“I’m inspired by the stories that our clients come in with,” Marina LaBaff, the owner of A Million Monarchs Boudoir, tells me. “Some of them will bring you to your knees with the weight of what a mother carries on her shoulders, and some will make you laugh or smile so hard. Hearing about the trials and tribulations of our clients and watching them celebrate their journeys–and themselves–in an empowering light makes my heart swoon.”
Early in her career, LaBaff didn’t expect to fall in love with boudoir photography. In fact, when a client first approached her about setting up a boudoir session, she was reluctant. But the client was persistent. “So we set a date to shoot,” the photographer remembers now. “We set hair and makeup. She arrived, a bundle of nerves. And slowly, I saw her undress her fears. The more we shot, the more she let go of her fears.”
Ultimately, LaBaff created A Million Monarchs to empower others and change the way they see themselves. While many of her clients identify as female, the studio prides itself on being a safe place for everyone. All gender identities and expressions are welcome, as long as you’re eighteen years old and up.
“Our clients have everything yet absolutely nothing in common,” the artist says. “Each client is different in ways you couldn’t imagine, but all walk into the studio with some kind of nerves and walk out feeling so much more confident. While they’re here, they each have a different kind of ‘aha’ moment, where they begin to walk in more confidence than they’ve ever had before.”
We asked LaBaff more about her passion for boudoir, her experiences in the studio, and her signature shooting style, known as Dark Glamour.
The essential gear of Marina LaBaff
LaBaff tells us,
“I am a Nikon girl through and through. Maybe someday they will sponsor me, but at this time, I am not getting any kickbacks or special prizes for loving them so much. I truly love the user design of the buttons on Nikon cameras and their smooth, straight-out-of-camera coloring. My camera body is always a full-frame Nikon. As well as all of my backup equipment! The Nikon D6 is our main camera (right now), which is the latest and greatest at this present time. We are always upgrading, so this frequently changes.
“As a professional studio, we are equipped with multiple backups for every piece of equipment we have. So, as I’m sure you can imagine, our camera arsenal is beautiful. I prefer the 35mm lens for indoor boudoir portraits, mostly because I love the look of negative space. I do have a 105mm macro and some other lenses I keep both as backup and for other stylistic/creative purposes, but I very much prefer the 35mm. It is so versatile.”
Phoblographer: How did you get started as a photographer, and later, shooting boudoir?
Marina LaBaff: When I first started my photography journey, I was shooting every genre in every kind of light imaginable. My favorite when I started was photographing mothers with their new babies. Initially, when a past client came to me for a boudoir shoot, I thought, “Oh no, I cannot imagine posing another woman naked.” It wasn’t until I saw the power of self-image that boudoir had that it completely changed my mind. It was such a different mindset shift to go from sweet and quiet lullabies during a newborn session to empowering music pumping and helping to buckle lingerie stockings during a boudoir session.
Phoblographer: What are some of the emotions running through your clients’ minds when they arrive at a shoot for the first time?
Marina LaBaff: It starts with the door handle experience. This is a very overwhelming moment of courage and bravery for our clients! They go from the safety of their vehicles to our front door. And even though we are a safe space here too, we’re mostly foreign to them, as this is their first time in our space.
Clients, no matter how confident they already are, have this “oh shit” moment as soon as their hand touches the studio’s door handle. There’s a bit of hesitation. They are nervous. They’re excited. It’s like finally being at the summit in the sky before you jump out of a plane into the open air. Then there’s that moment when they pull open the door to walk into our gold glitter floor studio, exhilarated.
Phoblographer: How do you ensure your set is always a safe (and comfortable!) space for everyone?
Marina LaBaff: To continue the skydiving metaphor, my team offers all the safety and protection you need when you make the jump. They’re your best friend holding your back and making sure your parachute actually deploys.
Also, each boudoir experience is custom-tailored to each client, and we match the client’s energy. If someone is terrified, we support them. If the client is amped up, we dance with them. You can’t walk in and expect every client to dance when they’re holding back bursting into tears, but you can empower them by meeting them at their comfort level.
Phoblographer: What does the photoshoot process look like, and what is the atmosphere like on set?
Marina LaBaff: The length of time spent with each client can vary depending on what they’re dreaming of. Some clients walk in with very short hair and only want simple makeup. Their time in our in-studio salon is usually shorter than those clients who walk in with long hair and prefer a more glam look.
The same goes for the shoot We average up to an hour for shoot time, which is plenty of time to get all the images we need and more. The client is never rushed. Sometimes it takes longer to help get them into the perfect pose, and some clients get it extremely fast. Patience and posing perfection are key here.
Phoblographer: You developed this technique called Dark Glamour photography, where deep shadows and contrast add a sense of mystery. How do you describe this style, and how has it evolved?
Marina LaBaff: Dark Glamour style boudoir is one of the hardest but most beautiful styles of photography to accomplish. It’s the perfect synergy between lighting, angels, camera skills, and editing. It takes those four different keys to be able to unlock the dark glamour door.
If done incorrectly, where it’s too dark, you risk raccoon eyes and bad shadow placement. When done correctly, it perfectly and glamorously sculpts the entire subject. It’s almost like another layer of clothing. Dark glamour is our signature shooting style here at A Million Monarchs Boudoir.
Phoblographer: What is your most powerful memory from a shoot?
Marina LaBaff: I once showed a woman the back of the camera, and we had to call makeup back into the shooting room because she was crying so hard just looking at the back of the camera. She told me she had never liked a single photograph of herself before and had hated herself and the way she looked for years. This experience made her not only more confident in her appearance and her relationship with herself, but it really changed the way she interacted with her work, family, community, and beyond. She now saw herself as a powerhouse and beautiful woman.
I sometimes hear, “Your portfolio is beautiful. You do nice work. But I have anxiety that I will be the one client that you cannot make beautiful.” It’s a misconception that we are the ones who make our clients beautiful. They’re already brave and beautiful. We just use the tools of this experience to hold a mirror up for them to see for themselves. Someone else can tell you that you’re beautiful, but it holds very little weight unless the subject actually believes it.
Phoblographer: Your work is about empowering others. In what ways, if any, has it empowered you?
Marina LaBaff: This is an “onion question” with multiple layers! First, it’s helped me to empower my team. We’ve been able to create more women-led jobs so that the benefit of offering this service to others isn’t just in my hands and heart. It’s also helped to empower my community–not just our online community with clients from all around the world but also our community at a local level as well. We’ve been able to utilize our platforms to lift women’s voices, and we have big plans for 2022.
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