The Intimate Self-Portrait: Photography as a Journey of Self Discovery | Dandan Liu | Skillshare

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The Intimate Self-Portrait: Photography as a Journey of Self Discovery

teacher avatar Dandan Liu, Filmmaker | Contemplative Creative

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

14 Lessons (39m)
    • 1. Class Introduction

      3:04
    • 2. Class Project

      0:31
    • 3. Essential Elements of a Beautiful Portrait

      2:51
    • 4. Step 1: Finding the Perfect Pocket of Light

      1:33
    • 5. Step 2: Deciding the Style & Color Palette

      5:25
    • 6. Step 3: Setting Up Your Camera Step By Step

      7:46
    • 7. Embracing Your Inner Critic & Handling Bodily Awkwardness

      2:23
    • 8. Step 4: Photo Improv

      5:27
    • 9. Step 5: Shoot & Flow!

      0:33
    • 10. Step 6: Editing

      1:05
    • 11. Making Corrections with Adobe Lightroom

      5:34
    • 12. Adding Style with VSCO

      1:45
    • 13. Course Wrap-Up & Parting Thoughts

      1:08
    • 14. Newsletter

      0:20
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About This Class

This class is all about taking your own portrait as a process of self discovery and self reclamation. Through the medium of photography, we will create a safe creative space to explore and express our authentic selves, parts that may have been forgotten or hidden for a long time. 

As a photography class, you will learn everything needed to shoot beautiful portraits step-by-step. We will cover the essential elements of a beautiful portrait, like composition, lighting, and color balance. We will also learn how to shoot with a dSLR on manual mode and how to edit your photos for both correction and styling. 

As a class of self-discovery, you will be led through a process called "photo improv," where you'll feel your way into the poses and be guided to connect with your true self. You'll learn how to embrace your inner critic that may prevent you from free expression. This experience is all about surprising yourself! It's a beautiful form of self care and self love. 

Don't worry if you feel like you don't have a beautiful space to shoot in. This class is all about finding beauty in what we have. 

What you'll need: 

  • a dSLR with tripod / phone camera with stand
  • a camera lens, preferably 50 mm (use what you have)
  • a free trial of Adobe Lightroom
  • VSCO photo app downloaded on your phone

By the end of this class, you will have a beautiful self portrait to share with others or keep to yourself.

Meet Your Teacher

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Dandan Liu

Filmmaker | Contemplative Creative

Top Teacher

Hi there! I’m Dandan, a documentary filmmaker and contemplative creative living in Italy. 

As a self-taught filmmaker, I love foraging for unique stories around the world that illuminate the interconnections among us. I started making films while on a 4 year journey living in monasteries around the world. One film led to the next, and after persevering for many years, I found myself working full time on film crews and streaming my films on Roku, Apple TV, museums, trains, and airplanes. My current doc is nominated for an Emmy award! 

I’m passionate about teaching filmmaking, because I believe that everyone can make amazing films without spending thousands of dollars or years in film school. My classes differ from others in that they emphasize an artis... See full profile

