All images by Kat Grudko. Used with permission.
“I think I have to go with a conductor of a small orchestra,” explains photographer Kat Grudko when describing her boudoir photography. “I feel like it is this big thing (in terms of how vulnerable the subject needs to be), but at the same time while I am shooting I am so zoned into every little detail of my subject that nothing else outside of that matters.” Kat is an ambassador for Profoto and is based in South Africa where she mostly shoots lifestyle work. On the side, she shoots boudoir. Ms. Grudko explains that she’s a sensitive person who believes most creatives need to tap into that part of themselves. It lets them create from a deeper and more genuine place. This, combined with the vulnerability on a boudoir shoot, are fascinating to us. So we asked Kat to dive deeper, discuss being an empath, and talk a little bit of the cosmos.
“Looking back I now feel like my camera gave me my confidence. With my camera in hand, I have had to learn how to get through a crowd of thousands of people at music festivals and take pictures of random people on the way.”Kat Grudko
The Essential Photography Gear of Kat Grudko
Kat Grudko tells us:
Currently I have a Canon 5D MK IV and I LOVE it! I started off with Nikon gear but switched over a few years ago because I had a few cameras in a row that I wasn’t happy with and there just wasn’t a Nikon camera at the time that met my needs. So I took the plunge and moved over to Canon 3 years ago now. I love the low light capability on the MK IV. It makes it easy to shoot in less than ideal lighting situations and still have quality images that look great and can handle a decent amount of post processing.
The lens that I use probably 80% of the time is my Sigma Art 24-70 f2.8. I love the versatility of it so it’s pretty much the only lens I need at this point. I am not a gear head at all. I feel like a good camera that does what you need it to do for your type of photography is essential, but I also feel like a great image is more about the team that you have on the day and the connection that you have with the model that makes great images. I also have a Sigma Art 85mm f1.4 but I find it limiting if you are shooting indoors and I can’t stand having to keep changing lenses so that is why the 24-70 is basically always on my camera.
For boudoir I try to use the natural light available in the room to make the images dramatic and moody. But I don’t always shoot in one place so sometimes the location that I am shooting in doesn’t have great light, which is where I use my Profoto D1’s. I have had them since 2012 and they have been a workhorse that have paid for themselves in that time. But I am in the process of working my way towards some Profoto B10 Plus’s. I tried one out earlier in the year and loved it! I have been based in Cape Town the last 3,5 years and I am now at the point where I need a battery operated light that I can take on location with me that is light and compact. I had a plan to do this in March and then Covid hit so it derailed my plans completely. But I will be getting a B10 Plus as soon as I can, especially with us in South Africa having load shedding for the last while, with no end in sight, I now need to invest in some battery operated lights so that I can shoot even through load shedding. (Load shedding is something that has been implemented by our electricity supplier, Eskom. Our power stations have been poorly maintained for decades now and the result is that there is not enough electricity to meet demand so Eskom turns off the power to certain areas of the city at certain times of the day so that the power stations can keep running without blowing a substation).
Another thing that I use often is reflectors and scrims. Reflectors to bounce light when needed and a scrim to put on a window to diffuse and soften the window light. Scrimming window light is something that I only started doing in the last year and it makes all the difference to soften the light and help add that mood to the images. In my most recent shoot I used a poly board to bounce light from wherever I needed it. It is difficult to get V-Flats in South Africa (the delivery fees and import duties are ridiculous) so for now a polyboard works the same, I just can’t transport it like I could a V-Flat. I probably use these two methods of altering light more often than I use a strobe in boudoir photography.
Boudoir is an intimate thing between the photographer and subject in terms of capturing your subject as raw and real as possible in the moment so I try to keep my approach simple and easy so that I am not distracted or bogged down by tech and can focus on capturing a moment with my subject.
Phoblographer: How’d you first get into photography?
