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I first came across the photography of Anna Gay on her Flickr Account when doing some research for a post on self portraiture and the 365 project. I don’t remember which image first grabbed me but do remember surfing through the work in her 365 day challenge archives and being impressed by the quality of her photography, the dedication it must take to take self portraits every day for a year (twice) and being interested to learn more about her workflow.
So when Anna agreed to take part in an interview here on dPS – and to talk us through three of her shots – I was over the moon. I hope you enjoy hearing about how Anna approaches her photography.
I first picked up a camera in November of 2008. At the time, a family member was working on a 365 project of photos, and I thought it seemed like a really neat thing to do, so I decided to try my hand at taking a photo every day for a month as sort of an experiment to see if I would enjoy photography, and if I had the willpower to stick to something every day for a month.
I have always really loved to paint and draw, and I have an undergraduate degree in theatre, so the arts have always been an important part of my life. Photography was a new medium for me, so I was curious to explore it further. My first endeavors, though, were not self-portraits – I started off by shooting urban and rural decay, and pretty much anything that caught my eye or interested me. It wasn’t until I had been shooting for a couple of months that I thought, “I wonder what would happen if I photographed myself?”
This shot was from my first 365, and I was still learning about composites, and using stock photos in my own work. In this case, I had an idea for a shot, but no clue how to execute said idea. So, I took my self-portrait in my bedroom, and then searched high and low for tutorials on how to add birds to a photo, and make them look realistic. The main thing I learned while working this shot was how to adjust the levels on the dove to match the light in my shot, and also how to add a drop shadow to the dove in CS4 so that the dove’s shadow would appear on my wall.
The more attention you pay to detail in your photo manipulations, the more realistic the shot will look. I also adjusted the color curves to bring out the green shadows on the wall behind me. The lighting in this shot is from my window, camera right. I also used the “dodge” tool in CS4 to bring out some of the highlights on my hair.
These days, I am shooting primarily with a Nikon D90 and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 without fail – I love that setup! When the natural light isn’t quite enough, I have a speedlight SB-600 with a small reflector umbrella. Those are my staples, and if I could only choose one lens and one lighting setup, those would be all I need. I try to keep things as simple as possible in terms of gear.
Initially, I started my first 365 out of the desire to learn about photography, but also to learn about myself. However, when I started that first year, I had no clue how much my personal life was going to change, so I think I may have, emotionally, ended up getting way more than I bargained for!
I went through some very dark times, and being able to take and then process a photo every day gave me some sort of routine, a small amount of consistency in my life. The thing I really love about a 365 is that it is what you make of it, and for me, I love to learn new things, so for 365 days, I felt very fulfilled because, no matter what was going on in my personal life, I knew that I would learn something new about photography every single day.
When my first 365 ended, I felt like something was missing from my life without that pressing need to take at least one shot for the day. I started a second year on my birthday in March, and have been having a blast with year two! I post all of my shots on Flickr, and there is something really rewarding about taking a shot you’re proud of, and then sharing it with people around the world.
Another shot taken during my first 365. When creating a self-portrait, I like to find elements to add to the photo that people will find relatable. I took this shot in a junkyard I found on the way to Hilton Head, SC. I was so excited about going on vacation, and I wanted other people to share that excitment with me.
I had such a feeling of freedom that day, and I knew that VW’s, the idea of the open road, cutoff jeans and bare feet would convey to my viewers that sense of reckless abandon I was feeling on that September day. Part of being a self-portrait artist, for me, is relating to people around me, so I love to find elements to add to a photo that are common ground for all of us.
Let’s face it, time is valuable, and none of us seem to have enough of it these days. So, it can be really tough to find that moment with myself to take a shot. Sometimes there are distractions. Other times, I’m tired, or sick, or both. But, I always make the time. I don’t watch much TV, I don’t play computer games, and when I read, it is usually photography related, so in my down time, I am able to really focus my energy on creating an image every day. It is all about priorities, and creating images daily for myself and others is pretty high on my list.
First, gain an understanding of the basic principles of photography – composition, lighting, balance, perspective, etc. Then, get to know your camera. Make an effort to shoot in Manual mode at all times, and develop a foundation in understanding shutter speed and aperture. If you can get a grasp on those two things (and they’re quite easy to grasp with just a little bit of practice and patience) then the sky is the limit for you not only in your self-portraits, but as a photographer in general.
Invest in a remote – there is nothing more tiring than running back and forth when your camera is on a timer! Find other people who are interested in self-portraits, and get to know them and their work. You will learn so much from sharing your work with other photographers, and you will also find a lot of moral support in them, and that is really important, I think.
Most of all, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re going to have some self-portraits that you love more than others, and some of your self-portraits may be a little embarrassing, but that’s really okay, because all of us are, hopefully, constantly on a learning curve. Always push yourself to get better, but never push yourself to the point of being discouraged. You always want expand your horizons as an artist, but try not to lose sight of the idea that self-portraiture is supposed to be something that is good for you – a healthy exploration of self. As much as you can, be yourself in front of the camera, because that is what is so beautiful about self-portraits – they show everyone else who you really are as an individual. Self-portraits have the potential to be truthful, and all of us appreciate truth.
This shot is from my current 365, though, I started rotating my shots in year one. One day, I found that if I rotated my shot, it added a completely new dimension to the overall feel of the photo. However, as a general rule of thumb, I never rotate my photos as an afterthought – I always compose the shot with the final rotation in mind. So, for this shot, I tossed my scarf straight up in the air, the rotated the shot counter clockwise so that it would convey that sense of movement to the right.
Playing with rotations has been very enjoyable for me, and I find that it can add a surreal element to an otherwise very simple composition.
My process varies a lot from day to day! I try to make each shot fresh and new, even if I am building on a previous theme – I try not to do the same thing twice. Most of the time, I will wake up with an idea in mind for a shot, but sometimes I will let the shot present itself to me on its own. My camera is always on a tripod, and I always use a remote. In most cases, I take around 10 shots, load them to my computer, and pick 2-3 favorites. Then, I process the shots in Lightroom and CS4, and choose my final edit from those 3.
For the majority of my shots, I adjust the exposure and white balance in Lightroom, and will use presets to adjust the tones and color curves to fit the overall mood of the look I am going for. If I feel the shot still needs work, I will sometimes add a texture in CS4, and will do any necessary skin retouching. Sometimes, I like to process my shot, then walk away from it for a few hours before posting it online.
I find that putting a shot away for a moment, then returning to it with fresh eyes before making the final touches, can help me see the shot more objectively. Everything I know I have learned from either reading tutorials online, or from talking shop with other photographers, and have found that my process becomes more free-flowing the more technical knowledge I gain. I have reached a point where I tailor my workflow to the shot at hand.
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