The self timer. An important tool for photographers who work alone.

This is me. Or at least it was me this past Spring on a rainy day inside Zach Theatre. I'm sure you're wondering why I am standing in the frame with a loony grin on my face and the word "dream" over might right shoulder. Well, I am not really trying to fill up my selfie portfolio, I am trying to make sure the lighting I've set up, and the composition I've set up for my interview with singer, Jennifer Halliday is exactly what we need and want for the video interview we'd be doing ten minutes later.

I was using four fluorescent light fixtures and trying to make sure that the levels were correct and that the color matched the look and feel of the background without any weird color casts. I'd arrived about 45 minutes before the interview was schedule to start and the first thing I did was to put up the camera I'd be using to record a 5 to 10 minute program. It was a Nikon D810 with and 85mm f1.8G lens. Once I had the background framed I started working on how I would frame Ms. Halliday. The next step was to put an "X" of gaffer's tape on the floor to market the "sweet spot" of the composition so I'd be able to move Ms. Halliday into place with a minimum of indecision.

When the composition and camera position were set I started setting up the lights, aiming for a nice bright interview area with lots of soft and flattering light. I've set up lots of portrait lights and interview lighting designs but I always want to see how the end product will look on a human face before I have my subjects walk into the set and get started. I think it's rude to do a lot of fine tuning while everyone waits on you.   So I put the Nikon into its still mode, turn on the self timer and set it to a ten second delay, manually focus by intuition and then step onto the "X" on the floor.

A few seconds later and the shutter fires. Now I have an image I can look at, dissect, etc. which gives me a reference for fine-tuning the lighting, the composition and everything else. I might go back and forth to the camera a handful of times doing an iterative process of correcting and verifying, correcting and verifying, until I am satisfied that what I've done will work for the job.

I leave all the lights on while waiting for the subject to arrive. I want the room to appear as it will be throughout the interview. No changes = less resistance.  Once we've got the tech set I do one more self-timer shot to double check all the final adjustments and then switch the camera over to video capture.

Lots of people work with crews of three or four (or more) people. I dislike having lots of people on sets. There are too many places for our subjects to look; too many eyelines, too many distractions. Certainly I'll bring along enough people to help if there are lots of moves to be made, lots of gear to be transported, and lots of things happening almost simultaneously, but I think a lot of photo and video shoots are wildly overpopulated by "staff" and that photographers and videographers are fooling themselves if they think having a bustling entourage is always helpful. A full room diminishes your hopes for any sort of intimacy or connection with your subject.

This is why the self-timer is an integral part of my set up. It allows me to have control over the look and feel of my lighting and composition without the need for a bevy of warm bodies wandering about the sets.

The way I like to work is very dependent on one thing in particular: I want all the set up, the sausage making, to happen before my subject(s) steps into the room. An actor, model or real life human should be able to walk into your shooting environment, find their mark and do their part of the job without waiting for you to get ready. I guarantee that this sort of pre-production makes everyone happier.

Self-timer. Set lighting. Composition.  Finally, a constructive use for the "selfie."

1 comment:

Michael Meissner said...

While using the timer option on the camera is the simplest (since you don't need extra gear), using a radio remote or the newer cameras abilities to be triggered by smartphones might be useful for your readers that need to use themselves as stand-ins to get the lighting right.

The 30 second timer reminds me of too many family gatherings, where the photographer activates the timer and then runs to get into the shot. You also run the risk of tripping when running to get into the shot or knocking something over.

Using a wired shutter release has the problem that if you have the camera mounted on a consumer grade tripod, you can pull the camera down. I have done that in the past, but fortunately the E-1 and the 14-54mm survived the fall (the FL-50 flash on the other hand did not).

With framing, it can be useful if the photograph can see the image when they do the selfie if they don't have the eye to know exactly where to stand for a given camera/lens combination. The few times I've done it, it was helpful to have a camera with an lcd that can twist out so you can see it from the front (i.e. Olympus E-M5 mark 2 or Olympus E-5 compared to the other Pen/OM-D cameras). With modern wi-fi cameras you can see the image on the phone before shooting. With some cameras, you could also get a small external monitor.