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Transcripts

1. Class Introduction: As a documentary filmmaker, I have always been on one side of the camera, receiving other people's faces and stories through my lens. The idea of being on the other side of the camera as a subject of my own film-make and photographic exploration, it never really occurred to me something about that felt uncomfortable, quite vain. I don't want to put that attention on myself. I don't want to shoot myself. Then one day as I was working, I glanced at this corner of my bedroom and withdrawn by the light there. Something about a corner that can be to set up the camera. Of course, I needed a subjective film and I didn't have it so I stepped into the subject seat and photographed myself. That process made me learn how taking a self-portrait is one of the most intimate acts you can do. When you are your own photographer, you step into this private space where you can take off the mask and be whoever you want to be. You feel this full license to express yourself. What is beautiful about this process is that you discover parts of yourself that you never knew were there. Taking your self-portrait is a profound act of self-love. This class is all about taking a self-portrait as a process of self-expression and self-discovery. Emphasizing simplicity, this class presents an intuitive approach to the self-portrait where you feel your way into the photo and trust your instincts. Think of it as photo and draft. It's about surprising yourself. Don't worry if you think you don't have a beautiful space to shoot in. This class is all about finding the beauty in what we have. We'll also learn the essentials of camera techniques so you can set up quickly and get started. For this class, you'll need a tripod and a DSLR with preferably a 50 millimeter lens. If you don't have that, use whatever lens you've got. If you have an iPhone and something that can prop it up, that is cool too. By the end of this class, you will have a beautiful self-portrait to share with others or to keep to yourself. Let's get started. 2. Class Project: Your assignment for this class is to create one self-portrait and share it to the Class Project's page. Remember, your portrait does not have to be fancy. This class synthesizes honesty and self-discovery over elaboration. Express yourself however you wish. So excited to see what you share. 3. Essential Elements of a Beautiful Portrait: Before we start creating our own portrait, I find it helpful to look at other portraits to understand the common elements that make up a beautiful image. For me, I believe the essential elements of a beautiful Internet portrait are chiaroscuro lighting, simplicity, and honesty. Let's start with the first one, chiaroscuro lighting. What does that mean? Chiaroscuro is an Italian term that speaks to the layering of highlights and shadows in an image. In other words, there is a shift from bright to dark in an image. For example, in this famous painting by Vermeer, you can see that one side of her face is brighter than the other which is enveloped in shadow. Here is a photo by photographer Jamie Beck, which shows more layering of these highlights and shadows for bright areas and dark areas. This creates visual intrigue and depth. This iconic portrait by Steve McCurry also shows the chiaroscuro effect, where there is a light source illuminating her face coming from the right. You can see how if you contrast this with an image with flat lighting, which has even brightness levels across the face, the portraits with chiaroscuro just look more interesting and pull you in more. This layering of highlights and shadows is particularly important in black and white photography. If you're thinking about taking a black and white photo of yourself, keep this in mind. The second essential element of a beautiful portrait for me is simplicity, simple compositions that allow the focus to be on the face without too much clutter distracting your attention away from it. The third element of a beautiful portrait for me is honesty. In our society, we're so used to presenting an idealized expected smiley self when someone is taking a photo of us. This isn't a LinkedIn photo, this is a self-portrait. Your opportunity to express your essence. When you encounter a portrait where someone embraces this honesty, you feel it in your gut. To summarize, in my opinion, the three essential elements of a beautiful self portrait are chiaroscuro lighting, simplicity, and honesty. 4. Step 1: Finding the Perfect Pocket of Light: First, we are going to scout for what I call the perfect pocket of light in whatever place you find yourself in. We're going to look for that chiaroscuro effect, which is often located near a window. In fact, if you place yourself to the side of the window, you will have this gradient change in light value. It's often helpful to take some test shots of yourself with your iPhone like I did here in three spots in my studio. If you want, you can do this throughout the day as the light will change. Things to check, are there any unflattering shadows, can clear the backdrop of any clutter? If you have unmovable pieces of furniture, it could be a distraction, If there are wall edges visible or other distractions, is there a way you can drape a curtain or take a bed sheet to have a nice clean canvas for photographing. In fact, you'll see a lot of fashion photography using a bed sheet in the background. Do I have enough space to put a camera or tripod? If you do not have that much space, then I recommend using an iPhone. With these three considerations in mind, go on a scavenger hunt now to find your backdrop, I'll see you in the next lesson. 