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Why Should You Plan A Shot?

Why Should You Plan A Shot? - Miss Aniela shows us how a little planning can make a big difference to a photograph.

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Portraits and People

This excerpt is from pages 46-47 of Self Portrait Photography by Natalie Dybisz (Miss Aniela). Visit ilex for more information.

 The adjustment
Image © Natalie Dybisz (Miss Aniela).
This is an example of a self-portrait that I feel is more concept led than the vast majority of my images, and yet the shooting process was somewhat unexpected, and led predominantly by my eye. I chose my outfit, props and location, and had the themes of the spine and chiropractic in mind, but did not know what I would eventually produce. I allowed the spirit of the shoot to guide me into creating an array of poses until I started to observe a synergy between the tree and myself.

This is where we think holistically about our equipment, styling and location. The equipment we use will influence how the shooting is done: if we have a remote, for example, we will be able to shoot more images quicker, and further away from the camera (within limits). Our styling, from clothes to makeup, will dictate the artistic direction of the shot, while the location will have both esthetic and practical considerations.

It is interesting to look at the way different artists work and to observe the way their habits change over time. Each contributor in Chapter Five recounts his or her own journey and how they have approached self-portraiture; some are more methodical with their planning than others, and some have tried to tighten up their attention to forethought over time. All of them have learned to embrace a little spontaneity.

Images © Natalie Dybisz (Miss Aniela).

Your shooting will always be driven by a desire: what has inspired you to pick up the camera? Self-portraiture is often very personal and you may find that you are motivated to address an issue that is happening in your own life at the moment, even if the outcome is somewhat more “universal” and relevant to anyone. Is there a theme or topic you want to address that may not be so confined to your own life in terms of relevance? For example, you may want to draw people’s attention to topical issues that you are passionate about. Making notes about what is on your mind can be helpful, especially if there are a lot of things buzzing about your brain that you can make clearer on paper before you start shooting.

Many photographers find sketching useful—even those who can’t draw very well! Sketching out an idea, be it a simple stickman diagram or an elaborate storyboard (depending on your skills and patience) is a good way to get thinking visually as soon as possible. It does, however, require you to envisage something about your composition before you have got into the shooting, and therefore, to know something ahead of the shoot. Even if you don’t follow your sketches, it can be a good way to get your ideas moving.

Once you are in your location, with your equipment, and your necessary styling all ready, how do you go about shooting yourself? I start by reviewing the scene and looking through the viewfinder of the camera to really establish what I want to shoot before mounting the camera on a tripod (assuming I am not in a situation where I have propped my camera on the floor or against an object). Thinking about your distance from the camera is important in self-portraiture, otherwise you might end up with headless shots or images that are out of focus. With digital cameras, it is easy to fire off some test shots to guide you into an appropriate position within the frame, without wasting resources as with film. If you are working with film, you will need to think ahead about your position, as you won’t be able to check the result until after the shot has been taken. I also use these initial test shots to get a feel for the mood, the light, the color, and decide whether there is something of interest that will keep the shoot going.

Using the ten-second timer, the process can be slow walking back and forth from the camera, so a remote is recommended for keeping the pace. However, you still need to return to the camera to check the results that will inform the next shot, and you may well find that even if you have an intended direction, you can’t just tweak it slightly for the subsequent shot—the next photo might be completely different. If you want accuracy, you have to work hard on being able to replicate exactly where you were positioned in one shot, to be able to tweak one aspect for the next. This is where tethered shooting can come in extremely handy.

If you want to manually focus your images, you will most likely need someone to assist you, so you can position yourself in the shot first. I recommend auto-focusing, so that you can do the job of focusing the lens on yourself while you stand in the shot. That is, of course, if you want to be in focus. If not, then you can manually focus the lens to whatever focal point you desire, provided that the object is already in the frame, and then step into the composition. Not everyone likes to use auto-focusing, but I have found it absolutely necessary for independent and accurate self-portraiture.

Due to the trial-and-error nature of shooting self-portraiture, how do you know when to stop? I would recommend that you keep going until you have at least a few shots that interest you, but it entirely depends on the context. If you’re in a faraway or obscure location or have spent a great deal of time on preparation, you will naturally want to get as much as possible from the shoot. However, I always find it easier to work with fewer shots, as you are clearer on the options and possibilities when it comes to the selecting and editing stage. Fewer could mean ten rather than 80, or 50 rather than 200. I either stop when I’m fed up or tired, or when I know I have a shot complete in-camera that excites me beyond belief (a rare occasion—examples include Life on the Downs on page 65 and The Dance on page 59). The selecting and editing stage for me, however, is most often the time when I can decide whether a shoot has been a success or not. Even the obvious difference between the way images look on your camera’s LCD screen compared to the computer screen can drastically alter your impression of a shoot.

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