Luckily, documentary style lifestyle photography is becoming more and more popular, with couples letting photographers in to capture their innermost intimate thoughts, emotions and actions. Long gone are the days of posed couples shots that imitate two greek statues, that have been placed in a studio in front of a black or white background. Could you imagine holding a pose while you’re stood in your underwear (or naked) and wait for the photographer to rearrange the studio lights, find the right angle and then start messing around with camera settings? Oh, and don’t forget to keep your eyes open because if you blink, we’ll need to re-do the shot again and that means you’ll be holding your pose even longer!
Anyhow, the number of photographers who still do unnatural posed couples’ photography is reducing because people are starting to realise that there is no timelessness to it, this type of work gets old very fast. Raw emotions, on the other hand, have no expiration date. Especially, if couples with editing that allows the work to stay fresh longer.
So, you’re thinking of doing an intimate couples’ shoot or perhaps have already a couple willing to pose for you, but you’ve got no idea how to cope and what to do?
- Determine Boundaries
In my opinion, it’s crucial to firstly determine the boundaries of YOURSELF and the COUPLE. There are couples who struggle to show their affection in public naturally, let alone in front of a stranger, but there are also couples who are willing to try anything from bedroom intimacy (clothed to nude) down to different fetishes, dressing up, close ups of their intimate parts, you name it. But before you determine the boundaries of your couple, make sure you know your own boundaries. If you jump head in with something that you don’t think you will be comfortable with, it will jeopardise the shoot, it will make you appear unprofessional and most likely it’ll embarrass your couple. This will make your couple shut down, if they initially had the impression you are OK with what they are wanting to do on the shoot.
There’s nothing wrong in setting clear boundaries and sticking to them, but you first need to determine them yourself. Ask yourself how will different types of shots make you feel? Will you be able to focus on the task of capturing it or will you get distracted or embarrassed by what the couple is doing?
Once you are clear about yourself, ensure you properly communicate it to the couple. There’s nothing awkward about discussing about the things you’re willing to shoot, and there’s nothing awkward about asking the couple things they would like to do and things they would definitely not do. If you don’t ask these questions, you will put yourself in a very uncomfortable position on the day of the shoot.
2. Set A Theme
We all know most shoots don’t necessarily follow the initial plan or the proposed Pinterest board (we wish!!), but that’s fine because we make it our own by improvising and reacting to the weather, the light, and of course the people. However, sometimes it is a good idea to set a theme of sorts for your shoot. It could be as simple as a story of one of the partners undressing in front of the other one, then cuddling on the bed partially nude, then one of them undressing the other.
Creating a simple theme or story will help to put your clients at ease because they will have some guidance to go by, instead of being left wondering “what the hell am I going to do?”. The shoot will evolve from the initial theme or story, that’s for sure. But, it will give your couple a starting point and it’ll allow you to see if they are comfortable to pose to your proposed themes or ideas.
There’s nothing wrong with collating a set of images on a board and sending them to your client or collaborating with them to create the board together, but it’s important to remind them that their shoot will NOT look like that. Their shoot will be individual to them, it won’t have the same clothes, locations, light, even bodyshapes. But it can help set the mood (cuddly, sensual, erotic…) and help you judge how far they’re willing to go if they struggle to explain that in words.
3. Decide On The Location
It might seem so much easier to just book a studio for your shoot, but I’d strongly recommend against that, unless the studio is set up like a normal looking bedroom/living room but in that case you have a choice of a natural studio, hotel room, Airbnb, your own place or their place.
With studios, as noted, be careful because you don’t want to end up shooting your couple in a cheesy looking studio set up that will end up your work looking like a beginning of a bad porn movie. Go for something spacious, full of natural light, regular looking room set ups. Make sure it’s got that feeling of comfort and relaxation. Privacy is crucial too, you don’t want the studio owner or other photographers accidentally ‘popping’ in.
In regards to hotel rooms, that’s always an option that offers you very varied results. From cramped and badly lit rooms to elegant bedrooms and interiors… but be prepared to carefully inspect the hotel before (or its website), to ensure you know what you’re throwing yourself and the couple into. The amazing thing about hotels and Airbnb’s is the fact that once you leave, the couple is left to their own devices to enjoy their day. This makes the shoot so much more special because they will likely plan the whole day off, the kids will be left at home, and they will get to enjoy a complete pampering from your shoot to relaxing in the hotel room afterwards. Even though hotels always show you the best of the best rooms available, be prepared that your room might not have that big window you saw on their website or the room colours may slightly vary. P.S. Be ready for the awkward lingering around the reception area as your couple checks-in (if you all arrive at the same time), and the possible odd looks when all three of you head to their room together.