Kat Grudko: I had always had point and shoot cameras as a kid and loved taking photos of moments with friends and of sunsets and scenic things while traveling with my parents. I had always had an interest in art in school but never did very well in it. In Matric I found the chalk pastel method of drawing. A girl in my class had used it for one of her pieces and I knew I had to try it out. I chose to make my final Matric art piece a chalk pastel one, even though I had never done it before and I got a great mark for the piece. I loved how immersive chalk pastel was. And in my first year of college, I found a picture of two people who looked like they were about to kiss in a magazine and I just loved the light and mood of the image. I had it up on my wall for a while and after being so happy with how the first piece turned out I decided I wanted to draw another one. So I drew that image. It was about an A0 size piece and I managed to finish the whole thing in one weekend. I got offered R10 000.00 for it (this was 15 or so years ago so it was a lot of money at the time) by a corporate who wanted to put it up in their office, but I turned the money down because I had drawn it for my boyfriend at the time as a present and I wanted him to keep it.
This was before Google and social media so I was having to look through my Mom’s magazine collection to find images of what I wanted to draw. And sometimes it would be similar to what I had in mind but not exactly. So I thought “why not get myself a camera and then take the pictures that I want to draw and draw those”?! Not realizing that it would take years to master a camera and light before I could take pictures like the ones in the magazines. But I had the idea in my head and I was obsessed. I had studied graphic design but wasn’t loving my job as a junior graphic designer so I spent my evenings and weekends researching cameras and looking for pictures to draw. Eventually, I decided on a camera and begged my parents for a loan for my first camera which was a Nikon D80. One of my favorite cameras to date. It did me well as an entry-level camera. It lasted me my first three years before I started needing something with more megapixels for the commercial work I was then starting to do.
This was the year Facebook started and I had found a photographer on Facebook whose work I was in awe of. I contacted him and asked him if I could assist him to learn how to use my camera. We chatted for a while and the day I received my camera, I unboxed it and went straight into assisting him on a shoot and took my first images with it that day. We were at my parents’ place at Hartebeestport Dam in the North West (just outside of Gauteng, Johannesburg), on a boat with two models, my D80 and a 50mm f1.8 and I could not believe the images that I got that day. I was electrified by how exciting the whole process was. And I was hooked. I assisted him every weekend, Saturdays and Sundays, sunrise to sunset, and edited in the evenings after work until the early hours of the morning. I used to drive an hour to his place after work a couple days a week so I could learn how to edit from him. All of this with no expectation of being paid. I just wanted to learn how to get to where he was. After 4 months I had learned so much and it was time for me to go on my own way. I was shooting events for brands at clubs on the weekends which were covering my expenses, and almost making me as much money as my entry-level designer job. So I quit my job shortly after that and have been a full-time freelance photographer ever since.
“I now look at photography from a more mature perspective, seeing each individual as their own unique story. Every person in front of my lens sees the world in a completely different way to the next because of their individual life experiences. No one human is the same as another.”Kat Grudko
Phoblographer: What made you want to get into boudoir photography?
Kat Grudko: It started with a boudoir shoot for a friend in the first 2 years of my career. She wanted to do the shoot as part of a gift that she was going to give her then-fiancé on the day of their wedding. She printed one of the pictures that we took and put it in his jacket pocket for him to find on the big day. I thought it was such a great idea and the fact that I could be a part of something so meaningful to add a bit of playfulness and anticipation for them on their special day meant a lot to me. It made me realize how much power we have as photographers to tell a story and add to or change people’s lives with what we do. I don’t have those pictures anymore but I did come across the low res ones somewhere the other day. My friend loved them at the time (and still does) but looking back at them I can see how much my photography and eye have grown since then.
I was apprehensive to get into boudoir photography in the beginning of my career because, as with wedding photography, I was very aware that it requires a lot of skill, knowledge, empathy, and timing to get right and to capture the essence of a person in what are essentially very personal images. So it is something I have only really started doing more activities in the last 4 years.
