HOLLY’S 10 TIPS FOR CONCEPTUAL SELF-PORTRAITURE

Self-portraiture in the conceptual and creative photography world is HUGE. We all know that. People use self-portraiture for various different reasons and all photographers thrive off different motivations. I specifically used self-portraiture as a way to build my knowledge and skill, and to keep momentum in my work whilst trying to build a business after leaving University. I started the project just after I had finished my ten thousand word final year dissertation. I was FED UP of writing, in fact after that and until I started this blog, I did not want to write again. I needed to express myself in a way that didn’t conform to any module or university deadline, and also without having to answer to any tutor or lecturer. I needed to take control of my work. I felt like I had been pigeon holed at university. Although I learnt a lot whilst I was studying there, and I loved my time there. I sometimes felt forced to be a certain artist and I didn’t like that lack of control over my exploration and experimentation. So I decided at the beginning of 2015 that I wanted to experiment everyday (or every week at least). I wanted the release because my projects at university had failed to establish to their full potential because of the 8-12 week deadlines. I decided to take the plunge and start my very first 52 week project. This would then allow me to focus on one image per week at a rapid rate of renewal. Therefore I could train myself to act quickly in creative situations, and learn how to create an idea I was proud in such a short space of time.

The project consisted of constructing a unique conceptual self-portrait every week for one full year. I finished the project in the last week of 2015 and to view the full project, follow the link – 52 Week Project. When I started the project I felt highly self conscious of taking photos of myself, especially trying to express myself fully without the entire control of the camera and the angles. I would take photos in the most horrendous angles, the focus would fail, and I would give up after taking just a few images. I felt awful about myself and I did not start the project with the intention of feeling self-conscious about my own body insecurities, it was there to allow me to practise techniques and feel better about my photography and my art work.

The project started off slow, but in the process I learnt so much about how to pose, what angles work when setting up a self portrait and how I could create an image that I envisioned from paper sketch to the finish product. I also learnt how to adapt when an image didn’t go the way that I had intended, and how to make it something new. I would highly recommend this project to anyone learning and growing and are feeling creatively stale. I do talk more about that in my round up blog post which you can follow the link to above.

So, upon finishing the project, I wanted to share my top 10 tips on how to create a successful self portrait!

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TIP 01: GO GET YOURSELF A WIRELESS REMOTE TRIGGER!

The easiest way to take self-portraits is to use a wireless remote trigger. This may seem super obvious, but I couldn’t create tips on self portraiture without mentioning that these are the holy grail. If you are considering a self portrait project/image then you NEED to get one. The wireless remote trigger enables you to have more control over the cameras shutter whilst you are in front of the camera. Alternatively you can use the simple built in self-timer and a shutter release cable. However running back and forth from the camera to your specific spot can be tedious and makes the image more unobtainable. (STILL DO ABLE, I USED IT ALOT THROUGHOUT, just a lot more hassle).

When I started the project I was using a Nikon D700 camera and at the time I wasn’t able to afford to buy a wireless trigger so I bought a 1 metre remote cord. I found one on eBay which was under £5, huge bargain! I would use the 1 metre cord to stand in front of the camera and focus by pressing it down half way. Then I’d set the timer so that I was able to pose myself into position and hopefully create a successful image. I would recommend getting a longer cord though because the 1 metre cord only allowed me to stand around 2 metres in front of the camera.

I then received the Nikon ML-L3 as a little side gift for my birthday from my boyfriend. It has been super helpful. It allows me to photograph from a far and helps so much with shooting the focus.

Another option (although a little on the pricey side) is to buy yourself a camera with WIFI. I got my D750 early last year and it’s so handy for self portraits. I connect my phone to the camera, and then use the screen of my iPhone as a wireless view finder. I can then pose myself, tap the screen to focus and shoot using a 3 second timer or instant shutter.

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1 Metre Remote Cord – GET HERE

3 Metre Remote Cord – GET HERE

Nikon ML-L3 Remote Control – GET HERE

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TIP 02: A TRIPOD WILL BE YOUR THIRD ARM(s), SUPER SUPER HANDY!!

Again like the remote trigger, a tripod is the another obvious tool for keeping your camera still and in place whilst shooting your self-portrait. The main reason for a tripod is to enable you to set up an image up and to have full control when it comes to the subject, rather than to worry about the angle or if you aren’t in the frame. When producing composite self-portraits like the ones below, the tripod is your best friend. If your aim is to photograph a composite image, keeping the camera in the same place with the same focus is going to help you out when editing your images later in Photoshop.

