music helps as well. I’ll always have my iPod hooked up to the big box and ask them what kind of music they prefer. My standard sessions are two hours so I have about ten different two hour play lists that reflect different tastes in music that usually start slow, build in tempo, then faster and then returns to slow.

The music never needs to be loud. She needs to hear your directions and you should always talk softly and touch gently to guide her into the positions you want. Just enough volume so she doesn’t hear the fans on your strobes as the only source of rhythm.

Control the temperature. I’ll always ask during the consult phase what temperature she’s used to at work/home and then adjust a bit for light/no clothes. When first starting out you might not want her nipples erect so be sure it’s not too cold and do these shots first, later she might not have a choice.

I keep a few spritz bottles of water on hand, one at room temp and another in the small frig in the studio, and then use them wisely. Water can look like oil and won’t soil your expensive muslins, seamless or your props bed sheets/duvets. If oil must be used be sure to launder before the stains from the oil set up. It’s easy to lose an expensive background.

More on the mood. Make sure the phones are off, your instant messenger on the computer has the volume turned down, the closed sign is up and no one will disturb you. You’re working hard to bring her into the perfect mood and to exhibit that perfect expression. You can lose it in an instant if your mobile phone goes off — especially if you do something dumb and answer it. Remember, this sort of session is very intimate and should be relaxing and enjoyable and you’re setting a mood just as much as if you’re at it with her. In fact, that’s the mood you want her to be visualizing for the best results.

During the shoot it can help ease tension. Fill a void or awkward moment, build confidence. When you see a particularly good image bring it up on the LCD and walk it over to her and show her and work in a compliment. A few good previews and she’s well on her way to having a ton of confidence and the close proximity of you sharing the cameras LCD with her helps ease tension.

Often, I’ll either be shooting tethered to a laptop or to a PC in the studio with a big 50” HDTV monitor attached where they can watch ease pose in real time as the images are captured. Women love this! To them it’s like looking in the mirror and they’ll make small adjustments and start “working the monitor” big time.

Keep refreshments on hand. Coffee can keep them alert, juices and bottled water well hydrated. I never serve alcohol for obvious reasons. You might want to have a tray of small breads and cheeses available with some fruits. Women, especially women who maintain “modeling weight”, can have their mood changed by hunger or worse — a drop in blood sugar. Keeping them hydrated and their stomachs happy pays off big time. Be aware though that even a small amount of food might prompt a bathroom break. So only encourage enough to keep working and to maintain the flow.

Post-Shoot

When finished with the session make sure you compliment her on how hard she worked, how great she looked, talk about when she can view her soft proofs, and answer any questions that might have come up during the shoot.

Have a large soft bath towel standing by to hand her when the shoot is over and before you start talking to her — so she can cover herself and if you have shower facilities let her know it’s ok to use them and that she knows where they are and how everything works.

Don’t hang around. Grab your flash cards and head to the office and save cleaning up the studio for after she’s gone.

After she’s back in street clothes she’ll come out and you’ll get a last chance to compliment her and tell her how great the images will look when you have them ready.

Tenth commandment of photographing people nude: Be professional above all else. While you might have become “familiar” with her during the session now is the time to put back on that professional face and demeanor to match her change of mood as she’s leaving the studio. Wait until after she’s gone to go check the studio for panties, bras or teddys she might have left behind. If she did bag them in a brown paper bag (not a clear plastic bag where bacteria can fester), I write her name on it and save it for next time. Some of these garments can cost hundreds of dollars each. She’ll be happy to have them back.

The Weird and You Hope Unusual

In ending this I want to touch on some of the more obvious moral ethical issues. We’ve already talked about never sharing images without written permission. But what about what I call the “gray line” decisions, letting an “of-age” high school senior turn the last half of her senior portrait shoot into a cheesecake shoot?

Or maybe the husband/boyfriend wants to go on set and start doing what they usually do at home? Or the model asks to use a part of you as a prop? I’ve had all these things happen more often than you’d think.

Bonus commandment of photographing people nude: Do not sell prints to anyone other than the client or someone you would bet your livelihood owns the contract you’re shooting under. Sometimes the husband/boyfriend shows up and wants to buy prints. I’ve had husbands and wives argue over who owns the images. Often the husband who paid for the shoot thinks he does and sometimes they want to use them in divorce court. Here are some guidelines.

Don’t ever do or allow anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about in court. Simple enough, eh? Court is where some of these issues get resolved. If you’d feel embarrassed explaining to a jury about that first cousin’s session while you clicked away, then I wouldn’t recommend agreeing to do the shoot.

I hope this has been of some use to you. I realize that most of you will be shooting in your homes vs. studios, but I’m sure you can adapt most of this as needed. I’ve had many people ask about photographing women naked while here in Thailand and these techniques for helping her feel comfortable will certainly be helpful. There’s much more to the process such as posing, lighting, equipment selection — technique talk we’ll cover in future articles.

