I turned 60 a few days ago and thought it might be as good a time as any to take a commemorative self-portrait. In these days of handheld devices with built-in cameras, not to mention actual pocket cameras, taking a self-portrait is no harder than pointing a lens in your general direction and pushing a button. Producing a good self-portrait is another matter entirely. That's what I was shooting for. Here's how I did it.
- I set up a backdrop of white background paper, the type that comes in rolls 52-inches wide. Although I have other backdrops, they are fairly dark and I would have had to light them separately. I wanted to use only one light, so I went with white paper.
- I placed a 36 x 48-inch softbox on a light stand and positioned the softbox so that it would be horizontal rather than vertical. That way some of the light could spill onto the background and evenly illuminate it. I controlled the brightness of the background by moving the light just far enough to create a medium gray. (If you don't have access to studio lights and backdrops, you can get a similar effect by positioning yourself next to a north-facing window, which is what I was trying to simulate with studio lighting.)
- I positioned myself on a chair placed roughly two feet away from the softbox. The softbox was angled approximately 45 degrees relative to the background and my face. I could control the positioning of the highlights and shadows by turning my face and body relative to the light source.
- I placed the camera on a tripod, pointed at where I would be sitting and set the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to produce a correct exposure. I knew from experience that this would be approximately 1/125 second at f/11 and ISO 100.
- Here comes the tricky part: I had to frame and focus. That's not easy if you're the photographer and the subject. I prefer to focus first, then frame.
You might think that to focus all you'd have to do is set the self-timer, press the shutter button, sit down and wait for the shutter to click. The problem is that the camera will attempt to autofocus as soon as you press the shutter or AF button, and since you aren't where you need to be when you do this, the focus will be off. This means you will either need to a) pre-focus using someone or something in your place; or b) use an electronic release with a 10-feet (3 meter) cable. I used the pre-focus approach with my manual lenses and the electronic release with my AF lenses because it has the same two-step focus and release action as the shutter button.
- Once the image was in focus, I used trial-and-error to adjust the framing. "Loose" framing is better if you have enough room to do so, because it's faster and more convenient to crop later. Those of you who have cameras with a hinged LED display on the back might be able to use that for framing, though many aren't that flexible.
Once everything is set up to your liking, it becomes a matter of taking a few dozen pictures with various poses until you come up with a few you like. Unless you've been blessed with extraordinary handsomeness and beauty, this is not something to take for granted. It can be horrifying to see how you look in a photograph, even one you took yourself. This experience can deepen your empathy for your subjects, if nothing else.
It helps to smile rather than scowl. It's also helps to wear subdued clothing. Busy patterns and loud colors are a distraction.
If you're shooting RAW, the final step is tweak the sliders and click the buttons in your software of choice until you get the color and tone you're looking for. Judicious tonal adjustments can make the difference between a strong portrait and a mug shot. I can all but guarantee you that if you master the skill of self-portraiture you'll find producing flattering portraits of someone else a breeze.