In 2002, Josh Ryan was working at a nightclub in Los Angeles when he picked up a camera for the first time to snap some shots of his model girlfriend. From there, photography become a hobby and, after a short stint shooting adult-film box covers and some editorial work, he started shooting for Playboy. He landed a coveted photographer contract in 2006, quickly moving up the ranks to shoot centerfolds as a senior contributing photographer.
In December, Playboy announced that it would discontinue its use of nude models—and Ryan's contract with the magazine ended. Now, for the first time, he's able to share all the secrets with Cosmopolitan.com about what really went on behind the scenes of America's most famous nude photo shoots.
Is being a Playboy photographer the ultimate dream job for a straight guy? Or is it not as glamorous as we think? It's a great job. It's funny how I got into it: I was shooting a friend and she was dating a guy whose [Internet] company just got bought by Playboy. She said, "Hey, they're looking for new photographers so I'll recommend you." I didn't think anything would come of it. A week later, someone from Playboy called. That was the end of '06, beginning of '07, and I've been there ever since … up until this December. My contract was just up in December.
When did you start shooting centerfolds in particular? That was 3.5, four years ago. I tested [models] for two months and then two months later they said, "OK, we'd like you to start shooting the centerfolds."
What do you mean when you say you "tested models"? What does that entail? Any girl that was applying [to be a Playmate] or [had] Playmate potential would have to come to me first and I would do a test shoot on them at the Playboy studios. Those pictures go directly to Hef and he'd either say "yes" or "no" or "reshoot her."
What were you looking for in these women? I don't want to say the cliché term, but there's the It Factor. Sometimes you meet a girl and you're just like, This is it! And the business model has changed over the years — when they brought me on, they wanted a more modern, fashionable twist. I replaced the guys that were there for 30 years. It was time for a change. Instead of the Girls Next Door—Holly, Bridget, and Kendra—we were looking for a more Marie Claire, Elle, Vogue type girl. A girl that could be sexy, have a nice curvaceous body, but still be a little bit taller, thinner, and look more like a fashion model.
And they'd get the green light from Hef? He's that involved? Yeah. At first, Hef would deny a lot of these girls. And these were girls who were pretty big models, I'm talking big campaigns—Maybelline, Free People—and I was bringing these girls in and he didn't get it. He didn't get the agency type model, so to speak. He really wanted that Marilyn Monroe, Anna Nicole Smith [look]. That's the look he loves. Over the years, I almost had to trick him a little bit and shoot these models a certain way so he could see the potential in them. But he is very, very sharp. He makes a lot of good points about the angles of a girl's face, certain features. I have to give it to him, being the age that he is  and at this point in his life, he's still very involved and aware of the details of the model.
How did you "trick him," as you said? I would shoot them in the old style of Playboy. Then when it came time to shoot her centerfolds, when she got green-lit, the art director and I would think of a theme for her and shoot it the way we wanted to shoot it. It took me a while to get in my groove and learn how [Hef] worked. A lot of times, I'd bring a girl back after he denied her and I don't think he even remembered her. I'd shoot her a different way and suddenly she'd get through right away.
Tell me about the themes. For example, if we shot a girl who rode horses competitively, we wanted to do a horse-type shoot, so we'd do it in the fall somewhere sunny at a ranch. That's how we pick a theme—it's kind of based loosely on the girl's personality or experiences. We've also had girls that are not that interesting at all and we just come up with something. Sometimes it has nothing to do with them.
By the time you're shooting a centerfold, she's spent so much time with you. Do you still have to help them past any shyness? Are they nervous about getting naked? By the time they're shooting the centerfold, they're pretty comfortable. I'm very good at making people feel comfortable on camera. That's been part of my success. Also, we have a crew of 15 people on set, at least. You're changing in front of people, it's not as glamorous as people may think. Everyone has a job and they're focused on that.
