Self-portraits require a different set of disciplines than other types of photography. The most obvious difference is that when the shutter is tripped, you are not looking through the viewfinder. This means that you must preconceive the results without the benefit of examining a composition through the camera. For example, the relationship of your face or entire body against a background has to be carefully considered. How will the elements behind you look if they are in focus, or out of focus? In other words, how much depth of field do you want? Should the portrait be tight, or should the background play an important role?
What about your facial expression? Do you see yourself as serious, joyous, depressed, intense, childish, or judgmental? These feelings about yourself change over time, and a self-portrait taken even a few days later may evoke a different expression. But whatever your toolings are at the moment, you will have to preconceive the results, and this mental exercise is good practice for other photographic endeavors.
The Equipment Is Key
The only special equipment required for making a self-portrait is a camera with a self-timer and a tripod. To give yourself enough time, you should allow yourself at least 10 seconds to step into the frame and assume the pose you want. If you have a remote trigger and a motor drive, this will permit you to change expressions and body language without having to walk back to the camera and reset it between pictures.
A small, hand-held mirror is helpful in showing you what the camera will be seeing. You can also place a larger mirror by the tripod to help determine how you look in front of the background.
The automatic meter in your camera should provide an accurate exposure, as long as the background is a neutral tone. If you are standing in front of a bright window in your home, for example, the meter will be fooled by the contrast. Choose a background that doesn’t distract from you, but also one that can be easily interpreted by your meter.
The tricky part of shooting a self-portrait is that you must pre-focus the lens on the spot where your face will be. If you are using a moderate telephoto lens – which is ideal for most portraits – the focusing must be precise. If you are three on four inches in front of or behind the point of focus, the picture will be ruined.
It’s helpful to have a friend pose in the composition and focus on his or her face. Note exactly where the critical focusing point is and position yourself there for the exposure. If you want to shoot self-portraits privately, use an inanimate object to pre-focus on. When I took the self-portrait you see here, I focused on the front of the tree trunk and then stood in a spot where my nose was next to the point of focus.
Increased depth of field will help you in maintaining critical focus on your face. A small aperture will ensure that your eyes will be sharp even if they aren’t precisely in the right position. Faster films, therefore, are a good choice. My portrait was taken on Kodak Tri-X film rated at ISO 400. If you use a wide-angle lens for a more unorthodox portrait, pre-focusing is simplified because these lenses have extensive depth-of-field ranges. Three or four inches either way will probably not make any difference.
The Time Spent
We all change over the course of time. Our appearances change, of course, but so do our perceptions of ourselves. It could be an interesting project to take self-portraits over a lifetime to document not only our physical changes, but also to observe how we choose to portray ourselves on film. Perhaps every five years, or even once a year, take the time to photograph yourself. It will be a fascinating examination of your inner self and a wonderful legacy to leave with your family.