Deconstructing A Self Portrait Session

A Self Portrait for a photographer is usually, either a quick grab shot in a mirror or an exercise in  vanity & ego fluffing. It doesn’t have to be either.  It all hinges on how you approach it. I approached this session as if I was the paying client and also knowing that I wanted to write an article about the process I used. As the paying client I had an expectation of a final product, a printed image that I would be proud of and one I would show off. To achieve this I had to have an idea of how I wanted to shoot the photo.

I’ve read Joe McNally’s blog for years and have always been intrigued with his scribbles on a napkin approach to planning a lighting layout. So I took a leaf from his book, so to speak, and sketched a lighting diagram. To my surprise once I started putting down some ideas the final image started gelling in my head.I was on my way. But before we get too far ahead of myself, let’s have a little background.

Self Portrait 2006 © Dave Cracknell

 The last Self Portrait I did was back in 2006 while I was doing some family portraits and I have to admit they were awful, photos of me not my family. I had no idea what I wanted and even less about how to do it. A mate of mine let me use his studio and gear and looking back he probably didn’t have the heart to charge me for rent. He knew that there was no threat to his business so what damage could I do. The shoot back then took about 1.5 hours and by the end even I was bored. Fortunately I did get some usable prints of my girls and my lovely wife, but mine were a loss. At least I had the flash off camera so I was sort of  heading in the right direction.

Its one of those thing I think every photographer has to do at some time. They have to take a portrait of themselves. It’s a challenge to come up with an idea and then work out how to light it. I’ve wanted to redo my Self Portrait for about six months, but I wanted to do it right. I needed to know more about lighting. I’ve been reading every lighting & portrait book, article and post I could get my hands on. Then I went back and read them again. A plan started to formulate. This is where Joe’s planning concept was put into play. I knew I wanted to shoot it with Wireless Speedlites . I have a Canon EOS 7D with the wireless trigger built in & 4 Speedlites that are wireless capable. I had to decide to shoot auto or manually. Manual made sense, if I was going to do this properly I was going to have to be in control. With diagram drawn I set about putting together the gear I needed. About 3 weeks ago I bought the last puzzle piece to help put the project into motion.

As I said earlier I decided to approach this project as if I was a paying client and I was going to their house and taking over a room. I listed the gear I was going to use. The photo to the right here shows the gear I used. Here’s a list:

  • 4x Light Stands
  • 1x Manfrotto 055 Tripod with MF327 Head
  • 2x Canon 550 EX Speedlites
  • 1x Canon 580 EX II Speedlight
  • 1x Canon 420 EX Speedlite (Borrowed from #1 Daughter’s kit)
  • 3x External Battery packs
  • 38x Lithium AA batteries. (For those of you playing at home, yes 38)
  • 2x Gary Fong Power Snoots
  • 1x Orbis Ring Flash Modifier
  • 1x Lumiquest Snoot
  • 1x Canon 7D + Canon 15-85 IS (For Shooting)
  • 1x Canon 50D + Canon 85mm (As a Prop, once again my daughter’s)
  • 1x Canon RC6 Remote Control
  • 1x Glanz 2.4m x 1.8m Collapsable Black Background (Not Pictured)
  • 1x Stool
  • 1x Photographer/Client/ Model/ Hairdresser/ Make Up Artist ( yeah Right!)

The Lounge © Dave Cracknell 2011

I was going to use the lounge room so the first thing I did was establish where I was going to set up and what settings I was going to use. I set up the tripod and Canon 7D and took an ambient light reading. The available light reading was 1.4 Secs, f8 @ 400 ISO with the curtains open. I wanted to shoot at 60th sec @ f8 so I set these manually on the camera and took a test shot of me against the wall and there was some stray light still appearing on the screen. I was aiming for a black screen. I lowered the ISO to 200 and bumped the shutter speed to 125th sec and took another shot. Perfect black frame. I now had enough light to focus with but an exposure setting that was not registering ANY available light. I was now ready to start setting up.

Flat Light © Dave Cracknell 2011

I put up the Black Background and placed a stool for me to sit on. This was not to give me a seat but a point where I would return to exactly each time. I snapped a shot with the built-in flash to get the framing right. I knew I wasn’t going to use the built-in flash for any of the exposures but I still needed a starting point. Not a lot of difference from the 2006 Portrait. Flat, non dimensional and my hair disappearing into the background. I consulted the mud map of lighting, namely the diagram on a scrap piece of paper. I then set about putting up the stands and attaching flashes and modifiers to the stands and installing the batteries and external battery packs. Once everything was together then I could start working out the power output for each flash.I set the camera to fire the flashes wirelessly.

Right Light © Dave Cracknell 2011

First flash was placed Camera right behind the stool with a Gary Fong Super Snoot attached, pointing down at 30-40 degrees. I set it at 1/16th power and fired a test shot. After a review I reset the level to 1/32nd power and reshot and I was happy with the result. The Second flash was set up as a mirror image of the first with the same settings and this was tested

Both Side Lights © Dave Cracknell 2011

without the first flash on. The same setting of 1/32nd power was used. Once I was happy with the placement I set both flashes to fire as group A. I now needed to add a hair light to separated the top of my head from the dark background. I set a Canon 420 EX fitted with a snoot onto a stand and placed it immediately behind where I was sitting to fire at the back of my head. This flash has no power ratio control so I set this flash to group B so I could control the output from the camera. I took a series of shots and made adjustments to the height and power output until I had the subtle effect I was after. All up this process had taken me about half an hour and less than 20 shots to get to this point.

3 Flashes © Dave Cracknell 2011

Now for the main flash, the one to fill in the shadow formed in the middle of my face, by the 2 side flashes. For this I set my remaining flash onto a stand right beside my camera on the right with the Orbis Ring Flash Modifier in place. The Idea here is to give a larger light source and therefore a softer light. I set this to 1/8th power and fired and found I had to raise the power to 1/4 power to provide enough exposure. On the camera it looked fine but I

All 4 Lights © Dave Cracknell 2011

could have moved the flash about 30-50cm closer for just a little more exposure. It was at this point that the costume designer/ hair dresser and make up artist (Yeah Right) insisted that I change my shirt. Once changes I took about 30 shots to get my pose with the prop camera and my head angle right. I also shot the 2 images that appear in the heading. I tried a couple of other poses but I was starting to get bored. I needed another idea.

I changed into a new shirt and I posed sitting the other direction. A couple of lights needed repositioning and an adjustment of one flash’s power I had the next setup ready to go. A few shots later and the image didn’t leap out at me, I had to change something. I decided to aim the rear flash (Rim Light) at the background rather than at the back of my head. I removed the snoot and spun the flash head 180 degrees. After a test shot I placed a blue Gel over the head (the flashes not mine) and raised the output of the flash. As a hair light I had the flash fire at one stop less than the others but with a gel and it having to reflect off the Black Background I had to raise the power to be 8 times brighter. I was happy with the lighting and set about adjusting the pose until I got the one to the left. I had the shot that I was after, I was a happy photographer and called the session to an end.

2 hours, 96 shots, 3 changes of clothes and I was done. I packed up the gear, uploaded the images into Lightroom and tweaked a few and removed some spots and stray hairs (damn hairdresser) and I was done. If I was a paying customer I would have been very pleased with the final result. As I was the client and the Photographer I have got my creative juices all flowing. I’m now looking to try this set up with other clients, in different locations, inside and out. Any volunteers.

Happy Shooting

The Studio © Dave Cracknell 2011

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