Self-portrait photography is a powerful tool for self-expression and self-discovery.
It allows you, the photographer, to explore your own identity, personality, emotions, history and creative passions through visual storytelling.
Conceptual self-portrait photography takes this idea to the next level, incorporating themes, a central message and symbolism into the images.
While I’ve always been artistically inclined, it was in 2019 that I found this genre, and I couldn’t be happier that I did.
Like most artists, I pride myself in wanting to learn and develop my practice constantly and I never think to myself, “Right, that’s that then. I know everything. I’m going to do what I now know for the rest of my life.”
My work would get pretty boring pretty quickly, both for myself and for my audience as well.
One of my favourite ways to learn is to go behind the scenes and see how other artists have approached their work from start to finish.
I find this inspiring and motivating.
I invite you now to have a look behind the scenes of some of my conceptual self-portraits. Here, you’ll find practical tips for my entire process, from conceptualisation to post-production.
Breaking It Down
In the summer of 2020, between two lockdowns, I was able to travel to Hungary from the UK and surprise my parents with a visit.
I took my camera, of course. Due to being spoiled by my Mum and Dad as usual, I was able to relax for a week without any responsibilities.
Naturally, this provided a lot of free thinking time and, eventually, six self-portraits.
The first step towards creating any image is coming up with an idea or theme.
Now, this doesn’t have to start deep, so don’t worry yourself too much because that could very easily put a block on your creativity.
Although I’ve already spent a long time understanding my personal drive behind the work I produce in general (see my post 11 Tips for Capturing Authenticity in Self-Portrait Photography to find your own), I didn’t come up with the idea for the image above based on that.
Sometimes, you just have to listen to whispers of intuition, grab them and bring them to life – just because they whispered to you.
I was wandering around the garden and two things caught my eye; a pile of large wooden troughs my Dad collected, and a wonderful crumbly wall behind the garage, complete with climbing vines.
The wall was the most gorgeous, typical Eastern European yellow that you can’t find anywhere else.
Seeing these, for some strange reason (this is the whisper you want to listen out for), I was reminded of a childhood book of mine.
In the book, a little boy’s mother goes shopping and he spends the day looking for her. At one point, he looks in the local police station’s lost and found section and there he finds all these mums sitting in boxes waiting to be collected.
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A strange little story, but that image of the boxes with people cooped up inside made me want to recreate my own version.
(If you want some ideas on how to find free and cheap props, see my post, Creative Self-Portrait Photography on a Budget.)
Location and Set Design
Usually, you need to consider how you want to frame your main subject matter.
In this instance, my job was made easy by the green leaves of the trees, one on either side of my chosen wall, giving it a natural frame.
Including nature in stories is important to me because it represents determination, mystery, beauty and an elemental connection between every human on earth.
Another very essential aspect to think about before you start shooting is lighting.
I mostly work in overcast weather, so I don’t later have to battle with trying to match highlights, shadows and colours in post-production compositing.
I seem to remember this was a rather sunny summer’s day, which wasn’t a problem as long as I worked out what time of day this area was in the shade.
Props were already chosen in the shape of the troughs, which would act as my individual compartments.
When selecting a costume, again, it’s worth thinking ahead. I specifically chose a dressing gown, not only for its timeless feel, but also for its striking colour.
The stronger the colour, the easier it is to manipulate later in post-production.
Camera and Equipment
Two things needed to stay absolutely stationary for the final image to work:
Firstly the boxes, even though I would have to hop in and out of them between shots.
Secondly, the tripod.
I use a Sony a7R III on a 3 Legged Thing tripod.
The important thing to remember here is to lock the height and the angle of your camera so it stays put throughout the entire shoot.
You could use a wireless remote control to release the shutter, but I choose to use Sony’s app on my phone, which acts as a remote while also giving me a glimpse into what my camera sees.
Sadly, I can’t focus through the app, so locking that too before I got into position was vital.
To lock your focus, put anything you have available in the place you will be positioned – e.g. a coat, a bag, etc.
Switch your camera to its manual focus setting and, depending on your camera’s system requirements, lock its focus.
There will be lots of tutorials on YouTube where you can learn how to do this for your specific kit.
You can communicate so much of your emotions through your body language and facial expressions if you choose to.
Personally, I like to hide my face so it’s easier for the viewer to project their own stories onto the images, and instead use symbolism to communicate.
I managed to do most of the shoot on my own.
One of the attractions of self-portrait photography to me is the ability to work on my own without the stress or expectations the presence of more people could bring to a shoot.
I know a lot of people love to work with a team, and that’s great, but it’s just not for me.
This time however, I had to get my trusted assistant to help me keep the very top of the troughs secured to the wall, because every time I tried on my own, I just toppled straight out.
If in post-processing you wish to expand your frame in any direction, then now is the time to go back to your camera and slightly change the angle to take shots that were just outside of your original frame.
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Keep the height at the same level, though. You’re just gathering a little bit extra here to “stitch” onto the edges of your original shots later to make everything just a bit bigger.
I also like to take a blank shot of the location without me in the frame, just in case I need it for blending later.
After gathering enough raw material to work with, the final step is post-processing.
As you can see above, this particular image required quite a lot of cutting out, inserting and blending to make about seven or eight separate photographs look like one.
The brush tool on a soft setting is your best friend here!
I use a Wacom Cintiq Pro 32” display monitor when editing in Photoshop. It came with a hefty price tag, but definitely worth the investment. It has elevated my game in the world of photo manipulation.
Once I finish compositing, I like to play with colour a lot and really enjoy accentuating elements by bringing up the highlights and deepening the shadows.
I would advise you to stay away from your Dodge and Burn tools, as those are irreversible, but instead add separate layers of curve adjustments.
With these, you can bring up the highlights, then invert the curve layer with Ctrl+I and finally, with a brush set to white, brush the highlights onto the areas you wish to lighten.
The same goes for your shadows, but this time in your curves layer, drag the shadows to deeper depths. Invert and brush as before.
The Emerging Meaning
It’s quite possible that the deeper meaning to your image will emerge during the shoot. Perhaps it will come later, when you’ve completed your piece and you’re able to just sit with it for a while.
Be patient and don’t force anything. Just because nothing obvious jumps out at you, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Your audience might well connect with it in ways you never even imagined.
I’ve created work before that I had no idea what it was about, and when exhibited a visitor told me a story she associated with it. And that was it!
The process of creating a conceptual self-portrait can be challenging from start to finish and even beyond, but it’s all incredibly rewarding.
Be open to those whispers, experiment and above all, practice.
With time, dedication, a thirst for knowledge and the determination to keep developing, you will create powerful self-portraits that reflect your unique artistic vision.
Before I sign off, I want to share a behind-the-scenes video with you to accompany my piece called There’s a ghost in my heart.
The creation of each image is an adventure of its own filled with creativity, passion and stories; at times, quite a lot of frustration when things prove to be more challenging; and most significantly, a whole lot of fun.
Veronika Lavey is a multi-cultural artist specialising in conceptual self-portraiture. She is recognised for her dark, thought-provoking fine art photography.
When Veronika doesn’t have a camera or a paint brush in her hands, she’s most likely walking her giant fluffy dog, Sonic in the woods, or hanging out with her family.