Guide to Nude Photography
The human body is a scientific marvel. It also happens to be a beautiful, versatile, and endlessly fascinating subject for photos and artworks.
If you’re considering nude photography as your genre of choice, you may be interested in digging a little deeper into what it entails and what you need to get started. That’s what this guide will take you through.
The thing about nude photography is that doing it well requires a delicate touch and some sensitivity on the part of the photographer.
With that in mind, we’ll give you some tips on how to approach it and how to work with your models.
We’ll also list some must-know photographers of the genre so you can check out their work and get inspired.
Ready? Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Why Nude Photography?
Nude photography is a thought-provoking genre. Before you jump into it, ask yourself what it is about the naked human body that captivates you. What do you want to capture in your photographs, and why?
The fact is that nude pictures don’t have to be erotic or sexualised. They can be anatomical. Primal. Raw. Emotive. Documentative. And most certainly artistic.
In fine art photography, nudity is a common theme. This makes sense if you glance back through art history: since ancient times, nudes have regularly featured in sculpture and painting.
The Venus of Willendorf is thought to be around 25,000 years old. There’s Michaelangelo’s David, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Manet’s Olympia…
“What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?” – Michaelangelo
Another interesting aspect of nude photography is that the lines between it and other genres are heavily blurred.
Perspectives On Nude Photography
All photographers have their own motivations for shooting nude photography, and their own perspectives on what it means.
Casting aside those less honorable, here are some perspectives to consider:
- Nude photography strips all else away
In the absence of clothing, we are reduced to natural lines, curves and textures. But even more noteworthy, we are stripped of the cultural and identity markers that fashion provides. We have nothing to hide behind.
In this sense, nude subjects are at their most vulnerable, but also their most real.
For some photographers, this stripping away is the main appeal of nude photography as a genre. It means they can focus on pure emotion or pure form without the distraction of clothing and accessories.
- It can be used to empower the subject
Some photographers of nudes see it as a means of empowerment. This is where nude photography and boudoir photography most overlap.
As Australian photographer Natalia Naa told us, there’s much joy to be found in creating intimate moments of people, not just with others but with their own selves.
“I want to capture the beauty and virtues of women—their femininity, their strengths, their dignities, and what they are capable of—in the most empowering and beautiful art form.” — Natalia Naa.
Often this type of nude or semi-nude photoshoot is done with clients who want the photos for their own private keepsakes.
- It can embrace eroticism and sensuality
I’ve mentioned that not all nude photography has to be sexualised – but of course, much of it is! Some photographers have erotic and sensual photography down to an art.
If this is the kind of style you want to shoot, it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s more to creating a sensual image than bare skin. If you can master creating an erotic mood with models who are clothed, you’re more than halfway there.
This type of nude photography is also the trickiest to define in terms of where the borders lie with softcore pornography. Really, how you define the two – or whether you see any separation at all – is rather subjective.
In the last few decades, this type of erotica has become far more mainstream. Consider the various magazines that have merged fashion, art and culture with erotic and nude themes.
A few examples are Olivier Zahm’s Purple Magazines, or the print-slash-digital title Treats! which famously featured a stark naked Emily Ratajkowski in its third issue.
The bottom line here is that sensualised nudity, though widely accepted, is harder to achieve than it may look. To master the art of tasteful yet erotic nudes, you’ll need planning, practice, and a sensitive touch.
- Fine art nude photography
Lastly, if you want to consider nudes as a form of fine art photography, they can really be any of the above.
“Fine art” is itself open to different definitions, but as well as having the potential to be empowering or erotic, a piece of fine art nude photography might also be conceptual or even somewhat abstract in nature.
7 Famous Nude Photographers
The field of nude photography has been shaped by many influential (and often controversial) figures. Here are seven worth knowing:
- Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931): German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden worked mostly in Italy, and is best known for his graceful, pastoral nudes of Sicilian boys.
- Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976): One of the first professional female photographers in the US, Imogen Cunningham was a pioneer of the art. Along with her well-known botanical portraits, her intimate nude photographs are as delicate and as real now as they were when she shot them.
