The Naked Truth
Perfecting the appearance of the nude.
by CLIVE BRANSON
When I talk to someone about nude photography, they raise the proverbial eyebrow and their jowls spread back into some lascivious grin. “Nude photography, eh?” is expressed with that air of almost illicit anticipation. Images of nubile nymphs splayed out like beached starfish displaying all their glory feed many a deviant mind. However, in reality, it may come as little surprise that most people actually look better clothed then unclothed; hence, this is where nude photography faces its greatest challenge – complimenting the figure. Although the human form has been an inspiration for artists since the beginning of time, there is a fine line between fine art photography and cheesecake vulgarity, yet few images have more power to evoke such strong reactions than the nude. A shot of a nude shouldn’t appear like you’re photographing someone naked or to make it appear too cliché (i.e. unnatural or well-worn poses); too contrived (i.e. photographing a nude simply for the sake of a T&A shot); or too disparaging (i.e. where the model looks more like a tart such as the ubiquitous “glamour” studio shots). Similar to a portrait, you are dealing with someone’s pride, so make sure the results are rewarding, otherwise you will loose, not only your model, but also your reputation.
If you are exploring this subject for the first time, here are some helpful tips. In nude photography, an unplanned approach is inclined to produce a graceless picture. To address the potential richness of the human form, and to do so without blatancy, you must exercise the maximum care and selectivity. Only by learning to control the pose, the setting and the lighting, can you produce photographs that reveal your craftsmanship as a work of art rather than a clinical and brazen documentation.
Before you begin a session or before you even approach any model, ask yourself what the purpose of the shoot is. It is preferable if you can think of a theme – this will make selling your work to magazines, agencies or galleries easier. Go on the Internet, go to the library or magazine store and do some research on images that stimulate or comply with an intriguing idea. Try to create a theme that will stimulate both you as a photographer and get the model in the right frame of mind. When I say “theme,” it can be as basic as a photo exposé on “Redheads” (to give your piece added value, possibly include their feedback on the juxtaposition of their views versus society’s views regarding the colour of their hair) or a theme can stretch to the realms of fantasy.
There is a phalanx of exceptional fine art and nude photographers – too many to list, however; some worth studying are Bob Carlos Clarke, Craig Morey, Helmet Newton, Herb Ritts, Robert Mapplethorpe, Joyce Tennesson, Deborah Turbeville, Jeanloup Sieff, Jan Saudek, Tony Ryan, Robb Debenport and David Hamilton. How is their work different from others? Notice their style: How do they capture an evocative pose? Do they use props? What is their lighting technique? What angles, lenses do they use? And how does the personality of the image seize your attention? Try implementing their technical skills while developing your own unique aesthetics into the equation.
Recruiting a model
When you approach someone, make sure you convey that your intentions are both honorable and professional. Introduce yourself with a business card (with your website on it), state your objective and finally, inquire if your subject would like to arrange a meeting to review your existing work as well as to discuss your proposal. Don’t be discouraged if she/he says no, someone else will eventually agree.
There are five ways to find a model. First, approach a stranger. This can be the most daunting since most people don’t expect to be approached with your intentions on the street, supermarket, or nightclub and you have a short period of time to introduce yourself. In addition, there is the undignified scenario of being misinterpreted as some perverted creep. To reassure an amateur model, ask them to bring a friend (for moral support) to the shoot.
Second, offer your services (for free) to a model agency and ask if any of the models need assistance upgrading their portfolios. Be open and direct to the agency: Present your themed project and bring your portfolio of work with you. Your portfolio does not have to contain nudes, but it should showcase a variety of portraits. The agency will indicate whether or not they are interested or if they can provide a model for a set of prints. Third, approach a stripper. This may seem extreme, but they often need promotional shots of themselves and they are comfortable disrobing. You can either ask for a fee in return for a series of prints or negotiate with them by offering a free shoot for their generous time.
Another approach is to join a professional photographer’s workshop or seminar. The model and lighting will be supplied for a price. The only trouble with this is a lack of time with the model and you are basically competing with a roomful of other photographers to take a shot of one model. Finally, simply ask a friend, girlfriend/boyfriend, spouse or even photograph yourself if all else fails.
Once you have recruited a model that you assume will be ideal, sit down and discuss ideas that both of you feel comfortable with. One effective way to make everyone feel at ease is to draw each pose out or bring tear outs from magazine photos to the discussion. This will paint a picture for the model. Try to develop a rapport with your model and you may be surprised how much he/she can contribute to the project. If you photograph outdoors, be sure it is done in the early morning hours or at a remote location. All cities have laws against public nudity. You don’t want your first assignment to end in the clink. And always have your model sign a model release – clothed or unclothed. Any publication of nude pictures without proof of permission would almost certainly be viewed as a ‘defamation of character’ that could leave you susceptible to heavy litigation claims. You can find standard release examples on the Internet. Your model release should indicate the purpose of the shoot, whether it will be exhibited, whether the model wants to be identified and whether he/she permits their name being used. Give the model a copy of the signed agreement.