What were some of your tricks or techniques to make people comfortable? The biggest one [was], if I had a girl whose confidence level was low, I would do one or two shots, and when she's back in wardrobe or hair and makeup, I would quickly go to the computer and pick a few winners—and I'd literally retouch them on set. I would retouch them and then put one in a centerfold, cut out with the logo on her and everything, and then say, "Hey, come here and look at this." And then all of a sudden everything changes. They're like, "Oh my god, this is amazing. I can't believe it." Rarely has it backfired. Occasionally a girl will be super critical of herself and start picking herself apart. Usually, though, that does the trick. That, or a little alcohol.
Oh yeah? Is drinking on set a big thing? Listen, we've been known to grab a bottle of wine here or there if it makes the girl feel more comfortable. Just in moderation, but it help takes the edge off. I'm not against it.
What about the crew? Are they drinking too? Like it's a party? God, no. Listen, my crew has been with me a very long time; they have a very good understanding of what their job is and what the boundaries are.
Trends about what is considered attractive for the female body have changed so much—going from the Marilyn Monroe hourglass to the skinny runway model, and also going from breasts being the main attraction to the butt taking center stage. Does that influence how you shoot? When I started shooting the centerfolds, we were on a natural breast kick and we really wanted to get away from the Pamela Anderson look with the big, fake boobs. From time to time, we'd shoot someone with implants and maybe they didn't look that big in person, but they shot really big on camera, so we had to change the way she posed, the way you light and the way you retouch them. That definitely changed a lot and we wanted to make the girls look a little more natural.
Let's talk post-production. First of all, how many frames do you shoot? On a typical shoot, probably 1,500 to 2,500 images. I pick my top 200 and I give those to the art director, and he picks three separate layouts from there, and those three separate layouts all go to Hef and he'll pick A, B, or C. Same thing with the covers: He gets three of them and picks one.
Are these photos untouched? These are untouched for the most part—the way I shoot and color everything as we're shooting, it's pretty close to the end result. The girls we're picking nowadays are pretty solid models. With the minor exception of a tattoo or a piece of wardrobe that didn't fit correctly, you're looking at something that's pretty close to what you're going to get.
How much Photoshopping goes into the images? I retouched my own layouts so I know what went into them. It really just depends. For example, the May 2015 issue—it was a great issue, it's one of my favorite centerfolds—we loved the pose of the girl and it was the cover shot, but we didn't like her mouth, so we took her mouth and arm from another photo and changed it. This is done by so many fashion magazines all the time. But overall, the pictures come out of the camera pretty closely to what you're going to see. There's a lot of tweaks that I do that people probably don't even realize … making heads smaller, arms smaller, feet smaller, fixing bulging knuckles, tiny adjustments.
And you actually will remove a full tattoo? Yes. We've removed a lot of tattoos. Sometimes we'll really love a girl but she'll have scroll down her ribs or the infamous Chinese letters on the back.
Tattoos are so mainstream now, but that's still something you guys remove? Yeah. First of all, Hef didn't like them, he's never liked them. And I think a lot of times, we would remove them in the test photos to get her past and then continue that with the shoot.
What do you do to breasts, nipples, and vaginas in terms of retouching? I'll be blunt: If there's a girl that needs a little help up top, I'm going to give her shadows and use Photoshop tools to make her boobs look bigger, and I'll bring her waist in. If some girl's anatomy down below is quite different than others', I'm going to give it a little tuck and a trim, or a shadow here and there to make the picture not really be about that. The biggest thing is, we don't actually want to draw your eyes to those areas. I don't want someone thinking her boobs are way too small or way too big, or her vagina doesn't look pretty in the picture. I want it to be about the actual photo, not about how naked she is. So we shadow things and darken and lighten and clip and trim. It happens.
And when you say "trim," do you mean literally trimming vagina lips? Exactly. Or we shadow them.
What does shadowing do? It just masks showing it so much. It takes it out of focus. I don't want it to be about the details of her bits and pieces.
When you look at naked women in real life, there really is so much variety—nipple size, for example. Do you stick to a golden ratio that you've found is the most attractive? [Laughs.] I don't. My thing is I want the pictures to look symmetrical. I realize that what I'm doing is not real life. We're creating something artistic and it's to please your eye. I don't encourage people to think that every woman should look like this. I just do what I think looks good to me—it's like a painting.
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