On Assignment: Why I Decided to Photograph My Own Portrait (And Why You Should Too!)

Promo image for Susan Stripling story

Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered how your favorite photographers capture the images they take? Digital Photo Pro’s new monthly column “On Assignment” is where Canon Explorers of Light, past and present, share a backstage look at one of their favorite assignments and how they delivered the goods. This month we go On Assignment with wedding and portrait photographer Susan Stripling.

The Challenge

Every year I get my portrait refreshed. I do a fair amount of speaking and teaching in the photography industry, and I never want to be that speaker with a tired headshot from fifteen years ago that doesn’t look anything like me! I also like getting in front of the camera to make sure that I know how my clients feel – being photographed myself helps me better take care of my subjects!

I have amazing photographer friends that I work with for this, but with Covid being a huge issue I’m simply not comfortable being unmasked around others until I’m fully vaccinated. It felt a bit worrisome, even with a negative test, to sit for another photographer and possibly put them in danger.

With a bit of extra time on my hands and a desire for some new images, why not try to take them myself?

How I Prepared

Most of my images of myself are super dark in nature – dramatic lighting, dark clothing, dark backdrops. For this shoot I decided to focus on light and brightness. I prepared myself in the same way that I prepare my clients for headshots: with a wardrobe consultation! I talk to my clients about what they want from their images and advise them as to what clothing to bring with them.

For myself I pulled three things: a cozy brown-ish sweater, a strappy white tank top, and a white sleeveless sweater. I wasn’t sure what I’d end up going with, but I love having choices. I always advise clients to bring a few more options than they think they’ll need for their portrait attire. This way we can narrow them down in person after hair and makeup are done.

Lighting and Setup

Since I was going for a bright, white-background image I wanted clean light that wrapped around me. Instead of firing a light at white seamless, I wanted something more luminous and enveloping.

My studio is very tiny – only 470 square feet! – and I don’t have any windows in my space. To make bright window-type light I have to create it myself, and I’ve simplified it down to a one-light setup. I took my Profoto B1 and aimed it directly at a white piece of foam core leaned against my studio wall. I purchased some v-flats a few years back and didn’t assemble a few of them, so technically this is 1/2 of a v-flat! The other side is black, which gets used often, but the white side was what I needed to bounce the light off of.

Photo of lighting setup

Directly in front of my strobe I placed some translum on a backdrop stand. This background is fantastic. It’s a cleanable opaque surface that allows the light to shine through while also diffusing it in a beautifully gentle manner.

Photo 2 of lighting setup

You can see how close the translum is placed to the foam core and the strobe. The goal here is for the light to fire into the foam core/v-flat and bounce back through the translum.

I then created what I affectionately like to call the “box of light.” I took two v-flats with the white side turned inwards and angled them on either side of the subject (me). This creates essentially a box of reflection. When the light fires through the translum it will bounce back onto the subject’s face in a very clean, even manner.

Photo of lighting setup 3

You can see just how tiny my studio is here, and I love it because it shows that you don’t need a huge space to make portraits!

Photo of lighting setup 4

The last thing I had to do was create a “table” for myself to lean on.

Photo of lighting set up 6

I lined up some apple boxes and laid a broken sheet of foam core/v-flat on top of it. This poor piece of foam core got ripped up during a food shoot a few years back, but it works great as a reflector or reflective tabletop in a pinch! This helps the light bounce back up into my face and reduces any under-eye shadows nicely.

Photo of lighting set up 9

Camera and Settings
Camera : Canon EOS R5
Lens : Canon RF 24-105mm f/4.0
ISO: 200
Aperture: f/8
Shutter: 1/160th sec

Triggering the Shutter

The obvious next question is “Well, if you’re the subject how did you take the actual picture?”

Canon makes it super easy with their CameraConnect app. All you have to do is connect your camera via Wi-Fi to your phone, open the app, and you’re all set.

Photo of Canon remote trigger 1

You can trigger the shutter remotely, and you can also see on your phone what your camera sees! This really helps me refine a pose, tweak composition, and so forth. It also showed me that I didn’t like my first outfit selection!

Photo of Canon remote trigger 2

Shooting, Processing and Retouching

Once I got the composition the way I wanted it, I took a test shot to see how the light was working.

Self portrait 1 of Susan Stripling

I tried my second outfit choice, the baggy tan sweater, and wasn’t a fan. I changed into my third option and started working on the pose, using the CameraConnect app to see how each refinement worked out. The app took a lot of the guesswork out of each pose, and it triggered the shutter flawlessly every time.

I took the Raw file into Lightroom and used my basic import preset – it’s called All We See Is Sky, and I created it with the team at DVLOP. It simply tweaks the contrast and levels just a bit, giving the image a touch of punch. Because my white balance was set in camera, and my exposure was also, there was nothing else to “fix” in Lightroom.

In the interest of being entirely honest with this endeavor, I’ll admit that I never wear makeup. My tests shots were with a clean, un-made-up face… but the final image was a bit flat and lacked contrast.

I used a very simple dodge and burn action to create layers that allowed me to literally put on makeup in post-production! I darkened my eyebrows, lined my eyes, darkened my lips a bit, and lightened the whites of my eyes. I also created a layer to darken and redden my cheeks and eyelids.

Voila – instant light and natural makeup! Since the light filled in most shadowy areas on my face, there was no need to reduce deep lines or undereye circles.

The entire post-production of this image took less than ten minutes. Getting it right in camera helps so much!

Promo image for Susan Stripling story

What I Learned

Self-portraits are not for the faint of heart! I shot about 30 images to get the one I liked the best, and it’s not always fun to look at outtakes of your own face looking less than flattering. I also learned that photographing myself is immensely helpful when it comes to working with my own clients. If I can learn to pose myself, refine my own body positioning, and direct my own facial expressions, I’m much more empathetic, caring, and confident when directing clients to do the same.

I highly suggest that you take some time out to photograph yourself. It’s an excellent opportunity to play with new lighting setups, celebrate yourself, and refine your technical abilities. Good luck, and happy shooting!

About Susan Stripling

Susan Stripling has been photographing weddings, portraits, and theatre for almost eighteen years. She is an active member of Canon’s Explorer of Light program and has won multiple awards at the WPPI 16×20 print competition including the Grand Award in Wedding Photojournalism, the Grand Award in Weddings, and she holds the prestigious Grand Master status. Susan has been an educator for Photo Plus, WPPI, PPA, Mystic Seminars, and Creative Live. She is also the founder of The Wedding School, which strives to bring real, honest education to wedding photographers worldwide.

Website: https://www.susanstripling.com/

The Wedding School: https://theweddingschool.net/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/susanstriplingphotography

Twitter: https://twitter.com/susanstripling

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/susanstriplingphotography/

Leave a Reply