Getting Started with Nude Photography: Ground Rules & Etiquette

Blog Post Feb 02, 2020

This is the first of my Getting Started posts, designed to help aspiring nude photographers. In this series, I'll cover a wide variety of topics, including choosing equipment, scouting locations, finding and working with models, using both studio lighting and natural light, post-processing images, and promoting yourself. But, before I do anything else, I want to talk about some ground rules for working with models,  especially models you don't know.

Most of what I'm going to say here will seem like a mix of common sense and common decency to many of you. Unfortunately, nearly every model I've ever worked with has told me at least one story about a photographer being inappropriate during a shoot. Because of that, I feel it's important to talk about this before I help anybody get started.

In Their Shoes

Let's try something. Spend a moment right now imagining how it might feel for a model who is shooting with you for the very first time. They're probably at a studio or location of your choosing, and it might be a remote location. They're naked, or wearing very little, and there's a pretty good chance you're physically larger and stronger than them. They have no reason to trust you yet and they have plenty of reasons to be wary.

If it's a paid shoot, the money you're going to pay them is part of their paycheck. They'll use that money to pay their rent and put food on the table, so they might be hesitant to tell you when you've done something to make them uncomfortable for fear that you'll get mad and refuse to pay.

Imagined it? Good. Now think back to that feeling any time you're making decisions about what to do, what to say, or how to say it when working with a model. Sometimes a subtle change in phrasing can make a huge difference. The better you are at making a model feel comfortable, respected, safe, and valued, the more likely they're going to be to want to work with you again and the better the photos you're going to be able to get.

Tell Them Everything Important Up Front

It's a bit of a cliché, but it's still true that communication is the single most important factor in the success of any relationship, including the relationship between a photographer and a model. In the context of a shoot—especially a nude shoot—communication is extra important. It is almost always better to over-communicate than to under-communicate.

The fact that you're expecting a model to pose nude should—of course—be discussed beforehand, but agreeing to a "nude shoot" really isn't enough. There are a lot of different kinds of nude shoots and not all models are comfortable with every type. If you arrive at a shoot expecting to shoot images that are more on the erotic side, and the model arrives expecting to do a classic figure shoot or implied nudes, you're going to end up wasting valuable shooting time figuring out how to re-work your concept.

And yes, in that situation, the burden is on you to adapt. Do not ever attempt to cajole, trick, or pressure a model into doing something they've said they're not comfortable doing. If you failed to properly communicate what you want to do ahead of time, that's on you, not the model.

Anything that you want to shoot that's likely to make some people uncomfortable needs to be fully communicated to the model before you agree to shoot together. Whether it involves nudity, physical discomfort, sexual content, fetish-related material, kink, gore, or politically or ideologically sensitive concepts, you need to lay everything out on the table right up front so there are no surprises on the day of the shoot. Do everything you can to make absolutely sure your model is on board with what you want to do and stay flexible so you can adjust as needed if there's a miscommunication.

Informed Consent is King

At some point, it's very likely that you will need to break one or more of these rules to get an image you want. In fact, there are many types of photography that these rules would seem to make impossible. Rest assured, you can shoot most anything you want if you're willing to have the hard and sometimes uncomfortable discussions needed to get fully informed consent ahead of time.

As long as you're completely transparent about what you plan to do and the model is an adult and agrees to it, you can ignore any of the rules that follow. Just make sure you have fully communicated what you intend to do and keep in mind that consent can be retracted at any time.

Don't Touch

I really can't stress this point enough: do not touch the model if you haven't discussed it in advance. Even an innocent touch from a stranger can be extremely uncomfortable for some people when they're naked or near-naked. Casual touches that would barely be noticed in many other situations can come across as hostile, even if you don't intend them that way.

Instead, use words and gestures to communicate what you want your model to do. If you need to, show them what you want by taking the pose yourself or showing them images of similar poses.

When the model initiates or suggests contact, then of course that's fine. You don't have to refuse a handshake or a hug or tell the model "no" if they ask you to help them with a piece of clothing or jewelry, but don't ever presume it's okay to touch them unless you've discussed it before the shoot or the model initiates or invites the contact.

Avoid Terms of Endearment

Most people use terms of endearment like "dear", "honey", or "sweetheart" only with people they already have a well-established and pretty close relationship with. There are people, however, who use these words more casually, even with people they've just met.

If you're one of those people, try really hard not to do it during a shoot with a model you don't know. Regardless of how you intend it, there's a pretty good chance of it coming across as creepy and inappropriate.

Watch Your Language

Even if you're a hobbyist photographer, you should approach every shoot as if it was your profession. Treat the studio or other shoot location like it's your workplace and treat the model (and anyone else there, such as a makeup artist or stylist) the way you would a respected co-worker.

Of course, common sense needs to come into play here. If, you're doing a bondage themed shoot or some other kind of shoot with erotic content, there are going to be words you'll need to use to communicate effectively that you wouldn't use in a corporate setting. If a word is appropriate to the situation, use it. Just be sure that the word is appropriate, and always favor formal words over slang (especially with anatomical terms) unless you're absolutely sure the model is comfortable with you using the slang term. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

Ask About and Respect Boundaries

While some models are completely comfortable with any part of their body being photographed, quite a few are not. A great many models, for example, do not wish to be photographed in open-leg or other sexually suggestive poses and don't wish to have their genitals photographed up-close. Make an effort to find out what the model's boundaries are and then make sure to respect those boundaries. If you can't get an image you want while respecting the model's boundaries, find another model or change your concept.

