Half-week homework: Self-portrait

Creating an image of yourself used to be a bit of A Thing; some painters were specifically known for it, it’s recognized as a unique category in just about any visual art, and some folks even criticized artists as vain for using themselves as subjects. For some reason, people seem a lot more used to taking photos of themselves now.

I wonder why?

Accepted or not, it’s an undeniable impulse. In fact, the picture widely considered the first posed portrait ever taken was also a self-portrait, taken in the very same year that the first practical photographic process was made available. And why not? We all love our models—whether paid or indulgent friends to whom we photographers are deeply grateful—but the only person who’s ready for a photo adventure every time you are is, well, you.

Thus, this week’s photo challenge is for you to work both sides of the lens and craft a quality self-portrait. While selfies have certainly popularized this category of “high art for weirdos” to some extent, bear in mind that the vast majority are meant to package a moment for its utility or completely subjective emotional content rather than create a universally expressive portrait, which is fine but not fine art. Rekindle the mystique of days gone by and put some conceptual thought into it!

Recommended equipment

  • Remote shutter release (or app with shutter control)—trust me, it’s more exhausting than you think it is to use self-timer and run back and forth
  • Tripod (consider a GorillaPod for maximum adaptability)

Once you’ve got a way to stabilize your camera and some way of triggering the shutter, your next step is to figure out what you’re trying to convey conceptually. This can be a really cool opportunity to “speak your truth,” if you will, or at least leave a note for the future about just where you’re at as a person in the fall of 2019. Some photographers do this at least once a year and end up with a really neat chronicle of their lives… not a bad idea!

Of course, even though you’re taking pictures of yourself, you don’t have to be yourself. Writer/photographer Claude Cahun left a fascinating trove of self-portraits in a wide variety of costumes and situations, exploring their gender in a pretty unique way. (You can just dress up for fun, too; no psychoanalysis necessary.) Try looking to favorite myths, movies, books, and so on for more inspiration.

Personally, I have a penchant for traveling to certain destinations for no reason beyond that they were mentioned in a song (thanks again to my indulgent models who are also traveling partners), allowing instant recall of the good (and bad!) times with a listen. Given the specificity of the experience described in House of the Gods by The Pogues (but only willing to go so far, haha), I had a vision I couldn’t ignore and a strong need to take this photo:

Sippin’ Singha beer on Pattaya beach!

Aside from the pre-meditated nature of the photo as an example, I also wanted to point out that I didn’t technically push the shutter button. Help is okay! Given that it was a moderately busy public beach at night, I thought it wise not to leave my camera unattended at a distance, even for 10 seconds of the self-timer. (It was particularly distant because I was using a 70-200mm lens for the compression factor, boosting the sign’s presence.) I did, however, describe precisely the vision I was trying to capture to my friend and consult with her until we got the perfect photo, so I still count it as a self portrait. Hopefully she agrees. 😉

A couple tips

Aside from the logistics, shooting self-portraits is pretty much the same as shooting regular portraits, but there are a couple more points of which I’d like to make note.

First of all, DO NOT HIT DELETE. The lucky ones among us not plagued with an overly-critical view of ourselves are few and far between. I think I look terrible in photos, and you probably think you do, too, so when you shoot self-portraits, make sure you grab an outside set of eyes and wait a little while before you delete any photos for aesthetic reasons. You might just have a winner in one of the shots to which your first reaction is “WAUGH!”

Secondly, if you want to do some on-the-fly shooting, reflections make it easy to get a self portrait without a tripod (or perhaps I should say make it possible), and provide an opportunity to work unexpected framing lines into your shot. The more stylized, the better!

Finally—and I know this is my advice for everything, but bear with me—don’t be afraid to get weird with it. You are the only person in the whole world truly tuned into your inner life, so sing it loud and proud! Get weird with your setting, your costume, your expression—if you follow my first tip, you won’t have to worry about a model not wanting to look bad—or even in post. Photoshop yourself with total impunity.

As always, once you’re done, I would love to see your favorite results. Post your self-portraits to our Facebook page or tag us on Instagram with #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework. Can’t wait to meet you all!

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