Inform the subject to wear loose fitting clothing several hours before the shoot: underwear elastic or tight waistbands leave marks on skin that do not fade quickly. Try to make the atmosphere as relaxing as possible. Offer the model a robe, a place to change, put on background music of his/her choice, offer a beverage and always communicate clearly with each other. If the model brings a friend, get them involved with the lighting, looking through the camera and suggesting ideas. Some amateur photographers will bring in a stylist for the model’s make-up, but this can get expensive. Regardless, the more professional you can be, the better the outcome, and more often then not, the model will be encouraged to do another shoot with you.
It is key that you are aware in capturing on film what you see in person. It is important that the model understands the essence of what you are trying to capture. Comfort is critical not just physical comfort, but mental comfort, so that your subject can cooperate effectively. The wonderful aspect of digital photography is that you can immediately show the model each shot and make the appropriate alterations. The more you can help the model picture the end product, the more she/he will be responsive.
If you are setting up your own studio, it is preferable to use a room that has a decent size. The ideal ceilings should be 10 feet or higher and the length around 20 feet. If it is shorter, you can’t get sufficient distance between the figure and the background. And if the ceiling is lower, it will limit your lighting options to a relatively low angle. For most studio photography, you will want a plain background – either white or black – with a cove or sheet of material curved to give no line between the vertical wall and the floor – which should also be of a similar hue to your backdrop. White is better since you can paint or project various effects on it.
If you shoot outdoors, compare the beauty of your model’s soft skin against jagged or old texture such as beside an old barn, rocks, woods, a ragged coastline, rusting metal, sand, in a car wash, old train tracks/cars, in front of an industrial site, or at a car dump. Note, finding a private outdoor location is not easy; it is usually advisable to scout days in advance for one then return with your model and equipment. Do not do a photo shoot between the hours of noon and 2 p.m. The lighting is usually too harsh and unflattering
Getting the most from your subject
To reiterate, few bodies are perfect, and most people are self-conscious about defects, real or imagined. To avoid these flaws (i.e. stretch marks, flabby arms, ungainly breasts, scars, birthmarks, acne, aging lines, protruding stomachs, and flat, nondescript bottoms), view the body mainly in terms of contours and shapes. To project shape, you need to simplify the figure, using shadow to suppress surface detail and to limit the tonal range that provides modeling and the sense of rounded form. In addition, the identity of the nude is often concealed, as it may become a distraction. The key to the shot is to produce a stunning, graceful or unique image whereby the human form virtually becomes a landscape of curves and shapes. If the model has a flat rear, have the model push it upwards either with their hands or by pulling up their pants. If the model has flabby breasts, position the arms or hands to lift the breasts up without it being too obvious or have her wear a push-up bra. If the model has a protruding stomach, take a direct shot rather than a side profile.
One way to accentuate lovely lines, such as the curve of a breast or hip, is to use a pose that gently stretches and taunts the body. Also, by partly concealing the subject’s face, helps to focus attention on the figure and will give a shy model more confidence. It also makes the image an abstract and deviates the viewer’s attention to what you want them to see. In addition, encourage your model to take deep breaths. This will help to release any built-up tension, and also gives a more flattering line to the stomach and waist. I would recommend photographing your model in black & white. This effect tends to emphasize light and line and helps to make the images objective. Black & white photography also aids in suggesting a timeless, flawless quality.
The secret to any great portrait is how you light your subject. Use your lighting and arrange the posing so that what isn’t flattering is shielded by darkness. You should light your model by using diffusers, reflectors and black material. A diffuser should be used when light is harsh; black material to eliminate stray light and to help control shadows. A harder light used without a reflector will produce a more of a contrasting effect – highlighting shape, but obscuring form. To show skin texture in sharp detail, side lighting is best. You can also apply oil or water to reflect physical tonality – whether it’s smoothness or muscle. Diffused lighting is flattering to the rounded curves of the female form, producing soft shadows when the light source is on one side. By diffusing a large, front light source, you can generate near seamless lighting that works well when you want to concentrate on shape rather than contours. Although nude photography carries a social stigma, it is still one of the oldest, and to my mind, one of the most beautiful artistic and rewarding expressions of photography.
Clive is a photography graduate from New York City’s Parsons School of Design. After graduating, he entered advertising as an Art Director. With extensive advertising and marketing experience, Clive has been a Senior Copywriter and a Creative Director for agencies in Toronto, Ottawa and Bermuda and presently runs his own company with clients throughout the world. He still remains an active writer/photographer for numerous local, national and international magazines and newspapers and has had his work exhibited on 5th Avenue as well as aired on WPBSTV.
Soft Screams Magazine highly recommends the reading of his book “Focus On Close-Up and Macro Photography”. This is a must read book by this Master Photographer and Creative Director Clive Branson. You will see the results from reading his book, the first time you shoot a “Bodyscape” of a nude man or woman.
(Available for Purchase Below. )