Yawning Bread. 13 December 2007

DIY self-portraits




About a year ago, a friend asked me to help him out with a bit of photo editing. He wanted his face cropped out from a holiday photograph to make a face-pic that he could attach to an application for something official, a job maybe. He liked the way he looked in that photograph, but a friend had stuck her fingers above his head to make a "V" and he needed those digits removed.

When I looked at the picture, I could see that more work would have been needed. The background was much too distracting and he was clearly wearing a winter jacket. It would be impossible to hide the fact that it was a vacation picture.

"Don't you have your own camera?" I asked him, knowing full well that he had. "Why don't you spend an afternoon at home taking some nice portraits of yourself?

* * * * *

A lot of people have cameras, but many don't really know how to use them. We tend to use our cameras only when we're on holiday, and so the pictures we do have of ourselves are often me on the ferry, me standing in front of the temple, me with the gang by the fountain. Yet all of us need decent face-pics of ourselves from time to time and usually at short notice too.

This essay is just a "how to" piece: How to get some presentable pictures of yourself with your own camera, taking as many shots as you wish till you're completely satisfied, without once bothering your friends or family.

These photos were taken with a midrange camera and using the method described below. I shot about 60 photos in a session lasting not more than 45 minutes.

One thing that most people don't realise is that a good picture doesn't depend much on the camera. People fuss about the model of the camera unnecessarily when the critical issue is the quality of light.

A flash doesn't make a good picture. It's too harsh. In any case, the main light needs to come from the side, not the front. Hence, in the step-by-step guide below, you will find that much of the preparation involves "preparing the light".

The things you need:

1. Any mid-range digital camera that has these features -- and almost all models in the S$600 range do nowadays: 

  • Self-timer 
  • Manual focussing ("MF")
  • A control that lets you suppress the flash 
  • A control to set the ISO speed. 
  • An optical zoom feature, that zooms up to 3 times. 
  • White Balance control ("WB")

(It will be good if you also know how to use the exposure-compensation feature of the camera, but it's not critical if you don't.)

2. A tripod. You don't need a big one. Even a table tripod will do.

3. A reflector board which you can make yourself using kitchen aluminium foil taped to a flattened carton box.

4. Masking tape.

The space you need

5. A room with large windows in which you can use the area nearest the windows, and where you can have a clear distance of about 3 to 3.5 metres from one end of the available space to the other.

6. A wall at one end of the room that is bare, i.e. no distracting pictures on the wall, no furniture, no graffiti. Ideally, the wall should be white or a muted neutral colour. Bold colours tend to steal the show; if you're unhappy with the wall colour, consider using a plain bedsheet taped to the wall with masking tape, with creases and folds evened out.

The time you need

7. Since you will need soft daylight streaming in from the window, not direct sunlight, it means you should choose a day that is bright outside, but also choose the time of day when the sun does not shine into the room.

8. Allow at least two hours for preparation and shooting so that you're not pressed for time. (I can work more quickly because I am familiar with the steps.)

Preparing the space

9. Clear away some furniture from the part of the room you are using, if they are likely to get in your way.

10. Open the windows. Do not depend on light coming through the glass, because often the glass is tinted, giving a colour tone to the indoor light. Switch off all indoor lights.

11. With masking tape, mark a spot on the floor where you plan to stand.





12. Mark another spot about 2.5 to 3 metres in front of you, where the tripod should stand. Best to mark the three footprints for the tripod. If you're using a table tripod, then mark the location of the tripod on the table top.

13. Position the reflector board in such a way as to reflect the window's light to the dark side of your face. Naturally, the reflector board, especially if it is home-made, won't stand by itself. A foldable indoor laundry rack will come in very handy as support. You can tape your reflector board to it. Other things you could use to support the reflector board vertically are a step ladder, or even a standing lamp. A bit of string and masking tape will work wonders.

14. Find something that will be your surrogate during the focussing process. I've heard of people using a large bolster somehow made to stand upright how, I'm not sure -- on a dining chair. Myself, I prefer to stack boxes on top of a bar stool, topped with an economy-sized bottle of laundry detergent where my head ought to be. The gaudy label on the bottle is great for focussing.


Why is marking position so important? 

Because when using the self-timer, you will be running back and forth between the camera and your subject-position. Yet, the camera cannot depend on auto-focus, since at the moment of focussing, you're not standing in the right place. You will be using manual focus, and so it is important that once the focus is set, camera and subject must later be at the predetermined locations.


Camera settings

15. Suppress the flash.

16. Set the White Balance ("WB") to "sunlight" or "cloudy" as appropriate for the outdoor light.

17. Set ISO to 200 if the outside is bright and sunny and the window is large. Set it to 400 if outside it's rather cloudy. If your camera has auto-ISO, use it.

18. Switch to self-timer.

19. Mount the camera on the tripod and put it in the right location.

20. Do not use a wide-angle setting. Instead, zoom in till you frame a half-body shot, or even a head-and-shoulders shot.

21. Then depress the "shoot" button halfway until the auto-focus gets the bolster or detergent bottle right. Switch to "Manual focus" -- which will lock the focus to that distance. The letters "MF" should appear in the LCD display panel of the camera.

22. Remove your surrogate -- the bolster, or detergent bottle, or whatever you've used.

23. Go back to the camera, depress the "shoot" button all the way, while being careful not to displace the camera from its correct location when touching it. It should start beeping.

24. Take up your predetermined location against the wall and count 10 or 12 seconds.

25. Repeat steps 23 and 24 as many times as you wish.

Yawning Bread 





Exposure compensation

If you know how to adjust exposure compensation, then make some assessment about your skin tone and the colour of the wall behind you. If you don't know anything about exposure compensation, don't let this paragraph frighten you. Just ignore it.