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In the modern world all of the major social media platforms are swamped with ‘selfies’ but it might surprise you to realize that this is nothing new; and the main difference between the present day and the past is the ease of creating self portraits rather than the desire to do so. With a smartphone in hand, anyone can point and click an accurate self portrait whereas in centuries gone by it took a talented painter to create such emotive self representations.
Fundamentally, a self portrait is an image or representation that an artist makes of themselves. There are many reasons why people are drawn to create images of themselves that include:
- To record a special moment in time, such as a wedding or birthday.
- To show themselves at a unique place, such as the Grand Canyon.
- For artistic and creative reasons.
- Self expression, exploration and experimentation within an artform.
- To create a record of themselves over time, in the sense of a diary.
The most interesting self portraits usually say more about the subject than just how they look. This is particularly clear when you study some of the most famous painters who created portraits of themselves throughout their lives. You can see, in the self portraits, that the artist was developing through their career and the mood they captured in their work could tell you a lot about what they were thinking and how they were feeling at that time.
A Brief History of the Self Portrait.
The history of self portraits goes right back to Ancient Egypt; however the Ancient Greeks and Romans were also early pioneers of the artform. The popularity of self portraits didn’t really take off though in the West until later in the middle ages.
There are many reasons for this but one of the primary drivers of this trend was the general preoccupation with religion and salvation. This made people self reflective and analytical; and so artists would create self portraits as a way of meditating on their own spiritual life.
One of the early masters of self portraiture was Albrecht Durer, who was a German artist. Durer returned to self portraits on a regular basis throughout his career and left behind an interesting legacy of work, the first of which he created when he was only 13 years old. The painting was created in 1498 and manages to capture the somber and self reflective mood of the times.
As the middle ages passed and the Renaissance began to take hold of Europe in the 16th Century, self portraiture gained an even greater appeal and many of the most famous artists left behind incredible, life-like self portraits. During the Renaissance period one of the popular representative themes was a naturalistic representation of the world; with the artists putting themselves and their styles into their own work more than in past generations. Self portraits during this period also reflect the growing importance of individuality in society as well as the material rewards of the newly emerging free market system.
Rembrandt Van Rijn, the great Dutch Renaissance artist, painted more than 100 self portraits during his career. These self portraits were hyper realistic and showed him growing older through his long career that spanned more than 40 years. His self portraits showed him at many different points in his life, including times when he faced financial ruin and personal tragedies as well as when he was at the peak of his career. These paintings are worth tens of millions of dollars today and provide a rare historical record of the life of one of the Renaissance’s most influential artists.
Following the high point in European art during the Renaissance art slowly became more neurotic and deconstructive in its nature. Many art critics feel that the period of classical art came to an end with the Impressionist movement and although the movement respected the past work of masters, it was also profoundly anti-establishment in its practise and began the process of consciously breaking the social norms which the art of the past used to help to maintain.
Vincent Van Gogh epitomized the new type of artist that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century. He lived a tortured life filled with tragic incidents and disappointments; and incredibly, although one of his paintings sold for more than $75 million dollars in 1990, during his own lifetime he sold only two paintings and lived in dire poverty. His landscape paintings and more than 30 self portraits often reflect the inner turmoil that he experienced as do the intense colors and brush strokes that became his signature style. Van Gogh’s influence on modern art is hard to comprehend however his life ended as he lived, with a tragic suicide alone in a wheat field.
The invention of photography and its emergence as a widespread phenomena in the 20th century changed everything because you no longer had to learn to paint to produce accurate, life-like self portraits! As the 21st Century dawned, and almost everybody found themselves with a camera phone, the art of the self portrait, or the ‘selfie’ as it came to be known, exploded in popularity and is now a ubiquitous part of modern life.
What Tools and Equipment Do You Need To Take Self Portraits?
While the artists and pioneers of self portraiture in the past are inspiring and leave us a fascinating legacy that can illustrate the evolution of art, society and the way individuals saw themselves in the world; you too can pick up your camera and create powerful, artistic and personally relevant self portraits of your own.
To start taking your own self portraits there are a few main items that you will require. You’ll need a good DSLR camera so you can work with the settings to create the types of images you envisage. For instance, you can use a large aperture setting to produce a stylish bokeh background or a slow shutter speed to capture movement behind you in the frame.
