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As long as art has existed, so too has the self-portrait. Van Gogh famously painted more than 30 self-portraits, using the available subject-of-self as both an outlet for his artistic talents, and as a method for perfecting his craft. Rembrandt, as perhaps the most prolific master of the self-portrait, painted, etched and drew more than 100 images of himself throughout his lifetime. One can even imagine the cavemen as having injected some degree of self into the prehistoric images painted on their cave walls.
But as rich in history as the self-portrait is, its categorization as a photographic ‘art’ is vulnerable due to the endless arms-length phone snaps, or ‘selfies’, now littering the internet. Lately, there has been a blurring of lines between the selfie and the self-portrait. As someone who has focused his own artistic energy toward self-portrait photography, I feel obligated to promote this art form, as self-portraiture provides value in terms of both the photos it produces, and the education if offers you as a new photographer.
For me, self-portraiture began as a way to develop my own portrait photography skills, without the need for a model. As you probably know, learning the principles of photography, and the strategies for creating and controlling light, is a time-consuming process. It involves a great deal of trial and error, and asking a model to pose patiently while you make mistake after mistake isn’t always ideal. But you, yourself, are an infinitely more willing subject. Hours pass, memory cards fill with lackluster images, yet you don’t complain. Alone, you’re able to relax and focus on the task at hand: learning to become a better photographer.
When enough solitary time passes, you’ll find that you begin to produce decent results. Soon, what began as a learning device morphs into a creative outlet. Self-portraiture is no longer an exercise to be performed in preparation for real photography; self-portraiture has become the real photography. Unlike selfies, your self-portraits are well conceived. The location, framing, lighting, depth of field and posing associated with the images are carefully planned. You work both sides of the camera with increasing efficiency, and the quality of your photography reflects the education received.
From that point forward, you don’t hesitate to jump into frame should the inclusion of a person improve your photograph. When you want to test a new piece of gear, fine-tune a new technique, or kill a boring Sunday afternoon by setting up your camera, you do so with absolute independence. When photographing other subjects, you borrow from the lessons learned through self-portraiture, and the result is stronger photography, all-around.
For those considering an attempt at self-portrait photography, here are a few tips to get you started:
While taking self-portraits, one of the more difficult aspects to nail down is focus. You don’t have the luxury of pinpoint-focusing on the subject’s face, for example, when you, yourself are the subject. To get around this challenge, it is important to have a stand-in object on which you can focus the camera. I personally use my light stand, as it’s usually with me, and is tall enough to mirror my own height.
First, I determine where, in the frame, I will position myself and I place a ‘mark’ on that spot to ensure I’m continually in the right position. Small rocks, a line of chalk or a crack in the sidewalk have all worked well as my mark. Next I focus my camera on the light stand. Once my focus is perfect, I switch my DSLR to manual focus mode. From that point forward, unless I make manual focus adjustments, the focus will remain unchanged. As long as I stand on my mark, I’ll be in focus. This is particularly important when using shallow depth of field, where a single step forward or backward will cause you to be out of focus, ruining the shot.
If you are eager to learn the art of photography, getting in front of the camera can provide a boost in your educational journey, and just may evolve into an enjoyable creative outlet.
Have you done any self-portraits? Please share in the comments below.