5. Step 2: Deciding the Style & Color Palette: Now is the time to decide the style of your portrait. What mood are you feeling like expressing? Are you feeling fanciful or simple? Is there a part of yourself that you have hidden but you'd like to be seen. Are you in a unique time of your life that you would like to honor through this photography? I invite you to close your eyes for a second and see what comes up. What colors, textures, or stylistic elements arise. Feel free to jot these down and use them as a guide. While you can keep this portrait very simple. I find that being intentional with your color choice through your hair, makeup, and wardrobe can really bring out whatever it is you want to express. The right use of color can really elevate a portrait. For example, in this iconic portrait, we just saw, there's a complementary color scheme where the two main colors of red and green lie opposite each other on the color wheel. This intimate mother-daughter portrait taken by Annie Leibovitz is one of my all-time favorites and shows a beautiful use of analogous colors, colors next to each other on the color wheel. This one portrait taken by Joanna Kustra shows a beautiful use of what's called a dyadic color scheme. Don't worry if you don't know these color relationships. I'm going to show you a simple process you can use to explore possible color schemes that already take into account these rules. Choosing a balanced color palette. To do this, first, choose a starting color. If your backdrop is colored, you can choose this as your starting color. If you have a particular garment that you would like to, where you can choose as a starting color too. If you have a unique color of hair or eyes that you'd like to stand out. Feel free to use those as well once you've decided take a photo of your starting color element. For example, my backdrop wall was a sequin color, I decided to use that as my starting color element. Then find the color code of that main color by uploading your image to imagecolorpicker.com. Link in the course description. Copy the color code in hex, which begins with a hashtag. Then go to the Adobe color wheel @color.adobe.com and copy that color-coding. As you can see now you can go through various color relationships to see what possibilities you can play with. As you can see in this example, I see that a few different shades of purple come up as I scroll through the palettes. I then thought of what clothing I had that was close to this shade and remembered I had a lilac camisole that was also delicate to convey the authenticity I was expressing, so that's what I wore. It's subtle, but it does bring the color palette into harmony. Especially if you think if I were a yellow top, you could see how about we just throw the image off. Keep in mind that your colors do not have to match the shade exactly as shown in these swatches. As long as it's in the same ballpark, it will look dynamic. If you want to bring additional colors in from the swatches. You can also make your portrait pop by using make-up in one of those other colors. For example, a light eyeliner or lipstick, and that color can really elevate an image. It can be as simple as a red lip against the green backdrop, or these cream orange nails against the blue tones. Another thing to keep in mind, are accessories. Are there any objects you want to play with that you feel would help you express yourself? For example, in my photoshoot, I played with this notion of authenticity by peering behind a mask. I really loved the addition of this metallic scarab by Ciro Galluccio. I also find the subtle eyeliner adds a beautiful element of color and just elevates this portrait into a work of art. I love this portrait of Selma Hayek by Annie Leibovitz, which also demonstrates a beautiful use of color balance. If you have a pet monkey, by all means, feel free to include it in your photo. I hope this cut your creative juices flowing. As you now see the stylistic potentials of your photo. Don't be afraid of simplicity and feel free to play dress up as if you were a kid. I'll see you in the next lesson where we are going to warm up for our photoshoot. 6. Step 3: Setting Up Your Camera Step By Step: Now comes the technical part. We're going to set up our camera for our photoshoot. If you're intimidated by using your camera on manual mode, don't worry, I will break it down for you in the simplest way possible. If you are using an iPhone, you can skip this section. Steps. I know this looks like a lot, but each step is simple and straightforward to set up. Step number one, place your camera on your tripod. Make sure your tripod is leveled properly by checking that the balance bubble is inside the leveler circle. For the height, you want the midpoint of your lens to be eye level with you. Step number two. If you haven't already attached your lens to your camera, I recommend a 50 millimeter lens because that mimics the natural eye. Different lens, focal lens have different effects on the face with wide-angle lenses creating distortion. Here is an example. On the left, the photo was taken with a 50 millimeter lens. On the right, the photo was taken with a 35 millimeter lens. Do you see the difference? Notice how with the 35 millimeter lens, the face looks a bit funny since the ears are pulled back and the face is warped. However, you can use this effect creatively. For example, if you want the face to feel a bit psychologically off, this is actually what they did with the character Amelie. As another example, here is a side-by-side comparison of my face shot with a 50 millimeter lens and a longer 85 millimeter lens. Notice the difference that it makes. If you have an 85 millimeter lens, I recommend you try that since many photographers call this the beauty lens, every face has its own unique affinity for a focal length. Step number three. Turn your camera on and turn the focus to manual. I find manual focus is more reliable than autofocus. Because autofocus can change as you move. However, if you trust your camera's autofocus abilities, then you can leave it on auto. Step number four, set the aspect ratio. This sets the dimensions of the photo. For mine, I chose a four by three aspect ratio, since that's what looks best to my eye and it cut out a lot of unwanted objects around my backdrop that were present in the small space that I was working in. If you can, also set your file format to raw, which records more information than a JPEG. This will make any edits much more smooth. Step number five, adjust the white balance so it matches your lighting conditions. For example, if it's a sunny day, you'll want to choose a sun setting. If it's cloudy, choose the cloudy setting. Step number six. Set the aperture to an F4. You either do this in camera or by rotating your lens until you reach the F4 mark. This determines how blurry your background will be. The higher the aperture or what we call f-stop, the more in detail your background will be, the lower the aperture, the more your background will be blurry, which is usually more visually pleasing for a portrait. Step number seven. Set the ISO until you get a nice brightness level. If you have plenty of light in your space, you'll probably be fine with a low ISO like 200. Watch out for any overexposed areas, which means that your image is too bright and the areas in your image will look white. If it's