You’ll also need a tripod to take self portraits. This will hold the camera in place while you pose for the photo. To set up the picture you can put an object in the place where you want to pose and then focus the camera on the object as well as ensure all the other settings are as you want them. Then you need to take the place of the object you used to focus on and you’ll be in clear focus as you take the photo.
But how do you take the photo? The easiest way to take self portraits is to use a remote control trigger mechanism. This allows you to snap the photo once you’re in position and will save you having to rush and get in position while the camera’s timer counts down. You can get a wide range of remote control triggers, including remote controls with cables that plug into your camera and Wi-Fi cordless remotes. In some cases you may want to download an App onto your smartphone, such as the Camera Remote Control App, and use your phone as the trigger to take the photo.
These are the basics that are essential for you to get started with your self portraiture; however you can also use reflectors to better control the lighting in the shot, studio lights to create dramatic contrasts and props that add to the narrative of the image.
7 Creative Ideas For Self Portrait Compositions and Projects.
There’s no limit to the ways that you can present yourself in self portraiture which is partly why it’s such an exciting genre of photography to work with. You can really find some incredible approaches to express yourself and with a little imagination and creativity you can produce some stunning representations of yourself through photography.
- Experiment With The Background: When you’re shooting self portraits you will be the central focus on the image however you can use the background to change the mood, add interesting focal points or textures to the frame. You can use something as simple as a white sheet of paper but you can be far more inventive! Using velvet backdrops creates a lovely hue in the reflected light while curtains or cloth backdrops can be printed with patterns or images. Of course, you don’t have to splash out and buy a backdrop because you can just use whatever you have around the house, such as sheets or wall hangings.
- Create A Self Portrait Project That Reflects Your Passions: A good self portrait is about more than just a good composition because you can also tell your audience about your passions and interests. If you have a hobby, playing the guitar for instance, you might want to take a series of self portraits with you holding or playing your instrument. This will not only allow you to tell your audience more about yourself but it will also add a point of interest to the image while helping you to feel less self conscious while you take the photos.
- Try Wearing Costumes!: You can have a lot of fun in your self portraits if you dress up in costumes for the shots. You can take inspiration from high fashion editorial photography, where costumes and dramatic backdrops are the mainstay of the genre, or look back into history to get some unique ideas.
- Focus On Particular Details: Remember, there is no rule that says a self portrait has to contain the whole of your face! It can be a little harder to set up close up shots when you’re taking self portraits but with a tripod and remote trigger you should be fine. Try focusing in on certain details of your face. For example, you could fill the frame with your eye and only one half of your face. You can also highlight other details such as your hair, shoulders or hands.
- Use Different Angles In Your Compositions: When you’re taking your self portraits you can mix it up by using different angles and perspectives. You can take photos from underneath with the camera angled upwards or from above looking down on you. A good tripod has extendable legs so you can set it up to get the precise angle you want. This will dramatically change the feel of the photos and add variation to a series of portraits as you explore the possibilities.
- Use Black And White Mode On Your DSLR: Shooting in black and white immediately gives your photos gravitas and a classical movie star feel! Black and white images help you to highlight details and textures that might not be so noticeable in a full color picture. So why not delve into the exciting world of monochrome photography and use the black and white setting on your camera. Alternatively, you can convert the images into black and white after the photoshoot using your post production software.
- Experiment With Lighting, Shadows And Contrast: One of the most powerful ways that you can change the compositional feeling and texture of your self portraits is to experiment with different lighting setups. This is easier to do in a studio or a controlled environment, although you can use natural lighting features such as the Golden Hour before sunset. To get some great effects with your lighting set up you can use a single light source with patterned filters. This will add a rich texture to the shot and although you can buy patterned filters you can also improvise and make your own!
The Art Of Self Portraiture – Express Yourself While Creating Memorable Compositions.
As you take photos of yourself you will learn a lot about how to use your camera to achieve different effects while growing your own self confidence and having fun exploring your creative side. Photography is a never ending journey of self discovery and there are few better ways to do this than by engaging in regular self portraiture photoshoots.
Are you shot self portraits?