A beginner’s guide to the art of nude photography. Tips, techniques, lighting advice, help for sourcing nude models and more – it’s your complete guide to taking fine art nudes.
Nude photography has been a popular subject since the very beginnings of the medium, and even before the invention of the camera, the nude has played a significant role in all the visual arts. There’s nothing ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ about this: it’s a celebration of human form, a study of the body’s landscape in all its beauty. Here, we focus on the naked female form, and give you all the expert tips and techniques you need to get started in fine art nudes – plus a free downloadable guide to posing nude models.
Getting started: finding a nude photography model
Finding a willing model to pose for your fine art nude photography is perhaps one of the biggest challenges you’ll have. If you’re lucky you’ll have a willing partner to assume the role, but this rarely seems to be the case.
The best place to find local models is online at sites such as www.modeldesire.com. These sites are a meeting point for photographers and models. You’ll usually be able to find a local nude model who’s willing to work in exchange for prints or a disc of the images.
If you go down this route, it’s good to be absolutely clear on what’s expected from both parties, especially if there’s no financial exchange. Experienced models will most likely charge for their time, but if you want to boost your portfolio, working with an experienced model could be a worthwhile investment. It’s not just about finding someone who’s happy to be photographed nude, it’s also important to find the right type of figure for an art nude – so look at the model’s portfolio before you start. There’s a marked difference between an art-nude model and a glamour model. We used Ella Rose for our shoot. Her classic looks made her perfect for the genre, and she was keen to collaborate with us to get the sophisticated shots we wanted.
Do you need to hire studio for nude photography?
You don’t need a big fancy studio to create successful fine art nude shots, but you do need enough space to set up a couple of lights and a backdrop and be able to get far enough back to shoot a full-length image without a super wide-angle zoom. Your average sized living room should just about do it. We rented Paul’s Studio in Reading, who were on hand all day. There are plenty of studios dotted around the UK that offer similar services and many also offer nude photography courses, day events and will also arrange the model hire for you. Rates and terms vary, but you can expect to pay around £50 per hour for a studio and a model, but there’s no reason you can’t share this cost with a friend if you’re on a budget.
Once you’ve found your space you’ll need to create a good environment to work in to increase your chances of success. Your model won’t be wearing any clothes, so ensure the space is warm and comfortable. This situation has the potential to be awkward to start with so break the ice with a cuppa, and discuss ideas for the shoot before starting. Music is great for creating an ambience – choose sounds that complement the style of photography you’re hoping to achieve.
Nude photography lighting
Studio lighting can seem daunting to the uninitiated, but it needn’t be, especially these days when it’s easy to see the effects of the lights on your DSLR’s LCD. The lighting guide on below is an excellent starting point, providing three setups to get you going. If you’re new to studio lighting start with the more basic setup – you’ll be surprised at how creative you can be with one light and a reflector. Once you’re confident move onto some of the more complex high-key and low-key setups.
If you don’t have any studio lights of your own, there are places such as the www.theflashcentre.com that hire them out. You can get a two-head kit such as the Elinchrom 300RX for as little as £14 (plus insurance and VAT) for a weekend.
However, you don’t have to use studio lighting. Daylight from a window – ideally, north-facing – can create beautiful effects. Even using your regular flashgun off camera can be an effective alternative.
By far the best approach is to know your limitations and keep the lighting as simple as possible. The last thing you want is to ruin the momentum of a shoot while you’re fiddling with the lights. If you can try your lighting ideas out on a (clothed) helper before the model arrives and have your first lighting set up in place, you’ll be off to a confident start. Don’t be too ambitious. Even if you’re a little anxious you want to appear that you’re in control. Keeping it simple is the best way to achieve this.
Lighting diagram: basic setup for nudes
This basic setup is a good start for a fine-art nude shoot. Place two studio lights at a 45-degree angle to the model at a distance of about 4 to 6 feet. Set one light as the main light by positioning it a little higher (about 6 feet high) and increasing the intensity of the flash using the dial. Locate the other light a little lower than the main light and reduce the intensity of the flash. If you only have one studio light a simple reflector makes a good alternative to the second light.
Lighting diagram: high key setup for nudes
To create a soft even light, position one light with a softbox attached in front of the model on the floor pointing upwards. Position a second softbox above the first at about 7 feet pointing slightly downwards. Use a further two lights with umbrellas to light the background so it’s a clean white. To separate the model from the background, position two large black ‘flats’ each side of the model (two large pieces of black card will do). This will create a lovely black rim around her.
Lighting diagram: low key setup for nudes
Art-nude lighting is all about showing off the lines, curves and shapes of your subject. To create more depth and a sculptural feeling, set the position of the softboxes so they’re slightly behind the model pointing back towards the camera. Experiment with the intensity of each light using the dials on the flash heads. You might need to use a lens hood to avoid any unwanted flare ruining your shot. Just using one light can also work very well with this technique, especially for more abstract images.
Essential studio kit
There are plenty of starter kits to ease you into studio lighting, such as the excellent Pro Line Apollo 300 (www.prolinestudio.co.uk). They usually contain these… <!-- STEP -->
<!-- TITLE OF STEP --> Flash lights
Studio flash lights have dials on the back that control the flash output and a constant modelling light so you can see the effect of the light while you’re posing your model. <!-- END COPY FOR STEP -->
<!-- TITLE OF STEP --> Umbrella
An umbrella is standard issue with most studio kits. They usually come in white, silver or gold and are used to reflect light onto the subject. They are easily attached to the flash. <!-- END COPY FOR STEP -->
<!-- TITLE OF STEP --> Softbox
A softbox fits onto a flash unit and diffuses light onto the subject. They come in different shapes and sizes and produce a softer, more even effect than an umbrella. <!-- END COPY FOR STEP -->
<!-- TITLE OF STEP --> Lighting stands
Lighting stands are vital for positioning flash units. The flash units attach to the top of the stands, making them top heavy, so secure them with a counterweight to increase their stability. <!-- END COPY FOR STEP -->
<!-- TITLE OF STEP --> Backgrounds
Art-nude shoots are best shot in monochrome, so keep your backgrounds simple and stick to black, white or grey paper rolls. Black velvet is even better for rich black backgrounds. <!-- END COPY FOR STEP -->
Camera equipment and settings
For this shoot, we used three lenses on a full-frame Nikon D700 DSLR – the Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR, the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4 G, and the Nikon 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. The wide end of the 24-120 zoom was perfect for full body shots, while the macro was great for close-ups. But our favourite was the 85mm f/1.4. Its superb optical quality makes it perfect for half-body shots.
When you’re working in the controlled environment of a studio, your lighting is fixed, so there’s no point using the full or semi-automatic DSLR modes such as aperture priority. It’s best to switch to manual (M on the top dial), so the ambient light doesn’t mess with your exposure.
For most of these photos, we used an aperture of f/8 at 1/200 sec, as lenses tend to perform best around this aperture. Obviously, the exposure is created primarily by the aperture and the intensity of the flash, but you also want to ensure the shutter speed is fast enough to hand-hold your SLR – usually around 1/100 sec with a standard zoom lens. You also need to ensure you don’t go faster than the sync speed – this is the fastest speed you can use flash with.
In most photographic genres, a tripod is essential. However, in this situation, ditch it. You’ll be working with fast shutter speeds (1/200 sec ) with studio lights, so it’s unlikely that you’ll accidently create any camera shake by hand holding your DSLR. You’ll be able to move around the model freely, and you’ll quickly start producing more interesting shots.
Your first nude photography shoot
The studio’s lit, the model’s ready – now it’s time to get creative…
If you’re renting a studio and paying a model by the hour, you don’t want to waste time working out what to do next. Apart from stifling the creative process, it will make you look unprofessional. So have a plan. It doesn’t matter if you deviate from it, but have it in place before you start. Devise a workflow that, true to the description, flows. For example, if you plan to do three setups against a black background and two against a white, you only need to change the background once.
There’s nothing worse than having to spend hours in the digital darkroom removing unwanted marks. Perhaps the worst offenders are the marks imprinted on skin from elasticated underwear. They can take a while to disappear, so it’s best if your model arrives without wearing anything with tight elastic. An experienced model should know this. Make sure there’s a private area for your model to change and also that there’s a dressing gown so they feel comfortable between shots.
As with all types of photography, composition is the most important element for a successful fine art nude image. The same general rules of composition such as the rule of thirds can be applied to an art-nude shoot. It’s all about creating a sense of visual harmony in the frame. Look at the shapes that are being made by the light and the body. However, don’t be afraid to deviate from some of these rules too – it’s possible to create good images that don’t necessarily adhere to them.
The most important thing is to look through your camera’s viewfinder, scan the edges of the frame and really look at the shapes being made. The slightest change of angle can make a huge difference to the composition. Don’t be afraid to take plenty of photos and move around a little, varying the composition and angle of view in each one. Memory cards are relatively cheap these days.
Nude photography poses
Download our free nude photography posing guide – it has some great suggestions for getting started with key poses. But to get the best out of these, it’s good to understand a bit more about the theory of posing your model.
A good place to start is with the concept of ‘contrapposto’ posing. This term, borrowed from the art world, refers to the way the human body looks when the subject is standing with most of their weight on one foot – so their shoulders and arms appear to ‘twist’ from the hips and legs.
