Hi! Sorry I’m late everyone, but still within week six! It’s the week that everyone dreads, no matter which photographic community is offering this challenge. Don’t worry. It doesn’t have to be scary. You don’t even have to show your face if you don’t want to!
First, it is important to clear up a couple of pervasive misconceptions about self portraits. Self portraits are a long standing art form, going back to the 1400s with painter Jan van Eyck. Taking self portraits does not mean that you are vain, that you are seeking attention, or that you are narcissistic.
The second is to make the distinction between self portrait and selfie. To be clear, there’s really nothing wrong with selfies, and I firmly believe they have a place in photography. However, for this week, we are going to focus specifically on self-portraits.
What’s the difference? It is a generally well regarded principle that selfies are taken with a phone and an outstretched arm of yourself (and perhaps others crammed in the frame as well). I personally lump photos taken from a GoPro into this category, and also point and shoot cameras as well. I have several photos from my teenage years done on film point and shoots that I would definitely categorize as selfies (they all had a companion of some sort in the image, and they were horribly out of focus and probably used on board flash also; and I love them for the memories).
A self portrait, by contrast, is done with a real, proper camera, and often is done with some sort of planning or forethought, although this is not a strict rule. Vivian Maier is well known for her street self portraits taken as reflections in windows and mirrors. I also include shadow play self portraits here as well, even if they are spur of the moment; when using a real camera the intent is much more deliberate than when using something in an outstretched hand.
That out of the way, why would someone want to take a self portrait? Last year I set out to do a monthly self-portrait project, which morphed into a weekly project, until I abandoned it for various reasons in September. Still, the project was very worthwhile to me and it pushed me in unexpected ways creatively, especially when I sat down to consider why I had started the project in the first place.
Here are some of my own personal reasons:
- To push myself creatively, shooting in a manner that is difficult on a technical and artistic basis; posing and focus (particularly with manual focus lenses) are much more difficult on oneself than when directing others
- To show my children that I am worthy of value for something more than just being a mom, a chauffeur, a person who reminds them to clean their rooms and do their homework.
- To write my own narrative in the world; my life is my own story to be told, not what the world tells me it should be
- To show the photography world that there is more to the female form than scantily clad twenty-somethings in whacked out lighting all in the name of “art”
- To own my own middle age, rebelling against the Hollywood image of botox and unnecessary plastic surgery. I might be more stretched out than I was 20 years ago, but I am real and human and worthy all the same
- To confront my own fears about aging
- To set a positive role model for my teenage daughter, and also have open dialogues with her on how to approach my photos
Interestingly, I have found this project requires thick skin, as some people will have no qualms about critiquing a self portrait in a way they would never think to comment on an image taken of someone else; when you take self portraits, you’ll often get a lot more body-negative comments from people who don’t understand the genre and just want to drag you down. Don’t listen to those.
For those of you with children, and who also happen to be the primary photographer in the house, I am doubly convinced of the importance of taking your own self portrait now and again. As one who falls into this category, I was in very few photo taken by other people for years; but as someone with few photos of my own parents, I know when I am older or gone, my children will not look for my photos of flowers or light studies, but they will look for images of their father and me, to show their children and grandchildren; those family memories will be the most cherished, and as a parent, it’s very important to show up in photos occasionally and create a legacy for your descendants.
Self portraits are also a great way to study different lighting setups if you don’t have a model handy. I learned almost a lot about studio lighting just by playing around with softboxes and changing the angles of light to myself.
So, with the why out of the way, let’s approach the how a bit. Self portraits, more traditional ones taken on a tripod, require a bit of planning as focus is often very difficult. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in the journey of my own self portraits.
- If you have a camera that uses face or eye tracking, use that mode. Some camera brands will use AF when using the intervalometer or self-timer mode even if you don’t have a specific tracking mode; I was able to use this with my D700/D800 before I upgraded to mirrorless.
- If your camera has an intervalometer function, it makes it much easier to rattle off a series of images and check for focus after. I know Nikon and Fuji have this built in; I am not familiar with other camera brands.
- If your camera has no tracking or continuous AF mode, then find a balloon, a chair, or something that can approximate your body and prefocus, then set your lens to manual focus. Set your intervalometer or self timer, hop over to where your stand-in object is, move it out of the way, and let the camera do the work.
- If all else fails and you really can’t get focus to work at all, it is completely fine to determine your location and pose, dial in the settings on the camera, and then use a human-shutter-button-pusher. I used to do this when my kids were small (6-8 years old). They were old enough to understand they needed to be very careful of my equipment, but found it exciting to be able to push the shutter button for me while the camera was on a tripod. In this case, I would make sure to use set the focal point if you don’t have a tracking option on your camera, but leave the lens in AF, and when your helper pushes the shutter button you should get yourself in focus (if you use BBF, you may want to temporarily switch out of this mode, as non photographers often struggle with using two buttons at once).
With this lesson, I understand that many of you might not wish to publish your image on the internet. This is completely fine! There are a few ways to get around this if you wish to share publicly this week. I would really encourage you to take a simple, traditional, face forward photo this week just for yourself, even if you don’t want to post it. This week is about some introspection, and I fully respect everyone’s desire for privacy if you don’t want to share.
That said, there are a lot of other ways to take a self portrait that don’t include your face. You can set the camera up from behind you, you can use just a part of your body, or you can even take a purposely out of focus image, where perhaps you are in the background of a shallow depth of field type of image.
You can photograph yourself doing something where your face is obscured or out of the frame.
You can use reflections or shadow play.
And if you really, really, really cannot bring yourself to have any part of your body visible within the image, you can take an image of items that represent and are meaningful to you.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the validity of a true phone “selfie.” I don’t take a lot of these, but sometimes I wish I had taken more over the years; I have a few family ones from a couple of New Year’s Eves, family day trips, and some other random occasions. When my kids were small and I could pick them up, they loved being in photos with me. No, they aren’t museum, portfolio, or even Instagram worthy, but they are cherished memories from a time I can’t get back. These are special too.
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