too dark, increase the ISO until you have nice brightness levels. If it's still too dark when you've hit around ISO 800 or so, check to see if your image starts developing noise. If so, you have two options. You can either choose a brighter place or time of day to shoot, or you can lower your aperture some more if your lens allows, which will make your image brighter. Keep in mind, however, that an aperture of less than an F4 will make it trickier for you to remain in focus in the picture since more will be blurred, you will just have to be very precise in your positioning when taking your photos. More about that, in the next step. Step number eight, set the focus by adjusting the focus ring of your lens. You can either ask someone to stand in the spot where you'll be photographed and adjust the focus until that person is crystal-clear. Or you can place an object in the place where you'll be photographed. In my case, I use this cactus and adjust the focus until the outlines are crystal clear. Make sure to mark this position with some tape on the ground just so you can easily return to this focus point after moving. This is especially important if you set your aperture less than an F4. A frustrating thing is taking all your photos only to discover that you are slightly out of focus afterwards. So take your time with this step. Step number nine, set the timer function so your camera will take multiple photos at regular intervals. I like an interval of three seconds in between photos. You can then flip your viewfinder screen so it will face you as you photograph. After your camera is all set up, take some test shots, adjusting the tripod for height, checking for focus, and making sure nothing is entering the frame that shouldn't be there. Another thing to keep in mind, the further away you are from your backdrop, the more you appear to pop out of the photo and be separate from the background. For example, on the photo on the left, I stood very close to the wall. Notice how you can see the detail of the wall behind me. On the right, I stood further away from the wall. Notice how the background is more blurry. If you compare the candlesticks in both images, you will see the difference. So I recommend being as far from the backdrop as your space allows. With these steps, you are ready to go and have learned how to use a camera on manual mode. Congratulations. I will see you in the next lesson. 7. Embracing Your Inner Critic & Handling Bodily Awkwardness: It can be really uncomfortable and awkward being on the subject side of the camera. Especially if you grew up shy like me, or you grew up believing that putting attention on yourself is feign. You're likely going to hear some voices of your inner critic pop-up telling you that what you are doing if indulgent and feign, selfish, and bringing up all of your insecurities. Whether your face is too small, too big, yada, yada, yada. If you hear these voices, thank your inner critic for its concern. You can even give it a name, and then proceed forward anyway. This is a fantastic opportunity for you to learn how to coexist with your inner critic and not let it get in the way of your own flourishing. The second thing that can happen is that you might not know what to do with your body, with your hands. We're so used to knowing how to behave. That being put on the spot with total freedom, can feel paralyzing. We are going to begin with a warm-up, what I call photo improv. This time is all about being led by your body, by your instinct, instead of your rational thinking, which often cages us in a creative process for keeping us in the familiar. With every snap, do whatever feels right in the moment. Let your feeling be your guide. If self-judgment comes up, acknowledge it and then let it go. Nothing is too crazy here. You might find yourself expressing parts of yourself that you never would have expected. To warm up, you have two options. The first is to dance to a song that you feel pull out parts of you that you'd like to express, or you can follow the guided photo improv warm-up track located in the next class. 8. Step 4: Photo Improv: Photo Improv. Welcome to the photo improv warm-up. This is your safe space to express, explore, and feel your way into the pulses. First, feel your connection to your feet and the solidity of the ground beneath you. Feel your mind, coming back home to your body and take one deep breath, letting go of all tension, any expectations that you have to fulfill, and self-judgment. We're first going to free dance, allowing your body to loosen up and lead your movements. Just follow where it wants to take you. I'm now going to give you a series of questions, and I would like you to answer with your body. Try not to let your head or rational thinking get in the way to the first movement or pulse that arises from your instinct. Free associate with your body, you can take this anywhere you want. Let's begin. How do you feel now? What part of your inner self do you love the most? What part of you wants to be deeply seen? What parts of yourself do you feel most insecure about? How would you describe your phase of life? Imagine your camera was your ideal lover chasing on you, how would you like to be seen? What traits do you want to embody in your future self? Pause now and feel into the depth of you, let your essence come out and sip through your body and face. Allow this expression to be seen and received by the camera. We have now reached the end of this warm-up. I hope you feel loosened up, connected with your true self, and regrounded in your body now for your photoshoot. Enjoy the process. 9. Step 5: Shoot & Flow!: I hope that warm-up allowed you to meet parts of yourself you'd like to express further. Congratulations. You are now ready to do your photoshoot and flow. Surprise yourself. No one is watching, no one has to see what you will take. This is your time to let loose and explore. 10. Step 6: Editing: For this editing section, I'm going to show two simple processes. The first is applying some light touch-ups to our photo, correcting some common issues like brightness levels, and fixing any unwanted color casts. The second is applying some color grading and styling through this fun program called VSCO. For the first process, we're going to use Adobe Lightroom to address any things out of balance. You can download this program as a free two-week trial on adobe.com. For the second process where we will be styling a photo a bit more with color grading, we're going to use the VSCO app downloadable on your phone. VSCO is a more sophisticated version of Instagram with many wonderful color filters that can really elevate your photo and bring out certain moods. Let's begin. 