Composition: a Perspective on Body Parts, Anatomy & Nude Photography

Photos of body parts can be sexy. Or boring and everyday, depending on the editing choices you make. Body parts can be more impactful than a facial portrait when composition and lighting are the key factors in your final cut. Facial segments, hands, feet, necklines, backlines, navel dips — any and all fragments of the human build can draw keen and mysterious interest from viewers if you take time to shoot thoughtfully. Images like these often tell no story. They simply celebrate the visual definition of form and function that we might otherwise bypass in our daily lives.
Do you think they’re dirty? Some may dart their vision away from these simple compositions of lips, necks, and hip dips, mentally (unavoidably?) placing them in a deviant category. I truly believe there is an appreciation in portioning off these beautiful shapes that make us who we are — even if some people assume that all artistic and carefully composed nudity is rooted in a sexual nature. The human body is beautiful, with unique valleys and mountains to explore. Artistically capturing pieces of indirect nudity really has nothing to do with sex. It’s the same as in figure drawing: create lines, shape, movement, and shading. Only instead of mimicking or imagining it, you’re capturing it.
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To get the most out of your own compositions, follow these loose guidelines

Shooting Guidelines

Learn to crop in action, otherwise referred to as in-camera composition. You will gain a stronger composition by shooting what you want the outcome to be, rather than shooting broadly and then heavily cropping later. If you’re new to this method and feel unsure about the composition, shoot with a bit of space around what you think you want to capture, close to where you might crop the final image. That way you have a little padding to work with until you know your framing style.
Compose body parts at close range (the majority rule) with minimal white space.
Most adult body parts in photography look best with a harsh side or back lighting which produces some rim light. In turn, this produces a source with 50-75% darkness on the opposing side. This enhances the details of shape and form, adding drama where it might otherwise be missed.

Editing Guidelines

If you are practiced at in-camera composition, minimal to no cropping should be necessary. This is a learned technique and will only get better if you practice frequently with all things you take photos of. Just apply it to everything you snap, and it will become a habit.
Grain is a big part of black and white images. You can choose to enhance the in-camera grain (e.g., of a low-light image) or add faux grain (e.g., textured overlays). Obviously, Pixlr apps have tons of options when it comes to adding texture and overlays.
The best way to dramatize nude skin is to start with a black-and-white image. You will have even more control over defining the highlights, dark valleys, and gradients of your subject matter.
There are no solid rules of thumb. For instance, if I am photographing a newborn or small child, I might be shooting for innocence (crisp and lighter), using a more lightweight and softer look and feel. You are documenting delicate features of soft creatures; therefore, the capture can be completely different than say capturing the beauty of a woman’s collarbone for artistic reasons.
Know your purpose: Is your final product for journaling or is it more artistic? Do what works best for you. That is how you set yourself aside from the rest. Experiment and break out of your comfort zone.

Experimentation Ideas

Skin is a fun thing to photograph. Add some extra elements to break out of your comfort zone:

  • Make skin glisten and be more reflective by using water or baby oil. Use a combination of the two to get beading of “sweat” on skin – apply baby oil then use a spray bottle to add the water beading. Add harsh lighting at an angle (side, above, etc.), and your drama has amplified ten-fold.
  • Try powders in a variety of ways to produce creative work. Flour, cornstarch, and athletic chalk are all a great way to start. Some people even use baby powder, but I personally cannot hack the scent in that amount! The idea behind using powders is that it is lightweight enough to fluff up in a cloud when you clap your hands together or toss it up. So be sure to test out whatever medium you decide to use before you set up a shoot. If you can get your hands on colored chalk such as that used in the infamous Color Run events, go for it. (Note: Errant chalks and powders can ruin DSLR lenses if they get into sensors; it wouldn’t hurt to also be cautious when using mobile phones and other digital devices.)
  • Try texture. Play with potter’s clay or other wet and dry media mixes. Flour or cornstarch-and-water pastes can add interesting final effects with wet or dry-and-cracked finishes…. And mud! Mud is free.
  • Paint and henna tattoo ink can bring a variety of effects. Paint can be anything from glow in the dark to regular acrylic paint (which will wash out). I would not use latex house paints, and while spray paint is cool, you should instead find a body/skin-safe spray paint at a costume shop.

