Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tips for better self portraits

January, I participated in a photo challenge over at photochallenge.org. The challenge was to capture a self portrait for every day of the month of January. As time went on I learned a lot of things that I thought I would share. Of course it is not the first time I have done self portraits.

Equipment:

While any camera will do for taking self portraits, using a DSLR gives you the most flexibility. I will talk more about lens choice as part of the regular discussion.

Pick up a tripod. Nearly any tripod will do so I won’t go into much detail here.

Pick up a wireless remote; if you are using a Nikon or Canon camera there are remotes available for the less expensive DSLR that cost about $20. These things are a real time saver and make it easier to fine tune your self portrait.

Shoot tethered, most cameras have a mini video out. I borrowed my son’s DVD player (the one he watches movies in the car with) on multiple occasions. This is where the remote comes in great; you can fine tune the composition by watching that little monitor, without having to move and then find your place again. If you have a newer DSLR with an HD out then you could hook up your laptop.


Example setup for a photo done in my garage.

Lighting, a single flash can do wonders for your portraits. I won’t go into any lighting details (I will save that for a different day), but photography is about capturing light. You don’t need to buy a flash, I first started learning lighting using work lights. You can pick up a small but powerful work light from home depot for around ~$15.

Coming up with ideas:

I all ready talked about gear, time to talk about technique. I think where most people get stuck on self portraits is the coming up with ideas (I know I struggled here). What really got me going was thinking about what I have and how I could use it in a photo. Now I am not just talking about props, but I am talking about features also. One of my prominent features is my bald head. So could I work that to my advantage?



Another (as regularly stated by my wife) is my lack of short term memory, so a theme showing my powerful mental capabilities.



Just thinking about the things I like to do, inspired all sorts of photo themes. In fact when I sat down and listed items, I quickly had more self portrait ideas than I had days to do them in.

Environment, sometimes my environment inspired the image. For instance one night of January was extremely foggy.



During the month of January my wife was very pregnant (more environment).



Creating a theme:

Two items make a photo, the subject and backdrop, and I think that they are equally important. This is where your lens choice comes into play. A long lens (large focal length) allows you to send the back ground out of focus and narrow down the amount of background in the photo. A short lens (small focal length) keeps the background in focus and allows it to be a key part of the image. Other times you just want to keep the background plain so all the focus goes to the subject. The background is still playing a big factor by not distracting from the subject.



Dress the part. In fact the clothing was a big part of my inspiration for any particular image, so you could say it was what set the theme and I just had to act the part. Two simple articles of clothing I used included an old brimmed hat and my leather work gloves. Though the items were small and pretty common, I think they created a big impact.



The examples of the work gloves and hat are just examples of items I had. Maybe you have a robe, or an axe, a ninja sword, whatever just go use it.



Portray emotion:

Want your photos to look boring, well then act bored. The facial expressions you make are huge in setting the tone of the photo. This is where having a tethered setup can really help. Aim for over the top, I mean really go crazy. The more emotion you show the better the photo will turn out.



If you are trying to act angry, then clench those muscles and yell. If you want to look like you are happy then laugh out loud.



Look at your photos:

When you are done look through the photos and see what worked and what didn’t. Make notes about what you liked and didn’t like. Enjoy looking though the photos. If you do it right your going to love it!

19 comments:

skye said...

Great tips, Nathan, and made even more clear by the examples you included. Amazing how one person can look so different in each shot.

D said...

This is a good blog post, with great examples. Thanks for sharing.

*janina* said...

all of the pictures are absolutely sterile, and the one with the foggy environment.. well, if you are so obsessed with preparations, you should not forget such details as feet.

just to let you know that the fact that you put together some text about selfportraiture does not mean that what you do is perfect...

tpanfil said...

great post, interesting ideas.

Mark said...

Nice write-up, I found your post via Flickr and am working on a similar article. Doing self-portraits is fantastic for learning, you experience being a model and photographer, art director, designer, production manager, post-processing, etc.

Jeremy said...

Very nice - I love the foggy sp... awesome mood.

Nathan Marx said...

Thanks for the comments, *sigh* I guess you can't please everyone. I don't profess to be best at anything, just wanted to share...

Thanks for the great input!

Anonymous said...

@janina, Wow what a snotty respone. Sorry about your social issues. I don't recall the poster claiming to be a flawless master of time space and dimension. Sheesh. I can't even begin to imagine why you would want to try to slam someone for trying to help people out. I hope you can forgive me for for my agressive reply, but I do not like to see such gross injustice in the world. I find it quite disturbing. And yeah, I am posting annonymous, because god knows what kind of venom you would spew on my site for calling you on your lack of social graces.

Chica said...

Great tips. I only know how to take decent shots of my face. I haven't ever attempted to take something that could qualify as a self portrait, and be as expressive as what you've accomplished with your photos.

The Bike helmet photo is hilarious, if it wasn't meant to be sorry, but it made me laugh. Good job! :)

Anonymous said...

I, in fact, like the concept of the self-portrait and appreciate the time it took you to put together a nice post about it. (Sorry, Janina, you're just wrong on this one)

I do think, however, your voice of expertise would be taken more seriously if you weren't on Blogger/blogspot.

Alan said...

Great post! Informative and entertaining!

jqvintage.com said...

Nathan, great post and really cool ideas!! Question: regarding the 1st and last photo in this post...was that against a black backdrop? also, how did you position the light, if any?

Nathan Marx said...

Easy answer since both photos are lit the same with the same backdrop...

The lighting is two shoot through umbrellas on each side of me slightly behind, then a bare strobe was lighting me from above.

As for the back drop, I shot these photos in my basement, using a telephoto lens pointed at the hallway directly behind me (the model). The strobe light didn't make it down the hall so it went black (thought the walls are near white).

Cheers!

Lena said...

Thank you for the great tips!
I find your help very valuable!
:)

venetiakelley said...

Thank you for your tips & photos.

gate valves said...

i really like the photo where fog came out as you breath., with the light on the back., its really amazing. i think ur using a full frame camera.a canon mark 2 perhaps?

Karina said...

Awesome article on SP. You inspired me today. Thanks!!
ps: I'm going to put your link on my Daily photo for today.

Bernie said...

Great article Nathan. Found it on flickr.

I used to think of self portraits as being self indulgent. Then I needed a model and there wasn't one around...

Since then I've had a lot of fun shooting self portraits. It is a very good way to hone your skills.

Anonymous said...

Who are you thinking of in the "mad" photo