“Everyone comes with their own traumas and experiences that have shaped them into who they are today, some deeper than others. And now that I have been doing my own inner work I can see how valuable it is as a photographer to be able to connect with people on this level. It is that level of trust that allows one to capture people at their most vulnerable and most real and allows you to make them comfortable enough at the shoot to be able to capture a piece of their soul in the images.”Kat Grudko
Boudoir photography is about empowering your subject, in whatever way it is they want to be photographed. With everything that has been happening around the world with COVID and the impact it has been having on mental health, relationships (with ourselves and others), I have come to realize that now, more than ever, it is so important for us to really take a good look at our core values and needs and figure out who we are, as well as who and what we want to keep in our lives, and what we need to be doing more of to make our lives richer and more meaningful for ourselves and the people in our lives. If this time in isolation has taught me anything it is that we really need to slow down and be very conscious of the choices that we make every day and the stories that we tell ourselves, about ourselves, about others, and about what we are capable of. And I think that once we come out of this there are going to be a huge amount of life shifts for people both in terms of their personal and work lives. And I am hopeful that the people that take the time to do some serious audits of their lives will see the value of investing in themselves and their mental health so that they can be the best version of themselves. My hope in all of this is that people will start seeing the value in doing this work and then in being photographed in a way that shows who they really are and who they want to be. There is something in me that is capable of meeting someone, connecting with them on a deep level, understanding where they have come from, where they currently are in their lives and where they want to be and it is my mission to take that knowledge and show it through my images in a way that is empowering for my client.
“I feel like with my camera in hand I become this alter ego that can and will do anything to get a good picture. It has taught me how to be fearless, and through it, I have learned how to truly connect with myself and others on a deeper level with the result being a level of trust from my subject that I never thought possible.”Kat Grudko
Phoblographer: Being a boudoir photographer, I imagine you need to be an empath, correct? It’s a very vulnerable time for the subject with an immense trust put into you. It seems like lots of the pressure of wedding photography condensed into a smaller period of time. What are your personal thoughts on this?
Kat Grudko: Correct, yes. On both of these points. As I mentioned above I equate the level of trust and skill needed for boudoir photography to be the same as wedding photography, but yes, as you say, just more condensed.
I have always known that I am a sensitive person. I think that most creatives are and need to be to tap into that part of themselves that lets them create from a deep and genuine place. Subconsciously I have known that I am a sensitive person most of my life. Consciously I have only started looking into what being an empath really means and how to live with the trait in relation to interacting with other people and having successful friendships and relationships the last few years. People who don’t understand what being an empath means can tell you that you are too sensitive, too emotional, too much. It is only now that I am aware of what it means to be an empath and how to manage it that I feel like I am truly starting to see the benefits of being this type of a person. Understanding my sensitivity and being open and vulnerable about it with people helps attract people to me who can relate to me, my brand and my vision and that vulnerability helps my clients to trust me with a very personal thing like boudoir photography.
I was painfully shy as a young child. I remember hiding behind my parents in social settings and always asking them to do things for me because I was too shy to talk to people. I also remember my Mom making me talk to people and being terrified. It was necessary but it never seemed to get any easier for me as a young child. But as an adult who is now an empowered empath, I have taken that and turned it around, through really understanding my experiences and how they have shaped me into the person that I am today. And I am now the kind of person who can connect with certain people on a personal level in a unique way. Everyone comes with their own traumas and experiences that have shaped them into who they are today, some deeper than others. And now that I have been doing my own inner work I can see how valuable it is as a photographer to be able to connect with people on this level. It is that level of trust that allows one to capture people at their most vulnerable and most real and allows you to make them comfortable enough at the shoot to be able to capture a piece of their soul in the images. These shoots can be an hour or half a day and one needs to be able to connect with the person very deeply throughout the process and keep the level of trust throughout. It is a skill that is learned and perfected over time, but you do need to have that innate skill and passion to connect with people in that way at your core.
