Taking Professional Looking Self Portraits

With the rise of social networking, digital cameras and camera phones, there has also been a huge increase in the number of self portraits that people take. Unfortunately, photos from arms length are about the most unflattering way to take a self portrait because the wide angle lens needed for that close distance really distorts the facial features of the subject.

Lately I’ve been playing around in the studio doing some self portraits, mainly to have something fun to post on Facebook. I’ve done a hillbilly photo, several experiments using gels over the lights, and most recently, a pirate photo for Talk Like A Pirate day. Actually that one ended up not being a self portrait, because for the look I was trying to get, I was having trouble getting the right focus. So since a friend stopped by the studio I had him focus the camera and snap the pic.

But it got me to thinking there should be a way to carefully focus and frame the camera for self portraits. First let’s look at what doesn’t work.

1. Just use a small aperture and let the large depth of field (DOF) take care of it. Great unless you want to throw the background out of focus as I did in this shot.

2. Put the camera into auto focus mode. That works great if you’re there to put the focus point directly over the closest eye. But it’s very hard to do when you don’t know where that eye will end up in the frame. You might end up auto focusing on your nose, which is not a good thing when working with large apertures.

So after giving it some thought I looked around the studio to see what I could use as a placeholder for focusing purposes. My first attempt I used the head and torso of a mannequin. That didn’t work very well because she didn’t sit up properly.

Lighting setup

The solution that I found that worked was to use a microphone boom stand. I set it so the knurled knob was directly in front of my eyes. Then I went to the camera and focused on that.

Using boom

Next I set my cameras intervalometer so shoot 10 frames, just for good measure. With a ten second delay before the first exposure I had time to get back to the chair, get my pose adjusted just right and then swing the mike stand out of the way. For each of the pops, I moved my head forward just a fraction of an inch.

Test shot

Then it was just a simple matter of opening the series in Bridge and checking to see which one had the absolute best focus on the eyes.

Another advantage to using this method is that it gave me a better target to frame in the camera. Usually I’d give myself lots of extra padding around the frame, figuring I could just crop into the photo since they were only going up on the web. But by doing it this way I could crop it correctly in the camera just as I would for a client.

The lighting set up I used can be seen in the first photo. It consists of the following:

Main Light: Photogenic 1250 DR with a 24″x32″ LiteDome soft box
Fill Light: 40″x80″ silver reflector
Background Light: Photogenic Studio Max III 160 with a 7″ reflector
Hair Light: Photogenic 300 DR with a 7″ reflector and barn doors
Kicker Light: Photogenic 1250 DR with a gridded 15″x50″ HalfDome softbox

Here is the finished self portrait: