The lead-up to Valentines Day is boudoir photography season for guys like me. It’s when I’m most often called upon to take “sexy” photos for women. It’s always my goal to produce an image that my client finds sexy, even if she’s doing the photos as a gift for her husband, boyfriend, or girlfriend, life partner, whatever.

That’s why my friend Zura’s recent blog post Sexy vs. skanky or How to photograph sexiness caught my attention. I commented on that post about how I approach photographing sexiness. In this post, I’ve expanded on those comments.

So, the first question that arises is, “What is sexy?” The answer is different for every single person. I can only answer it by discussing it with her, observing her, looking at example images that she brings, etc. to get an idea of what is sexy to her. Then, I can coach that out of her through posing, expression, lighting, wardrobe and mood. We look at the photos as we go along and mutually decide what’s working and what needs adjustment. If she feels that she is coming across as sexy, then she’s more likely to be emotionally committed to the process, and I’d never want to be as arrogant as to unilaterally layer on my own visual language.

Zura’s post compared two advertising posters from the Montreal Metro. One of them showed a woman on silk sheets, with a sort of sleepy come-hither look that Zura found offensive because to her, it says, “I’m not terribly aware of what’s going on right now, maybe it’s a good time to take advantage of me.” In my experience, some women find the half-lidded, sleepy look sexy, and that is their personal expression of sexuality. Some might even find that expression to be empowering because they feel it radiates their sexual power and intent. Because it’s authentic to them, it ends up being inherently sexy. Others are more aggressive, or kinky, or explicit, or any number of flavors of sexuality that personally suit them.

Anyway, I think that first image is mediocre. It’s stiffly posed in order to position and highlight various products that the image is designed to sell, rather than trying to convey an overall message of sexiness. The expression is pasted on the model and doesn’t look natural or particularly authentic. I think it fails just because it is poorly conceived and executed, not because it’s sexist. The second photo is of a woman wearing an elaborate lingerie outfit, standing provocatively and addressing the camera directly with her eyes. To Zura, this communicates, “Hey there tiger, I have some hot ideas about what I’d like to do to you and have done to me, how about it?” I agree that it’s a better photo. However, I believe this photo could be construed as sexist too, because of the obvious Photoshop body modification done around the waist to make it crazy skinny. Some may argue that the woman in the first poster represents a more healthy body image than the woman in the second poster. Personally, I’m not adverse to doing this kind of modification on photos when my client requests it. Photography, particularly the boudoir kind, is illusory anyway, and if she feels it adds to her allure, then why not?

In my opinion, “sexy” and “sexist” aren’t one-size-fits-all. No matter how you shoot something, there will always be people who find it sexy, and there will also be people who are offended. The best approach is to find what is authentic and appealing to their intended audience and go with that.

I’ve included a gallery of my own photos below that I think express a range of various expressions of sexiness.