“Understanding my sensitivity and being open and vulnerable about it with people helps attract people to me who can relate to me, my brand and my vision and that vulnerability helps my clients to trust me with a very personal thing like boudoir photography.”Kat Grudko
Weddings have added pressure because of the amount of people and things happening in a short amount of time. At least with boudoir photography is is usually in one location and with one person so you have their full attention for the duration of the shoot so there is less pressure in that sense. The pressure is in being able to make each image a stand-alone work of art so you really have to know your subjects strengths and weaknesses in terms of how they feel about themselves and their bodies and aim to highlight their strong attributes and features in the most flattering way.
Phoblographer: Looking at your boudoir work, it seems you prefer clean white backgrounds and studio-style work. How do you feel this differs from a bedroom experience? They can be completely different mentalities.
Kat Grudko: I do a bit of both. I shoot the bedroom experience as well as the more light and bright studio vibe. In general, my images have always had a light, bright happy style to them. But in the last few years, I have been experimenting with the darker, more moody style as well. I would like to gravitate more towards the darker style because I think it is beautiful and timeless, but there is also a market for clean, fresh, bright boudoir images as well. Ultimately it depends on what the client wants and what the light is like in the location we are shooting in.
The studio-style work does differ from the bedroom experience in terms of mood that comes across in the image. The studio images are more about the subject as a whole and choosing poses that show anything from confidence to strength to sensuality, whereas the bedroom and darker type images there is more room to play with light, shadow, and form to create interest and mood in the images.
Phoblographer: How do you feel photographing male boudoir differs from feminine boudoir?
Kat Grudko: It differs quite a lot in terms of posing your subject. Females have way more room to play and be creative when it comes to posing, whereas male posing is usually less expressive. But again, there is always the exception to the rule, and ultimately it depends on how the subject wants to be photographed.
For me, it’s definitely a different mindset. Being a female I find it much easier to pose and work with females in general in that I get where they are coming from in terms of mindset and how they may feel about parts of their bodies and certain insecurities that they may have. But I do enjoy the odd shoot with a male subject here and there to change things up a bit and challenge my thinking.
Phoblographer: Since your first boudoir shoot with your friend, I’m sure that you’ve evolved a lot. Mentally, how do you feel you’ve evolved as a photographer when shooting boudoir?
Kat Grudko: I was in my early 20s then and was in the middle of my one and only serious relationship at that point, which looking back was an extremely naive one from my side. I was fresh out of college and had a lot of growing up to do. I had no idea who I was or what I really wanted for my life at that point. Since then I have grown in so many different ways. I have made new friends, lost really good ones, moved cities, started all over again, had heartbreaks, setbacks, some pretty great accomplishments, and with all of that some major life realizations which have changed how I see things. I am a different person now to who I was then. My values, beliefs, and needs have all developed or changed.
I now look at photography from a more mature perspective, seeing each individual as their own unique story. Every person in front of my lens sees the world in a completely different way to the next because of their individual life experiences. No one human is the same as another. And one needs to consider that when photographing them in such a vulnerable way because each picture needs to tell a different story that is unique to them. My aim is to get inside their heads and show them to themselves in a way where they will look at the photos and be in awe of the person they see staring back at them. And I am hopeful that that is because they get to see themselves as I see them, strong, whole, loved and enough.
“Being a female I find it much easier to pose and work with females in general in that I get where they are coming from in terms of mindset and how they may feel about parts of their bodies and certain insecurities that they may have.”Kat Grudko
Phoblographer: I can relate to your shyness. Being legally blind, I have to either dive into a situation and get close to people in a respectful way, or I have to just direct from a distance. It seeps into so many other parts of my life. Understanding that people have their own traumas and respecting that, do you feel that shyness helped you build bridges on a shoot a bit more? Is that what you mean by, “Doing your own inner work?”
