September 8, 2011

Photo Tutorial- How to Take Self Portraits

Shirt- Torn by Ronny Kobo; Shoes- Asos, Necklace- Forever 21

I get quite a few emails on a regular basis regarding my photos (I actually received 2 just this weekend), i.e., how I take my self portraits, edit my photos, etc., so I'm finally going to explain what I do and give some tips to improve your photos. In future posts I will also show how to process your photos using different techniques. This is going to be somewhat lengthy, so hang in there. If you're already familiar with photography and just wanna know what settings I use and such, you can skip to the bottom. If not, keep reading. there are several things that should be noted firsthand:
  • First of all, I am not a professional photographer and am still learning myself. So any advice or tips I give are simply learned through tons of research, practice and experience. What I do may not be the "correct" technique, but it's what works for me. Also, for your reference, I use a Canon 60D DSLR, f/1.8 50mm prime lens, tripod and wireless shutter release remote. I will explain different features and techniques which most DSLR cameras should all have, but if you're using a point and shoot camera, some may not apply.
  • Read your camera's manual and become familiar with the settings and functions. 
  • I will give brief definitions for certain terms, but to really understand them you should do additional research. I will use the simplest way to explain them, but know that it is more complex than stated.
  • For self portraits, I highly recommend a tripod and remote. The camera's self timer can be used, but a remote will save you from constantly running back and forth from the camera to your position and trying to pose in ten seconds. You can find some affordable ones on be sure to check carefully to see if your camera model is compatible.
  • This tutorial is sort of a "Do as I say, not as I do" type of guide. Because I'm limited on time, I usually am forced to take my pictures as quickly as possible. I try to take interesting ones from different angles and such, but a lot of the time I simple can't afford to spend that much time shooting, so forgive me if you read this and think "her photos don't look as good as they should or like what she's saying". 
Here's a quick guide to some terms you should know:

Aperture: this is the size of the lens' opening and is measured in F-stops (f/1.8). The smaller the F- number, the wider the lens opening. For example, an F- number of 1.2 means the lens is wide open, therefore letting you capture more of the scene. A larger number like f/22 means the lens opening is smaller, allowing more depth of field, but less of the surrounding area into the picture.

A good way to remember aperture is by comparing it to your eyes. When your eyes are wide open, you see more, but you also see closer to you. Most people squint to see further distances, therefore seeing further, but less of their surroundings.

Shutter speed: How fast the lens closes when shooting. I like to refer to it as "blinking". A fast shutter speed is the key to sharp photos- too slow and the picture will be blurry. Shutter speed and aperture go hand in hand- if you have a wide aperture, you'll use a quicker shutter speed, for smaller apertures (needed for greater depth of field) you'll need a slower shutter speed; however, you will likely need a tripod to steady the camera to reduce camera shake and blur.

ISO: This setting determines how sensitive the image sensor is to the amount of light present. The higher the ISO is, the more sensitive the image sensor is to light, therefore allowing you to shoot in low light settings. This comes in handy for when you need to shoot in low lighting, but using a flash is not desirable or allowed. You can also use it for when the aperture is open all the way but the shutter speed is still too slow for hand holding and you don't have a tripod- raising the ISO will increase the shutter speed. However, raising the ISO also increases the amount of noise (or grain), so it's usually best to use as low an ISO setting as possible, unless you're deliberately trying to achieve a grainy effect for artistic purposes. My general rule of thumb is keeping at 100 in outside sunny settings, 200 in dark shady outside areas, 400 and up for indoor use. If possible, try to use other light sources or flash when indoors before using a higher ISO.

