Self-portraits, unlike selfies, are not always easy to make. They are not a cry for attention or a showcase of your physical beauty. Self-portraits are a learning curve and experimental field for the photographer who is willing to bare his soul in front of his own lens, like Van Gogh and Rembrandt did before for their paintings.
When I bought my first DSLR, I never thought I would end up working as a photographer someday. At the start, I wanted to figure out what I liked to photograph, and it turned out to be people. I photographed the streets of my capital city in Mauritius, only to realise I wanted to make people pose as well. I wanted to be creative. However, I was still a student and I did not have a dime to spend on hiring models from local agencies. And quite possibly, I wouldn’t have had a clue about directing a model. So I resolved to use the only model I could think about: myself.
I should say while it was the best idea back then, it was and is still a gruesome process because I simply disliked being in front of the camera and taking a bad photo of myself. You know how the saying goes: “we are our worst critics; we either judge too harshly or not enough.” I guess many photographers at first disliked the idea of photographing themselves, but sometimes, the process can be a revealing and enriching one.
Using Yourself as a Model
The reason I used myself as a model was mainly because I had never worked with a model before. I did use a couple of friends to try my skills out and of course, it showed that I had no experience in directing a model or adjusting my light quickly. I needed to improve on that and so, I began experimenting at home. I did not have a nice enough room to photograph myself in. But I did have these red walls in my bedroom, which I could use as backdrop.
The first thing I had to figure out was how to get the perfect focus when I was not pressing the button. I chose to focus manually, using a teddy bear (the little sisters!) as dummy. Having a fixed focus like that limited my movements. But in hindsight, it made me learn to try out different poses and expressions while standing on the same spot.
Learning More About Photography & Creative Direction Through Self-Portraits
When being confined to one spot, the other good thing is that I had better control over my light. However, many times when trying different poses, the light may need to be adjusted. In those days, when shooting in my bedroom, I did not have access to an abundant amount of natural light as I would shoot at night. So I had recourse to the only flash I had back then: my built-in flash. I’d always shoot my portraits with a Nikon 35mm 1.8G and I’d shoot myself from the bust to the head. So you can guess that I needed to be quite close to the camera for such a framing (my camera had a crop sensor on top of that). My problem then was that my flash was way too intense even when decreased to the minimum. I read about diffusers but I had none with me when I started. I did with what I had at hand. Turns out a thin white page can actually work well to diffuse the light from the built-in flash.
After that, controlling my light became easier. It made me realise that as a model, I needed to know where my light source is coming from, and to pose accordingly. But then, as a photographer, I also learned that I needed to understand the structure of a model’s face to better light it. A source of light placed above the model’s head will help fill in dark circles under the eyes, but placed lower, the light will only deepen the hollow space. Small things, but it does make a difference when you are on a shoot with a middle-aged model for example. Therefore, self-portraits led me to have a better grasp of my light, but also led me to better guide my models into posing towards the light direction and making use of it to be creative.
Better Understanding What Your Model Goes Through
On a regular basis, I hear photographers asking their model to do this or that pose, and perhaps like often on my shooting locations, there is big bright light shining in their eyes (reflectors, anyone?). But as photographers, we may not understand what it is like for a model when we are behind the camera. We issue suggestions but what we suggest may not feel natural for the model. And the unease is something we absolutely do not want to see in our photos.
So that’s where self-portraits can play an important role in empathising with your model or client’s unease. They will help you ease this person into the shoot with tailor-made advice, which will make them understand what you are actually looking for. Try telling your subject why you want them to raise their chin up (to give more attitude) or why they should curve their elbows when sitting and posing (to create more angles and appear less rigid). Knowing what to do also means that you know what does not work.
I work a lot on creating portfolios and comp card material for new models at local agencies, and very often, their shoot with me is their first real interaction with a camera on a proper shoot. So I try to be the most patient person I can be on those shoots so that my models can learn without feeling like everything they do is bad or not worth it. My models’ self-confidence matters a lot to me as do my opinion about myself as a model for my self-portraits. Thanks to my numerous trials during a self-portrait session, I’ve learned how giving concise directions and explaining in a few words why I want this pose or that expression, can help make a shoot go smoother.
Using Self-Portraits as a Creative Outlet
Making self-portraits was for me a way of letting steam off in between law classes. I was not looking to create conceptual portraits. I just needed to be unlike my usual self, and putting on makeup and dressing differently aided in the transformation. I had a room with red walls, while others had a studio or forest where they could carry out their self-portraits. Using the locations at your disposal to make some ideas come to life, can lead to a very creative self-portrait session. And testing out new techniques with self-portraits can make you grow more confident and efficient when you want to use those new techniques on a shoot with other models.
Experimenting so much with self-portraits has led many photographers to realising how self-portraits have further their photography but also how the art of self-portraiture has become the real type of photography they want to do. Photographers like Joel Robinson or Alex Stoddard are known today for the conceptual and fine art self-portraits they have created over time. It is always impressive to take a look at the body of work those photographers possess nowadays. Those who have followed Joel or Alex on Flickr, can attest to the evolution in their self-portraits and photography in general since the first photo they posted. For a long time, I followed Alex Stoddard on Flickr and he had this 365-project going on. I was captivated with how much effort he put into his project and with how far he would go to do a self-portrait correctly (I recall one self-portrait where he had his whole body wrapped in duct tape!). I can only guess dedication, patience and hard work can help produce amazing creative self-portraits if you have the will to do it. You only need some commitment.
And just in case you still do not value the art of self-portraits as a way to further your photography, take a look at Rosie Hardy’s work. The young photographer was hired by the band Maroon 5 to recreate an old self-portrait she had done, for it to be used on the cover of their album “Hands All Over.” That self-portrait was a phenomenal success that opened Rosie Hardy’s career to a higher level.
Share your creative self-portraits and let me know how they have helped in making you a better photographer.
All images used with the permission of their respective owners.