Photo Frosh: Self-Portrait Revisited

After writing about selfies last week, I got to thinking about the last time I’d taken a self-portrait. It had been almost an entire year since I put effort into capturing a quality self-portrait, and as per Kevin Deskin‘s suggestion to “turn the light and lens on myself” once a year.

I’d only been working at Midwest for a few months when I took my first self-portrait (below), which is also the same amount of time that I’ve been photographing. Back then I was happy with my self-portrait: I thought the composition was pretty good, and it showed a very prominent aspect of my personality (i.e. how often I can be found in front of my computer) in a clever way.

Photo Frosh Challenge #1
Photo Frosh Challenge #1 self-portrait

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about photography. I’ve been expanding the tools that I use (trying different lenses and shooting with manual OCF, to name a few). I’ve been learning about photography from our amazing staff. And I’ve met incredible local photographers and gained knowledge through interviewing them.

But, perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned what kind of photography I’m passionate about, and that’s high contrast black and white photography (which explains why I totally freaked when I saw Mike Emery’s awesome contest entry in July). I’d attribute this to my love of movies, especially the black and white cinematography of film noir, Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Lawor Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders.

Here’s the catch: I didn’t realize this before I took this year’s self-portrait. As a newbie to photography in general, it took me a while to figure this out. I’m constantly surfing photo blogs for our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and with all the fantastic photography on the internet, it can be overwhelming to someone who is new to photography as an art form. (A normal morning for me looks something like this: “Whoa, that’s cool. Whoa, that’s even cooler! I can’t decide what’s the coolest! There are too many cool photos!”)

For this project, all I basically knew was that I wanted to take a self-portrait. The challenge was to make a self-portrait that I found to be a meaningful expression of how I see myself.

I knew I wanted to take it at home, since that’s where I spend a lot of my time and because my apartment, as a setting, creates an emotional resonance in me (I’m a bit of a homebody). I knew I wanted to push the technical aspects of the photography I’ve done so far. But what else did I know? Well, I knew I liked black and white photography. I knew I liked hard light and high contrast. And then it hit me: Wait, that’s exactly the kind of photography I want to make!

After I figured out what kind of photo I wanted to take, i had to figure out how to take it. I wanted a light that was a little more powerful than a speedlight but still fairly uncomplicated to use. Steve hooked me up with a Profoto AcuteB2 Kit with one flash head, a Profoto RF 3×4′ Softbox, a LumoPro light stand, and a PocketWizard trigger, all of which I grabbed from our rentals department. Then I picked up a Nikon D600, a Nikon NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G, and a Manfrotto tripod, and I was ready to take a self-portrait.

Using the Profoto kit was a cinch. All I had to do was plug the light into the battery, attach my softbox with a easily attachable flash bracket, set the PocketWizard on my camera to channel 1, and the battery’s radio receiver automatically picked it up. It was that easy to get everything I needed ready for the shoot.

My first idea was to get a photo on my staircase. I had the light set up at the top of the steps shooting onto the tap landing and the camera looking up from the bottom of the steps. Here are a few sample images:




I wasn’t ecstatic with these shots, to say the least. There was too much ambient light that I couldn’t block out, and it was making the lighting less dramatic than I wanted. I messed up the sync speed (as you can tell by the shadows on the left) trying to speed up the shutter to cut down the ambient light. Also, you might notice that I didn’t mention a remote trigger in the list of gear I used, so by the time I was done with this setup I had run up and down the stairs for twenty minutes straight, trying to beat the camera’s self-timer. I was pretty over that whole process by the time I was done.

Since the lights were already upstairs, I tried something a little more conservative in regards to composition, which was a traditional seated portrait style. I sat close to the light to create a hard shadow on the one side of my face (a lighting strategy that I just love, no matter how overused it might be in movies and TV shows) and set my camera for a vertical composition. To be honest, the 85mm might have been a bit much in regards to focal length, since the shooting space was tight in my apartment. But I made it work.

I shot in color with my file type set to RAW+JPEG since I knew I would want to convert it to black and white in post. Shooting in RAW obviously made it way easier to effectively edit my photo, but I wanted a JPEG backup just in case. My memory card could handle it. Here was the final shot in color, which also happened to be the last shot I took (at that point I was exhausted from running back and forth all night):


I took the photo into Photoshop, set it to grayscale, and adjusted the colors, basically making most of the colors darker while slightly brightening the overall exposure and upping the contrast just slightly. You can see how I set my colors here:

raw settings

And here’s the final self-portrait:

self portrait

This project was really fun for me to do. It made me think about how my life has changed over the past year and reinvigorated my desire to photograph. Furthermore, it made me want to take more portraits. Like the hypothetical photographer that Aaron described in his recent post, I’m deathly afraid of taking pictures of strangers on the street. However, I do now want to take more black and white portraits of individuals. I feel like the portrait environment more suits my style and personality, and I’m excited to work more in this vein and develop my style even further.

After the aforementioned selfies post, some of our fans sent in self-portraits:

Erik Clark
Erik Clark
Lisa Williams
Lisa Williams
Kathryn Goff
Kathryn Goff

I love seeing how people interpret themselves, how they choose to photograph themselves. Please send in your own self-portraits to michael AT and I will share them on the blog!

Midwest Photo

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