Contrapposto crops up all the time; check out the pages of today’s fashion magazines or Michelangelo’s celebrated sculpture of David. Understanding the concept of contrapposto is key to creating pleasing poses; even if your image is going to be composed from the waist up, it’s still vitally important to pay attention to how your model’s feet are positioned. It can also be helpful to have your model wear heels because these will also force the upper body into a more curvaceous posture.
Conventions suggest that direct eye contact should be avoided when posing for an art-nude shoot. A direct gaze is often associated with racier glamour shots. However, rules are there to broken, and sometimes the direct gaze can work well.
Black and white nude photography
Mono is often used for fine art nude photography because the colour information can easily detract from the beauty in the lines, shapes, and textures of the subject. To help you visualise how your end images will look, switch the LCD on your DSLR to monochrome. This will enable you to see the images in black and white, which in turn will make it easier to see how the final images will look. It also makes it much easier to see what’s happening with your lighting.
As long as you shoot in RAW your original file will be unaffected by the mono setting because the image on the LCD is essentially a JPEG of your RAW file. This means that when you download your photos you’ll see the original colour versions. So should you have a change of heart you’ll still be able to make colour images. You also may be able to use this colour information when processing the files.
Abstracts and details
The art nude is a celebration of the shape and form of the human figure. Look for architectural shapes made by limbs and body curves. Focus in on specific parts of the body so you’re creating a near abstraction. Use one hard light to create strong shadows for more distinct abstract shapes in the curves and folds of the body. For our nude abstract above, we used a 60mm macro lens on our full-frame DSLR, which enabled us to get in nice and close to focus on details. Don’t be afraid to make radical crops in-camera such as totally cropping out the model’s head. Abstract photography is about shape, form and texture so it doesn’t matter if you can’t instantly recognise what the subject is.
Try high key nudes
There’s more to creating a good high key photo than just overexposing your shots. You need to artfully hang on to details in the highlight areas while pushing the tones as far as possible to the lighter end of the scale. Your histogram is the ideal tool to help you achieve this because you can see the tones on the graph. Ideally, you’ll need to expose as far to the right as you can without clipping. Your DSLR’s highlight-alert feature is perfect for giving you immediate feedback on clipped highlights. Turn it on.
To create the high key lighting effect, we used two large softboxes to light our model from above and below and a bright white backdrop lit with two additional lights. The risk of high key lighting is that the light tones of the model’s skin will blend with the light tones of the background. To separate the model from the background use black ‘flats’ (a large piece of something black – black card will do). Position them as close to the model as you can without getting them in the shot. The black will reflect on to the model creating a wonderful dark rim. In addition to separating the model from the background, this will also create a sculptural effect on body shapes.
Lovely Low key
Dark and moody low key lighting is synonymous with art-nude photography. The human form looks great set against a mysterious and rich dark background, while strong side lighting can add to the effect with beautiful shadows accentuating the curves and shapes of the body.
For strong shadows, set the lights slightly behind the model, pointing back towards the camera, it seems counterintuitive, but the results can be spectacular. Use your DSLR’s LCD to adjust the lights to suit the pose. You’ll notice instantly that the effect is more sculptural. As the lights are pointing in the direction of the camera there’s a risk of lens flare so attach a lens hood to help prevent it.
To create a rich black background a large piece of black velvet is ideal. The velvet absorbs light unlike other materials. If you don’t have access to a large velvet cloth, a roll of black background paper will work too – just check that it’s not reflecting any light and showing up as a washed-out black in your image.
Make the most of the power of suggestion
The art of nude photography is subtle, and often requires the photographer to suggest nudity rather than explicitly reveal it. It’s this that in part differentiates art nudes from glamour photography. The implied nude is mysterious and suggestive. Turning the model’s head so she’s looking away or into the distance is a great way to add a sense of mystery, or in the case of the low key photo below, crop it from the frame altogether. Use the model’s limbs to hide parts of the body.
Don’t shy away from looking at the masters of art-nude photography. Some seminal figures in the historyof photography include the likes of Edward Weston, Bill Brandt and Man Ray. Some more contemporary photographers such as John Swannell and Robert Mapplethorpe can also be inspirational. Don’t limit yourself to photography either. The nude has featured in art throughout history – a trip to an art gallery can spark off loads of ideas for both posing and lighting your model.
Nude photography model release
Finally, it’s really important that you are clear about what you intend to use the images for to avoid any misunderstanding. It’s good practice to get your model to fill in and sign a model-release form. It’s also a good idea to ask the model to bring proof of ID so you can verify their age. While the copyright of the images remains with you as the photographer, be clear about what the model can use them for too. If you’re working in exchange for services, it’s only reasonable to expect them to want to use the shots in their portfolios, and this usually means online galleries too. This is absolutely fair enough, but make sure you get a picture credit and if possible a link back to your site. It’s all about working together with your model to achieve the best results…