11. Making Corrections with Adobe Lightroom: Here we are, open up your Adobe Lightroom app and upload your photos. As you can see, all of the tools that you'll be using to edit this photo are on your right and they're categorized into different sections. The first which we will be using predominantly has both a light section and a color section. We will go through these one by one. As you can see in my photo, it's a little bit desaturated. To fix that, I am going to go down here to color and increase the saturation. When you do saturation, be careful not to go overboard as it's a very fine line. I'm just going to bump it up a bit for now. Right now I am happy with the general brightness levels of my image. But if your image is too bright or dark, you can fix it with this exposure meter here. I'm also happy with the contrast levels, so I'm going to leave it at that. But if you would like to increase or decrease contrast, you can just tweak them a bit like this. The highlights addressed the brightest areas of your image. As you can see, these areas on my face, which are most reflective. I'm going to see if I can just reduce them a tad bit. The shadows are the opposite of the highlights, so they address the shadows. No surprise. I'm going to see what happens if I raise them up a bit. By altering the highlights and the shadows, you can affect the chiaroscuro ratios. I'll set it there for now. The lights are usually leave and the blacks, you can make your blacks more punchy as you can see if I drag it to the left, or you can make your blacks more milky appearing, but I like them where they are right now. Moving on to the color panel, if you set your white balance correctly, you'll probably won't need to change the color temperature or the tint. If you feel like your white balance is off, you can use this eyedropper here and click on something that's white and it will automatically adjust your color temperature so that your white appears white. As you can see, it's very intuitive. You can just go in and play with these and see whether you like the effect or not. Here on detail. If your image is a little bit too soft, you can increase the sharpness a little bit to bring out some definition. If there are any noise or grain president in your image, you can fix that with the noise reduction. If you go into the crop tab, you can fix any crookedness that may be present. I'm happy with where my images is at now because I level my tripod properly and you can crop out anything that may have unwantingly entered your frame. Here we have the Healing Brush Tool and you can use it if you have any blemishes that you would like to remove. If there are specific parts of your image that you'd like to adjust, then check out the last two tools called the linear gradient and the radial gradient. For example, here in this image, I see that this area around my hand is a little bit too overexposed. I would like to bring down the highlights just a tad so that that area becomes more clear. To do that, I'm going to choose a radial gradient because it's circular. I am going to just create this circle and place it around my hand. As you can see, you can adjust the borders of the circle. We also call this a mask. I'm going to come here and just reduce the highlights. As you can see, it only reduces the highlights in the area that I specified. When you add these masks or these gradients, sometimes the edges of your mask can be very obvious when you make an edit. What you can do to blend the mask in more seamlessly with the rest of the photo. You can come here to feather. What I can do is I can increase a feather so that the edges blend more seamlessly with a photograph. There we go, I'm really loving how this photo looks. I'm going to now export it by going to File, Export. I'm going to export. There we have it. I'm sure you have edited your photos on a smaller scale in your phone like this. I hope this shows you that if there are some brightness issues or color issues with your photo, that you can easily fix them. I'll see you in the next lesson. 12. Adding Style with VSCO: Now we are going to have some fun by looking at an editing process where we can add some style through color grading to our photo. For this, we are going to use the VSCO app, which is like a more advanced version of Instagram. You want to download this app on your phone, and when you open the app, it should bring you into this page where you can upload your photo by pressing the plus sign. As you can see, it will then bring you to the preset page. Instead of just seeing one preset at a time, you can switch to seeing multiple presets by pressing on the square button on the bottom left. I love these filters because most of them apply subtle changes that really make a big difference in the way your image looks and feels. If you'd like a black and white image, there are some fantastic black and white presets too. Once you selected a preset, you can also change the strength of the preset and also do some basic editing through their tools on the bottom. As you can see, you can get really creative with this. It's a simple way to transform your photo into a work of art. After you are happy with your photo, you can then export it by saving it to your camera roll. Pretty cool. I hope you will really enjoy this process and leave with a self-portrait that you will cherish for a long time. 13. Course Wrap-Up & Parting Thoughts: How did that go? I hope it was fun and liberating for you and that you are able to reclaim parts of yourself that you have lost connection with for a long time. If you do feel good to share, I would love to see your creation. There's something that can be so healing and wonderful about being seen. Especially on Skillshare, it's a safe and supportive community, so feel free to upload it on the projects page. If you enjoyed this class, I also invite you to check my on creativity classes on my course instructor page. Some popular ones include my creative mindfulness class, and thriving through uncertainty and setback on your creative career. Thank you all so much for joining me on this journey, and I wish you all the best for your creative endeavors. Until next time. 14. Newsletter: If you like this course, I invite you to sign up for my newsletter where I share exciting updates, high-value insights, and curated inspiration. Link on my course instructor page.