You can learn a lot about portrait photography by looking in a mirror.
I’ve been reading Syl Arena’s wonderful book Speedliter’s Handbook and have been anxious to try out many of the techniques he discusses. I’ve mentioned occasionally before that I have a challenge finding models to pose for me, so I often stand in myself, a task made easier with a wireless remote trigger. I realize that given the number of self-portraits I do, I must seem incredibly narcissistic (I probably am, for that matter) and I apologize. But I’ve also come to realize that I am learning valuable lessons my snapping pics of myself.
You see, I’m approaching my golden years. I don’t necessarily feel like it, but it’s true nonetheless. Further, I don’t see it when I look in the mirror. My reflection shows me a man who looks younger than he is. Brushing my teeth in the morning, I don’t see the sunken cheeks or the crow’s feet around the eyes that get deeper every year. I don’t see the jowls or the sagging skin under my Adam’s apple. I see fairly tight skin on an average face, not much blemished with age spots and who can probably still pull off fashions meant for a slightly younger audience.
The camera tells a different story. All my warts, all my imperfections, seem grossly magnified in the unforgiving lens and the glare of my speedlite. I gasp in horror at how incredibly hollow my face looks from a bad angle, how much skin hangs loose around my neck, how low the jowls droop on my jaws. On the photos here, I spent significant time blending out the age spots. I like to imagine the world sees me as I see myself in the mirror, but I wonder if it sees me as the camera does. I look like a skull with loose-fitting leather draped over it.
All of which raises as interesting lesson to be learned. As a portrait photographer, it’s important to learn your subject well enough to understand their self-image. Had I paid for either of the color portraits above I would have been extremely disappointed. It’s not that the photographer didn’t capture who I am. It’s that the photographer didn’t capture who I think I am.
In short, it’s not very flattering. It may be how the world sees me (and as photographers we may put a value on photographing that level of truth – there’s even a place for it) but it’s not suitable for a mantlepiece portrait. To that extent I have failed here as a photographer.
As I strive to do more and more portrait work, I really need to make a stronger effort to make sure I’m capturing my subject in ways that represent their vision of themselves, as well as my vision of a good photograph. Learning various techniques to use a Speedlite to effect is an important aspect of photography, but probably not the most important lesson I have yet to learn.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ll point out that the objective of this series was not to see how awful I could make myself look. Actually, I was trying out the technique Syl describes about “dimming the sun.” These were taken about 5:30 PM with the sun blazing fairly high in the sky over my right shoulder. I wanted to see if I could use the sun as a highlight and my Speedlite as a key light, with an overall effect of a nighttime shot. My shutter speed was around 1600 with a 4.5 aperture and ISO-200. I used a 50mm prime lens.
I had a 7″ snoot on the Speedlite as well as a dome diffuser on the flash head (I’m not clear yet on whether there’s a point to using a diffuser and a snoot simultaneously). The flash was about 2 feet to my left, barely out of the camera’s field of view, and was of course set to high speed sync.
Finally, in case you think I’ve spent the post being overly-harsh on my work, I rather like the black and white 🙂