The art of the Self portrait (Or: How to learn through failure)
In 2016 I decided to take it upon myself to photograph 100 self portraits in as many days - I had many challenges, many failures, and even some triumphs, so this blog post is dedicated to some of the many many things I learned through this journey to guide you through my troubles and teach you things to avoid if you decide to take something under your wing.
The project was inspired by the 365 projects you see at the start of the year, many people try, many people fail - and it's often landscapes or street photography, which I don't usually do too much of. I wanted to try a project, a series really, in a similar vein however the concept of finding 365 models for portraits, or 365 of anything was daunting. I knew that if I tried to do something 365 days of the year I would invariably fail (Note: This is not a good headset to be in!) I felt that 100 was a more fair number, something that took commitment but also I felt was achievable. The plan was to take 100 portraits with 100 lighting setups and have the first and the last image be the same concept to show growth in how I created images.
I never set out to attempt for a cohesive style - I don't believe that someone should attempt to say "This is my style and aesthetic" and force it. I believe you should just make images you enjoy and an aesthetic will grow from there. Now, if you're making an image series where that's the point, that's different. But this image series was meant for me to grow as a photographer, so I wanted to change things up every day and see how I grew. Now, if you have an aesthetic and want to create images for a market that wants that aesthetic - that is a whole other ball game. But I feel that someone should find their aesthetic organically. At the bottom of this post is a gallery of all 100 images, but first, let's dive in.
For this project I used the Fuji XT-1 for every image, and used almost entirely vintage lenses. I got my Mitakon speedbooster about halfway through the series, allowing me to get a more full-frame field of view and depth of field, making it easier to go wider. To trigger the camera remotely, I used the fuji app on my phone, which let me see my focus, framing, and trigger the camera remotely - a total life saver. Later on in the series I received two Cactus RF60 flashes, which is the system I use today. You can read more about that system here.
Since I use manual focus - and often enjoy shallow depth of field, like image #24 to the left, and getting focus can be difficult. Using the fuji app to get myself in the 'ballpark' of focus, I would simply take a few photos and physically shift myself back and forth to ensure that at least a couple photos are in focus.
Now, this post has the potential to really get out of hand so I will be concentrating on ten images, not all 100. I am just going to concentrate on the 5 images I feel are the worst, and the five iamges I feel are the best, in that order. The reason I will be starting with the images that I feel are the worst is because I feel that people learn more from failure than from success. These will be in no particular order.
THE BOTTOM 5
So.... This image... What can I say about this image. You see - what I WANTED to do was make it look like parts scattered on a light table. What I ENDED UP doing is make a horrid image I almost didn't post. Now, looking back there are a few things I would have done different. for one, more even, brighter, lighting, probably with a nice backlight to really help merge the BG and myself. The arms really don't look like they belong to the torso. Overall - this photo just wasn't good. The idea was subjectively solid but the execution wasn't
On it's own - #12 isn't a total failure. On a technical level I quite enjoy the image. That said - underlighting was a mistake - nice hard light from above would have worked better I think (I didn't have light stands at the time). The double-exposure-in-camera is a technique I used later to much better effect. If I had an actual black backdrop - or one that wasn't a wrinkled bedsheet, I feel that this image would be much MUCH stronger.
Fun fact - I wore the same shirt in three of my worst 5 photos. Interesting. Now, with this photo, It's just... boring. It's not lined up correctly, something I didn't have the equipment to really do, I think the lighting is... fine, but if I could have gone just a little bit wider, maybe go to a more portrait orientation of the photo. There isn't anything particularly WRONG with this photos, but almost nothing is RIGHT (Well, it's exposed well and in focus I guess?)
Photo #36 I wanted to try something moody and dark, using the fact that I couldn't use my flash past 1/180th of a second to my advantage - cutting the image off halfway through and giving an interesting look of being half-there. Sadly, there wasn't a single frame in focus, the lighting wasn't very good and it is probably the biggest failure in the whole series - but I didn't have any time or energy to reshoot and... Here it is.
Photo #28 is probably my favourite failure as it helped keep my ego in check. I was trying to do one of those cool profile-and-front-on photos that you see sometimes - but it didn't quite work right and taught me the lesson to look before you leap. This photo would have worked out FAR better if I can just looked up a tutorial, or at least spent more time looking at images like this instead of pretending to know what I was doing and just going off memory, resulting in a confusing mess - instead of an intriguing photo that messes with your head
THE TOP 5
There are so many photos that I'm proud of in this series, these 5 are some of my favourites, and it was tough to narrow down! This first image I love, #89, because I decided that I needed a little break from my flashes, I was using them too much and relying on them. I wanted to play with perspective and make it look like I don't have disproportionately short legs, so I pulled out the 28mm and shot with with entirely available light. The hair light is from a large window just out of frame. Shot in the stairs of my apartment building - by putting my feet close to the lens I allowed the distortion to elongate my legs on the 28mm. The outfit, the hair, the look all go together to amke an image I'm EXTREMELY proud of.
This is one of a few photos I shot outside - I really wish I had shot outdoors more but I had a full time 9-5 gig so that was difficult. I had an awesome alley behind my building that I wanted to shoot on - so I climbed up all two-feet in the air, set up a flash just off camera right and triggered the camera with my phone using the fuji app and a two second timer. In post I had to remove some garbage at the bottom of the frame to make it look like I was higher than I was. I THINK this was shot on my 58mm lens but, really, I have no idea. The flash on this image I feel is perfectly balanced with the ambient and that's one of the reasons I feel that this image is a success
When surrealism meets the beatles. This is by far one of my favourite images I shot for the series - no lights, just a 28mm lens, a timer on my phone, and willing to look like an idiot in public. This was, obviously, inspired by the photo that Iain Macmillan shot of the Beatles for their Abbey Road cover - the positioning of my stride etc. To get the shot, I would start the two second timer from my phone, put the phone in my pocket, and then lean back and put my foot against the wall - imagining how that would look and then getting into position. When the camera fired I would review the shot to see how my 'stride' looked and adjust. Compositing images was tough because of the harsh shadows and changing light - but I sort of like how 'normal' everything is aside from the skewed perspective.
This photo I feel is one of the better photos when it comes to self expression - now I don't recall the EXACT circumstances but I do remember feeling shitty that day and using this photo to help express that. Similar to photo #14 above, I wanted to play with perspective and sort of mess with the viewer's head a bit. I did this photo in a couple of shots. One was my sitting down with my hand pressed against my face (So that the interaction looked legitimate) and then a few frames of just my arm (Fun fact - they are all out of focus so I had to reshoot everything on this photo) Some simple compositing in photoshop and I created, what I think, is a powerful photo. One of the things that I wish I could have done is tilted my head a little for a more sense of weight.
To finish off this post, I present to you the most badass I have ever, and will ever, look. I was playing with some lights and foam core - trying to have the light JUST hit me, and bounce in the foam core for some nice even lighting. However - I ended up hitting the lens and getting this AWESOME flare that perfectly framed my eyes. It's important to remember that just because a photo isn't what you intended, doesn't mean it's bad - just that it is different. It took some editing for me to even see if there was any data here, and thankfully there was - but it took some love for sure. This is one scenario where the fuji sensor and it's crazy dynamic range came in handy.
As you can see, the self portraits ranged from simple to complicated - resounding success' to crippling failures - I hope you learned something along the way, and feel free to browse the gallery below to see all 100 portraits! I'm really proud of these photos and am doing another photo series this year - something I don't want to talk about TOO much yet as it involves other photographers.