I’m often surprised about some of the questions people ask me about my photos. The most common question is whether the woman in the image “Behind The Veil” is my wife. The answer to that one is easy. No. That was a professional model. My wife is much more beautiful.
But after that, the next 3 questions I’m asked most often are about the portrait of me that appears in the “About” section of this website and on my business cards and my Facebook page. I find it very surprising that people would want to know the details of a simple portrait.
The first thing people want to know about my portrait is: Who took the photo? The answer is that I did. That almost always invites the second question: Did I photograph myself in a mirror. No. And there’s always someone with a third question–why did I cut off the top of my head.
Okay, since the technical details behind my self-portrait are apparently so much more interesting to some of you than I could have ever imagined (you know who you are—and you really need to develop some other interests!!!), here’s the story. I made the photo on a very hot afternoon in Houston, Texas, in July of last year. I don’t know the exact temperature at the time, but it was probably between 95°F and 100°F (35°C and 38°C), with probably 95% humidity. The reason I mention the location, the time of year, the temperature, and the humidity will be made clear in a minute.
I wanted an outdoor shot, with me against some kind of rugged backdrop, to convey the fact that I am such a rugged individual (okay, maybe not). Well, there isn’t any really rugged terrain within nearly 200 miles of Houston (despite what you see in the movies), so I decided that I would just have a backdrop that conveyed the outdoors. Now, like many of you, I actually have an outdoors that just happens to be . . . out the door . . . of my house. I decided to use my back yard.
I settled upon a 2-camera setup for the photo. Why not use a mirror? Well, for one thing, I don’t have a mirror that big that I can move into my back yard. Another reason is that everything in the photo would be reversed. (I’m always amused by self portraits of photographers posing with their “NOKIN,” “NONAC,” and “YNOS” cameras.)
I decided to make a self-portrait showing me with a camera because (wait for it, wait for it) I wanted to convey the idea on my business literature that I am a . . . photographer. And that I actually own a camera.
I set the first camera (my old Phase One DF+ was going to be in the portrait with me) on a tripod. Then, I put the camera that I was going to use to take the photo (a Leica S2) on another tripod. I used a 120mm medium format lens on the Leica S2, which is about the equivalent of a 90mm lens on a full-frame camera like a Nikon D810 or Canon 5DIII.
(GEEK TECHNICAL NOTE: The Leica S2 sensor is slightly smaller than other medium-format sensors. A 120mm lens on a Phase, which has a larger sensor, would be more like a 75mm on a full-frame. I like the short telephoto medium-format lenses for portraiture because they are relatively distortion-free while yielding excellent bokeh.)
I focused the Leica S2 on the other camera because I planned on being in the photo on about the same plane as the camera. But I used a wide aperture because I wanted a very narrow depth of field, with good bokeh.
At the time I took the photo, and probably still today, Leica didn’t make a remote trigger for the S2, and none of the commercially-available remote triggers on the market could be configured to work with an S2. I tried to use a pair of Pocket Wizards and a custom-made Leica S2 cable to operate the shutter on the S2, but either the cable was defective, or the S2 had a defective port.
The only alternative was to use the 12-second timer on the Leica S2 to trip the shutter. So, in the middle of summer, in Houston, in sweltering heat, wearing a heavy jacket (to look rugged!), I pressed the shutter button on the Leica S2, ran over and stood next to the other camera, wiped the sweat from my face, and smiled. Then I walked back to the Leica, pressed the shutter button again, ran over and stood next to the other camera, wiped the sweat from my face again, and smiled. I did that over and over and over in the heat, becoming more and more drenched with sweat. I was able to take about 20 shots before I had to go in the house and stand in front of the open refrigerator door. The photo you see above is one of the few where I was both in focus and without visible drops of sweat on my face. And where I wasn’t grimacing.
But I didn’t do all of this by myself. Oh, no. I had plenty of help from The Unruly Beasts (my Labrador Retrievers, Lucy and Cosmo). They thought it was a fun game when I was running back and forth between cameras. Such a fun game, in fact, that they kept trying to get between my legs as I was running.
Why did I cut off the top of my head? There’s a little bit of controversy about that in the photographic community, but that’s a trend that was started (or at least popularized) by Peter Hurley, one of the most famous portrait photographers in the United States. Peter’s rationale is that everyone’s head has a top, and unless there’s something special about it, nobody really cares what it looks like. My reason for chopping off the top of the head instead of leaving the full head in the frame: I just think it makes the person in the photo look taller. When people look at my portrait, I want them to say to themselves, “Not only is he handsome, but he’s rugged. AND tall.”
And that is the story of how I made this self-portrait. Wheeee! This photography business is easy!!!