Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Like everyone, I’ve been frustrated at times with stay-at-home orders during March and April. But I found an opportunity in one project I’d reserved for “someday": a portrait through a rainy window, made entirely indoors. And it turned out to be a way to express and exorcise some of my frustration.
This is a fun, relatively easy project you can do indoors with a camera or smartphone, a tripod and remote (or friend to take the picture), a chair, an empty photo frame or other piece of glass bigger than your head, and a spray bottle filled with water.
While it’s true I originally envisioned a female model as the subject, we’ve all had to be flexible during the coronavirus lockdown. This would have to be a self portrait—my first official. I prefer to be behind the camera but it’s a good exercise to be the subject once in a while.
For most client shoots, I get ready in the days before. I envision the finished image and select the lens, the light, and make some notes that usually involve stick figures. This minimizes surprises at the shoot, and—as with any gig—it’s practice.
First, I found a 11x14” photo frame I didn’t particularly care for, removed the back, gaff taped the glass to the frame, and rigged it to a light stand equipped with clamps. Voila—my window.
If you don’t have a stand to hold the frame, you could hold it while you pose.
For this image, I chose my Lensbaby Sweet 50 (50mm), which gives a soft, ethereal effect. The lens is compatible with my Canon EOS R, which can be controlled remotely via iPhone. Most cameras and smartphones also have a timer setting for 2 or 10 seconds if you don’t have a remote. Google it.
I set the EOS R on a tripod, made a quick composition with the Lensbaby, and placed a chair behind the glass to sit and pose.
Using a small bottle, I sprayed water across the window prop. The more water sprayed on, the more it looked like rain.
Bouncing Around the Room
For the practice shoot I used an on-camera flash aimed at the opposite wall, which bounced light back onto the scene. This creates a more pleasing light than would a bare flash pointed straight at the subject. I use this technique all the time as an event photographer. Remember: the larger the light source in relation to the subject, the softer the light appears. That’s why the tiny flash on a smartphone looks nasty.
If you don’t have a strobe or flash with a tilting head, you could set up near a real window and use natural light for this. I simply enjoyed challenging myself to create “window” light with a flash for this project.
I took some test images, using my iPhone to trigger the camera.
Bounced flash would work for this test, but I could tell it wouldn’t simulate window light. I’d have to go bigger.
From a production standpoint I felt pretty good, but still had to think about the “model” part of the image. I decided a beanie and hoodie would best communicate the vibe I was going for: cozy at home but chilly, pensive, accepting an unfortunate situation.
Late March and early April would be the last few weeks in my West Hollywood apartment, and I had plans—most involved other people—from photo shoots, to live music performances, to surfing. But with the coronavirus quarantine orders, those plans were taken away almost overnight. Like many across the world, I felt stunned, trapped, frustrated, and a little scared. I wanted this portrait to reflect that.
Here’s the last shot from the test session:
As the coronavirus situation developed and the entire country went on lockdown, I made the decision to move back to my home state of Ohio, primarily to be near family. But make no mistake--clients were cancelling and the high density of people in my neighborhood was a concern.
One of the best things I can do in a confusing time is get to work. So, amidst purging my apartment and preparing a livestream music performance, I worked up the steam to finish this self portrait.
To simulate window light, I set up a 65” silver umbrella with a diffuser and used a Godox AD200.
I used a small post-it note to get focus on the window. From my Instagram Stories that night:
After a few adjustments, I felt the results from the umbrella looked pretty darn close to window light.
Next Top Model
Happy with the light, I thought the composition needed something. I wanted it more cozy, more indoors-y. How about a lamp? I grabbed a lamp and set it on a stack of magazines. Some other ideas you could try were a bookshelf, a TV set, a desk.
I got back into the beanie and sweatshirt. It was time to play the part.
It was like acting, I really did try to put myself into the scene, imagining what I was looking at out the window. Meanwhile, my iPhone was in my lap as I fired off shots. I found that making a self portrait requires me to forget about the "photographer" part while posing. This particular portrait, then, was more challenging than I anticipated, I had to keep spraying the window with water.
I felt that color-wise the image still needed something. As I was trapped inside my apartment in California but heading to Ohio, I chose a red shirt--a subtle nod to the scarlet and gray colors Ohio is known for.
After about 30 frames, I called it a wrap and reviewed the images. This is the final portrait. I took the image into photoshop to remove the picture frame and make some finishing touches.
While staying healthy and keeping safe distance are priorities right now, finishing a project that challenges you to try something new is a great way to stay afloat.