Oh no, he's back!
Ah, but enough of the gloom. I have no intention of plunging into the dark, inky depths of the humdrum life I am obliged to suffer for the moment. Writing a blog for me has always been (and hope will forever remain) one of many exit ramps from the highway to hell.
But perhaps, the introductory paragraph was meant to serve as an excuse to explain why this piece of excessive verbose is not the usual output that springs from the overactive neurons running around in my head. Said neurons have recently been too busy plotting excruciating vengeance instead of sensibly contemplating the sayings of masters of the art of photography. So I must apologize to the followers (if there are any at all, for I have not yet become egotistical enough to take for granted that there must be) of my ramblings for the fact that they will not find any pearls of wisdom. But I do hope that, perhaps, just perhaps, someone may glean something that may be of some use to them.
Photographs are more than a depiction of a moment in time. The stories behind the moment and the emotions tied to the moment are the true value of a picture. Most of the time, the significance of an image is obvious for the subjects in the photograph, but we often tend to forget that the photographer too may have an emotional connection to the work. Self-portraiture has to be the most obvious opportunity for both these aspects to merge together.
Yesterday, the current assignment of self-portraiture at Dreamstime closed for submissions. And for once I actually participated. Work on this assignment has been one of the very rare slivers of fun that I have been able to indulge in during the past month so it is only natural that I try to prolong the sense of satisfaction for a while longer by thinking back on it.
I usually do not participate in assignments or competitions. First reason being, that I have not yet been able to imbue myself with the blind faith required to believe that my work is of sufficient caliber to stand any extensive scrutiny. Secondly, I am just plain lazy to think of a convincing or strong concept. Thirdly, even when I do get of my ample behind with an interesting idea, my glib is not of sufficient quality to persuade people to sign a release permitting me to execute my ideas and submit them for sale (I haven’t even managed to persuade my wife to offer her likeness in images for sale).
Oh, I did resist. But, for once, the creative shadow shot down the practical shadow without mercy.
When I saw this assignment, several ideas immediately popped into my head without any effort at all. So any excuses about how much it would take to conjure up an exciting concept were, de facto, not valid.
Then, the question of signing a model release found no defensible answer. Seriously, how could I justify refusing to sign my own model release? What right would I have to complain when others refused to do so, if I would not do it myself. More than anything else, it was the fear of losing the right to complain that prompted me to abandon objections in this area.
Only the strongest of all excuses remained. Am I good enough? Will anything I do pass muster with the reviewers? And once again, I found that I my very own words to be against me. The question “Why not?” popped into my head (a few years back this interrogation had been the subject of another blog of mine “ The Why Not Factor" and so I surrendered.
Then it was time to tackle the practicalities of setting up the shoot. I don’t have a studio, no lighting equipment other than a Canon 580EX Speedlite flash. Ah, perfect excuse to give up.
But I do like to at least pretend to wrestle with an excuse before using it to abandon a project. So I went around the stores, asking for advice. Surprisingly, someone actually provided me with a solution and so I bought up a wireless remote flash trigger mechanism. I also bought a reflector (I am too lazy to make my own, and honestly all my previous attempts at DIY photo equipment such as light tents have been such abysmal failures that I end up spending more money than just buying an industrial model).
Then I needed space to set-up my “studio”. The stairwell in my apartment building unfortunately has huge windows that let in enormous amounts of natural light. So that seemed to be a non-starter as an excuse.
So it came to pass that one Saturday morning, I started moving chairs, tripods, and various other props to the stairwell while trying to avoid waking up my neighbours. And having only two hands, it turned out that it was all hard work. I can’t remember the number of times I had to walk that same space of two meters to get everything there, but I am sure it was the most strenuous workout I have had all year.
So having got everything where I wanted it, I started setting up the shot. I needed a stand-in for myself to make sure the focus on the camera was set right. I seem to have thrown away all my teddy bears when I turned 37 (hey, no sniggering), so didn’t really have anything that would be a passable imitation of me sitting on a chair. I did think of waking up my wife and asking her to sit in my place, but abandoned that idea fairly rapidly. Even though she is the sweetest, gentlest and most generous woman I have ever known, my wife has the capacity to transform herself into a lethal weapon of nuclear proportions if roused from her sleep before noon on a weekend.
