Posing for a selfie, in my studio. Photo by Sean Nipper, Reel House Films

The bio selfie

I've been needing to do a new self portrait for a long time now. My current one, which is pretty much everywhere, I shot while on tour with Seal in 2009, in a hotel in Spain somewhere, while killing time. Not that you can tell from the photo of course; it's just me in a hat with my face covered. That was the trip where I started wearing these hats, too. I've always loved hats, or at least the idea of hats, but unfortunately could never find a style I thought looked right on me. Then on that trip I bought a €5 hat in a bar in Madrid with the boys from the band and the style kinda stuck. I still have that Madrid one, actually. Pretty good for €5!

Anyway, I was just messing around, not really intending to do anything long-lasting, but then shortly after the tour I needed a bio photo for something, so used that one… and like the hat style, it just kinda stuck. I'd go do speaking engagements on the other side of the world and people would have to identify me by my hat; no one knew what I looked like! It became "a thing", and I just went with it. Here's the 2009 shot…

My original self portrait / bio photo, shot in a hotel in Spain in 2009

Although I suppose that one is better than the one that's on Facebook now…

Oh, the secrets that goat shared with me that day…

Recently though, my LUMIX Luminary manager at Panasonic insisted that I get him a new self portrait for the soon-to-launch redesigned LumixLounge site. One that showed my face, and didn't involve livestock. Go figure.

The idea

I had this idea a long time ago, when I bought a used 4x5 view camera from a photo school graduate. I wanted to photograph the back of the 4x5, with me on the other side of it—so a picture of me through the ground glass. And then, put my hat (gotta have the hat) on top of the camera. Line it up right, and I could be "wearing" the hat through the camera. However, if you're familiar with view cameras, right away you'll spot the problem—I'd be upside down. Knowing that, I thought it'd be really clever if I hung upside down for the shoot, so I was right side up in the camera. Great idea, right?!

First off, it took a year before I found a way to do this. Turns out a buddy of mine Chris Briscoe shoots a lot of silk dancers in his studio, so has a rigging to hang a silk from his ceiling. Perfect. We set a date to do the shoot with another photographer friend who uses his studio, Bryon DeVore. We hung the silk, set up lights, and got everything in place.

Setting up lights, with the silk in place. Photo by Bryon DeVore

That's Bryon, lining things up.

As we were setting it all up, we started to recognize additional challenges. For one, the light loss through the ground glass is intense (several stops), which meant I had to have a LOT of light exposing my face for it to show up properly exposed on the glass plate. Which in itself isn't an issue, but since I wanted to see the out-of-focus upside-down me in the background behind the camera, that'd be quite blown out. Ultimately we found an exposure balance that worked, even though the background was very hot, it was going to be OK.

In this early exposure, you can see that we can barely see the silk in the ground glass. Clearly, a lot more light was going to be needed!

Now we're getting closer, and can see the silk through the glass, but the background is totally blown out. I decided this was OK though, and proceeded from here.

The next notable challenge was focus. First of all, it's hard to focus a 4x5 to begin with. With so much light loss on the glass, it really helps to have a bright subject and to use a loupe on the glass to know if it's sharp or not. But we couldn't put that much light on me; there were no video lights in the studio, and if we opened the skylight, it flooded the set with too much sun. And we couldn't move the setup, since there's only one place to hang the silk from! So anyway it just meant that critical focus took some time. Plus, since the depth of field is so shallow on a 4x5 with the lens wide open, it meant the subject (me, hanging upside down like a drunk monkey), needed to be nearly perfectly still. Which, um, introduced the next problem.

I'm not 12 anymore

Do you have any idea how hard it is to hang upside down… steady yourself… not have your face turn beet red… and hang there virtually frozen long enough for someone to focus a view camera, adjust any final positioning (because you're never in the same place twice), and fire a shot? If you're 12 years old, a ballerina, or a professional silk dancer, then I'm sure this is nothing. But me? Not so much.

I'll cut to the chase… after all this setup, this just was NOT going to happen.

Change of plans

There was no way I was going to comp this in Photoshop. No, I was committed to doing this in-camera. But clearly there was no way I was gonna hang upside down, either. Change of plans… how about I just pose right-side-up, and try a variety of poses; coming in from the side, bending over to "invert" my head, and so on? Yeah, let's try that.

Let's try normal…

From the side?

I know, I'll frame the camera!

Yeah… no. Anything other than relatively straight on just wasn't cutting it. And I realized that my head was this tiny thing in the frame, compared to the hat. Plus being upside down really wasn't what I wanted. This wasn't working, and frankly we were running out of time. I called it, and we broke set so I could rethink the process.

That night at home, playing with the images on my iPad, I did come up with the idea of simply inverting the image. It actually worked quite well… and I almost went with this. However the upside down hat seemed odd, and I figured few people other than old school photographers would "get it". Most would scratch their heads in wonder of what the heck this was all about.

One of the better shots, now inverted to put my mug right-side up. But the hanging hat just was too weird.

Let's shoot again

This did, at least, put me in the frame of mind that it'd be OK to invert the file. But the hat would have to go, and since I really wanted a hat in the photo, that meant it would have to go back on my head. Fine. So I enlisted the help of another friend, Sean Nipper of Reel House Films, to assist with this one. 

Posing for a selfie, in my studio. Photo by Sean Nipper, Reel House Films

With no need to hang from the rafters, I was able to shoot in my own studio. I also have video lights, which as you can see above were being used to light me enough to focus. Bonus!

I shot this on the LUMIX GH4, taking advantage of one of my favorite features… the ability to connect to the iPad and look "through the lens" from the iPad screen. This allowed me to play with positioning without firing a thousand test shots, running back to the camera, then trying to get into the same position again. Plus I was able to fire the trigger myself, truly making it a selfie, and not have to worry about copyright belonging to the someone else (he who pushes the button holds the circle-C)

The GH4 in position, and connected to the iPad.

Me previewing shots on the iPad. Very cool!

Lighting setup

A quick note on the lighting setup… the two octa video lights on me were just for focus. There's a Profoto in a beauty dish on me, with a spot grid to really focus the light. The big black board is a gobo (black foam core), between the beauty dish and the 4x5, blocking light spilling from the dish to the camera. (Actually we put that there when we pulled the grid off the dish and got tons of spill, but then decided to put the grid back on. That gobo could have been removed; it wasn't doing anything at that point.) There's a tiny strobe on a stand, way up high, to add a kiss of light to the hat. And then there's a Profoto in a large octa soft box, also gridded, and further diffused through a big diffusion panel, to light the back of the 4x5 camera. 

It's all about the hat

I started with the brown hat again, as you can see in some of the photos above. But it just wasn't showing well enough. I added a light to fill the top of the hat, but it still wasn't enough. Through the ground glass, it was just a dark shadow that didn't seem to make sense.

The placement looked pretty good, but the dark hat was getting lost.

These shots are, of course, already inverted.

These shots are, of course, already inverted.

Fortunately I have a variety of hats, and Sean brilliantly suggested trying the white one. Yeah! That's the ticket, the white hat!

Flip that file, a little curves adjustment brushed into the image on the glass, and a little retouching to clean things up a bit…

And there we have it! My new self portrait. Maybe. Unless you hate it. 

What do you think? Good selfie for bio images? I realized later that this would have to be cropped in infinite ways… which may not work. But I do like it. Do you?

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