Discovering boundaries can be challenging. People aren't always comfortable talking about their bodies—especially with a stranger—and asking can sometimes make a model wary of your intentions if you don't phrase the question carefully. Despite that, it's worth the effort to find out, since that knowledge can help you avoid asking your model to do something they're not okay with.

No Sneak Shots

I kind of can't believe I even have to say this one, but I know from talking with models that I do, indeed, have to say this one. When a model is "offstage"… in other words, then they're getting dressed, when they're getting makeup done, when they're relaxing or checking their phone on a break… do not take their picture without asking first and never, ever try to intentionally take a picture that goes beyond their stated boundaries.

Compliment Wisely

Letting your model know that you're happy with what they're doing is really important. It's easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the technical aspects of photography and forgetting to engage with your model as you shoot. Communicating with your model is just as important as framing, composition, and lighting. In fact, I would argue that it's more important, so try really hard to remember to talk with and compliment your model so they know what you want and also know that you're happy with what they're doing.

But… not all compliments are created equal. Generally, it's best to focus on the things a model is doing that are making for good pictures and less on the things they can't control, like the shape of their body.

Saying things along the lines of "hey, that's a great pose", or "oh, I really like what you just did there" is great. It communicates to the model that you like what they're doing with very little chance of making them uncomfortable.

Telling them, in very general terms, that they look good can be great, too. However, telling a model that they're "hot" or "sexy", or that they have a "nice ass" or "great breasts" is really just not appropriate at most shoots. You might intend it as a compliment, and some models will take it as one, but many others will be uncomfortable with these types of compliments because it can feel like you're hitting on them.

Never Insult

While compliments, used well, are a great tool, insults and non-constructive criticism are not. Don't insult your model. Don't make negative comments about their weight, their appearance, or their ability to pose, and don't give them any criticism that they can't act on immediately.

Asking a model to change something to get a better shot is fine. Telling a model that something they are doing is "bad", especially without telling them specifically how they can correct it, is useless. You'll make the model feel terrible without improving your pictures in any way. In fact, you'll probably end up with worse pictures.

There is never a good reason to insult your model, and any criticism or negative feedback you must give them should be immediately actionable to improve the shot. Even if your critique is valid and is something the model can address, take a second to think about your phrasing. In terms of your model's mood and motivation, there's a world of difference between something like, "okay, that's good, but could you try moving your hand a couple inches to your left" and something like, "Jesus, that looks terrible, umm... just... I dunno… move your hand over a bit."

In that latter example, you might not be intending to direct your negativity at the model. You might be frustrated and thinking that what's "terrible" is you, but the model can't read your mind and is almost certainly going to interpret those kinds of negative comments as criticism of them.

Listen and Watch

Communication is a two-way street and an ongoing process. You need to make sure you're listening to your model not just before the shoot, but during the shoot as well. If they tell you they're uncomfortable with something, don't just continue shooting. Put your camera down, listen, and talk with them to figure out what you can do to address their concerns.

Also keep in mind that, for a number of different reasons, a model may not actually tell you when you're making them uncomfortable, so keep an eye out for signs of discomfort, concern, or anxiety. A furrowed brow, a concerned expression, or uncharacteristically stiff poses can all potentially be signs that something is going on that they are not telling you. If you notice something like that, stop shooting and ask if they're okay. Give them a chance to take a break, reassure them that you're happy with their work, and reiterate that you really do want to know if something is wrong.

Take Your Time

Photography is not a race. Modern cameras can take pictures at an astounding pace, with some high-end cameras able to take 10, 15, or even 24 full resolution shots every second. This fast pace is fantastic for sports photography and photojournalism, but it's only rarely a true benefit when shooting models.

Unless you're intentionally doing high speed captures, such as when working with a dancer or acrobat, it's usually better to shoot at a slower pace and give the model time to move from one pose to the next. It can be disconcerting for a model to hear constant shutter clicks even when they are moving from pose to pose. Taking pictures at a fast pace also ends up creating a lot more work for yourself later when it's time to sort through your library and find the good shots from your shoot.

Do What You've Promised

Make sure you follow through on anything you've agreed to do with regards to a shoot. If it's a paid shoot, pay the model the amount you agreed to pay, and pay it immediately. Never try to re-negotiate a rate on the day of the shoot or after the shoot is over. If it's a collaboration or TFP shoot, try hard to send edits in a timely manner and communicate to the model if you're not able to for any reason. I know it can be hard. Edits take time and it's easy to find yourself overwhelmed and behind, but not sending images from a TFP or Collab shoot is basically the same thing as not paying a model, so don't do it.

Don't Actually Hit On the Model

A number of the things I've talked about are designed to help you avoid inadvertently looking like you're hitting on your model. I would hope it doesn't need to be said, but don't actually hit on a model during a shoot, either. The dynamics of the situation makes it inappropriate.

The Blacklist

Striving to treat another human being decently should be enough motivation for you to follow these guidelines or get informed consent in advance, but I'll give you another very practical reason to follow the advice in this post: models talk to each other.

In this digital age, models who have never even met in person are able to easily and quickly communicate on social media and, believe me, they do. While some models will tell you when you've done something to make them uncomfortable, many won't; they'll just grit their teeth, get through the shoot, then add you to their list of people to never work with again. They may also tell other models not to work with you. It won't take that many shoots to find yourself blacklisted and unable to reliably find models if you make people uncomfortable or behave inappropriately. If your behavior is particularly egregious, you're likely to find yourself (justifiably) "named and shamed" on social media, which can have devastating consequences, both personal and professional.

Okay. Now that we've got that all out of the way, we can move on to the fun stuff starting with the next Getting Started post!

Header image is a portion of a public domain nude photograph taken in the 1920s by Alexander "Xan" Stark, a California photographer.