I take a lot of self-portraits. My mother says I’m very pretty and that the world needs more pictures of me, and since I’m normally the one holding the camera, no one else is going to do it. Here are some tips for taking better portraits of yourself.
The principles are the same whether I spend a few hours carefully staging a self-portrait like the one below, or snap off a few selfies with my iPhone. From here on in, I’m going to use the two words interchangeably.
Although countless articles blame selfies for all manner of ills, they’re a pretty ancient form of artistic expression. Every major artist, from Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo to Picasso and Ansel Adams, has at some point, turned the camera (or the brush) on themselves. Sure, it’s a lot easier now that every smartphone ships with a front facing camera, but it’s hardly a new idea.
If you’re going to take selfies (and let’s be honest, you are) you might as well do it right. So let’s look at how to take a good one.
What Makes a Good Self-Portrait
From an aesthetic point of view, a self-portrait is really just a portrait. Everything we covered in our guide to taking good portraits holds true. The big difference is that you’re turning the camera on the subject you’re most intimately familiar with.
There’s also a second way to look at selfies: emotionally. Anyone can take a near-identical photo of the Eiffel tower, but only you can take a selfie there (or at least, one with you in it). They’re among the most personal photos you can take. A good emotional selfie is one that, in ten years time when you look back at it, you can be brought back to the moment you took it.
The Technical Stuff
The technical details change depending on the kind of self-portrait you’re trying to take.
If you’re snapping a selfie with the front camera of your phone, the key thing is to maximize the light falling on your face. You won’t have much control over your camera settings, so you need to give your smartphone as much light to work with as possible. If your camera has a front facing flash, or will emulate one by lighting up the screen, use it in low light. A selfie stick might get you strange looks, but they do make it easier to take better photos. I’ve happily used one on more than one occasion.
For a more staged selfie with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, things are a bit more complicated. Mount your camera on a tripod and compose the scene without you in it. Work out what camera settings work well; it’s one of the few times when it’s best to shoot in manual mode.
Now it’s time to decide how to trigger your camera. The simplest option is to use your camera’s self-timer set to 10 seconds; that gives you enough time to push the shutter button and then jump into the frame. The problem with this is that you’re rushing.
A wireless remote trigger (like these ones for Canon and Nikon) combined with the self-timer is a better way to do it. You can trigger the camera and then use the 10 seconds to hide the trigger in your pocket and pose properly. This is the way I like to do it.
Other Tips and Tricks
Although you’re still technically shooting a portrait, it’s a lot harder to use a super wide aperture, like f/1.8. It’s better to set your aperture to around f/4 or f/5.6 and have yourself in focus, than to set it too wide and miss focus.
If you want really want to get a shallow depth of field in your self-portraits, you need to take the pictures in a slightly different way. The two options are to tether your camera to your smartphone or your computer. If your camera has Wi-Fi built in, your smartphone will be the best option. Download the manufacturers camera control app and use live view to get focus properly on your face. If your camera doesn’t have Wi-Fi, you can use a CamRanger to add it or tether your camera to your computer. With either solution, you’ll be able to stand in place and control your camera to take something like the shot below.
Staged self-portraits are a great, and fun, way to develop your skill as a photographer. You can spend hours creating a photo where there’s six of you in it, you’re swinging a lightsaber, or you’re levitating. If you’re working with someone else, you’re under pressure, but if you’re your own model, you can take as long as you need.
For the same reason, staged self portraits are often the best way to get your dream shots. If you want a photo of someone standing on the edge of a specific cliff at sunset, using yourself as the model gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility.
When you’re shooting a selfie with your smartphone, angle is one of the most important factors. Too low and you’ll triple the number of chins you have, too high and you’ll look like a sixteen year old posing for Myspace. Hold your phone at eye level angled slightly down to get the best, most natural looking images. In the triptych below, the shot on the left shows the ideal angle while the other two shots show bad ones.
Don’t use a mirror to take selfies, or at least, not to take ones you want to be good. Posing, holding a smartphone in a bathroom isn’t a good look for anyone.
When you’re taking a picture of someone else, it can be difficult to direct them how to pose properly. When you’re taking a picture of yourself, you’ve got no excuse. Check out Peter Hurley’s videos on the “squinch” and jaw position (both of which I’m rocking in the image below) and practice them in front of a mirror. You should be able to break them out at a second’s notice. Actually understanding how to pose yourself makes it much easier to direct people to pose properly when you’re photographing them. The best photographers are as comfortable in front of the camera as they are behind it.
Take selfies for yourself. I have hundreds of selfies that will never be shared with anyone. They’re my own personal image collection. I look back through them from time to time. When you’re taking selfies and self-portraits, first and foremost, you should be shooting for yourself. Not for Facebook or Instagram, but for you.
Selfies get a lot of unwarranted hate. Whether you’re taking a quick Snapchat with the front facing camera of your smartphone or crafting a staged self-portrait, they’re an opportunity for you to develop your skills as a photographer. Don’t dismiss them.
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