- Helmut Newton (1920-2004): A hugely influential fashion photographer, Newton incorporated nudity, fetishism and voyeurism into much of his work. His erotically charged images frequented the pages of Vogue and other magazines.
- Sam Haskins (1926-2009): Sam Haskins became widely known in the 1960s for his photo books (“Cowboy Kate”, “Five Girls” and others). His much-imitated images of beautiful mod models continue to be a huge source of inspiration in the fashion world.
- Marc Lagrange (1957-2015): This Belgian artist was renowned for capturing desire, emotion and intimacy in his beautiful, vintage-styled film photography. Sumptuous costumes and props bring a fantastical element to his nudes.
- Sally Mann (1951-): Acclaimed American photographer Sally Mann became most famous – or notorious – when she controversially published photos of her young children naked. In Mann’s eyes, these nudes captured the innocence of youth and were not exploitative.
- Henrik Purienne (1977-): South African photographer Henrik Purienne blurs the boundaries of fashion and eroticism, with his dreamy, retro-inspired images of girls – often fashion models.
12 Nude Photography Tips & Ideas
Now let’s take a look at some tips and ideas to inspire your next nude photography project.
1. Don’t Get Too Hung Up On Gear
Obviously, you’ll need some camera gear to shoot nude photography. So what gear should you choose?
While high-end equipment can make life easier, it’s not essential. What matters more is that you develop your style as a photographer.
Nude photography is one of those genres where the technical specs are gloriously secondary to the subject, concept, and execution.
Having less equipment can even be a creative limitation: when you’re pushed to do more with less, the results can be pleasantly surprising.
German photographer Stefan Soell told us in his Shotkit feature that when shooting outdoors, he sticks to carrying just two Canon zoom lenses (a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm):
“Too much equipment would take away the spontaneity and lightness of my photography,” he says.
A little grain, blur or underexposure can even add to the mystery when it comes to naked pictures, so don’t be afraid to start out with what you’ve got and take it from there.
2. Respect Your Models
We’ve all heard stories of unethical photographers with ulterior motives for getting their models naked. We hardly need to state that this is not OK.
So let’s assume you’re approaching this genre from a place of genuine art. It can still be easy to be misconstrued or to unwittingly make your subjects feel uncomfortable or unsafe despite your best intentions.
With that in mind, tip number 2 is to always respect your models’ privacy and personal space. Don’t touch them. If there’s something you really need to adjust, ask them first.
And don’t assume that your subject is totally comfortable with being nude anywhere, anytime just because they’ve agreed to pose naked. They may prefer to keep a robe on while being posed and only take it off once the shot is ready.
If so, respect that and work to limit the amount of time they spend exposed – especially if shooting outdoors.
Lastly, do what you can to make your models comfortable. That includes plenty of heating, and remember this advice isn’t just limited to the girls – dudeoir is a thing too!
Ideally, you want to start building rapport with your model before the shoot starts. So meet up with them, make them feel at ease, and most importantly, communicate exactly what it is you want to achieve.
Explain to them the type of shoot you want to do, your artistic vision, what you’ll be asking of them, and what the photos will be for. If they’ll be used online or on social media, inform them of that as well.
For all of those things, check that they’re comfortable with your plans.
Ask for your model’s input: you may be directing the shoot, but they’ll feel more at ease if they’re a valued part of the creative team, plus they might have some valuable ideas to share.
Lastly, don’t forget the model release forms.
4. Incorporate Landscapes
Now onto some tips and ideas for your next batch of nude photographs.
You might have noticed that a lot of fine art nude photography incorporates landscapes. There’s a reason for this: a naked human body set against natural elements makes for a wonderful juxtaposition.
On the one hand, you can use such a composition to draw a comparison between the shape of the body and the shapes within the natural landscape. For example, a naked body curled up and nestled in the curvature of a rockface, or the buttocks of a prone subject made to mirror distant hills.
