Building a Business of Boudoir

by Martha Blanchfield

Jen HIllenga

February 19, 2013

Jen Hillenga had photographed families, seniors and commercial projects in her Savage, Minnesota, studio, Momento Images, since in 2004, but it wasn’t until February 2009 that she added boudoir photography to her offerings—and that’s when things changed dramatically.

“From that day forward our business exploded,” says Hillenga, who always had an affinity for photographing women. “In year one, we went from photographing 10 sessions, to photographing more than 80 the next year. We knew the genre was going to be a significant addition to what we were already photographing because we had been watching this market gain speed in the industry and in the media.”  

Although Hillenga says that word-of-mouth was originally her studio’s golden ticket for marketing (“Women have these amazing communities of sisters, friends and mothers; when they find something they feel is an amazing experience, they share”), that doesn’t mean she ignored other opportunities to promote her studio offerings.

Catering to Women

Aside from word-of-mouth, Momento Images relies on print ads in local publications, particularly outlets with an online edition (because so many buyers now make purchasing decisions online), some direct mail and plenty of e-mail. “We market mainly to women—moms, brides, high school senior girls—although we have had a smattering of boyfriends and husbands buying sessions for their significant others,” Hillenga says. “Women are the ones who usually make the purchasing decisions, so we really focus on them.

Our promotions, our studio and our packaging are all really beautiful and cater to a woman’s sensibility.” That includes studio décor with “pretty couches and chandeliers,” plus, says Hillenga, “we package our goods in pretty boxes with tissue and bows, we have a candle with a great scent burning—in everything we do, we try to create a ‘pretty’ and comfortable experience geared toward women.”

Another major consideration is pairing any promotion to its optimal time of year. “Minnesota is a very seasonal area, so there are times that are just busier than others,” Hillenga notes. “January used to be one of our slowest months, but now that we offer boudoir, it can be our busiest; Valentine’s Day being a main reason. To even out the business, we market to fill the slower seasons. One tactic is to offer limited-edition-themed sessions to increase traffic during the slower times—these are mini-sessions offered at a lower price point.” Offering different types of sessions and adding new product lines has added to the studio’s bottom line in a struggling economy; where it used to have a “slow season,” it now it thrives year-round.

Best Photos First

The most obvious form of marketing is presenting great imagery for every client. The studio works with women of every shape and size—all different ages and with different comfort levels. Hillenga notes that no matter the client, most have the same worries and insecurities about their bodies when it comes to posing for boudoir sessions. “It’s my job to get to know each woman and figure out the most flattering poses and lighting where I can show off her assets, while hiding insecurities or flaws,” Hillenga says. “When connecting before the shoot, I learn what she loves about her body and explain what I can do to eliminate worries.”

One tried-and-true technique for gaining client comfort is to share a “before-and-after” image book. “They see what I can achieve with hair, makeup, posing, lighting and retouching. This puts them at ease and starts to build trust—trust is essential so the client relaxes in front of the camera,” Hillenga says. “The poses come easier, you’ll get better expressions, and the client is more open to ideas.”

Regarding posing, Hillenga is very hands-on, with the goal to get the best possible angle, especially with clients who are a little awkward or need more direction. She will physically position heads or hands as needed. “This is something I couldn’t do if I hadn’t established solid rapport,” she says. Another way to build comfort in the studio is to follow a shoot progression. “I start by photographing a client in outfits with the most coverage and the safest poses, before moving to the minimal coverage pieces and more sensual poses.”

There are not many other genres in which the potential for nervous tension is more amplified than with boudoir photography. “It’s so very intimate and the client may feel vulnerable. I always say that being a successful photographer is half artist, half psychologist,” Hillenga says. “It takes a special intuition to be able to read people, read their insecurities, and then be able to put each at ease to photograph in their best light.”

When it’s time to share the finished product, “I absolutely shun away from showing any woman a straight-from-camera photograph,” she says. “Taking the time to perfect each image with retouching not only builds brand reputation, but can translate into more sales.”

Hillenga’s overall recipe for retouching is to prep using Lightroom, then export to Photoshop. There, she uses skin smooth and liquefy steps to enhance. She does all the creative work in Photoshop, usually implementing custom tools she has created herself in Lightroom and Photoshop such as actions, presets, textures and techniques. About a third of the images will be shown in either black and white or sepia, and all are adjusted for color, contrast and crop. “Each image on a boudoir shoot gets the full treatment,” she says.

“I want these images to sing. So much of a woman’s self esteem is wrapped up in how she sees herself, I want the images to be a complete reflection of beauty.”

A Most Revealing Profession

For Hillenga, boudoir has become a “most revealing” addition to her photography studio; and one not without surprises. “Of the most important things I’ve learned is you just cannot judge a book by its cover,” she laughs. “A woman whom you may think to be the most insecure actually ends up being the most free and confident in front of the camera. And the woman you think is close to perfect has the hardest time opening up and feeling comfortable.”

To illustrate, she shares one experience she had when working with a 64-year-old woman who wanted to create a sexy image to give her husband, a doctor. “Who knew she’d pop onto the set in a racy red bra sporting her hubby’s stethoscope?” Hillenga says. “We ended up shooting multiple outfits over the two-hour session. She and her husband both loved the images.”

Hillenga’s sessions are about finding and bringing out the unique qualities for each client. “I try to put them at ease and make them as comfortable and free as possible,” she says. “I had one woman reveal she had never been made to feel as beautiful as she felt during her session. That is powerful. That is what you can do for women if you treat them with respect, validate who they are and create beautiful images.”

Hillenga's Perfect Posing Tips

'S' is for Slim
“Clients love it when I am able to make their bodies appear slim by having them face away from the light, causing the bulk of the body to recede into shadow. Anything that is illuminated appears larger, anything that goes into shadow recedes. I also like to pose the weight on the foot furthest from the camera to create a body S-curve. This pushes the hips away from the camera and instantly creates a feminine shape flattering for every woman.”

Prop it Up
“If you have a bit larger client, a combination of the right light and props is vitally important. Many times I use fabrics draped around the body to hide perceived flaws.” One client told Hillenga that her boyfriend loved the curve of her back, so the photographer customized an image just for them. “The image hides in fabric what she believed were her problems (tummy area), while showing off the curve of her back.”

Shadows Transform
For lighting, Hillenga often places a large softbox above a client’s head to create dramatic butterfly light, which faded into the shadows. One soft reflector helps fill just slightly, and keeps shadows within the image showing the body contours. “I love shadows; I think they create depth. Fill in this recessive area too much and you lose the full depth and shape.”

Jen Hillenga will present her WPPI 2013 Platform Class, “Bombshell Boudoir—Marketing and Psychology of a Successful Boudoir Business,” on Thursday, March 14, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Martha Blanchfield is creator of the Renegade Photo Shoots (www.renegade-pr.com) and a freelance marketing and public relations consultant.

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