Yesterday I wanted to take some portraits of myself. I barely do this, but I was bored and wanted to do anything productive. Why not taking some perfect self-portraits? I have a very nice Manfrotto tripod, and that would help. I use my Samsung Galaxy Tab A10.1 as field monitor with an OTG adapter cable and the DSLR Dashboard app. So, what could go wrong? I can see on the tablet screen if I am in the frame, and I could just use the exposure delay function of my camera to have enough time to relax and smile.
But it was already late, and my living room is pretty dark because there is just one lightbulb working since I am too lazy to purchase a new set or I always forget it (laugh). But then I decided to turn the light off in my living room, because I wanted to do some experiments with the integrated flash of my D7100. The results were not too bad, in fact the results were quite interesting. And you know why? It was pure coincidence, because I sat on my couch and the PC screen was on my right side and I forgot to turn the screen or PC off. The result was that I had a pretty interesting portrait of myself with one side of the face dark (but not necessarily underexposed), and the other side of the face well-lit.
Ok, this was already pretty awesome but critical as I am, I started to look for issues or things I could improve. It’s obvious and there is a reason why people say “Forget the integrated flash, get a detachable flash unit”. I knew this since I played with point-and-shoot cameras, because using a flash that gets right into your face, is just awful. I didn’t have red-eye problems, but the flash created so much details in my face that I saw every pore of my skin, and every hair of my beard even if I freshly shaved my face earlier in the morning. In other words, I looked like 10 years older. With other subjects you would have said “Man, the detail is awesome”, and I know some people do even take these portraits, but neither was this how I would look like in real, nor was it anything I aimed for when I got the idea to take self-portraits.
I knew it was related to the frontal flash. I knew I could edit the portrait, but why not making it perfect with the camera? But before I shot more photos, I continued to analyze the photos. Currently my couch is not completely at the wall, and this would be very handy because at small aperture I could completely kill the structure of the ingrain wallpaper, in other words I could benefit from the depth of field. I zoomed into the photo and saw it worked well, but that’s where I realized I had super large shadows beside my ears. My head was almost completely surrounded by my own shadow, and especially at the ears it looked funny. I laughed and thought “See how large my ears are”. This is where all the information’s I soaked up in the past about external flash and diffuser gear came up. A nifty tool, if you would own a diffuser, which of course I don’t. But since I already understand what a diffuser does, I got an idea.
Hours earlier I opened a letter, but now I saw the empty envelope on my table. I did fold the envelope in the middle and managed it to attach it somewhere between my 50mm lens and the Nikon logo of my camera. I did fold it in the middle because I wanted that the flash shoots directly at the white envelope, and that the light would then bounce up to the ceiling, and from there back down. Such an easy trick, but the result was miles away from the previous shots, it just looked much better now. The shadows were almost gone, and my face was now more even lit and not so harsh. If this alone would improve the photo so much, what would happen if I would use a much more reflecting material? I went into the kitchen, because I knew that I would have these white trash bags. This time I used an A4 envelope but I did cut it in half to make it smaller. I did cut a piece out of the white trash bag, the same size and attached it to the envelope with tape. Now I did put it between lens and the D7100 flash again…
The improvement was so huge, I had difficulties to believe that I shot the portraits myself. No joke, the photos looked like professionally shot portraits. The DIY diffuser, and the fact that my PC screen exposed one side of my face, it was absolutely stunning to see the result. Now the shadows were not almost gone, they were completely gone. There was zero shadow of my head on the wall. And my face was extremely well exposed, I mean evenly and softly exposed, like I wanted it to be. The highlights on the side of the face where the PC screen would shine, they were maybe a bit harsh, but that was just one mouse click in Lightroom where I decreased the highlights in that area alone and that fixed it. Could it still become better? Well, editing is my thing, so…
I made my eyes pop out. Not too much, but I painted the eyes with the adjustment brush so that I could change certain values there. I exposed the eyes a bit more, I added a bit more clarity, I added sharpness and increased the saturation of the eyes a bit too. Talking about the face, it looked already pretty good with the lightning on one side and shadow on the other side. But I reduced clarity in some areas where I still thought my face would have too much structure, but also just small adjustments because it was not so much about making myself more beautiful but about increasing the portrait quality. Going back between the RAW file and the edited version, it was yet again a huge improvement. As a final step I made some color corrections because I didn’t like the warm temperature of the image. It looked a bit more cold now, but I also created a version that was somewhere between being a colored photo and black and white photo. But both final versions were absolutely stunning.
It was so perfect that I almost wanted to share the portrait on my blog, but since I value my privacy a lot, this is of course no option. So, what is the point of my post then? Well, seriously guys, we don’t own everything, and we probably never will own everything since we are not rich. Neither do I own a flash nor do I have a real diffuser. Maybe I get this stuff in the future but my whole point is that you can do a lot of things with your gear if you just experiment. Just by using a stupid piece of paper and a white trash bag, I improved my portrait like 1000%, and I mean 1000% before I even started to edit the photos! Another great tip is that if you are interested in something, but if you don’t own the required gear yet, inform yourself about it anyway! I mean, you want to get into macro photography but you don’t have the money yet for a decent macro lens? You can already watch macro photography guides before you even own a lens!
The advantage? When the day has come and you got that lens, you will already have decent knowledge, you will be prepared. Maybe not fully, but someone who didn’t learn will attach the lens thinking “Now what?”, while you already have a good starting point. The next thing is that you will discover that you don’t even need an expansive macro lens, no, there are cheaper options that can get you into it. It’s the same with flashes and diffuser, I don’t have this gear but I learned already so much about it. What I want to say is, the pure fact that I know what a diffuser does, made it possible to get the idea to create a DIY diffuser with paper and a cut white trash bag. In other words, the whole point of my article is “What can you achieve with the things you already own?”. It can be super interesting to discover what you can do with what you have. At the end, this is pretty much what creative hobbies like photography are about… being creative, trying things out! And sometimes you might get pleasingly surprised!