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.

Let’s break this down for a minute. If you are running your own business, you want to carefully think about what type of image you want to portray to your potential clients. There are as many business images as there are types of business, so you’ll want to tailor this to your specific field. Even in photography, there are different images you might want to portray. If you’re a fine art photographer, that might be a much different image than if you are a commercial photographer.

As a portrait photographer looking to do headshots, environmental portraiture, and family portraits, I wanted to create an image that felt approachable and easygoing. I want potential clients to feel like they can trust me and have fun working with me. Translating that to an actual portrait of myself meant casual clothes, an easygoing expression, and simple open lighting.

Taking a self-portrait is always a challenge. From setting the focus to getting a genuine expression, it’s a great way to push yourself as a photographer.  It’s also a fantastic way to practice new lighting techniques; however, I was keeping the light pretty straightforward in this shot. Let’s take a look at it, shall we?

The setup shot.
The setup shot above shows my makeshift basement studio, with both lights used in the
shot. The key light is a speedlight firing into a 60″ reflective umbrella and the rim is another speedlight with a snoot, 1/2 CTO, and an ND gel. This is the flash exposure with the ambient all but killed (see the ambient-only exposure below, right). That ceiling light is not contributing anything to the exposure other than revealing itself in this pulled-back shot. It’s not powerful enough to contribute in the final _DSC9418image. How do you do this? Set your ISO low, max your shutter’s sync speed, and pick a middle-of-the-road aperture. Why not just turn the light off? I could have, but leaving it on allowed my pupils to appear smaller (hence making the irises appear larger) in the final shot. It’s not super noticeable, but it makes a big difference when shooting tighter headshots. It’s also helpful to have some room lights on when photographing other people because it allows you to focus easier.

_DSC9376In order to get the focus on myself, I used a lightstand in my place and focused on it. Then I marked the spot on the floor with a sticky note (fancy, I know). Once I had my “spot” I could work on getting a good exposure with my key light. I shot the picture of my hand and then consulted my in-camera histogram to get a good exposure. Knowing that the 60″ umbrella sucks a ton of light, I had the key light set at 1/2 power. My initial settings were ISO 100 and f/8, which was just a tad underexposed. Instead of upping the flash power (which was already pretty high), I bumped the ISO up 2/3 of a stop to 160. I could have achieved the same exposure by opening up my aperture to f/6.3, but I wanted as much depth of field as I could get. This is crucial when doing a self-portrait because you want room for error with the focusing.

Using a hand as a light meter.
The position of the key light was fairly simple: just off to camera left, a bit high. A 5-foot umbrella is pretty darn big so you can’t really go wrong. Moving it closer to the camera’s axis makes the light more open on the face, moving it the opposite direction (more to my side) makes it less open. I had it somewhere in the middle. Not quite Rembrandt, more like loop lighting.


I did a number of shots with just the key light. I liked the simplicity of it but decided to add another dimension with a warm rim light. The snoot is important because it keeps the light off of the background, and it keeps the light from flaring into the lens. If you look at the original setup shot above, you can see a tiny bit of the light hitting the backdrop. It would be much worse if I hadn’t used the snoot!

1/2 CTO and ND gels.
As for gels, I used two. The 1/2 CTO is for color. I originally tried a full CTO but it was too much warmth. This is really something you just experiment with. I could have gone 1/4 CTO for an even more subtle warmth. I had to use a neutral density gel to lower the effective power of my flash. I had that thing turned as low as it goes (1/64 power) and it was still too powerful. Looking at the photo, I could have actually knocked it back a bit more. The Rosco N.15, which I used, takes off a 1/2 stop of light. They also make versions that reduce the light by 1, 2, and 3 stops.

Let’s talk briefly about the backdrop. It’s a Westcott X-Drop 5×7 white cloth backdrop on a very portable frame. Because I wasn’t looking for a pure white background, it was pretty easy to light. Essentially, it was being lit by my key light. Because the backdrop was farther away from me (the subject), it was not getting a full exposure, so it went to gray.

You can then get various shades of gray depending on how far you place the key light. Move the key light closer, the backdrop gets darker; move it farther away, the backdrop gets brighter. Seems counterintuitive, but it’s because of the property of light falloff. If you move the light closer, you have to power it down so that you don’t overexpose your subject. It then falls off faster than it would if you had it farther away. The opposite then holds true for moving the light farther away: power it up to keep the exposure consistent on the subject and, because it’s farther away, the falloff is less pronounced.

If you’d like to see how I used the photo on my website, you can click here. I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out, although I may do a bit more work on the background to even out some of those tones. I realized that my office chair was actually blocking some of the key light from reaching the lower left corner of the backdrop!

Whether you decide to create your own portrait or hire someone to do it for you, keep in mind that you want to project a clear image to your clients. Do you want to be portrayed as trustworthy? Fun and outgoing? Serious and brooding? Knowledgable? Confident? These can all be portrayed through a judicious use of lighting, posing, and backgrounds. Let me know your thoughts in the comments and feel free to share your portrait with us!


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