Cara, a professional photographer in St. Louis, has had a camera in her hand since she was 10 years old. Now 44, she’s built a business doing family photo shoots, but since 2017, she’s also run an underground boudoir photography business.
For a long time, family photography was her bread and butter. As a professional, it was hard for Cara to make both styles part of her public brand — “you know, family shots and then a bunch of butts.”
But this week, she’s bringing her boudoir business out from the shadows and making it her full-time gig.
You might think that in the age of nudes and solicited-dick dudes, the boudoir business would be failing. After all, the luxury experience of having to go to a photographer and pay them to take pictures of you — most of which are too risque to post online — sounds decidedly anti-millennial. Why do all that when you can just have your Instagram boyfriend (or a selfie stick) take 1,000 pictures of you for free?
Well, despite “every person on the planet” having a camera, as Cara puts it, boudoir is alive and well — albeit a little different.
The New Boudoir
The boudoir business is thriving, but it’s also in the middle of a transition period. Facebook and Instagram have strict nudity rules, Cara explains, which have pushed “true boudoir further underground.”
“Social media has changed everything, it really has,” she says. “I did a couple series with the hottest two humans on the planet — and not that you even see their faces, but their interactions and the story of the pictures. There’s no blatant nudity, but Facebook blocked it immediately because they’re patrolling left and right. If you show a nipple, you end up in Facebook jail, it’s as simple as that. But I didn’t even show a nipple, they just didn’t like my content.”
Cara agrees social platforms’ anti-nudity rules prevent boudoir photographers from generating business. Facebook doesn’t know the difference between amateur crap and professional photography. “You’ve got all these people with medium-grade DSLR [cameras] thinking they’re photographers, and they’re posting all this junk. So those those of us with some artistic quality to our work, we suffer as a result,” Cara says. “So they’re pushing us underground.”
Cara started a private Facebook group for boudoir enthusiasts to share their work, safely protected from the watchful eye of Facebook’s algorithmic nipple cops. But outside the group, Cara’s customers don’t have many places to share her pictures — which in turn hurts business.
That is, if they even want to share it. Most boudoir images stay entirely private, says William Entriken, who owns a boudoir photography business in the greater Philadelphia area with his wife, Su. He tells MEL that “99 percent” of his customers “do not publicize their pictures.” Instead, the photos are typically printed and sent in an envelope “sealed with a kiss and for your eyes only.” And while that hearkens back to the classic intonations of boudoir, it’s not great for business.
For those reasons, boudoir photography has adapted to modern social media laws. Enter the “glamour shot”: Basically, Instagram-safe non-nudity.
“Now, when I do shoots, I’ll say, ‘This is one you can probably post on Facebook, this one here but not there.’ Boudoir still has such a stigma around it, so I’ll try to include a few ‘seductive’ shots, where there’s a lot of covering,” Cara explains. “People aren’t going to want to pay a lot of money and not be able to post things to show it off.”
The social media-safe glamour side of boudoir is “the bigger market,” Entreken says, especially with the emergence of social media influencers. “With glamour, the client is a creative director. Their goal is to publish these photos, often to make you want to buy something. Boudoir photography is also crazy, sexy, cool, but the client is the model, and they are usually purchasing these photos as a gift to one person.”
The new genre of boudoir is something “that people will for sure post the shit out of,” Cara says. “It’s not nudity, it’s just wanting to look like they wanna bang the football team. And they look good. It’s your best self, essentially. Your best, sexiest self.”
Rise of the Boudoir Influencers
Despite the strict rules against nudity, both boudoir photographers tell me Instagram has been a net positive for the industry.
“Influencers — the models themselves — are setting their own standards of sexy,” Entreken explains. “[Since] Instagram does not allow nudes, nudes are out of style.” What’s more, “everybody is more used to seeing a variety of body types” on social media. “This is great and very empowering, especially for women.
“In the past, people were comparing themselves to runway models,” he continues, “but it was an unattainable goal. Now people compare themselves to a photo their favorite celebrity took sporadically when ordering a coffee. This really makes people more comfortable with their bodies and willing to book!”
Instagram and the increased interest in photography in general “has certainly made boudoir more acceptable when you’re talking to clients,” Cara says. “It’s out there, it’s definitely become more mainstream, a lot of photogs even have their own groups and followings, because it becomes a little addictive for a certain type of client.”
New and Old Boudoir Clients
Boudoir still maintains the clientele it’s always had — that is, “a lot of divorced women, or women who just lost 30 pounds. … Brides, especially, and the midlife crisis momma,” Cara explains.
As opposed to shooting 1,000 selfies alone in the bathroom, booking a boudoir photo shoot offers an experience. “Done right, the woman should come away feeling really sexed-up and amazing,” Cara says. “It’s such a powerful, empowering experience: A woman will see herself in a way she never has before, and I think that’s what’s driving business.”
In other words, glamour shots on Instagram are more mainstream, but it doesn’t necessarily increase business as much as it simply spreads awareness. To get someone to into their shop, boudoir photographers rely on word-of-mouth.
“When females get a lot of oohs and aahs from posting their pictures on social media,” Cara says, “those are the ones who’ll be back. They see the pictures and they’re totally blown away, like, Oh, I’m hot! — so they come back for another hit. You can only post so many of those on Facebook before you have to come back in!”
“People do not go on Instagram because they want to book a photo shoot. The intent is not there,” Entreken explains. “Good photographers on Instagram are indistinguishable from fan accounts or repost accounts. Even great photos posted by celebrities, which are often paid shoots, are rarely attributed to their photographer. If you are actually thinking about going with a professional, you decide based on reputation.”
Plus, the experience of a boudoir session has tradition on its side. “No matter how great the camera is on the next iPhone, no matter how great your cousin’s Instagram feed is, people will continue booking professional photographers,” Entreken says. “There is a tradition of sending a calendar as a wedding gift, or a paper-based gift for the first-year anniversary.”
Beyond brides, returning customers and friends of customers coming in, Entreken says, Tinder has added some business to his portfolio as well.
“Tinder is a magnet for bringing clients in,” he says. “It’s always exhilarating to send an off-the-cuff selfie in the moment, but there is something special about getting professional shots if you haven’t done it before.”
The pictures people get for Tinder would be considered glamour shots as well, he adds. “The poses they are most interested in are on the bed and flirty/sensual. T-shirt and panty, hands on body, staring straight at the lens, or implied nude with a sheet cover up.”
Entreken says he’ll have customers come back to him and admit the photo shoot helped them find a mate. “The best is when a client calls to tell us they have been using posing techniques they learned from us in their own selfies, or they’ll say, ‘Our photo shoot helped me meet XYZ,’ or, ‘Our photo shoot helped me love my body.’” Those, he says, are the “two reasons we love doing this work!”
For Cara, no matter what her customers use the photos for, she believes the product of boudoir is the experience. It offers so much more than a selfie: “It’s a gift that if a woman can afford to give to herself, I think every woman should,” she says. “And they’ll give that crap [excuse], like, ‘Oh, I’ll do it when I lose 10 pounds,’ and I’ll say, let Photoshop handle that. Let’s do it now. There will never be a better time.”