Taking your own portrait is a difficult process. It’s like trying to be two different people.
One busy person visualizing the empty space as filled with a sitter, and the other same person adjusting the camera settings, trying and failing with getting the focus right by adjusting the lens to focus on the handle of a mop that was hanging behind the kitchen door. It now stands in the place where I will be, the brand sticker on the mop handle serves as about where my nose will be if I sit down correctly.
The whole point of the portrait is twofold. One, to test my theory that if I use light that is coming from a hallway into the kitchen, landing on the marble table, I’ll get a good shot that I can use to develop a portrait that represents me. Not a photo where I’m attempting to appear like something other than myself.
‘Other than myself’, Well, as most of us discover in life, we all have to wear many hats and be different people at different times of the day.
We are calm, easy-going, angry, irritated, and friendly outgoing people most of the day.
When I set up the camera I wanted a long focal span, so I set the F stop at F16. This is pushing the boundaries of science when the room is basically dark. So I adjusted the shutter speed to mega slow. When I pushed the button in a test shot of the empty chair, the shutter clunked open, then a few seconds later it clunked shut.
I tried various speeds for the shutter until I could get a shot of the empty space with light filtering in from the hallway — enough to illuminate my face when I sat down.
In the end I had to adjust up to an F9 and make do with that. My kitchen is a nice comfy space if you want to do kitchen stuff, like cooking and eating, but taking portraits requires space to stand back and get a distance between your photographer self, and yourself as subject.
I was standing between the kitchen sink and the cooker. The camera on a tripod next to the washing machine. About three metres away from the chair.
I finally managed to get the focus right, so I set the timer. My cat walked into the kitchen, looked up at me as if to say, “What the hell are you doing?”.
I clicked the button and walked to the chair, my cat nipped across the floor, got under my feet, probably an assassination attempt, but I managed to avoid falling and ending up in hospital for the weekend. The cat looked miffed at the failed attempt.
I was a bit peeved with the cat. I sat down and heard a click-clunk as I tried to adjust my pose into something representing silence.
I went back to the camera and was followed by Stubbs the cat. She’s always interested in what I do. She often stands directly behind me when I take a photo, so that when I turn around to walk away, she’ll jump, and squeak as if I’m trying to attack her. She does this to attract attention to her plight, I feel guilty and pick her up. After a cuddle and an ear rub, she stares at the food bowl with sad eyes.
Any cat lover will tell you that if you can see the bottom of the food bowl, despite food in the bowl, it’s as good as empty as far as the cat is concerned.
Stubbs sits in front of the food bowl and stares at it for about thirty minutes.
She looks up at me with an expression that says, Sean, what’s wrong with this picture?, then looks back down at the food bowl with sad eyes.
She has a knack for good composition and framing things just right.
I quickly fill the bowls.
Stubbs scrunches a few cat biscuits, then nibbles the meat. I get on with my self portrait efforts.
When I looked at the shot that I took, I saw that I was distracted by Stubbs while she was eating at her bowl. The shot resembled something like a Francis Bacon painting. Colours smeared into each other, and my head appears to have been caught in motion time lapse by the long shutter speed.
Francis Bacon would have loved it. Stubbs the cat didn’t care less what it looked like. I was getting hot under the collar.
I tried to remember how important it was not get into a sweat. When I finally got everything balanced, and when the camera catches the moment, I should appear calm and silent. Good luck with that, I thought.
I want to achieve Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, and capture the silence of my noble self. It’s in there somewhere, I’m sure of that.
I clicked the button, the timer set for ten seconds started the red blinking light. I sat down, breathed in, relaxed and thought about past adventures up mountains, sleeping rough on country roads, and riding wild horses. I think it did the trick.
The shutter opened, and stayed open for several seconds while I held a pose, I ignored the cat, and listened for the kerthunk of the shutter closing down again. Done.
This time it was a good enough shot.
I worked several hours on the colour tones, and the light balance. I don’t like using preset apps, or anybody else’s colour schemes to process my photos.
There’s a very good reason for this. Each photo is individual, and requires my input from start to finish. What I end up with is my work.
“Presets” for photo processing is a little like painting by numbers, a nice result for many people — but you didn’t really paint your own picture.
I took my camera off the tripod, Stubbs watched my every move. She is so fascinated by what people do. I think she must think I spend a lot of time busying myself with various tasks as if I have no idea if I’m coming or going.
Stubbs is a calm and mostly silent cat. She likes to hold a meaningful conversation in cat language, peeping sounds, she isn’t a meower.
She has the ability to sit calmly and stare at a food bowl for ages, then when it’s magically filled she’ll step forwards and eat, then head to bed and sleep several hours. When she wakes up, she’ll come and get me to see to all her needs.
She’s a relaxed, silent, and noble being. I could learn a lot from her.
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