Week 1: Self Portrait

So the challenge has begun, and so far I am 1 for 1. I’ve gotten the first shot of my 52 week photography challenge under my belt. And I killed a few other bird in the process.

This week’s challenge was “Self Portrait”. Frankly, most photographers pick up a camera so that they can stay behind it, but self portraits are beneficial for a number of reasons. One, they let you shoot people, even when there are no people around. So when you are testing a new setup, or lens, or light or whatever, you can work out some of the kinks before you involve a model or a client. Two, they give you some sense of what your models have to go through. The next time you say “chin down”, or “angle your shoulders”, or “smile with your eyes”, you may have a little more empathy for them, and a little more clarity in your instructions. Three, it provides you with a new profile picture for social media. At least it will for me.

I had hoped to use this exercise as a chance to practice a few other things, too. Specifically, I had intended to take a picture outside, around sunset, with the goal of getting better at matching my flash settings with the ambient light. However, temperatures at sunset this week have been around 24 degrees with a wind chill factor of “get inside NOW”. So inside I came.

I opted for a fairly straightforward headshot. Time was somewhat limited, but I knew that if I kept it simple enough I could achieve this week’s goal. So that meant nothing too complicated or artsy. Thinking of it in practical terms, this would be the rough equivalent of doing a quick headshot in someone’s office and getting out of their way.  In my case, I wasn’t in an office, but in my living room. My whole set up took about 60 square feet. You can see the arrangement in the picture above.

I also wanted a shot that was a little, um, “lighter” than the last headshot I took. It was a little dark and brooding. It was the result of something I toyed with after seeing a YouTube video on single light portraits, using a Rogue Flashbender right over my forehead and a reflector for a little light in the eyes.

So today, everything went lighter. In the name of simplicity, I used basic “clamshell” lighting with a 38-inch Glow Parapop softbox on axis with the camera angled down at the subject, and a 32-inch Rogue Super Soft Silver reflector bouncing up from the bottom. I like this reflector because it offers a little more “pop” than a white reflector, yet it avoids the overly harsh look that silver reflectors sometimes create. It’s a nice middle ground.

They tell me that this lighting style flatters nearly any face. In this case, we were working with my face, and so there is only so much any kind of lighting will do. But I think the idea is that by keeping the lighting even, rather than from one side or the other, wrinkles and other “imperfections” are diminished. Frankly, I like seeing a face with character. That’s a nice word for “wrinkles and imperfections”, but with today’s goals in mind (easy, simple, headshot) this setup worked fairly well, I think.

I used a second speedlight to wash some light on the white backdrop. In the shot above, you can see it immediately behind the stool in a reflector. I added the reflector to broaden the flash, experimenting with a completely white background. In the end, though, I preferred the look of a lighter grey background. Is it just me, or is the trend of those hyperwhite backgrounds finally going away?

OK, then, with my camera set at it’s max sync speed of 250 (to kill the ambient light) and my aperture at F2.2 (to create a fairly narrow depth of field) I used a grey card to adjust my flashes for proper exposure. Then all I had to do was sit down and hit my remote. Almost. First, I had to focus. Once that was set, it was simply a matter of putting myself in the right place and hitting the trigger.

52 Week Photography Challenge – Week 1: Self Portrait

Challenges and things to continue working on: Focus can be an issue with self portraits. I find that putting a light stand, or leaning a broom against the front of the stool lets me set my focus then forget it. I use manual focus to be sure that I don’t accidentally change focus when checking pictures, etc.

I want to get better at processing my images; both portraits and landscapes. This one didn’t really require much. I corrected the white balance, using the grey card. Added an almost imperceptible amount of dodging to the eyes (to lighten them) and boosted the contrast a bit (because I like some character).

Raising the reflector would have filled in the shadows under the chin, and cheating it a little camera left would have helped with shadows on that side, but I prefer some shadow. If I were shooting a real estate agent or someone who wanted a more brightly lit look, I could easily achieve that, I think, with a little tweaking or a hair/rim light.

Oops… I just noticed that part of this weeks challenge was to “Explore the self timer setting on your camera.” I guess that was a fail.

The takeaway: It was fun to shoot, even if it is difficult to shoot (and share) pictures of myself. I was glad to have an excuse to get my camera and gear out.

Next up: I’m using the original challenge list from Dogwood Photography. This week I need to shoot a traditional landscape. Hmm… Winter landscapes in South Carolina. Let’s see what we can find.

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