Helpful Articles, Apps & Tutorials

If you’d like to dive into some experimental apps and techniques, I’ve put together this hand-picked collection that I think might help you go further:
Getting black & white in PixlrRemember the #pixlrbw challenge? If you’re new to B&W photography, this post has some good tips on converting your image and some jump-start direction on editing. The best advice I can give you for getting started with dramatic black and whites are to take these steps:

  1. Your first editing step should be to adjust the brightness and contrast – dramatically.
  2. Lower the saturation (aka color range) to zero color. Your image will be flat looking with gray tones.
  3. See the above Pixlr blog post for additional tips, but this is your basic rule of thumb for a decent start!

Smoother features (i.e., skin) using Perfectly ClearBlack-and-white images edited dramatically (lights and darks) tend to bring out texture as well. In some cases you can “blow out” (ultra brighten) or hide (lose details in shadows) texture and blemishes. You don’t always want them to be the feature of distraction. If you’re going for professional-looking skin, I’ve found the Beautify feature in Perfectly Clear useful. While you want to be very careful about over-modeling skin, if your goal is professional photography it is definitely useful to define a light smooth skin base before converting your image to black-and-white for final edits.
Other mobile camera apps: While native camera apps on the latest-and-greatest mobile phones have gotten better over the years, there are still some pretty creative and helpful camera apps to consider trying out in addition to Pixlr — particularly if you need DSLR-level controls or want to mimic an aperture setting to take long exposures. Aside from my iPhone 5S native camera app, I have recently been fiddling with Manual App for iPhone and Slow Shutter App for iPhone.
Bokeh Lens is an iPhone App I have been playing with lately. Bokeh (bo·keh) is what you see in images with a crip focal subject in the forground and a blurry background. That blurry area is the bokeh effect. Pixlr apps have bokeh overlays that are designed to dramatically emphasize bokeh looks, but getting true bokeh out of an iPhone is next to impossible. This app might help if you want to achieve the kind of professional “creamy” bokeh photogs hold dear to their heart. I know how to easily achieve this with my DSLR camera, but you can only do so much to have this effect applied to your mobile phone shots.
Aaron Nace is one of my favorite educational photographers on the body. His article Photographing the Nude Body offers some great tips to expand your thought process on the entire nude as a photographic piece or ways to compose and light. While this article focuses on professional lighting, take this with a grain of salt and simply observe how the lighting is used. (Note: this link contains educational video content with nude models; you’ll have to create an account on FStoppers if you want to access it.]

Trendsetters & Artists to Follow

These individuals inspire me. They produce collections of very different perspectives on photographing the nude body and/or body parts included. I love to know the stories behind each artist’s vision and how they got there….
Jade Beall: Tuscon, AZ // Certainly a trendsetter in the vision of mothers’ breastfeeding, life, abstract love, and bodies in general. A truly talented photographer of the human form with much to view from her vast portfolio. Known for work in her book The Bodies of Mothers: A Beautiful Body Project.
A Beautiful Body Project: In itself this is a great website to follow if you want to expand your vision on photographing nudes and body perspective.
Anastasia Pottinger: Columbia, MO // She gained a name for herself in her work Centenarians, which shows the beauty of the body at 100+ years of age. I find her work really inspiring and out of the box with excellent shots showing how aging affects the body — in a beautiful way.
Christine Benjamin: Huntington, NY // Her work was originally born out of her own experiences with breast cancer, which contributes largely to her path to photographing nudes, but she has since expanded to additional styles.
John Coplans: (June 1920 – August 2013) // Known for his really intriguing compositions that perhaps look more sexual than they really are. This Pinterest board is a great place to discover him.
About the author: Molly Bermea is an Autoimmune-Paleo food creator, urban gardener, photographer, iPhoneographer, artist, blog writer, wife and mom of two little beasties (humanoid children)… oh, and she likes to run, swim and bike. She lives in the fabulous, all-season, Southern Oregon area and works from home. Find her on Facebook, Instagram and over at her new blogsite, (Autoimmune Paleo & Lifestyle).