Your Light and Camera Choices Are Important – Sensual Vs Sexual

Many subtle details come into play when creating the mood of an image. Styling, posting, emoting, light, and choice of camera assume pivotal roles in determining if an image is sensual or sexual. The result is dependent on how these intricacies are brought together.

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Natural light is a favorite for portrait, fashion, and boudoir photographers. However, it’s not always feasible or an ideal choice. This can be especially true when shooting with some films. Knowing how to light and successfully pair lighting with the mood on set is a priceless skill.

Light not only shapes our subject and highlights a focal point of interest, it also evokes a feeling. Our choice of camera and whether or not to use film also influence the image. Below are a few things to consider when putting it all together.

On-Camera Flash

On-camera flash goes in and out of style with as much frequency as wide-leg jeans. It plays on a feeling of nostalgia from our instant film and point and shoot days. In fashion, it can breathe life into an overproduced image. The candidness can make the model feel approachable and relatable, which can bring about a sense of sensuality when done tastefully. It can also pair well with instant film.

When layers of clothes are removed, on-camera flash can create a cheap and exploitative mood. Imagine the scene with a messy hotel room, overkill styling, minimal clothing, and bare bulb flash. The image can quickly become a symbol of a photographer’s lust instead of something that builds an actual connection. A good portion of Terry Richardson’s work is an excellent example of this. You can pull things back to the sensual side by being more intentional with your light, toning down the styling, and creating a sensual mood with proper direction.

Studio Lighting

Paramount lighting (otherwise known as butterfly lighting) is very popular in fashion and beauty photography. The contrast it provides can carve jawlines and accentuate the bone structure. When clients are fully clothed, it perfectly compliments power posing. Like many photographers, I add a bit of movement to the hair by wafting it or using a fan. And the overall mood is empowering.

This type of lighting can also be very commercial. When subjects wear more revealing clothing or lingerie, it can quickly hone in on the adage that sex sells. Tom Ford’s provocative fragrance ads from the last decade are perfect illustrations. They were intentionally shot with an exploitative sexual focus for commercial gain. So, take care to convey the proper mood.

Paramount lighting can indeed, in a palatable way, maintain a sensual feeling when our subjects are less clothed. Successful posing and emoting are instrumental here. It is essential to use the lighting as a highlight that compliments the image rather than as a spotlight on the body.

Broad lighting and feathered studio lighting are great choices when photographing portraits. The classic lighting can create moodier and more intimate images. It’s also a go-to for a boudoir photographer who doesn’t have a natural light studio. The way the light wraps around the subject is beautiful.

Going Analog

Digital cameras are always a great choice, especially when time is of the essence. Plus, there are numerous actions and presets nowadays that can emulate the feeling of film. Film almost always works and looks great in any environment. Sometimes shooting with an instant film camera can elevate the sensual mood on set. It also provides instant feedback and brings in the fun factor. Instant film is great for fashion imagery.

We set a playful and flirty mood for these images with the overall posing and emoting. The first image focuses on confidence and female empowerment as the model rolls the dress up.

We chose to focus on the sensuality of the moment by having the model not make eye contact with the camera in the second image. This would be a more sexual image if she were facing the camera and making eye contact.

Instant film cameras with on-camera flash work well with fashion imagery. The candidness works when the styling is on point, and it will always be timeless.

It takes time to build a rapport with the client, develop a connection, and get the timing right. You can’t fake sensuality with film. If I’m going to use film or instant film, I like to do it after a digital set. I find it continues building on the mood we’ve just established and pushes it a bit further.

One thing to keep in mind is that instant film can be assumed to be more erotic. Dirty Polaroids were the original medium when one was asked to send nudes. It’s important to focus on the connection and sensuality of the moment. This is especially important if our clients are sparsely clad or nude. The on-camera flash can quickly cheapen a boudoir image if the overall styling isn’t strong enough.

Final Thoughts

Lighting and camera choice can completely affect the mood of an image. There’s a reason so many boudoir and intimate photographers choose natural light or create very soft light. The commercial aspect of direct flash can change the overall mood of an intimate image. Instant film can work well when you take the time to pose and style appropriately. Take care to choose your setup.

Remember that, if a client feels like a million bucks, they will exude confidence and sensuality. Sensuality often translates as sexy. People want to feel sexy without feeling like a piece of meat. Choose lighting and a camera that is complementary to drive that feeling home. Subtlety can often lead to more impactful images.

Brittany Smith

Brittany is a commercial fashion and portrait photographer working in Montana and NYC. When not behind a camera she can usually be found at a local artisan coffeeshop, writing for photography education sites and publications, teaching fitness classes, or baking something fabulous.