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Moment Driven Self Portraits by Anna Holden

Next up on the blog.... Anna Holden is a documentary family photographer based in Connecticut, USA. Whilst she loves photographing the lives of others, one of her current passions is getting in the frame with her own family and documenting the things she doesn't want to forget. Here, she shares some of the things she has learned to encourage the TDL community to do the same........

It’s been a rough year.

A global pandemic. Watching the world suffer and shut down. Months of social isolation. Worrying about getting sick or being asymptomatic and infecting a loved one. Realizing how very racist our society still is. Seeing the effects of Global Warming almost daily. Stressing over what the future will bring. All while home-schooling the kids, working from home, and attempting to maintain some semblance of order in the house.

Yet, I’d argue that it’s more important than ever to document our days.

Family dinner in April. Our oldest should have been at college, but she came home for spring break and never went back. ‘By staying home you save lives’ and ‘#FlattenTheCurve’ flash on the TV throughout dinner

These are unprecedented times. This pandemic will go down in the history books. Your grandkids will want to know what life looked like. Regardless of how you’re feeling, I urge you to not only document these days, but also make sure YOU are in some of the photos. You’ll be glad you did. I promise. And with photographers considered non-essential personnel, this means making self-portraits. That is, unless you have one of those rare and mythical partners who actually takes photos.

Barbers were also non-essential personnel. So for the first time ever, I picked up a pair of clippers and gave my little guy a haircut.

Yeah, I don’t have one of those. As such, I’ve been working on my self-portrait craft for the past few years. I want to be sure my family has photos of me, not just taken by me, to remember the fun we had growing up, our home throughout the years, and ultimately, how very much I love them. It's likely these photos will likely be the only photos I’m in with my family for the entire year. The only photos showing what my days, my life, looked like during these crazy days.

So I’d like to share some things I’ve learned to make it easier for you and encourage you to begin making your own self-portraits with your family.

So much more togetherness during lockdown; so many meals at home. And these two still insist on sitting on my lap every now and again.

1. Intervalometers (or Interval Timers). Not just for star trails.

I started my journey with a remote, but tossed that aside once I discovered the intervalometer. Most cameras have one built in for time-lapse photography, but they are equally amazing for capturing authentic, moment-driven, self-portraits. Learn how to use yours! I set mine up to shoot 300 frames, one every second, which gives me 5 minutes at a pop to be present with my family. Naturally, there’s a lot of crap, BUT there’s always a gem or two mixed in. I highly recommend culling the photos quickly and as soon as possible. Often, I’ll shoot something 3 times, leading to 900 photos in just fifteen minutes! I make it a point to blow through them ASAP, flagging only a handful or so that jump out to me, and deleting the rest right away; otherwise they build up and clog my computer rather quickly.

My vegetable garden has never done better as we’ve had nowhere to go this summer. I set the camera up here to get the kids helping me pick tomatoes, but I can never resist giving my daughter’s bare belly a zerber and this photo is by far my favorite from this session. Love one second intervals for capturing real moments and true emotions. 

2. Nailing Focus (from in front of the camera!)

I know, I know. It’s hard enough to focus on what you want when you have your camera in hand. HOW do you focus on multiple, moving subjects when you, yourself, are one of them?! For starters, I always shoot self-portraits at a higher f-stop than normal. This means I also bump up my ISO significantly as I’m usually shooting my (moving) kids and don’t want to sacrifice shutter speed either. This gives me a greater depth of field and thus, a better shot at things being in focus.

Another thing to be mindful of is whether your camera allows for continuous auto focus when using the interval timer. My Nikon does, meaning it will constantly refocus, which is great if there’s going to be a lot of movement. My Sony does not, so I only use it when I can really stop down, or if we won’t be moving much.

I’ve really upped my garden game, as has the rest of the world. It’s been super hard to get seeds, fruit trees, flowers, you name it! This was Mother’s Day, everyone was thrilled to be working on expanding our butterfly garden, esp. my college Sophomore! Shooting at f/16 with my Sony allowed for the majority of us, even the cat, to be in focus regardless of where we moved within the frame.

3. Give yourself breathing room

Nothing is more maddening than cutting off someone’s head or limb. As such, I’ve learned to frame the scene, then take a step or two back before placing my camera down. Normally, I try to get composition correct in-camera, but self-portraits are a whole different ball game. I have zero qualms about cropping self-portraits to perfect the composition.

Pandemic, check. Wine, check. Netflix, check. I set this up to make sure I got all three of us in the frame. Normally, I frame quite tight, but I leave much more space when shooting self-portraits to allow for movement.

4. Set a goal and hold yourself to it

Decide what you want and what you can feasibly accomplish. Don’t overdo it! When I first started, my goal was just one self-portrait a month. Write it on your to-do list and set reminders. Do whatever it takes to hold yourself accountable! Plan ahead. Think about what part of your daily life you wish you had a photo of and make it happen! If you are drawing a blank and nearing the end of your deadline, think like a family photojournalist, ‘what do I find most interesting about the current situation… if I were getting paid, what would I be drawn to to photograph?’ Use your answer to guide you.

After I put the kids to bed, I work in the kitchen. My cat is almost always curled up on my lap, no matter where I am. This particular week, time got away from me and I realized only after everyone was asleep on Sunday that I hadn’t made a self-portrait for the week... well, everyone was asleep except for the cat.

5. Go easy on yourself. Ain’t nobody perfect

You can only do so much. Above all, remember that these photos, with all their flaws, are better than the photos your partner didn’t take. Treasure them, don’t critique them. They’re not likely going to win any awards, but you and your family will be glad you have them. Be easy on yourself and make it easy on yourself. Leave your camera where it’s easily accessible, ditch the tripod (nine times out of ten I just set my camera down somewhere convenient), and above all, please don’t fret about what you’re wearing or how you look.

I love baking with my little helpers up on the counter. Once I was able to procure flour (apparently everyone filled their days with baking and gardening during quarantine), we were baking fools! For this shot, I just set my camera on the toaster oven in the corner.

I hope this was helpful! I’d love to see your self-portraits if you’re willing to share! I started an IG hub for this purpose — @documentaryfamilyselfportraits (hashtags: #spwmf, #selfportraitwithmyfamily).

Good luck! Stay healthy!

xo, Anna

Anna's Gear:

Anna is photographing her 52 series using a Nikon D750 with a Sigma Art 35mm and a Sony a7iii with a Tamron 28-75mm. The only accessory she uses is her " beat up" tripod

You can find Anna here:

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