Before there was the despited-yet-beloved, maligned-yet-embraced phenomenon known as the selfie, there was the self-portrait, which was actually a highly respected art from practiced by some of the greatest photographers and artists in history. Throughout the decades, self-portraits have allowed photographers to practice taking pictures of the human form, to experiment with their tools, and to challenge our idea of what portraiture can be. Plenty of photographers still use this form — among them, Brooke Shaden, whose high-concept self-portraits often include surreal compositing elements and other dreamy artistic touched.
But to even begin to create these gorgeous shots, you need to get one basic handled: You need to know how to focus a self-portrait.
“With a self-portrait, [focus] can be the biggest hurdle,” says Brooke, who gets asked about focus all the time. To combat the difficult nature of focusing a self-portrait, Brooke says she doesn’t spend too much time trying to get every single element completely sharp, especially when she’s shooting a full-body shot. However, there are ways to ensure your image is clear enough to work with.
“What I tend to do is, I have the camera right here…and I just take a test shot,” Brooke explains, “I’m doing that for focus, for lighting, what’s going on, and what I need to change.”
Once you’ve figured out what your needs are, Brooke says, it’s time to focus on focusing. Making a crisp self-potrait is easy when you’re behind the camera, or when you’re close enough to rely on the auto-focus mechanism. But if you’re more than a few feet from the machine, you’re going to get the camera focused on you without actually being able to see what’s in the viewfinder.
To do this, you have a few choices. You can either set a timer and experiment that way, or you can choose a static focal point and stay within that.
“The 10-second timer is what we call the ’10-second dash,'” says Brooke, “I don’t prefer it, but it can be fun.”
Brooke uses a remote control either way.
A better option, says Brooke, is to find the focal point and then “stand in front of that.”
“So, if you’ve se the center focal point, you know where that is in the frame. You look through your camera, and you’ve got a mark…and I will go stand there.” Landmark elements, like items in nature or some sort of signifier on your backdrop can help you figure out where to stand. Then, says Brooke, you stand in front of the camera. “So, I’ve got my focal point, I go stand in front of my camera, click the remote, and you’ll see the lens working to auto-focus on you. And then the red light will start going off, and that’s how you know it’s going to take a picture.”
Once you’ve found your focal point — and it can sometimes take some adjustments — you can switch over to manual focus to lock in that focal point.
If you are going to use a remote, says Brooke, make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to get rid of it or hide it for the image. Using the two-second delay, you’ll be able to get the remote out of frame, whether you tuck it into your clothing or put it somewhere out of sight.
“I like to point it at the camera, click, and then do something with it…whatever I need to do, it needs to be hidden somehow. I’ll put it anywhere.”
Once you’ve got your focal point dialed in, you can experiment with poses, movement, facial expressions, and other elements, knowing that your self-portrait will be in focus.
For more tips on how to take incredible portraits, check out Brooke Shaden’s class, Master Your Craft. You can also bone up on your compositing tools with Brooke’s newest class, Fine Art Compositing.