The solution was actually rather simple once I figured out that the direction in which one faces has nothing to do with the distance between two points (how come no one ever explicitly mentions things like this in geometry class?). So I focused on the tripod head from where I would be posing and switched to manual focus to lock it in. Taking extreme care not to touch the focus ring after that, I set the camera on the tripod. P.S. Just in case you missed it that was a practical hint right there. Don’t ever say my blogs are useless again.
For the next few hours I think I must have run the distance of a marathon. At least I think I must have judging by the amount of sweat that was streaming down my back when I started to return all the equipment back to the apartment.
My set-up was fairly simple. I posed next to the window so there was natural light falling on my left side, and I set up a reflector on my right side. Unfortunately, I had omitted to consider how to set up the reflector so that it was in the correct position. In the end, I was obliged to leave the reflector on the floor leaning against a stool so that light was being angled up to my face from below. Sufficed to say it was not ideal, and the light falling on the right side of my face was perfectly out of balance from the light falling on the left side of my face. So I tried to compensate by setting up the flash. To be honest, that didn’t work so great either, as I found out later. But at the moment, the results depicted on LCD screen on the back of my camera looked pretty damn good to me. And so I happily, tried a few of my sexiest poses, mistakenly thinking that I was creating a masterpiece.
One thing I did learn is that I would make a pretty terrible actor. I would take a pose, thinking that a sly, seductive, Harrison Ford-esque smile was gracing my features and that the story being told was of a person floating in serene rapture. But when reviewing the results on the screen of my computer, I would inevitably be confronted with the face of a schizophrenic, paranoid axe-murderer. Method acting is obviously not my forte. I now have absolute proof that the only place for me, whenever there is an optical lens present, is behind it and never under any circumstances, in front of it.
Eventually, I just decided to just fool around and forget about the assignment or creating a perfect self-portrait. And it was actually a picture resulting from this larking around that ended up being accepted and not from any of the more “seriously considered” compositions.
I forgot all about perfect exposure, blown highlights or deep shadows, and held the flash in my hand out of frame and tripped the shutter. Once my eyes could see again, after having been deprived of their senses for a bit by the intensive burst of light, I curiously checked the results. And though I thought that it would never get accepted I found myself thinking that it was the best picture I had taken that morning. The overwhelming desire to just pack up and lounge on the sofa may also have had something to do with my willingness to so readily accept the result.
A few days later, after having battled with my desire to passionately throttle someone, I found some courage and a little strength to process the pictures. And with some trepidation, I put a couple of the photos on my Facebook page requesting feedback from the people who have been kind enough to show some interest in my amateurish work. I absolutely expected to be inundated by comments pointing out why the light was all wrong, and why the composition didn’t work that I was slightly taken aback with the positive comments I received.
And so, thus encouraged, I submitted (with yet more trepidation) a couple of pictures to the assignment. One of them got rejected outright for inappropriate exposure (I mean lighting balance and not indecent demonstration of parts of my anatomy. Gosh, do try picking your mind out of the gutter why don’t you. Or is that just me?).
But, for the second image, I received a very kind message from the reviewer that with a little more post-processing work the picture could be accepted. Imagine that a reviewer actually sending a personal message in a refusal to suggest specifically how to improve a submission in order for it to get accepted. And so I set about yet again to play with curves and layer masks. And so, I present to you my first assignment picture accepted by Dreamstime. Who knows if there will be another, even if there is this one will forever be a special one.
So, what have I learnt personally from all this? Maybe, “learnt” is not the right word, for I already knew, as I am sure we all do, what I think is the real moral of this looooooooong and rambling page. But, it is well worth being reminded of these things as we struggle to get through the blackness that may pervade our on-going and uphill struggles to get through each day.
ONE: “Why not?” is possibly the best reason there exists to do something (Ummmm, please do not use that as an excuse to jump off a building, or to aim a gun at someone. A minimum amount of good sense is expected from anyone asking themselves that question). Rather than finding excuses why not to try something, we should all find reasons to try something new. Sometimes, just being able to say that we tried something is enough of a reason to attempt it.
SECOND: Have fun. We all know that that we give the best of ourselves and achieve our full potential when we are having fun. Sometimes, it is just better to forget the rules and the conventional wisdom and go a little crazy. Stop worrying about what others may think, or the effort and work that needs to be put in to get something worthwhile out. Sometimes, just doing something for the heck of it is the best thing that can happen.
As always, I end with a personal request. Please, if you have enjoyed this blog or like my portfolio, please visit my Facebook page Shadow69 Photography and click on “Like” to show your appreciation and support.
Muchas gracias amigos.
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Photo credits: Abdul Sami Haqqani.