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I have a really heavy manfrotto tripod which is great for any weather condition because it keeps the camera stable. I would definitely suggest investing in a decent tripod, purely because cheap ones have potential to break more easily. I have used a cheaper tripod in the past, but it broke once whilst I was shooting a self-portrait and my camera almost hit the floor (if it wasn’t for my fast reactions!!). So now I use the heavier more robust tripod for any situation that I am not able to be near my camera. HOWEVER you can also find the nearest table or chair and balance it on those if you need to!

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MANFROTTO 460MG Tripod – GET HERE

 OTHER TRIPOD – GET HERE

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TIP 03: INVESTING IN A PORTRAIT LENS IS THE BEST THING YOU’LL EVER DO FOR YOUR WORK!

I would highly recommend investing in a prime portrait lens to shoot self-portraits with and if you read tip 1 & 2 then you’ll have already established I use Nikon. I started shooting self-portraits originally with a 50mm 1.8 and I got this lens from eBay for around £60. It was used, but not very much and still works today. It’s not going to break the bank and it is a VERY good lens to start with.

If you have a higher budget then I’d thoroughly recommend the 50mm 1.4 this has a lower aperture and creates absolutely beautiful portraits. I have used this as my go-to lens for years. I’ve shot full weddings from start to finish with this lens, and also full fashion stories too.

Another lens which I would recommend is the 85mm 1.8. This lens is absolutely stunning for close, cropped in shots and creates a creamy, yet sharp image.

I’ve also recently got the Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art and WOW I can’t recommend this lens enough. The only thing I would say for shooting close up portraits it’s not as sharp or crisp as the 85 & 50. But it works a TREAT for all those long, landscape, breathtaking images!

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Nikon 50mm 1.8 – GET HERE

Nikon 50mm 1.4 – GET HERE

Nikon 85mm 1.8 – GET HERE

Sigma 35mm 1.4 – GET HERE

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TIP 04: A ‘PLACE SAVER’ WILL SAVE FOCUSING ISSUES!

So you’ve got your camera set up and its now time to take the photos. As you are essentially the subject of the picture, it can sometimes be difficult to gain the correct focus whilst setting up the shot. If you can get a friend to jump in for you whilst you focus your camera then that’s great. If not then using a place saver is the next best thing!

A place saver is a phrase that I came up with (there may be an existing word but I just don’t know it!) to describe an object that is put in place so that you can focus the camera. I always get questions as to how I focus properly whilst in front of the camera and apart from using the wifi Nikon iPhone app, I use a place saver to help focus the image without being in the shot. An example of a place saver is to use a lighting stand or a spare tripod. The larger the object, the better the focus will be. Ideally you need something that can stand on its own, but is also easily removable when shooting the image.

For example, for this first image I used a mirror facing against, and leaning on the wall. I wanted to be able to focus on the mirror (where I will be standing) so that when I photograph the the clock separately, it would be in the correct focus.

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Another space saver that I have used is the existing props for the shoot. So in the house image below, I used the houses which I was using as props, as the place saver. I focused fully on them, then took them away from the scene and photographed myself.

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And finally, for this image below I used an old cardboard print box that was free standing on a table next to me. It was directly in line with myself, which allowed focus to be the same through the image.

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TIP 05: KEEP THE CAMERA SETTINGS CONSISTENT (APPLIES MORE TO COMPOSITES)

So you have set up your camera with lens, on your tripod, with the remote trigger and the focus is correct. Once you have chosen the aperture, speed, white balance and ISO settings for the framed shot. You now want to keep your settings consistent. This applies more to composites but should ideally be used under any circumstance. This is because when shooting an image made up of more than one image, you need the images to have the same consistent balance in colour, depth of field and brightness. If you are shooting with natural light, stick with natural light. If you are shooting with a flash from the left, stick with the flash from the left, and so on! This is mainly for 2 reasons:

Reason 1 – It will save you so much time when editing the images. If you have chosen say, 10 images that you think would work together as a composition, but 5 of them are dark, and 5 of them are light, you will have to adjust the 5 images so that they match.

