Note to readers:
I did this exercise way back in 2013. Unfortunately, I lost my original write-up for the whole experience. Fortunately, my actual photos, both the unedited and edited versions, remain in my possession. Those are what you will see below (unless stated otherwise). The narrative, I have done my best to reconstruct from memory.
There is one personal rule that I have always abided by as a teacher. I would never, ever, subject my students to any task or requirement that I had not gone through myself. That actually backed me into a little corner when I started believing that requiring that students do honest to goodness self-portraiture was a good idea – that anyone who has been in my class would at least know how to do better than the usual selfies which litter social media on a massive scale. The thing is, I don’t like having my picture taken either. I don’t like being in group pictures. And I certainly had never taken self-portraits, not the way I would want my students to.
So, it’s either I forget about this idea, or put in the work myself before talking big to my students. Your reading this article will probably be a clear indication of the choice I made. Besides, I’m always game for the chance to take students out of the comfort zones, even if it means I have to do the same.
I started thinking about what I wanted to do. I’ve always been fond of dark, moody themes in just about anything. This was my chance to apply that to myself. I then set up my black background and my studio lights. But after taking a few trial shots and thinking about it some more, I decided that it was not the look I wanted. I needed to be more low-key. So, I put the lights aside and settled with my small portable LED pack. Back then I did not have the means to set up my flash gun off-camera the way I wanted. So I had to rely on continuous lighting, which means I would have to contend with slow shutter speeds and high ISOs. Hopefully, I could sit still enough throughout this session.
The good news is that I had the space to make use of my Nikkor 50mm/1.8D with my Nikon D7000. I could use my remote trigger while the camera sat on the tripod. But I wouldn’t be able to see what I’m shooting on the fly. Repeatedly having to aim, pose, shoot and then run to the camera to preview the shot would have made it a long night for me. Luckily, I came across digiCamControl, a USB tether software that supports Nikon cameras. I can control the camera with live view engaged from a laptop which I would have in front of me the whole time, significantly speeding up my process.
- Nikon D7000 body
- Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D prime lens
- Z96 LED light panel
- Laptop with Digicamcontrol Pro
- 2 tripods
- black muslin cloth background
- electric guitar as prop
The idea for the headshot was simple – I’ll be facing the camera up front and aim the light source diagonally towards one side of my face. The reality of the matter turned out to be more complicated. I ended up taking dozens of shots. I was starting to doubt if I could pull this off.
I tried several poses. I didn’t like how most of them turned out. But I was able to pick three whose results I liked.
My camera was having a hard time focusing with the whole room being so dimly lit, forcing me to work with slow shutter speeds. It’s a good thing I managed to hold still. At the same time, that small light was pretty hard and intense. You can even see behind the black muslin background, even with the intensity dialed down. But I could work with this. I didn’t want to do a lot of editing. Against my own vanity, I opted to leave the blemishes of my face alone or maybe even accentuate them.
I only needed to do two things: accentuate the blacks, dial down the highlights and add more warmth. No sharpening was needed. A little bit of blurring might have been of benefit, but I didn’t bother. Cropping to a 4:3 ratio was my final step — trimming down the background and providing more emphasis to my profile.
The only thing I would have wanted to improve upon here is the highlights of my hair. The hard light really harshly emphasized the white streaks on my hair. A reflector on the other side of my face would have also helped balance out the highlights a bit.
I wanted a picture of myself holding a guitar. The question was how. Again, I tried a number of things. Then I was suddenly reminded of the album cover of U2’s Rattle and Hum and thought how cool it looked, with Bono aiming a spotlight over The Edge. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to do the exact same thing. But I can take inspiration from it.
With the camera in the same spot as before, I’d be facing the background diagonally, with my light aimed slightly towards my left side. The hard light which I had an issue with while taking my headshot, worked wonders simulating a spotlight aimed at my upper body and the guitar’s neck. The hard shadow on my hand seemed like a nice touch to augment the effect, as well.
I got a shot that I thought was perfectly framed, which was surprising given how I was shooting. Maybe it helped that I was literally looking at the laptop while I was posing so, I was really seeing what I was going to get, at least composition-wise. But there were issues which I felt required some retouching.
First, I needed to increase the exposure value a full stop to recover some brightness. After that, I proceeded with working on the issues. Visible folds on the background, a stray thread and a speck of dust — they all needed to go. The folds would disappear by blackening the frame, like I did with the headshot. The rest would also be easy fixes. Quick dabs of Photoshop’s healing brush tool removed those nicely. And again, as before, warming up what colors were present added life to the frame.
I was happy with this back then. But looking at it now, I don’t think the highlights are warm enough. And the reflections on my hair is still too harsh.
Today, I would go with an even warmer look. And then I’d use a paintbrush tool over my hair to decrease the overall exposure one whole stop. My face is still a bit shinier than I would like, but it’s something I can live with (then again, by 2023, who knows?). Overall, it’s significantly easier to look at now, don’t you think?
I did the shoot in one sitting. But between conceptualizing, setting up, shooting and packing up, I spend several hours. And then I spent more hours during post production. It’s more work than most of my students will realize. It was also a test for my confidence and self-esteem. Like most other guys, I look at the mirror every morning thinking how good looking I am. But the reality is that I don’t believe that, and I start thinking the opposite whenever I see a camera aimed at me. This is a challenge for me, for anyone, on many levels. And that is why, more than ever, I believe this is the most important assignment I can ever require in my photography class.
This walkthrough obviously does not cover everything. It’s not supposed to. So, if you are one of the students in my class, I urge you to head back to the course site and raise any comments or questions in the discussion forums. Because I will expect more details from your assignment than what you see here.