The Obvious

You might have noticed I didn’t mention a single technical issue. I didn’t talk about cameras, lenses, lighting, radio control, background materials or any of that. And you might have noticed this is my first article without a single illustrative image.

To properly cover the subject of shooting nudes, including equipment, you’re talking four to six complete volumes. All I’ve done in this article is touch on the surface. You should have been taking notes on areas you’ll be wanting to research more in depth on your own. If invited I’ll write “how-to” articles on equipment and techniques for shooting nudes, or portraits, the more specific the question the more focused and complete the answer.

I didn’t include illustrative images because I’m very serious about not breaking the trust of my models and clients and when I built my own website. I made several decisions. I wanted my site to be G-rated so the wives of clients coming into Bangkok otherwise on business could be relaxed about their husbands taking my workshops.

As it turns out it’s also resulted in a not insignificant number of female clients who also want to take workshops. And with many brides browsing sites looking for a wedding photographer I’m sure having one of the few “clean” Thailand based sites has been the wisest choice for serving the most varied clientele possible.

“How” to advertise the services of nude photography on a general photography site is a genuine conundrum. Many potential clients don’t care for such things and they haven’t yet reached the point where they can be forgiving of those who do. And as I talk about this, you can also think about what I covered earlier I the article about protecting the models privacy. Imagine if she worked for such a person and he saw her nude image on one of this favorite “portrait” sites. When it comes to the Internet this is a very small world and if you’re going to error, error on the side of caution.

I’ve had fun re-writing this article and I can also envision several companion pieces which would dovetail nicely. Until these are released you might find a few of these tutorials useful: A Modeling Experience, Photographing Primates, Processing a Portrait and Lightroom, Processing a Glamour Portrait.

Steve Weldon is the publisher of the photography website Bangkok Images.

He has lived in Asia in excess of a quarter century, more than ten of those years Thailand.

Retired from the military and currently residing near Chicago, he has made photography his second career.




  • streetshooter

    There’s a lot of sense in these ideas and many will or should learn something from this. I closed my studio many years ago and I would never do nudes again. It’s not that I’m too old, it’s that I’m too married.
    Good luck and thanks for the read…. don

  • Bengt Nyman

    I agree with streetshooter, my advice is: Don’t

  • Still, it’s a photography as challenging as it is tempting. What a pity to categorically say no to these beautiful aspects of the human element. Or give softer boudoir photography a try if legalities are too scary and you’re too married.

  • Steve Weldon

    Saying no as you mentioned comes with a price. There are many legitimate reasons a woman might want such images. I’ve done them for a lady whose husband was stationed in Iraq and wanted a Christmas theme to send him, many are gifts for husbands, some are couples shots, and most of those who you take on as a client are for good reasons and turn out well.

    But there is also a class of visitors to my area who take advantage of the local populace and post the worst type of images on the internet not realizing or caring what danger they put the lady in. I want them to think long and hard about what they’re doing.

    My first nude image client is the reason I’ll always listen and consider more. She appeared at my studio looking frail but feisty at almost 70. She wanted a classic set of nude prints.

    She explained “when asking my husband of 45 years what he wanted for his birthday, he’s replied since our first year together: “naked pictures of you dear” to which I’d reply: “over my dead body.!” I have cancer she explained and will be dead in a few months. I’d like to grant my husbands wish and I hope for you to deliver them on his birthday next year.

    I didn’t know much about it other than the girlfriend shots we’re all mostly guilty of, but I set an appointment with her and went to the library that day and started reading. In the end I think I did her justice and she was certainly happy. She paid her bill and reminded e to make the delivery on his birthday. 3 months later I saw her name in the obits.. 10 months later I went to deliver the prints.

    I knocked on the door, explained why I was there, and was asked inside. I put the portfolio down on his coffee table and he started at them for a long time. Finally he picked them up. The sequence of emotions flashing across his face as he flipped to each new print was priceless. Being witness to everything this entailed was a privilege. He cried for a long time.

    After I was more receptive and posted a few tasteful images in my studio and soon was shooting over 90% of the nudes in my area. Its extremely lucrative as someone might buy 4-5 frames from a portrait shoot, but what husband doesn’t buy every single nude she posed for? Done with taste and ethical behaviour it’s a win win for everyone. It makes people happy. Most professionals realize this. Stray to the dark side chasing personal desires and people are hurt. Sad.

  • respectnfreedom

    My daughter (then 18) was busted in on by her flatmate who calls himself a photographer who then proceeded to post these photos on instagram
    She says she gave him permission but really? who would do this type of thing? I have asked her to ask him to remove them, but instead he has removed my access to his account.