How I Did It: Francesca Woodman Inspired Self Portraits

Molly said she’d like to read about how I got this shot, and since I took quite a few photos in this style, I figured this would be a perfect chance to share the others and explain my process.

My inspiration for these came from Francesa Woodman, a young American photographer who shot haunting black and white photos, often of herself and other nude women. Woodman frequently used slow shutter speeds to portray ghostly figures of women who seem to vanish or blend into their surroundings. If you want to learn more about Francesca and her family, check out the documentary The Woodmans (it’s on Netflix.)

I wasn’t sure how slow I should set to shutter to, so I experimented. As a general rule, any shutter slower than about 1/60 sec. (or 1/the focal length of your lens) will show movement, and the longer the shutter, the more potential you have for blurring motion.

I shoot using Manual, adjusting my Aperture as needed, but if you aren’t comfortable shooting in Manual, set your camera to Shutter Priority, and that way you can set the Shutter Speed to what you want and let the camera set the Aperture to make a good exposure.

These were taken with a 2 second shutter (I call this series, “Set Me Free”):

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I didn’t do a lot of editing on these; I converted them to Black & White by desaturating each color in Lightroom & pulling down the blue/aqua Luminance to make the wall pop, and then bumped up the Contrast & Clarity by 100 to define my “ghostly” shape and bring back some detail in the midtones:


I also shot Disappearing Act & She’s a Betty with a 2 second shutter.

I tried as slow as 15 seconds, and got a couple that I liked. The longer you stay in one place during the exposure, the more defined it is…so if you move all over the place things get pretty blurry, but you can count and move around strategically to create a double exposure look, like in this one:



Finally, for the shot that Molly asked about, Haunted, I used a 1/1.3 (about 1 second) shutter with a 100 ISO & f 4.5 aperture. I edited it similarly to the Set Me Free photos but not as extreme with the clarity. I set my head on the mirror and did a sort of swoopy motion (super scientific I know) to make my head look like it was melting into the mirror.


With slow shutter speeds, it takes some trial and error, but I like experimenting, and I feel like there’s a magic that comes with just doing what feels right. Here are some others I took with the same settings…the only things that changed were my movement and speed:

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As for the rest of my process, I shot these with my Nikon d5100 on a tripod, with my remote trigger set to a 2 second delay (my usual set up), so I have time to get rid of the remote (aka throw it somewhere and scare my cat) before the shot. I usually don’t use flash and set up my lamps as makeshift lights.

I took a quick phone picture as I was setting up, complete with my camera & tripod, the mirror & lamp, Francesa Woodman’s images up on the TV for inspiration, and my curious kitty of course:


To sum up, I shot these as I usually shoot self portraits, but I experimented with slow shutter speeds and movement to create ghostly figures and blend into my surroundings. If you have any other questions, ask in the comments!

20 thoughts on “How I Did It: Francesca Woodman Inspired Self Portraits”

  1. fridayam

    Fascinating explanation of those beautiful images 🙂 Have you seen any of Jean Cocteau’s haunting movies? They use some of the same techniques, though rather primitively given the time and the technology. Thank you Penny x

  2. Thurston Munn

    Very interesting and creative with great results. I know these are very time consuming but it’s fun when one gets a few good ones to share. 🙂

  3. Heaven

    These are amazing and I am going to have a to check Netflix about this person. You are always so creative. These are sexy yet scary at the same time.

  4. Molly

    Oh my this is fabulous, thank you sooooooooo much. I think you (and maybe me too) should write more of these.

    I am so going to give this a go. In the one that you used the 15 second exposure on what was the fStop setting?

    I have found an old abandoned grave yard near to me and I am looking forward to the summer as I think with some evening sunlight and this technique it might be possible to get some very ghostly shots.


  5. Libido Obscura

    Very nice, Penny. I’m impressed by the progression of your photography skills and what you’re able to accomplish in a DIY manner. The fact that you’ve apparently overcome most inhibitions makes exploring your sensuality through photography significantly more rewarding, I suspect. Not to mention easier. Keep up the good work.

  6. Scarlett Dubois

    I will be talking to hubby about this and trying it out soon. We have a Nikon and have not used it as much as we should.
    I love the second (after) photo. With the adjustments, it almost gives the illusion that your body is behind a pane of glass, but still touching the outside of the window. Beautiful! xxx

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