Why I Take Self-Portraits: Part 1

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Nikon D200, Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/125 sec.

As a photographer, it’s important to visualize an image and subsequently know how to create that image. Often, I will think of a concept or a lighting idea and then I’ll want to test it out immediately, so I use myself as a model.

When I come up with a concept I tend to think through as much as possible, including the environment, wardrobe, props, lighting, focal length, etc. All of these physical ideas contribute to one overriding, less tangible principle: mood.

Without a mood, a vibe, it’s just a picture. We want to create art, not merely pictures. And self-portraits can allow you to work on all of those technical aspects that eventually lead to the creation of art. It allows you to practice whenever you want! In this series, we’ll take a look at a few of my recent self-portraits and talk about the thought process behind each one.

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Nikon D200, Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/125 sec.

The photo above was taken in front of my practice shed in my backyard. I wanted it to feel like I was taking a break from practicing, or maybe I just got home from a gig. Serenity, relaxation, maybe a hint of mystery. In order to create that mood, I had to think about techniques that would allow me to portray those ideas. I wanted the light to evoke nighttime, but with the sense that there is some sort of streetlight or window casting warm light from just out of the frame. The fact is that this was taken at night, but just opening up my shutter to let in as much light as possible wouldn’t do the trick.

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One possible ambient exposure

The photo above illustrates this perfectly. A rough exposure for the porchlight already existing in the scene shows that it’s already a bit overexposed, plus it leaves everything else pitch black! So, I always build scenes like these on the existing ambient and then add my own light to fill in the blanks.

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Final exposure with flash added and ambient exposed for the porchlight

In the setup shot above, you can see exactly how I created the light for the final portrait. The large umbrella on the left is just behind the camera and is creating the fill light for the entire scene. It’s gelled blue in order to evoke the feeling of evening, but it keeps all of the shadows from going completely dark. The umbrella on the right is the main light, gelled warm and coming in from an oblique angle to create a good deal of shadow to keep things interesting.

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Another version with no fill light

The photo above was shot without the on-axis fill light turned on. You can see how the shadows become much darker. Having this photo actually enabled me to fix another problem, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t delete photos during any session. Check out the shot below:

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On-axis fill is a bummer with windows

If you look closely, you’ll notice this is the exact same photo as the final photo. So what about that pesky reflection? Well, in the photo where I didn’t have the fill light, there is no reflection in the glass. Therefore, it was easy to overlap the two in Photoshop and create a mask to essentially paint the reflection out! Could I have created this photo without Photoshop? Of course, but I would have had to move my fill light elsewhere in order to keep it from showing up in the window. Moving the fill light is not always ideal, and in this case, it was very easy to use my non-filled photo to fix the other one.

As you can see, the lighting is huge in creating the mood of this photo, but other things help as well. One that you can’t always control (but worked well in this case) is time of year. The dead leaves and plants (as well as my sweater) help the viewer to subconsciously acknowledge that it’s autumn and, along with the bluish fill light, you can almost sense the crispness in the air. I’ve propped myself in a comfortable position and I’m holding a beer: relaxation, calm. My gaze is off into the distance: again, serenity and calm, but maybe a little mystery. What am I looking at? Am I just thinking and staring off into space?

Although not as noticeable in this particular photo, you want to think about focal length. Do you want a compressed view? A wide, sweeping view? A normal view? In this case, I used a 35mm lens (50mm equivalent on a 35mm camera) which creates a normal field of view. Everything feels proportionate, which is exactly what I wanted.

Think about how all of these things help when you go out on a paying shoot. Attention to detail, knowledge of lighting, creative vision, familiarity with your own gear. Self-portraits are not a replacement for working with other people, so it’s important to do that as well; however, they are a great way to keep your skills sharp and to work out new ideas.

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HIWS: Portrait of Brian Betz

Brian B&W
Nikon D200, Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 @ 70mm, ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec.

My friend Brian (a Philadelphia-based jazz guitarist) has been on my case for a while now to take his new press photos. He was telling me how much he liked my work and that he’d want to get some new stuff going for his website and promo materials. So when I finally had some time to get up to New Jersey, I made it a point to set aside some time to do a session with him. That being said, we didn’t have a ton of time and he didn’t want anything too involved anyway.

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On a Budget: Lenses

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My current lens lineup (left to right): Nikon 135 2.8, Tokina 11-16 2.8, Nikon 35 1.8 DX, Nikon 180 2.8, Nikon 105 2.5, Nikon 75-300 4.5-5.6, Nikon 60 2.8 Micro (Nikon 18-70 not pictured because it took the picture!)

If you’re into photography, chances are you know how expensive it can get to purchase gear. In the spirit of sharing, I thought I’d throw together a handful of posts that could help the budget-conscious photographer get some great gear.

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HIWS: Taming the Sun with Speedlights

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Nikon D200, 60mm 2.8 AF Micro, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/250 sec.

Shooting in broad daylight can be really scary at first. Hundreds of beginner portrait photography tutorials will advise you to shoot only during golden hour, or to hope for a cloudy day with soft, diffused light. Others will tell you to look for open shade, or just stay inside and find a north or south facing window. These are all valid suggestions (and worth checking out) but I’ve learned that you don’t have to be afraid of the sun. Golden hour sun can be amazing and I love to use it, but you don’t always have that luxury.

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HIWS: Portable Off-Camera Flash

Curly, King Street
Nikon D200, Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 Pro DX II @ 16mm. ISO 200, f/8, 1/250 sec.

For almost a year, I’ve been experimenting with a technique I learned through David Hobby’s Strobist blog. It’s essentially a speedlight attached to the end of a monopod, so that you can achieve mobile off-camera flash. Holding your camera in one hand, you can then position the speedlight with your other hand. In his blog post, Hobby triggered his flash through a modified TTL cord, but I’ve been using either the pop-up speedlight to trigger the optical slave of the SB-26, or a radio trigger. Radio triggers are a little more cumbersome and require bungee-cording the trigger to the monopod to keep it from flying around. The optical slave is a much easier setup, but can be unreliable in certain shooting conditions (more on that later).

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HIWS: Website Self-Portrait

Jon Barnes Self-Portrait
Nikon D200, 35mm 1.8 AF-S DX, ISO 160, f/8, 1/250 sec.
I’ve been working on a professional website for the business end of my photography for a month or so now. Creating and editing my portfolio has been the hardest part of the process and I’m certainly not done. One of the other things that has been lacking on the site is a picture of myself for the about page. I’ve been thinking about what I’d want that to be for a while now. Nothing I had previously shot quite fit the bill.

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