Why I Take Self-Portraits: Part 1

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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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