Airbnb is another alternative, and somewhat a mix of a studio and a hotel room. What I like about Airbnb is that the images shown on each listing will reflect exactly what the room, flat or the house looks like. Of course, it’s preferable to book the whole house/flat not just a room because that might make it awkward to explain to the host that you’re just there for a few hours in their bedroom. You want the access to living area and possibly bathroom, so make the most of it by booking the whole place. You won’t have to worry about shooting in the communal areas with people around or someone suddenly coming home. However, be aware of check-in times which usually tend to be around 2PM onwards or so, rarely any earlier than that, so consider whether you have enough daylight if your check in is late afternoon.
Your place of course is an ideal option for you – no travel involved, no expenses apart from running your house and you will have everything on hand whatever it might be, from memory cards to lenses to any lights that you might use. Some photographers designate one room for shooting and design it exactly how they want it which I think is great. Whether it is a clean looking bedroom with plenty of light or simple room with a nice wooden floor and a sofa or anything else. This option gives you the most control because if you are used to shooting from home (or your own studio space that might be in your garage or rented), you will know exactly what the light is like, where everything is and more importantly you’ll always be able to make tea or coffee in your favourite mug!
4. Prepare your gear
Ok, wait just before we get to the gear – make sure you have a contract to be signed for your client as you would for weddings etc. This kind of shoot is very different to a simple portraiture, so ensure that both parties know whether you will be using their images in promotional materials, if so – are there any requests by the couple such as not using images with their faces or perhaps only using their images when privately showing them to prospective clients instead of putting them on your website? Make sure you know what the couple is comfortable with!
So, back to equipment. Nothing worse than having the wrong type of equipment for the wrong type of shoot, right?! With intimacy shoots I don’t generally use flash, but when you have booked your shoot, you never know what the light conditions will be on the day. You might choose to go exclusively natural light and only use reflectors or you may want just that little bit of filling light to brighten your subjects.
Other people have a lot more extensive lighting equipment but to be truthful, the more gear I have, the less focused I am on the emotions and bonding with the couple. I don’t want my clients to ever feel intimidated by large soft-boxes and lights surrounding them, making them feel like they’re on an adult movie set or something!
I want the natural movement and the exchange of true emotions between them, which (in my opinion) can become limited if the couple is too aware of equipment around them. This will depend on the type of shoot that you do, though. Some photographers prefer a more posed and well lit studio look, whereas others, such as myself, prefer a natural capture of intimacy while utilising the natural light, and occasionally guiding the couple through a variety of poses and situations.
In terms of lenses, it comes down to your personal preference. If it’s a more lifestyle look, I’ll go with my 35MM and get up close and personal with them, if the couple starts to become more raunchy and X-rated, I’ll switch to my 85MM keeping a comfortable distance for all parties involved. As open minded as you are, shooting the intimacy between two strangers, being too close can become intimidating once the clothes are off (not yours, hopefully) and the couple is starting to relax and become more risqué.
A friend of mine suggested a zoom lens 70-200MM zoom lens to stay well back when things start to get hot (depending on how far the couple goes and what you discussed with them beforehand). He also mentioned that sometimes when the couple really gets into it and the shoot is pretty much finished, there’s nothing else left to do apart from going to the kitchen, making a cup of tea and relaxing while letting the couple “organize themselves” and get dressed.
- Time to finish!
Make sure you are confident in telling the couple when the shoot is finished because, trust me, people can really lose any sense of time when all they are focused on is cuddling, kissing and doing whatever they are comfortable doing. Simply let them know you think you’ve got all you wanted and you’ll give them time to get dressed. I don’t normally show images on the back of the camera when it comes to intimate shoots because to me a finished product is nothing like what the camera construes as a finished image shown on the camera screen. Especially, if you go for the Helmut Newton monochrome look, which most clients will struggle to visualize.
This is not to say it applies to each and every client, you just have that gut feeling whether showing a particular image on the back of your camera will make them even more excited or in return give them a reason to be worried and critical about the way they look on the camera.
I do tend to do a quick sneak peek on the same or next day to keep them intrigued but at the same time allowing the experience to sink in, whether it is a week or two weeks before I deliver my finished body of work.
So, now you’ve shot it, edited it but how will you deliver it? There’s lots of options depending on your session pricing. I don’t include a USB stick with my intimate shoots because I feel like it’s more appropriate for wedding and party photos that go into 100s. I deliver my work digitally in a gallery that the client can download both in web resolution and high resolution should they wish to print. However, now I have begun to start including a small lay-flat book that I find tells the story so much better than just a couple of prints picked out. Furthermore, it gives them something that will be looked at in years to come without losing its quality. If the book is designed nicely it can be laid on a coffee table, whereas a couple prints, unless framed and displayed, would not have that same effect of exclusiveness.
Of course, you can go down the road of delivering prints in a beautiful presentation box, but be mindful the client might not look through them as often as they would do with a book which is a lot more comfortable and enjoyable to flip through. (Or it might just be me, I love seeing my work in books!).
So, if you have managed to read through all of this, are you a photographer interested in shooting couples intimately? Have you had any experience yet? Would love to hear from you!