If you asked me what I specialize in, I’d say self-portraiture.
It’s not a common specialty, to be sure. It’s just that throughout my journey in photography, I’ve been in college or working full-time as an engineer and other subjects were seldom available to me.
The major advantage of self-portraiture, of course, is having an ever-present subject, but there are other pluses, too, like near-total flexibility when it comes to timing. And you can always scrap the shoot and resume when you’re in a better frame of mind. And your subject is actually motivated to hang in while you test a lighting setup or try a new technique. And when you spot a perfect location, there you are.
It’s always been easier for me to try to ignore my deepest emotions than to face them. Self-portraiture, it turns out, would be kind of a blessing in that department. The first time I took an emotional self-portrait, I was a college senior and struggling with almost every aspect of life. I worried about choosing a focus for graduate school, and worse, worried about getting in at all; at the end of a toxic relationship my self-confidence was destroyed.
I came across a wonderful quote about new beginnings, and I decided to copy it by hand and take a self portrait to go with it. I set the finished work aside as I studied for finals. When I later came upon the photograph, I recalled the fulfillment I’d felt taking it. I’d managed to capture my state of mind perfectly: uncertainty, melancholy, and an underlying current of hope that I could turn things around. The act of taking the photograph had helped me to begin dealing with my difficult emotions.
I have experienced that transformation many times since, deliberately turning to self-portraiture whenever I was feeling particularly emotional, whether happy or sad. I also observed my self-confidence growing. I began to learn what angles and poses were my most flattering, and I did my hair and makeup on the days I took out my camera. Pulling up the photos on my laptop, I’d be a little surprised, not only that I had taken the photo, but also that the subject was not unattractive. Such a confidence boost.
I love that if you line up my self-portraits in chronological order, you’ll see a fairly reasonable picture of my life. You might not know the causes behind my highs and lows, but you’ll recognize them.
I’m trying daring new things these days. It used to make me uncomfortable to have people watching me work, but now I’ll stop on the sidewalk of well-traveled streets for the setting. I’m getting the image I want, so who cares what other people think!
Staging a one-woman show
In making self-portraits, it is the emotional healing and self-confidence building I find most valuable. That’s why I encourage others to try doing it, and why I share the techniques I’ve learned.
1. Use a remote and tripod.
Make life easier for yourself and get a remote trigger and a tripod. It would be fine to prop your camera on a stack of books and use the camera’s self-timer, but let’s talk about maximum flexibility. A remote saves you back-and-forth trips between the set and the camera. With fancy remotes, you can even program the number of exposures per click and the time lapse between shots — so useful if you want to capture motion in your self-portrait.
Besides the stability, using a tripod allows you to change your composition easily and quickly, and gives you flat out more options. Outdoors, you rarely find a suitable substitute for a tripod.
2. Test the light.
When you’re working out the lighting for your image, grab a mirror. Hold it up to your face so that it blocks your view of the camera and note where the light falls as you turn your head. When you’ve found an angle of light that’s most flattering or fits the mood you want, carefully lay aside or conceal the mirror without moving your head. Mirrors can also aid you composing too, especially when you’re using dramatic shadows for framing.
3. Stay focused.
In focusing a self-portrait, literally mark your place so you can return to the exact same spot; I always manually focus, so no relying on the camera to correct the focus if I drift. I mark my place with my remote or chalk or tape. There are several aids I can use in setting my focus, including a stand-in, such as a child, or an environmental element like a position mark or a tree in the same focal plane as the subject to come.
My absolute favorite is reverse focusing. Decide where you’ll position yourself, set up the tripod and camera for the desired composition, then dismount your camera and take it to your mark. Now point the camera at the tripod and focus on the top. Re-mount the camera and return to your mark. Click a test shot and check the shot on the camera screen. Zoom into the frame to see what tweaks are needed and make them. Repeat.
4. Location, location, location.
Location is one of the easiest ways to get variety in self-portraiture — you don’t want to get bored with your one subject! I’m constantly looking for new locations. I often take along my tripod on my trips to beautiful places.
5. All in the details.
Other ways to add variety are posing, expression, clothing, exposure, composition, angle, lighting and post-processing. If you intend to use a series to tell a story or deliver a message or mood, make sure you can tie them together cohesively.