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Even when I score a victory in the bulge battle, age and children do their work -- a stretch mark on the hips, a sag in the belly. My best gal pal Bernice and I commiserate. Maybe that's why she asked me to help with her Valentine's Day project. She wanted to give saucy photos to her husband Frank, and she asked me to work the camera. I care far too much about her to let her suffer my clumsy snapshots. So I offered to find a pro, someone who would know how to work with a shy woman who'd lived a bit past the first bloom of youth. "It's a gift that takes...I won't say guts, but confidence on a woman's part," said Barbara Steinberg of Intimate Photography (858-272-0552). "She's showing her body, and not all women are a size two. I get every body type." Nor are they all 25. "The average age of our clients is from 25 to 35, but I've had women in their 70s."

Steinberg has a few methods for getting shy women to relax. First, "We talk on the phone." Second, the studio is in a relatively private setting, as opposed to a mall or shopping center. Third, "There are no men here." The staff is female, and if a man wants to come to the studio, even to pick up pictures, his visit is scheduled so that no women customers will be present when he arrives. Fourth, "People say that I'm like them -- I'm not 20 and really thin." Finally, "We talk to the client, get them to talk about themselves and their guys."

Around 90 percent of clients get their hair and makeup done on-site for the shoot. "Our makeup artists are trained and licensed. We believe in a more natural look -- so do the guys -- but some women want a really dramatic look with heavy eyeliner, and we give them that choice. Then we do wardrobe. They don't have to bring anything, but they can if they want to. Clients have brought in golf clubs, surfboards, guitars, trumpets, and fishing poles. But I have lots to choose from, in sizes up to 4X. I like to use thongs, because it shows the bottom, and they can kind of do a side-view thing to show that curve. We have a lot of military stuff. Women will wear a bra-and-panty set under a military jacket. They'll bring their guy's hat, and sometimes they'll use it for nudes, just to cover the breast." Steinberg took me through the costumes. "We have a little San Diego police outfit, a sailor, a cigarette girl, a flapper... I think the nurse outfit is the most popular."

Steinberg carries oodles of jewelry and, of course, there are shoes. "I have every shoe size, in black, white, clear, and red. The higher the better -- guys really like high shoes. They make the legs look better, and the women only have to walk about three feet in them. Sometimes, that's all they can walk. I have every kind of boot you can think of...this is a thigh-high. But legs are usually good features, even on heavy women, so I don't like to cover them unless I have to. The more skin you can show without showing something you don't want to show, the better. Plus, we have a little secret -- these pantyhose. There are no seams, except at the waist, and the thong will hide that. They hold you in, and they hide cellulite and scars. They're our little miracle workers; we order them by the hundred in all colors, so I can match a woman's skin tone."

Once the woman is prepped and dressed (or undressed), Steinberg goes to work, careful to highlight the good and minimize the less than ideal. "We call it camouflaging. It's easier when they're a size 6, but the average woman is a size 14 now." A directional light helps accentuate the positive. "Most women have a problem with their stomachs. I have a bedpost that is great for posing. I put her arms in a certain way to cover things, and she can lean up against the post to cover her stomach. But you can still see the bottom, the legs, and the breasts. I have to show cleavage; that's what guys like. Guys really like their bottoms, too."

Besides the bedpost, camouflage comes courtesy of feather boas. "And I also have this incredible leather jacket. It shows cleavage, but you can cinch it at the waist -- the larger woman can have a waistline." A jacket will also cover droopy flesh around the armpit, even when it's been pulled down to reveal the shoulders. "I still like to use bra-and-panty sets for heavy women, but I have a variety of robes that can be draped certain ways. Boas are great for that, too."

Waifish girls generally get built up. "If they have even a little bit in the chest, I can bring it out. I can use water bras to give them volume, and make sure the hair is a little fuller. They don't usually do nudes."

I knew Bernice wouldn't want to do a nude, and Steinberg said that most women feel the same way, at least about full nudes. "Most of them want to do topless." Even full nudes often get the silhouette treatment through a sheer blind. A nude shot that Steinberg favors (and one that still leaves something to the imagination) is set up like this: "Lay on your back and put your feet up on the headboard of the bed. Take your arms and push your breasts up from the side. Your stomach is falling down, and your hands can cover it a bit. You're nude, but since I'm shooting from the side, nothing shows."

Photos are shot on film, and sessions start at $120, with an additional $70 for makeup and hair. Each session includes three changes; nudes count as a change. Photo packages, which may include products such as albums or calendars, range from $190 to $700, and there is no obligation to purchase the photos. Retouching is available.

1. Barbara Steinberg

2. Intimate Photography model

3. Lingerie

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