Depth of Field: Determines how in focus the subject is. The shallower the depth of field, the less in focus distance things will be. The greater the depth of field, the sharper distance subjects will be. For portraits, a shallow depth of field is desired to get the "bokeh" effect (the blurred background). Depth of field is determined by the aperture. The greater the aperture (meaning, the wider open the lens is), the shallower the depth of field is, rendering the background blurry with the subject sharp and in focus. Street style photographers usually use an aperture around 1.8, keeping the model in focus while blurring out the rest of the photo. A smaller aperture (f/13 for example) will keep more of the background in focus along with the subject. Picture this: you're sitting at the end of a really long table and at the far end is a cereal box. With a large aperture, say f/2, you won't be able to read the box because the aperture is creating a shallow depth of field. If you changed the aperture to f/22, the depth of field increases and you would be able to read the writing on the box. Make sense?

WB: Stands for "white balance". This setting determines that whites in a picture actually are white. Sometimes they come out bluish or orange, therefore there are different settings you can adjust based on your settings, such as "cloudy", "sunny", "fluorescent lighting" etc. You can experiment with this setting to see what effect looks best for your picture.

AE: This is your "exposure compensation" setting, sometimes noted as AEB (auto exposure bracketing). This is the numbered horizontal line on your camera's display with the positive number on the right, and negative numbers on the left. This setting allows you to adjust how dark or light the exposure is for your picture. By raising (turning to the right) the number, your exposure gets brighter, meaning your picture will be lighter. Lowering the exposure means your picture will be darker. I start with it right in the middle and take a test shot, and if needed, I raise or lower the exposure based on how the picture looks. Raising it means you will need either a quicker shutter speed or higher ISO though, since more light is coming in- you don't want the lens open too long, or else the picture will come out overexposed and blurry.
    Whew. You got all that so far? Now let's discuss some of the camera's modes for shooting. Most cameras, including point and shoot, have a mode dial with a series of shooting modes. The basic zones include the following:
    1. Auto
    2. Flash off (certain models)
    3. Creative Auto (certain models)
    4. Portrait
    5. Landscape
    6. Close Up
    7. Sports
    8. Night Portrait
      These should be pretty self explanatory by their titles, but what you should know is that they are all fully auto and will adjust according to the surroundings. Easy to use since you don't do anything but push the shutter button, however, you don't have any control over any settings such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. The other modes are the creative modes and include the following (depending on model):
      1. Program
      2. TV- Shutter Priority
      3. AV- Aperture Priority
      4. Manual Exposure
      5. Bulb
      Some models also include A-DEP, which is auto depth of field. Unless you're pretty experienced, I would stay away from the manual setting, since you have to set everything from the ISO, shutter speed, aperture and so on; it can be difficult if you are not familiar with these settings. The ones I use the most are the Program and AV setting and sometimes the TV setting. Here's what they do:

      Program- Automatically sets the aperture and shutter speed for you based on the atmosphere, while you retain control over the white balance, ISO, exposure compensation and so on. You can also set the focus points too (more later on that)

      AV- Stands for "aperture priority" and allows you to set the aperture you want and it will set the appropriate shutter speed based on your surroundings. You also have control over the other functions as well. Takes some of the guesswork out, since if you know you want an aperture of say, f/2.8, it will select what shutter speed you need.

      TV- This is the opposite of the "AV" setting- you set the shutter speed and it will set the correct aperture you need. You retain control over other functions also.  Useful for when you need to use a fast shutter speed to freeze action shots or fast moving subjects, but don't want to have to figure out the aperture.

      Okay, confused yet? It's quite a bit of information to take in, I know, but once you get it down, your  photos will improve greatly. So now that I've flooded you with info, now I'll explain my best ways of taking self portraits (I know, finally!).

      Like I said above, your best bet is to get a wireless remote. Once you do, you won't know how you survived without one. In fact, the pics above were taken with the self timer because I broke my remote and it was such a pain in the ass. Trust me, save yourself the time and  hassle and invest in one. You'll thank me later.