Kat Grudko: Yes, definitely. I have had to do that inner work from the moment I picked up my camera that first day. It made me realize that if I was going to make this a full-time thing I was going to have to learn how to just walk up to people and start up a conversation to be able to ask them if they want a picture or take a picture that resonates with them. And sometimes those interactions with those people ended up becoming actual friendships. And the fact that I know how hard it can be to strike up a conversation and connect with someone makes it easier for me now to initiate that interaction. I have to mentally prepare for each shoot so that I can be well-rested and bring my best, most energetic, most authentic self to each shoot because I know that I am going to need every bit of energy I have to create this connection with someone I (usually) hardly know.
Looking back I now feel like my camera gave me my confidence. With my camera in hand, I have had to learn how to get through a crowd of thousands of people at music festivals and take pictures of random people on the way. I have had the opportunity to take photos of celebrities playing poker, eating lunch at intimate events, and having dinner at fancy restaurants. I’ve captured world famous DJ’s and bands on stage and backstage, the ramp at AFI, and backstage at fashion week, as well as individuals in the studio. And in every instance, it has been about connecting with a person or group of people by going way outside of my usual comfort zone to get a picture that means something.
“I have to mentally prepare for each shoot so that I can be well-rested and bring my best, most energetic, most authentic self to each shoot because I know that I am going to need every bit of energy I have to create this connection with someone I (usually) hardly know.”Kat Grudko
Had you told me that I would be put in any of those situations even while I was still studying before I got my camera, I would have laughed at you and told you that there was no way I would do that. I was scared to ask my teachers and lecturers questions at school and varsity when I genuinely wanted to know something I didn’t understand. I could have never imagined being that outgoing at that point.
I feel like with my camera in hand I become this alter ego that can and will do anything to get a good picture. It has taught me how to be fearless, and through it, I have learned how to truly connect with myself and others on a deeper level with the result being a level of trust from my subject that I never thought possible. But when they see the photos I already produce that get them into my studio, and then when I show them what I am getting on the back of my camera at the shoot, most of the time they can’t believe that it is them in front of it. And it is moments like that that make all of the hard lessons I have had to endure in my life. It makes all of the work that I have had to do in therapy and reading books and articles and the learning that I have done the last few years to understand myself better which, in turn, has made me understand other people better, so worth it. And that work isn’t done. It is all a process and it is never-ending. And I am excited to see where further learning and discovery takes me.
“With everything that has been happening around the world with COVID and the impact it has been having on mental health, relationships (with ourselves and others), I have come to realize that now, more than ever, it is so important for us to really take a good look at our core values and needs and figure out who we are, as well as who and what we want to keep in our lives, and what we need to be doing more of to make our lives richer and more meaningful for ourselves and the people in our lives.”Kat Grudko
Phoblographer: Would you describe yourself as a photographer who acts and creates more on feeling or on centered-guided energy? Reading what you’ve said, I can see it going both ways.
Kat Grudko: When I first read this question I wanted to say “creates more on feeling”. But I think that you are right. It is a combination of both. I think I feel like it’s a feeling, but that “feeling” involves being a person that is now more centered and aware of the universe’s energy and how it helps and guides me on a daily basis. Reading this now it sounds so woo-woo (and this view could entirely be Cape Town doing her thing on me, as she tends to do to people who move here) but the more I delve into this side of things the more I realize I am affected by the planets, moon, and universe. I mean, we are all ultimately made up of stardust, how could we not be affected by and guided by the energy of the universe. The trick is recognizing it and using it to its full potential to make your life and others’ lives better in the process.
Phoblographer: On boudoir shoots, do you feel like you’re often more of a conductor of an orchestra (a small one) or a jazz collaborator in part of a jam session? Why?
Kat Grudko: Wow. This is an unexpected question. I had to give this some thought. I think I have to go with a conductor of a small orchestra. I feel like it is this big thing (in terms of how vulnerable the subject needs to be), but at the same time while I am shooting I am so zoned into every little detail of my subject that nothing else outside of that matters. It is just them and me in a room or on location making magic in a hyper-focused way.