This interview with photographer Kyle Johnson originally appeared in our free…
How does the boudoir photography business work, and what does it take to succeed in that segment of the photo industry? I’ve always been curious about the business side of boudoir photography – marketing, sales, presentations, portfolio preparation and display, pricing – and how did these tactics differ from the tactics used in other areas of the professional photography world?
When Adrian Vega started as a professional photographer 9 years ago, he concentrated on weddings. Yet, he always felt that there was something missing – thinking that it was possible to do more than just capture what was happening during a wedding ceremony. Vega, who is currently based in Kansas City, Missouri, decided to give boudoir photography a try – initially as a creative outlet.
He put together a small gallery of boudoir photos on his PhotoShelter website using images he created for personal projects. Today, about 90% of the inquiries he receives are for boudoir and fine art nudes.
Mike White, a commercial photographer based in Chicago, Illinois, got into shooting
boudoir professionally when several brides asked him to help create a surprise for the future husbands with photos that could be presented them as as a gift. Prior to his work as a commercial photographer, he shot mainly fine art figurative portraits and portfolio work for glamor, beauty, and fashion. His move into the boudoir business came naturally.
I wanted to know more about the business of boudoir photography, so I asked Mike and Adrian a series of questions. They answered honestly, and were generous by sharing the “inside secrets” of their business.
1) How do you market that side of your business?
I market almost entirely online using good SEO and very little paid advertising. At this time, I don’t bother with purchasing keywords. I keep my boudoir work separate from my commercial work, and have different “gateway sites” that direct customers to specific gallery collections. PhotoShelter’s gallery collections make it easy to do this without needing multiple accounts.
It’s really funny. The more I tried to do SEO, towards improving my placement on search engines, the less I seemed to succeed at it. I tried a number of strategies, but none seemed to succeed. Finally, I decided to focus only on the photography itself. I decided that I wasn’t going to engage on payment schemes to improve SEO, nor was I going to continue to ask people or companies to refer customers nor direct traffic to my website. I decided to focus only on the quality of my images and let my customers do the PR for me. All of a sudden the hits improved and I got more customers asking about it.
2) Who is your typical customer, and how do they find you?
My typical customer is the working woman. Is the woman who reads an article on a magazine or online and is curious. Is the military wife who wants to send a very special and intimate gift to her husband serving away from home. Is the professional with a successful career who is proud of where she is and what she’s accomplished. I do get some very young customers, who are curious, but I would say that about 80% of my customers are 30 years old or over. Is not unusual to have customers over 50. So far, I get my customers mostly from web searches, some from referrals and a bit from the only local lingerie store who actually didn’t ignore my attempts to partner with them.
I’ve been blessed to work with a more diverse customer base than I could have ever dreamed of: Women going through a range of physical and situational life-changing experiences, and they all have the need to express and reward themselves for being who they are. Many customers are also looking for great gifts for their future husbands, boyfriends, or soldiers overseas.
Word of mouth referrals come from a variety of sources: stylists, location owners, and past customers. The customers that find me through my website are a different breed, and have all done their research. Typically, these customers have been viewing my work for several weeks or months, and also have a good idea of what other studios offer, so they contact me with many high expectations. I like that.
3) Is this primarily a local business, or do you travel for assignments too?
Local, though I will shoot larger assignments in multiple locations over a period of a few days whenever the budget is accommodating. Some of these other locations will be in other cities – either to reduce the travel for the client, or to get the perfect setting that matches the client’s wishes.
So far, my main market is local. I’ve done some assignment work also, some of which was somehow successful. I had an image published on the Jan-Feb issue of the French magazine PHOTO. The image was actually taken in Cancun, Mexico. Right now, I’m trying to branch out. My local market is still growing, but my city is a little conservative. I feel the urge to travel to bigger cities, where there’s different kinds of customers and attitudes towards art. I have received good interest from Nebraska but I’d say that now my target is Chicago and Colorado. My work flow allows me to move really easily. So I’m betting on a mixed market. We’ll see how that works.
4) Other than photography, what type of skills does a photographer need to have if they want to succeed in the boudoir photography business?
I think you have to love what you do. You have to have a vision. Many customers actually have told me that even though they were advised to get a female photographer, they felt like a male point of view was a better fit for the images they wanted. I have a clear vision. It’s not the vision of Women as delicate and almost ethereal creatures, is a vision of a powerful and amazing force, in constant change and sometimes even little sense. If a photographer doesn’t have a vision, it’s really hard to develop a style. Hard work is also key. You have to keep exploring new ideas, new concepts.
I’m a firm believer that in art, inspiration is a big part of it, but hard work and perseverance is maybe even more important. Lastly, you have to be very professional. If this is paramount on other areas, it can’t be more important than in boudoir. Boudoir customers are often charged with doubts, confidence issues, and the idea of possible threat. Is the photographer’s job to create a safe atmosphere, an environment where the customer feels at ease and can unwind. So you need to work on the environment of your studio, the way you behave, move and even look at a customer. Customers can see through you, and they will walk away if they don’t like what they see.
You have to be flexible, creative, a problem-solver, and a people-person. Every shoot requires all of these skills, in addition to producing quality work, but the most important key to a successful shoot is how you treat the client. From the initial phone consultation to the final delivery of the photos, the client wants to know that you’ve “got their back”. You have to know when to listen, and when to give direction. It’s a fine balance and has nothing to do with photography, but everything to do with your results.
5) How do you base your rates and fees for this type of work?
I provide some sample rates that include a range of hours and services, and build a complete package during the initial consultation after gathering information about desired locations, stylists, and how much time is needed for everything.