Reason 2 – Keeping the consistency will create a balanced image and ultimately give that realistic surreal image effect that you want. This then prevents from one of the image composites standing out and bringing down the quality of the image.

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TIP 06: KEEP THE PERSPECTIVE THE SAME (APPLIES MORE TO COMPOSITES)

Following on from tip 5, you want to make sure when shooting composites that you always take the images from the same perspective. This can apply to intentional composites but will also apply when you want to swap an element from one static, straight image to another. (e.g swapping arms, feet, smile, smoke, other props etc)

For example;

The image from Week 17/52 is a prime example of where I used the same perspective to achieve the final image. To begin I shot around 15-20 images in total with the camera in the same position each time. I felt I had achieved an image in camera that was going to work for the final image. However when I opened them up into photoshop, I wasn’t entirely happy with the way that my arm sat on the base image (The base image is usually a photo that I work upon but can add to if needed).

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I decided to have a look through the other images to see if I could pick out an arm from one image to replace the base image arm. After I had replaced the arm, I was then happy to continue editing the final image.

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This is the final result from the composite and this was all possible because I had taken the images from the same perspective.

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TIP 07: KEEP THE LIGHTING THE SAME WITHIN EACH IMAGE (APPLIES AGAIN TO COMPOSITES)

This tip is closely related to tip number 5, and is as important to highlight it fully. When shooting with the intention of composite or just in general, it is important to keep the lighting the same within the image(s) so that your image is going to remain balanced. A good example of this is a miniature image that I shot in late 2014. To make the image look as realistic as possible, I kept all the components of the image including myself and the candle in the same light.

In this example, the lighting was a flat natural light coming in from the window to the left (my right). It was a very dull day and the light stayed the same throughout the shoot so the light stayed consistent whilst shooting.

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TIP 08: SHOOT LOTS OF FRAMES, AND KEEP GOING!

When shooting your image you need to capture more than enough, and even if you think you have got it within camera, always go that extra mile and take more. You never know how the image will turn out, so having more images to work with will save editing time and even prevent from re-shooting. I couldn’t stress this point more, I think its so important to over shoot. When you feel that you have done enough, DO MORE! I have learnt my lesson from this, there have been many times when I think I have shot enough frames, and then I come to edit and realise that I didn’t capture the most successful base image.

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TIP 09: SKETCH & WRITE DOWN ALL YOUR IDEAS INTO A NOTE PAD

When I’m thinking about new conceptual ideas or when Im having a flurry of new inspiration, I tend to forget old ideas. I find that a very useful way of storing your ideas, is to write and sketch them out as they come to you. By doing this you can concentrate on more than one idea at once. You can then also revisit ideas that you may have forgotten about, or if you are having a dry time for ideas, you can use ideas that you have written down weeks, months or even years ago. I carry a note pad around with me at all times, and then when I experience or see something that I know might make a good image I write everything down.

I find sketching ideas out is a really good way of visualising your image before hand, and keeping you motivated and inspired. Even if the ideas don’t surface from the note pad, at least they are down there.

Excuse my lack of arm drawing ability! 

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TIP 10: USE PROPS/OBJECTS/KEY WORDS!

If you are struggling to come up with a concept for your self-portrait, you should always turn to props, objects or key words. During the 52 Week Project I was always kept motivated for ideas by the theme of each week. I would remember the word for the following week and mull it over, it began to embed in my mind and everything I thought about was to do with that word. This can also work with props and different objects too.

Take an object, word or prop and ask yourself questions, for example; ‘How can I use this within in an image?’, ‘What else do I need to make a picture of a ***** and me successful?’, ‘Do I use this literally or hint at it?’, ‘What relates to this object, word, prop?’, ‘Will I be indoors or outdoors?’, ‘What mood do I want to portray?’ and so on!

This helps me to focus on the prop, object or word and create a story around the subject that I have in front of me.

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And that’s it!

I hope you enjoyed reading through the tips! They were short and sweet but should help you get started in self-portraiture, or add to already existing knowledge around the subject! I will be writing more in-depth, focused posts on different parts of self-portraiture over the next few months so keep checking back for those. Let me know what you thought, or if you have any other questions in the comments below. If you don’t want to write in the comments then drop me an email, I’d love to chat with like minded photographers!! – hello@hollyrose.co.uk is my email!

Thank you for reading guys, look forward to hearing from you and seeing what everyone creates!