On the other, there can be something jarring about seeing a naked body out in nature. Our minds link the two elements as equally raw and natural; at the same time, our social conditioning says otherwise.
If you do a nude photo shoot outdoors, pay attention to how the body complements or contrasts the elements around it.
5. Try Different Crops
The naked body gives you plenty of surface area to experiment with.
Consider your crops and how you can create unique and interesting photographs just by being selective about what you leave out as well as what you leave in.
You can use a “fill the frame” technique to fill your entire composition with just part of the body. Or you can creatively use negative space to highlight particular body parts and draw the viewer’s eye where you want it to go.
Creative cropping can also add mystery by anonymising the subject or maintaining their modesty.
6. Use Shadows To Create Mystery
Another way to add mystery and intrigue to nude photographs is with the heavy use of shadows.
The above image is a great example: the low-key lighting keeps the subject in shadow with just the curves of the body highlighted, while the considered use of negative space draws the eye downward and creates a feeling of isolation.
The resulting effect is stunning.
7. Use Fluid Posing
Perfectly posed nudes are a beautiful thing, but you can also get some stunning shots by incorporating fluidity.
This works best once your model has relaxed into the shoot. Ask them to move around, and leave them to “flow” into different positions as you snap away.
By doing this, you can get some unique and unconventional poses, like the brilliant example from Sacha Leyendecker shown above.
We’ve got plenty of great guides on posing here on Shotkit – try this one about posing people for starters.
8. Play With Shadows & Silhouettes
With a nude model, you have the opportunity to focus less on detail and more on shape. With that in mind, nudes are the ideal subject for silhouettes and shadowy outlines.
For any silhouette photography, you’ll need backlighting. Position your model in front of a light source – it could be a window, studio light, whatever – and pose them in a way that accentuates the lines and curves of the body.
Alternatively, try using the light to throw shadows on a wall or backdrop.
9. Take a Step Back
Our bodies have innumerable intricacies that are fascinating close-up. Still – don’t forget to experiment with shooting from further away.
Incorporating more of the surroundings can make for interesting and beautiful final images. In these cases, the body becomes just one element in a broader scene, so do pay attention to composition and how you place it.
Another benefit to being further away is that it can be less daunting for your model – thus helping them get more comfortable to begin with.
10. Get Creative With Water
There’s a naturally striking juxtaposition between the fluidity of water and the solidity of the human form.
If you’re versed in underwater photography, doing a nude photoshoot while submerged in a lake or the ocean can create for breathtaking, nymph-like images.
Even a simple bathtub opens up a world of possibility. Try a milkbath photoshoot for an ethereal way to partially cover your subject’s body.
11. Be The Voyeur
While you can certainly capture a nude portrait of your model as they interact directly with the camera, there’s also the fly-on-the-wall approach.
Instruct your model to act as if you’re not even there, then fire away. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces can add yet another layer to this kind of shot.
There’s something infinitely intriguing and mysterious about photography captured from a voyeuristic point of view. It’s not just the photographer who’s a voyeur, but also the viewer.
With nude photography, you have many opportunities to use this to your advantage.
12. Play With Angles
Another thing to keep in mind with nude photography is that you can use perspective to change the way the body is perceived.
Shooting from different angles can distort features and form – try using this to creative effect.
Shoot from up above to make your subject look small and insignificant against a natural landscape, or shoot from down low to make them larger than life.
Nude Photography Final Words
Embarking on a nude photo shoot – especially your first one – can be daunting. And that’s true for the photographer as well as the model – when someone is posing for us at their most bare and vulnerable, we want to give them the best possible results!
As with all types of photography, mastering this genre comes down to research, planning, and above all, practice. So get out there and give it a shot.
Hopefully, you found inspiration and ideas in this guide. I’d love to hear from you with any questions, comments, or tips of your own, so do join the conversation below.
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer who also loves to take pictures on her banged-up (yet surprisingly resilient) Canon 5D Mark III. She currently lives in Portugal.