Saturday, March 14, 2009

Figure photography - male versus female

When male pencil artists draw nude male figure models, no one seems to comment on it. When male photographers photograph nude male figure models, it's scandalous. It tends to draw sideways looks and awkward questions about the sexual orientation of the photographer, the model, or both. No matter who you talk to, it seems to be mandatory that you answer three questions before you're allowed talk about the images so let me get them out of the way up front:

1. Are you gay?

2. Are male models gay?
Don't know, don't care. If you want to speculate, I've probably shot both gay and straight men. I know I've shot lesbians, not because I asked but because they were open about it. Ultimately, it just doesn't matter. Sex is not part of a figure photo session, so sexual orientation is not a relevant concern.

3. Do you shoot lots of male models/why don't you shoot more male models?
I freely admit that I find it easier to see beauty in the female figure than the male figure (refer to question 1 for an explanation), but there are beautiful males who move and excite my inner artist. There are also males who are interested in modeling. It just seems to be a very rare event when both things come together. The intersection of the set of males who are interested with the set of males who are interesting is very small, so no, I don't shoot lots of male models.

Now that we've got those out of the way, let's talk about photographing the figure ...

All photography is about capturing light reflected from the surface of an object. There are tons of books (even a few good ones) about the technical aspects of that, but it boils down to three things that matter: 1) the size of the light source relative to the reflective surface, 2) the angle of incidence of the light on the reflective surface relative to the camera, and 3) the degree of scattering of the reflected light. It's easy to take a simple object - a knife blade, an apple, a sheet of paper, etc. - and demonstrate how a photograph changes with respect to changes in those three things, and that's a very useful educational exercise to go through. Something I rarely see discussed, though, is the fact that real objects are almost always highly complex surfaces. Almost every object you photograph will have variation within it's shape and surface qualities that forces you to prioritize and compromise on all three factors of lighting (that's why light modifiers - umbrellas, scrims, gobos, grids, etc. - are so critical to good studio photography).

One of the things that makes the human form both exciting and challenging to photograph is that combinations of skin texture, skin tone, anatomic structure, tissue type, tissue firmness, and overall body form cause such variation on many different scales at once, and you can adjust those variations to an amazing degree independent of adjustments in lighting by changing poses (models move when you ask them to). Much of my imagery focuses on exploiting that to bring out interesting textures and dramatic curves, and to explore the intersection of lines and forms in a body. Sometimes I will focus on lighting the variation at one scale only, other times I will try to bring out multiple scales of variation, such as overall bodyform, musculature, and skin texture, in the same image. (That's may sound like a very technical and cold description, but keep in mind that it all leads to imagery intended to register emotionally rather than intelecually. One of the beautiful things about photography is that it uses technology to produce images with appeal that are beyond a technical explanation.)

Male models are obviously more muscular than females (in general, at least), but they also tend to have longer uninterrupted lines, more hair and coarser skin texture, different tissue firmness, and less dramatic curves. That makes for a different challenge than photographing a female model, even if you do have a beautiful human to work with. If you're used to photographing females, photographing males is hard. The common poses and angles that reliably bring out the beauty of the female form don't work as well for males. Lighting that takes advantage of female tissue composition doesn't work as well. The variations in the visible musculatre of the male body occur on different scales than those in the female body. The micro-features (pores and hairs) that create interesting textures are different densities and different scales. Those technical differences lead to artistic differences. The grace and beauty there to be revealed in a male model is not the same as that in a female model. It requires stepping back and reevaluating your perspective, looking for a different set of emotions. Both are good and fulfilling, but one is heartier, like the difference between a fresh croissant that melts in your mouth and whole wheat bread that warms your stomach.

Ultimately, I prefer photographing female models for figure work, but I'm glad I have the ability to photograph a male model occasionally. Variety is good for the artist in me.


  1. These photographs are beautiful... I love the concept.

  2. I like how you work with lighting and real people to make great works of art. Keep it coming!

  3. The lighting makes the pictures. Especially the ones of their backs second from the bottom.

  4. Camera, light and model only appear depending on the mind of the photographer and then the mind of the viewer. Neither of these minds are fixed. Best artistic work comes from artist/photographer who has let go of both audience and concepts as a reference. Thanks for showing your work!

  5. I find the descriptions of the differences informative, and your examples well-chosen. I have yet to work with a male in the studio, and only twice outdoors, and I don't think I did particularly well with either session. I may give it another try.

  6. I think you're an amazing figure photographer, a real artist. If you were closer to me (I'm in Baltimore), I'd send you some samples of my modeling work. I'm a mature male figure photographer, who's posed for fine artists and photographers (male and female). If you're ever down in the lower 48, let me know.


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