Are you guilty of an occasional selfie? Most of us are. It’s true, we are a selfie-obsessed culture but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Self-portraits have a long history as part of an artist’s journey of self-discovery. They give us a way to try out new techniques, fail in privacy, learn, grow and adapt as photographers. They are also a way to chart how we physically change over time. Here are some items and practices that help me achieve the self-portrait I set out to create.
Get the proper equipment
There are only a few things you will need to get started with self-portraiture. Any camera will do but if you plan to pursue photography on a regular basis, consider purchasing a DSLR camera. DSLRs provide more versatility and customization options than a point and shoot camera by allowing you to change lenses, which allows differing focal lengths, and allows you control over every aspect of your photo including the shutter speed, aperture, and the file formats. I also suggest getting a camera you can mount on a tripod. Just trust me, it’ll make your life easier.
Now that you have a tripod mountable camera, get a tripod. A tripod allows you to set your camera up and walk away without having to reset your settings or focus. It also allows you to stand in frame without having to prop the camera on an existing structure or hold it. This will blow your composition options wide open. You’ll be able to photograph your portrait anywhere without making compromises based on your surroundings. Additionally, tripods allow you to shoot in low-light situations without having to worry about unsightly blurriness caused by hand shake at slow shutter speeds.
Finally, a remote shutter trigger. This little remote allows you to compress your shutter from a distance. Instead of setting your camera on a ten second delay, running and hoping you get into position in time, you can get into your pose and then click the shutter. The remotes are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, easy to hide, and typically inexpensive, sometimes costing less than $10. If your camera doesn’t support a remote option, then you’ll have to rely on the self-timer and your dexterity. Or you could compose your shot on the tripod and ask a friend to press the shutter.
Portraiture is about saying something without having to say anything at all. Part of being able to actually accomplish that is knowing what you are really trying to convey. Self-portraits are about the pieces of ourselves which, when added together, create a complete person. Ask yourself why you are interested in self-portraits. Is it a way to learn new techniques? Before you start shooting, make sure you know your motivation. Your intent should shape your portrait more than your skillset or your gear. The answers you give yourself will guide your framing, posing, and post-processing. If you are simply trying to practice an unfamiliar technique, then your setting won’t matter as long as it meets the requirements needed to allow you to try and repeat the process. If you are taking a self-portrait as a piece of fine art, you’ll need to carefully select your setting, pose, and props.
Nail the composition
Now that you know why you are taking a self-portrait or perhaps a series of them, think long and hard about composition. Because you are photographing yourself, you can take as much time as you need to plan your shoot. Use framing to focus on what you feel is important to feature. If you want to focus on your face, use a tight shot that doesn’t leave a lot of room on the top or sides. If you intend to show the movement of your body in your environment, pull way back and shoot wide. Weigh the pros and cons of one setting or background over another. Those pros and cons will depend on your intended purpose: If you are doing a simple head shoot for professional purposes, you will probably want a plain, neutral background. Otherwise, think about what the background adds to the story you are telling. Contemplate the way different hues color photographs with different mental associations. Red indicates passion and intensity and blue calm, serenity. What mood do you want to invoke? Line up the appropriate props and outfits scout a few potential locations, create the perfect storm and, in turn the best self-portrait you are capable.
Different types of light invoke different meanings. Think about how you can match your lighting to match the emotions you wish to convey. Harsh, bright lights can add shadows that add moodiness and intensity. Those shadows can be used to highlight and hide different pieces of your portrait, allowing you to place greater visual importance on those areas while downplaying unimportant or distracting portions. Smooth, even lighting will light your entire portrait evenly, allowing you to promote all the small details of your surroundings. Often this provides portraits with an even calm and serenity.
Get more shots than you think you need
Take a few more photos than you need because there is nothing worse than taking the time to set up a perfect self-portrait only to find you didn’t get what you wanted. Things like hair in your face and unexpected blinks happen pretty frequently. Even if you think you got what you need, take a couple just in case you didn’t.
Self-Portraits are by nature,tedious and often take multiple attempts to get the shot you’ve been envisioning. You are doing everything yourself, including the modeling. Often we, as photographers, are more comfortable behind the lens that in front of it. Pay attention to what you like and dislike about each shot; work to retain the elements you love and get rid of the ones that don’t serve your purpose. Respect the process and have patience, you are studying how to streamline and tweak the formula of your process. Essentially, you are discovering what to do by learning what not to do.
Reinvent the definition of a portrait
A self-portrait can feature any part of you and doesn’t have to show all of you. It doesn’t even have to show your face. We have an idea of what is appropriate for portraits but the details that make up our lives are just as much part of us as our faces. Focusing on our clothes, our scars, and parts of our body can highlight what we feel is important and what makes us unique, as artists and as people.
Depth of field
Consider the purpose depth of field has in your portrait. If your surroundings are an important part of your portrait that adds to your story, make sure they are in focus. Using a small aperture (denoted by a high number such as f/16) will ensure your surrounding is in focus and an active part of your photo’s narrative. If you are focused more on your expression and your environment is less important, consider lessening the focus so whatever you feel is most important pops and is the obvious focal point of your portrait. Using a large aperture (denoted by a small number like f/2.8) will separate you from your background.
Hair, makeup and wardrobe
Since a self-portrait is telling the story of who you are, think carefully about the way you dress yourself. This is an opportunity to promote yourself at your best, who you aspire to be or how you’ve grown and changed. Doing your hair and makeup can highlight the features you are interested in focusing on and hide those pieces of yourself you would rather not emphasize. On the same token, clothes that are inappropriately flashy or makeup that doesn’t fit the mood of your portrait can easily detract from your finished product.
Lights, camera, action: It’s time to turn those acting skills on. Find a way to use your facial expressions and body language to convey how you are feeling. Using past memories you associate with the emotion you are trying to imprint on your audience is a good way to get in the right mind set and emote. Practice in the mirror before you even start setting up so you know exactly how you’ll look when you press the shutter.
Using reflective surfaces such as puddles, bodies of water, and mirrors can add visual interest and an extra layer of depth to your portrait. They can also be tricky, experiment with different ways to shoot so you are in the frame but your camera isn’t. Often, you will need to use unconventional angles to pull it off.
Often, when we think of self-portraits we think of stoic images where the subject is facing the camera with a stern or serene look on their face but they don’t have to be. Self-portraits can be dynamic. One of my favorite self-portrait series was done by a sport’s photographer who also ran marathons. Using his iPhone, he took a photo of his feet as he crossed the finish line of all of his races. The series combined the two things he loved, running and photos while utilizing motion to tell his own story.
Another major part of the human experience is the relationships we cultivate with other people. Think about incorporating those people who have been integral in shaping your life into your self-portraits. Children, parents, close friends, and even pets can be a telling addition to a self-portrait.
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