Self Portrait Photography
Taking a Self-Portrait Photo
There are four ways of taking a self-portrait; by using a mirror, a delayed action shutter release, a remote shutter control, and by controlling the lighting.
The mirror method is popular, but by no means the easiest. It usually means including the camera in the picture and this is not always desirable. The mirror must be fairly large (generally no smaller than 2 feet x 1 foot 6 inches) and clean and perfectly flat, otherwise the reflection will be distorted. Most ordinary domestic mirrors are unsuitable, as a reflection is obtained from both the mirrored surface and the front glass surface, resulting in double images. The mirror should be supported in a secure position with plenty of room behind it to allow freedom in arranging artificial lighting (for daylight portraiture it is generally best placed with its back to the window). The lighting must be placed where it does not reflect off the surface of the mirror or shine directly into the lens.
The photographer takes up his position in front of the mirror and arranges his distance from it, his pose, and the lighting until he is satisfied. This procedure calls for some imagination, because the camera will be looking at the effect from a different viewpoint. Even with a reflex camera it is not possible to see the final effect in the viewing screen because if he looks at the screen the photographer cannot see his own face. And unless the portrait is to show the sitter looking straight at the mirror, the effect of looking in any other direction can only be guessed.
If the camera is focused by scale, it is important to set it to the sum of the distance from the lens to the mirror and the distance from the mirror to the subject. (These two distances are not necessarily the same; the camera lens may be six inches or more closer to the mirror than the face of the "sitter", and in a fairly close-up portrait this would be quite enough to put the whole face out of focus.)
When the camera is focused by rangefinder the fact that the camera will be in a different position at the time of exposure must be allowed for.
If possible the photographer should set up the camera on a tripod and sight it on some substitute subject, e.g: a stool standing on the chair that he will be sitting on for his portrait, to make sure that he is not including too much or too little in the finder. It is of course always wise to allow a good working margin in this kind of portraiture.
Finally, the photographer looks in the required direction and releases the shutter. The exposure is the one normally given for the subject and lighting; the presence of the mirror in the set-up makes no difference.
There are two ways of keeping the camera out of the final shot. One way is to arrange the picture so that the part where the camera shows can be cropped out in Photoshop. This method is suitable for a picture where the whole head is enlarged and the camera is kept just below shoulder level. Another way is to arrange for the reflection of the camera not to appear in the picture at all, i.e: to keep it well below or to the side. This method inevitably introduces some angular distortion of the image, and the picture that the camera sees is so different from the reflection seen by the photographer that it becomes difficult to visualize and arrange.
Delayed Action Release Method
The delayed action release offers much more scope and it avoids including the camera in the picture. It is an excellent aid in trying out lighting arrangements, ideas, etc., without having to rely on the co-operation of a model. It also relieves the photographer of worry about whether he is taxing the patience of his stand-in model by playing around with lights and props.
Practically any type of camera is suitable; if it is not fitted with a delayed action release, it can generally be fitted with a supplementary one either in conjunction with a cable release or screwed straight into the cable release socket.
The arrangement is exactly the same as for taking a normal portrait except that the photographer, immediately after engaging the delay action and pressing the shutter release, takes up his place in the picture. As the average delay is 15 to 20 seconds, there is always plenty of tune to get into position before the shutter clicks.
The safest way to ensure that the picture will include everything is to contrive some form of "stand-in" that the camera can be focused on. A cushion on top of a stool standing on the chair, or some such arrangement, is all that is needed. This substitute is then lighted, arranged and focused, preferably by scale. The lens is then stopped down to give a reasonable margin of depth of field, and the exposure made at leisure. It is better to make sure that the image will be sharp than to shorten the exposure by using a large stop and sacrificing depth of field.
If the portrait is to be focused critically, e.g: to give sharp definition to the front of the head alone, then this "stand-in" method of focusing must be supplemented by something more accurate. The simplest way is to stretch a piece of picture cord (ordinary string is too elastic) from a point behind the camera to the point focused on, marking this position with a knot. The photographer then sits in the chair in front of the camera, pulls the cord taut with the knot against his forehead, and then lets it fall before the shutter clicks.
It is a help to set up a mirror behind the camera so that the photographer can arrange his expression and pose, but it must be remembered that the mirror will give a reversed picture, i.e: transposed from left to right— and will give no indication of the field included by the camera lens. Also, the mirror must be securely fixed so that it cannot fall forward on to the camera- a mishap that would probably prove disastrous for both.
Finally, when taking delayed action portraits, it is always worth while to make one or two "dummy runs" before actually making the exposure. There is a knack in releasing the delay, moving quickly into the picture area, and posing without a flustered air or, what can be just as bad, a look of triumph.
In many ways this is quite the most successful method of self-portraiture because it avoids the last-minute scramble from the camera station to the sitter's chair. The shutter in this case is released by any of the normal types of supplementary remote release, i.e: pneumatic tube, electrical, remote switch-controlled solenoid, extended cable release, or even a length of thread fastened to the release lever. The latter should be used only as a last resort, and then with great care, as camera-shake and even damage to the camera are a potential danger.
The preparations are exactly the same as for normal delayed action release, but when everything is ready, the photographer simply takes up his position and releases the shutter by hand in his own time. If he wants both hands to appear in the picture it is easy enough to arrange to operate the release with his foot.
The remote control connection (tube, wire, etc.) should be suitably hidden (for instance, underneath a ring) so that it does not appear in the picture of a full-figure view.
A mirror is a help also in a remote-controlled self-portrait. For pictures showing the sitter looking into the camera, the mirror may be set up in front of the camera lens with the latter photographing through a cleaned-off window of the silvering.
This method has certain advantages in special circumstances. It requires the entire subject lighting to be under the control of a single switch which the photographer can operate from the sitter's chair. The ideal form of lighting is remote-controlled flash bulb or electronic flash. The photographer arranges the picture as for a delayed action release and then puts out all the lights. He then leaves the shutter open on Time and takes up his position in the sitter's chair, checking the distance with a knotted cord as described for focusing above. When he is ready to make the exposure he simply switches the lighting on and off, or presses the flash button.
The most notable application of this technique is for making a number of exposures on the same negative with the subject posed against a black background. For this purpose electronic flash is ideal because a succession of exposures controlled by the duration of the flash can be made without revisiting the camera. A typical montage made in this way would be a full face portrait flanked by profiles. Groups. Although the mirror and lighting control methods are not really suitable for what is probably the most popular of all photographer-in-the-picture work, i.e: groups of the photographer's friends or relatives, the two other methods may be used. In practice the remote control method is not very suitable because the camera must be at a fair distance to include the whole group, and this calls for a control that is inconveniently long and more difficult to exclude from the picture.
The built-in or a supplementary delayed action release is the standard means of taking this type of picture. Where possible, the photographer should pose the group with a space left for himself between two of the members. If he allows space at one end, he may under estimate the width he is going to take up and find part of himself cut off in the picture. And since he will have some distance to cover after pressing the release, he ought to make sure that the way is clear and that the rest of the group know exactly what is going to happen. If they are not fully briefed in advance the picture may show all their eyes directed at the photographer.
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