The Importance of Self Portraits [Portrait]

One of the important things to keep in mind when working on lighting is the subject matter.  It's great to know how to light an action figure or even a mannequin but the reality is that with portraiture, you have a subject that's fairly unique.  Each person that gets in front of your camera should feel comfortable knowing that you have a good grasp on lighting a portrait.  

So here's the catch 22:  How do you demonstrate this?  If you can't get people in front of the lens you won't be able to work on the lighting which means you can't demonstrate to others that you are capable. 

Good friends are fantastic if they have the patience to work with you while you tweak and fiddle with the light, but ultimately you may find yourself (as I do) doing self portraits to try out new lighting techniques.  


To do self portraits you'll need to get yourself a remote trigger for the camera of some kind, be it a cheap wireless remote trigger or a full blown cable release (this limits your distance to the camera though). The process is actually simple: take a photo, check the image, make an adjustment, take another frame.  This can get tedious, so you have to have patience yourself.  Shooting self portraits is challenging, but by focusing on one element of the photo at a time, you can really start to put together something cool.  


The framing is my first step.  It can take a few minutes to get down, but having a stool or something to sit on that you can use as a starting point really helps.  I usually get the focus in the ball park at this point, but while framing it's not critical.

When the framing is down, I decide on how I want to light.  Will I use big light, small light, one light, two lights?  For me this is usually decided early on, as I would typically be testing a new light modifier or working on a new setup for a particular application.  Sometimes I'll try something and it won't work at all.  I then begin the exercise of adjusting it until it does.

The two photos above were shot with the same light modifier, but the second photo uses a reflector to the left of the frame and the softbox has a grid on it to control spill.  The grid also adds definition to the face, so I look a bit more weathered. It took some time to get the placement right for each of these images.

For example, in the photo below, I was trying a light setup with the main light high and pointed straight down, with three reflectors arranged to form a box. There's loads of fill light in this setup and it's great for a business headshot type of portrait.  


I'll sometimes get creative with lighting to make a fast fall off, or feather the softbox to create moody and dramatic shadows.  In the portrait below I was working on exactly that, with a grey backdrop.


And finally, for the lighting side, I will sometimes attempt to emulate lighting by the great masters, such as Yousef Karsh.  I still don't think I got the lighting right in this next photo, but I was attempting to do the harsh shadowed look that is so prevalent in Karsh's work.  I have a pretty edgy face, so getting the correct look with harsh shadows was a real challenge.


Once I have the lighting close, I begin to work on the focus, and the expression.  The camera is not focusing for each photo.  If I'm shooting at f/11, everything will be in focus, and in reality I'm not too concerned about nailing it.  If, however my goal is to shoot the portrait at f/2.8 or even f/1.8, I have to set the focus as closely as I can, running back and forth correcting it until it's very close.  I then bracket my shot; shoot, lean forward a bit, shoot, lean forward a bit more, shoot.

This is probably the most tedious part.  The results are worth it though, and if you spend the time working on light, focus and expression you can get a really cool portrait no matter where you are, be it a studio or against a blank wall in your home (like the two photos below).



Don't forget about the expression!

Now I have some photos that show people that I can use a light.  I didn't have to bore my friends either!

One final point to all this:  If you're like me and you will drag your significant other in front of the camera all the time, they will tire of it.  Self portraits are a way to keep them happy by not being in front of the camera, and by having some portraits of you for their desk at work.  Keep it simple: "Happy wife, Happy life".

Cheers!