Three years ago, photographer Sandy Hong was new to the Kansas City area and didn’t know many people. She said “Hi” and “Bye” to her next-door neighbor, who eventually asked Hong to take photos of her baby.
The two women weren’t really friends, but they were friendly.
Then one day, the neighbor made another request: Would Hong photograph her in lingerie?
Hong, 31, was completely caught off guard. She says that she was raised to be conservative and that when she browsed “boudoir photography” online, “I was uncomfortable.”
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Still, she agreed to do the shoot.
“I had never tried anything like that before,” Hong says, “but I did my best.”
Hong isn’t uncomfortable with boudoir photography anymore: It’s now part of her business, Sandy Hong Photography. She has photographed dozens of women in various stages of undress in her Overland Park home studio and now refers to boudoir photography as empowering and beautiful. She’s passionate when speaking about the power of these intimate photos.
“Every woman is beautiful,” she says, “and every woman is worth celebrating.”
Boudoir photography has been trending for a few years now. Browse wedding blogs or Pinterest and you’ll see all kinds of women and even some men — not just professional models — sharing their intimate photo shoots. “Boudoir” is a nebulous term: It doesn’t have to mean lingerie, but it often does.
Meghan Spencer, another Kansas City-based boudoir photographer, defines it this way: “Sensual images of women that capture their beauty, confidence and sexuality.”
She came up with this tagline in college, when she studied boudoir photography for her thesis. Under her definition, women in boudoir photo shoots can be wearing a T-shirt and jeans, pajamas, a bra and panties — or nothing at all.
More important than the wardrobe is the blistering confidence that so many boudoir photography subjects exude. It’s all about the attitude.
Getting to that confident place? It’s easier said than done, but Hong and Spencer work with their clients to create a fun and supportive atmosphere.
“There’s a lot that can be said for good posing, good lighting and being comfortable and having a good time,” Spencer says.
Boudoir photos are often taken as a gift for a significant other, but the confidence boost that women get from the photos just might be reason enough.
The sessions aren’t exactly cheap. Spencer’s boudoir photography packages range from $550 for a one-hour session with two “looks” to $1,150 for a two-hour session with unlimited outfit changes, hair and makeup styling, and champagne. Both packages include photo books. That price range is pretty typical.
Many women book a boudoir photography session for their partner, Hong says, “but after they look at the photos, they realize it’s actually for themselves.”
Renee Kirkland, 48 and from Olathe, contacted Hong about a boudoir photo shoot when she wanted a memorable gift for her husband’s 50th birthday and their 30th anniversary.
Kirkland knew the gift would surprise her husband in a major way, as she has spent most of her marriage dodging the camera lens.
Minutes into her shoot with Hong, Kirkland knew she had made the right choice.
“She’s done a lot of homework on how best to photograph the human form, especially women with curves,” Kirkland says. “She enhances what we naturally have.”
Hong had Kirkland twisting her body into awkward poses and tilting her head in very specific ways, which felt odd at the time, Kirkland says. It was worth it, though.
The photographer “saw a different version of me than I do when I look in the mirror,” Kirkland says.
Spencer has heard this same sentiment from her clients.
“When we look in the mirror we see the worst version of ourselves,” she says. “The posing is crappy because you’re standing there straight-on, probably gut-out, and the lighting is bad.”
Hong says that her clients mentally magnify those bathroom mirror flaws, so she sees it as her job to reassure them that they’re beautiful.
“During the shoot, I show them the image in my camera, and say, ‘You look like this,’ ” she says. “That instantly boosts their confidence.”
Hong wants more women to take the time and spend the money to memorialize their sexy sides. She says that normalizing boudoir photography could help so many women gain body confidence.
“Women are OK wearing a glamorous dress, but they’ve never seen themselves in lingerie,” she says. “It’s empowering.”
Spencer used to live and work in Lincoln, Neb., where she launched her business, Spencer Studios. One of the clients she photographed there, 27-year-old Andra Bose, wants to document her body over time.
“I think it would be interesting to compare the photos of different ages and places in my life,” she says.
Bose was nervous to get started on her boudoir shoot, but is so pleased that she did it.
“I was nervous and, to be honest, kind of embarrassed the entire time, but Meghan’s humor and easygoing personality made me feel much better,” she says. “She is great at directing someone who is not used to being in front of a camera.”
Michelle Angell, 35 and from Olathe, contacted Hong for a boudoir photo shoot as a personal challenge, not as a gift for a significant other.
“I chose to do this shoot out of sheer curiosity and fear,” Angell says. “I do not like having my picture taken and felt like this might be an empowering and challenging experience.”
The shoot was definitely difficult. Angell says seeing the final photographs was an incredible, life-affirming experience.
“I think every woman should do this for themselves at least once in their lives,” she says. “It is empowering, challenging and magical. We forget what beautiful creatures we are.”
Once a woman decides she wants to do a boudoir photo shoot for herself — or for her partner, or for her blog — step one is finding a photographer she’s comfortable with.
Spencer says she spends time chatting with her clients before the shoot, usually as they get their hair and makeup done by a hair and makeup artist they can book through Spencer Studios. Hong also offers pre-shoot prep.
Spencer’s client Athena Sudbeck, who also lives in Lincoln, said this chat time was essential.
“I was a little nervous but found Meghan’s level of professionalism comforting,” says Sudbeck, 26. “It felt like we were old friends, kickin’ it together and laughing.”
Hong’s photo experience includes a pre-shoot consultation in her home studio and a collaborative secret Pinterest board.
Spencer allows and encourages endless emails and questions in the days and weeks leading up to the shoot.
“I want to be there every step of the way when they have questions about when they should get a bikini wax or what outfit they should wear,” she says.
Spencer often accommodates clients’ out-there requests.
For example, Sudbeck wanted to take some photos wearing nothing but sprinkles. Spencer was immediately on board with the idea and even helped her figure out how to pull it off. (For the record: Elmer’s glue).
Sudbeck had her boudoir photos bound in a black book, though she wishes she had splurged for a big canvas.
“Every woman needs at least one sexy photo of herself, as sort of a reminder of a time when she felt sexy, confident and powerful,” she says. “Because I will be the first to admit I don’t always feel that way.”
Angell has her photos hanging in her dressing area.
“It’s a reminder of who I really am,” she says.
Having the courage to do a boudoir photo shoot once means that the subject will have those photos forever. Kirkland says that’s why she was so intimidated by the idea.
Those photos are permanent,” she says. “It was hard for me to expose myself permanently.”
When Kirkland’s husband opened his gift, she asked him if he knew the woman in the photos.
“He said, ‘Well, yeah, it’s you,’ ” Kirkland remembers. “I told him I wanted to be sure, since I don’t look like that every day.
“He said, ‘You do to me.’ ”
Kirkland says her husband isn’t the most romantic guy, but that was the perfect thing to say in her vulnerable moment.
“Watching his face and seeing him say that made this all worth it,” she says.
Kirkland says she feels more confident and more comfortable in her body and is even showing up more in family photos, like those on a recent vacation with her husband.
But in a time when we’re all constantly sharing images of ourselves on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, Spencer says photos reserved for private consumption hold even more power.
“I think there’s something to be said for images that people don’t see,” the photographer says.
“There’s more to imagery and memories and moments than just showing them off. The experience is what really matters.”