The Self(ish) Portrait

William Beem Headshot
William Beem - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

This week's concept is a little different than usual. I needed a recent photo and decided to give it a shot as a self-portrait. In the end, it was still a self-assignment and a learning experience for me, so I figure it fits with my Wednesday Photo Concept theme.

There are basically two obvious stages of a self-portrait, just like any other portrait: take the photo and process the photo.

Getting the Photo

Believe it or not, I ended up with 65 photos just to get this one.  Well, I have a couple of others that I like, but this is the one I decided to use first (along with a black & white version of this shot). The first thing I needed to do was decide how I wanted to light the portrait. I used my Elinchrom BXRi 500 studio strobes with a Deep Octa on one, and a reflector with a tight grid on the other.  It's a simple cross-light setup, as shown in the diagram below:

Self Portrait Lighting Diagram
Self Portrait Lighting Diagram

As you can see, I put the Octa very close to my subject (me). I wanted to work with light fall-off to see what kind of shadows would come out.  On the opposite side, I wanted to use the grid to outline the opposite side slightly, but not as brightly as my key light.  Both of the Elinchrom strobes were at their lowest setting.

Using my Nikon D700 with a 24-70 racked out to 70mm, I started my exposure at f/16, ISO 200 and 1/200 shutter speed.  Those settings never varied during the shoot. My first exposure without using the strobes was pitch black, just to verify that I wasn't contending with ambient light. Then I started with just the Octa.  Instead of being in the position you see here, it was directly to my right side.  As expected, the right side of my face was nicely illuminated with soft light, and the left side was pitch black. The fall-off literally went right down the middle of my nose. I gradually moved the Octa until the fall-off was on my left cheek.

Cranking up the grid was a bit of a pain.  Do you have any idea what it's like to aim a light at your own head when you aren't where you're going to be posing?  It was too far to the side, or too low, or always somewhere other than where I wanted the light to hit.  I eventually settled with it in the position you see, but I was actually intending something to be a little higher.

Even though the grid lit that back side of my head, the left was still dark.  I ended up using a white bi-fold door as a reflector on my left side for a little more fill. It was previously standing behind the Octa on my right side to flag some spill light that was hitting the wall behind me.  However, I decided that a little spill was useful to bring some separation.  A black shirt on a black background was a bit too much.

I tried shots using the external diffuser, and then some without. The Deep Octa gives a much punchier light without the front diffuser, but it also opens up the volume of light by a stop. I ultimately decided to put it back on and go with a traditional softbox look.

Bear in mind that the only way to do this kind of thing is to adjust the light, take a shot, go check it out, and repeat the process.  It's not just the lights that need adjustment, but also the camera.  Some shots were vertical and others were horizontal.  How do you make sure you focus on the nearest eye when you don't have a subject in front of you?  Those are the kinds of issues that took me from subject to photographer and back. No wonder if took 65 shots.

Once I felt comfortable, then I could work with different shots.  I triggered the camera using my MC-36 remote. For the first few shots, I left the auto-focus active.  Then I turned it off, thinking it would be fine from there out.  Not quite.  I can tell the latter photos are ever so slightly softer, because my head probably wasn't in quite the same focal plane as before. Fortunately, there weren't many shots like that.

I grinned. I smiled. I smirked. I looked at the light. I looked at the camera. I looked serious. I tilted my head.  I turned my face. I took my shirt off, so I could have a topless photo later for blackmail purposes. [If I'm not paid a ransom of $1 Million, I will release my topless photo on the Internet!]

Finally, I just got sick of posing and decided I had some keepers.


If taking the photo was frustrating, finishing the photo was horrifying. No person should ever have to look at their own face up close & personal in Photoshop. Every subtle imperfection gets illuminated by those lights, magnified, enhanced, and jumps ferociously in your face when you look at the untouched photo for the first time. There are specs, blotches, spots, marks, lines, and things that defy description. For example, there were two extremely bright red spots on the tip of my nose, yet I'd never seen them in the mirror before.  I went and looked at a mirror, and the spots were there – barely.  They certainly did not look like the inflamed goiters staring back at me on the screen.  I mentioned it to my friend Niki the next morning and she stepped closer, having never noticed them before.  That's just the way it is.  That burst of light brings out every last imperfection and you wonder how you'll ever get another date in your life.

That is, you wonder until you whip out the Spot Healing Brush and start zapping those little spots.  You end up doing much more clicking than you ever imagined, even knowing you're freshly showered and scrubbed your face. Once you look human again, then you can set about retouching your eyes, getting rid of stray hairs (even when you have short hair, you have stray hair), and doing a little sharpening.

Overall, the finishing was rather simple.  You just have to get past that initial shock of seeing yourself in a way you've never experienced before, and then go to work as you would with any other model.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, the self-portrait was a good experience to try. It forces you to work out problems in less than ideal circumstances. You get to see what it's like on the other side of the camera, particularly when there's no one to give you direction. I would've loved to have someone tell me to tilt my head this way or that for the best lighting, most flattering angle, etc. That was a good reminder why it's so important for a photographer to have a vision of the final image and give your subject direction to achieve it. Also, spending time working with your lighting gear means you can walk into a situation and have an immediate starting point.  You know your exposures, lighting configurations, how the light will fall, and other factors that may impact your final image.

Finally, I made my mother happy by giving her a current photo. Now I'm off the hook until Christmas.

4 thoughts on “The Self(ish) Portrait”

  1. A very informatiive post William. It’s much hard being on the other side of the lens that we appreciate sometimes – even harder I when it’s just you being operator & model!
    What sort of set-up where you using to preview the shots? Did you tether your camera & have the laptop facing towards you or did you perhaps make use on that OnOne app for the iPad?

    1. Thanks, David. I don’t have any tethering cables, so I had to get up and walk behind the camera to look at its display. Back & forth as I adjusted the camera on the tripod, changed the lights, etc. Once it was in place, then I could click away as I tried different things. Of course, I recently watched Austin Powers, so I had to ask, “Does that make you HORNY?” as I went through my poses.

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