That’s a great question. First, I analyzed my competition. Then I figured my operational costs. Gear, the cost of my time, consumables, material for building sets, assistant, Make up Artist, the works. I came to realize that I had to be right in the middle. I wouldn’t sell myself Craigslist cheap, but I wouldn’t charge sky high either. So right now, my rates are still lower than many of my competitors, but they’re enough to allow me to stay in business. When I checked other photographers prices, I saw many really crazy things. I saw anywhere from the Craigslist guy that sells his/her soul for close to nothing, to the high end studio with really cliché and boring images, which charged for a crew of four people for each session. I just though that was crazy! I can’t see how that business model can prosper. I guess only time will tell if my approach works or not. I keep my overhead as low as I can, although that keeps increasing as I get more complex on my concepts.
6) In your experience, what type of settings or situations result in better images?
Confidence, no doubt. I always had extremely good results when I know what I’m dealing with. If my customer has confidence in me, the session goes so easy and the results are great. If she’s not confident or if she’s shy, things can be really hard, for her and me. That’s why it’s important to have clear expectations. I always give my customer lots of information, tips, and run the shoot concept by her. That way she knows what to expect. Besides that, preparation. The very few times when I did a shoot with little preparation, I felt like the result was soft. So now, I spend pretty much a whole day in advance preparing my set, gear, concept, so I know exactly what I’ll get. This level of preparation makes the artist act confidently, and the customer feels it too. If the customer feels you’re hesitant, she’ll get nervous. After all, is already hard for many to pose in lingerie!
A great location, great stylists, and an inspired client would give you the best opportunity to create the best images, but it really comes down to gaining the client’s trust and finding what makes them tick in as little time as possible. The shoot won’t get off the ground without creating a connection with your subject, and I find that reviewing some key moments of the shoot while it’s in progress can boost confidence, collaboration and the synergy needed to focus everyone and keep the energy high.
7) What type of gear (camera, computer, software, etc.) do you normally use for boudoir assignments?
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark 2. My lineup of lights and lenses change for each job, but my favorite Canon lenses are: 70-200mm F2.8 L IS II USM, 17-40mm f/4.0 L USM, 50mm f/1.4 USM. In the studio, I’ll use a mix of speedlights, monolights, and the occasional ringflash. On location I rely more heavily on the cordless and wireless equipment. Post-production is done on a 27″ iMac with a Drobo system that effortlessly lets me work with the hundreds of RAW files that start in Lightroom and get finishing touches in Photoshop.
I’m in the dark side. Nikon, although this was more of an accident. I absolutely love their prime wide angles. I use a 20mm but my favorite lens is the 50mm f1.4. I really believe I could do the same with an Olympus, a Sony or any brand for that matter. That’s why I absolutely hate discussing gear. It’s worthless. All photographers I know brag about lenses, cameras, lights. I laugh when I see the results of the ones who brag the most. I laugh even more when I see their faces when they see my gear. My camera is a D300, Alien bees strobes, SB-800’s and a mix of Vivitar and Sunpak strobes. I have a custom made PC, with three levels of back up. I use Adobe Photoshop, and Bridge. Besides that, I have tons of self made gizmos, supports, light modifiers, and weird gadgets. I can’t help it. I always carry a book to write down my ideas. Never know when the best idea will get you.
8) Assuming most boudoir clients want to keep their images private, how can a photographer build a portfolio of work that shows their style and skill?
About 85% of the images on my portfolio are of models. It took a while to build a strong portfolio, because I wanted to show how I was able to create many different concepts. It took about a year of trade and paying models to build it. Once I had that starting point, some customers (very few) agreed to have some of their images on the website. Specially in the Midwest, most customers still are hesitant to have their images viewed by the public. We’re very conservative people.
So if a photographer wants to start building a portfolio, he/she needs to invest on model fees, or really convince some models to do trade. You never want to put online images of customers who probably didn’t want it to begin with. It’s a very intimate thing, so having models in your port also gives you peace of mind.
I assume that all my customers require complete privacy of their images, though I’ve been fortunate enough to have customers release images, and encourage the use of them for my portfolio. Negotiating a trade of services between a photographer and semi-professional models can be a cost efficient way to begin also. Always get those model releases signed.
9) How important is a portfolio in boudoir photography? What kind of editing (picture selection, retouching, etc.) goes into the portfolio process? How do you select which images to include?
The portfolio is critical, and it’s what makes the customer pick up the phone. The customer must be able to “see themselves” in these photos, and that’s why my picture selection uses more realistic women in a variety of styles. Every photo is touched up just enough to make her look her best. She doesn’t need to know all the “before and after” details, and nothing should ever look “airbrushed”. I believe that once a photo looks retouched, it no longer connects with the viewer. I adjust every color, tone and blemish by hand, but I never change the physical appearance of my customer. Weight loss and plastic surgery are not features of Photoshop, and are never on my menu. You have to learn to get the shot perfect before you move on to the next look. Fixing things in Photoshop that could have been fixed in the studio is a painful consequence that will burn out any photographer.
A strong portfolio is key. I have never booked a customer without first showing them my actual book. I have a Graphistudio book, which I love. And they love it too. It’s one thing to show them some images on a laptop screen and a very different experience to let them go through the silky smooth pages of my Italian hand made book. It’s one of the best investments a photographer can make. I try not to rely too much on Photoshop. I try to get the image I have in my mind right from the get go. I never spend a lot of time editing. I apply a contrast adjustment layer, de-saturate color a bit, maybe create a layer to open up highlights, and some cropping. That’s usually it.
As for image selection, I go over the images of the session over and over. The first time, I delete the ones that make me want to stab myself on the eye. Then I select the ones that just look good. From there, I delete the ones that are good, but really don’t say anything. It’s a gradual process, that takes hours. I need my music rocking on the background, and some peace to get it done. Usually late at night.