How and Why to Shoot Self-Portraits in the Studio

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Self-Portraits: A Specialized Niche of Photography

Shooting portraits in a studio is a fairly specialized genre of photography and one that requires as much knowledge and experience as any other. But unlike landscape or architecture, learning and practicing portraiture is a bit difficult. It’s an old paradox: you can’t get clients without experience, and you can’t get experience without clients. The solution to this is self-portraits.

The self-portrait is an act of objectifying the self and in that regard is a unique form of portraiture

Burton Silverman

You will need to learn lighting techniques elsewhere, but suffice it to say that the lighting setup for self-portraits is no different than that for regular portraits. The tricky part is going to be the same for all aspects of this setup; when you’re behind the camera, you have no subject, and when you are in place, you can’t adjust the lights or camera settings. A mannequin or stuffed animal on a stool may be a useful stand-in for setting up.

Defining and Setting Up Your Studio Space One Concern at a Time

Whether your studio is a dedicated room, half of your garage, or just a large open area in your home, it will help to mark off certain spots with gaffer’s tape or painter’s tape. The three main spots to be aware of are camera location, subject location, and distance from subject to background. These marks and distances will be driven mostly by how much room you have and the focal length of your camera.

Start with the background. The background is likely to be a blank wall or a dedicated background placed directly in front of a wall. Now comes the tricky part. The more distance between background and subject, the better, but having limited space, you may have to compromise a bit on this.

At this point, go ahead and set up your camera with your favorite portrait lens. Place it as far back in the space as possible pointed toward the background. Now, using the self-timer, take shots of yourself at various distances to determine the best spot and compromise in the subject to background distances. Don’t worry about focus at this point.

Once you have your spot marked off, you are ready to concentrate on focus. You can work with complicated focal length and depth-of-field calculations, but it is much easier to use a stand-in.

One readily available subject for this will be one of your light stands. Move one of the lights to the spot, placing the head or side of the softbox where your face would end up. Now you can focus exactly without any guesswork. Unless you need to blur a complex background, go with a smaller aperture, f8 or f11 to give yourself some latitude when actually shooting.

Now it’s Time to Start Taking Self-Portraits

Now you are ready to take some self-portraits. Think about how you would direct a client in posing while you shoot. Directing yourself will give you practice in working with a client and making them feel at ease in front of the camera.

Think about each shot, determine your pose, then set the 10-second timer, get to your mark, and hit the pose. In a similar fashion, you can try changing the location and directionality of the lights. As you establish lighting that you like, mark those locations on the floor as well.

Taking self-portraits in a studio should not be confused with taking selfies on vacation. Practicing this technique will not only help make you technically proficient but give you insights on how to direct and pose your actual clients.

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