      For taking portraits (and this goes for you who guys who have someone else take your photos too), it's best to focus on the eyes. If you focus on the nose and your aperture isn't correct, then the nose will be in focus but the rest of the face won't be, so eyes are best. But for self portraits, obviously you can't tell if you're focused on your own eyes, so I either use auto focus (to use auto focus, you need to make sure you are the closest thing to the camera, otherwise it will focus on something else if it thinks it's closer than you) or I set the focus points to the center point (refer to your manual if you don't know how to set your focal points, or message me), making sure my aperture is small enough to get all of me in focus.

      Here's a breakdown of the steps I take:
      1. Determine appropriate light settings. For a daytime, sunny setting, I use an ISO of 100 and set the exposure compensation directly in the middle. For the white balance, I find that the "sunny" setting comes out to orange, so I use either the "cloudy" or "shady" setting.
      2. I usually use the AV (aperture priority) setting unless I'm in a hurry, then I might use the Program setting, which will set the aperture and shutter speed for me. But usually I use AV; for close up shots I use an aperture of f/2.8 for full body I use f/4. Since it determines the shutter speed for me, I don't have to worry about that, but after a test shot, I will change the exposure compensation either up or down if it needs adjusting. 
      3. To make sure I'm in the shot, I stand directly in front of my lens then step backwards to the desired placement. 
      4. I press my shutter remote button half-way first to focus then all the way to shoot.
      5. I review my shot to check placement, lighting, etc and make adjustments accordingly. As you get closer to the camera, you block out incoming light and the camera lens will stay open longer to compensate; therefore for close up shots you may need to lower the exposure. 
      For my aperture of f/4, I stand approximately 12-14 feet away from the camera. I raise the aperture as I take further distance shots, and I lower it to around f/1.8 for close ups. Remember a fast shutter speed is key to sharp photos!

      If you read a lot of blogs, you'll notice that the best and most popular ones are the ones with great photography. They show the whole outfit, get close ups of outfit details, are clear and sharp and have interesting angles. Work with different poses and compositions. When time allows, I try to change my tripod angles to capture different views. Also, keep in mind your body type when shooting. Larger people should not be shot with a camera looking down on them, it makes them appear chunkier. Shorter (most people actually) are best shot from a lower angle with the camera pointed upwards, creating a longer and slimmer effect.

      Okay, a quick summary for self portraits:
      • Keep your shutter speed fast, your ISO low,  and for blurred backgrounds, your aperture wide and depth of field shallow.
      • Use your white balance setting to change the coloring of the scene.
      • Make sure you're the closest thing to the camera if using auto-focus, otherwise use your center focal point and make sure your aperture is great enough to get all of you in focus. 
      • If you're still having a hard time with focus, use a prop like a rock, chair, etc, to focus on first, then stand in it's place (this is where a remote comes in handy, so you can take your time w/o worrying about the timer going off too soon).
      • Use an aperture around f/2.8 - f/4 and use the AV setting so it will set the shutter speed for you. Or, if unsure, use Program mode to have it set the aperture and shutter speed; you can still adjust the exposure, ISO, white balance, etc. 
      • Stand directly in front of the camera, then back up into position to make sure you're in the shot. Then you can move left or right- don't just take off and hope you're in view, otherwise you'll spend a lot of time retaking shots.
      So. That was extremely long, right? I just about fell asleep writing this. I hope I covered enough info to get your started. I will continue to add more posts that will cover more topics like exposure bracketing, using flash, RAW images, processing images, etc. But hopefully you got enough information for now to help you out. Keep these tips in mind and most of all, PRACTICE! I spent a great deal of time in the beginning reading my manual and learning the settings and practicing. I still go through tons of photos before I get the ones I want- on any shoot I may take as many as 60 shots or more, just to get the ten or so I'll use. It takes time, but if you're serious about improving your photos, then it's worth it.

      It took me a looong time to write this, so I would be more than appreciative if you passed this info along, as I know there are many more out there looking for help with their self portraits. But please remember to credit me properly. Feel free to contact me with any questions and be sure to follow me to continue to get my upcoming lessons!