Selfies are a fun form of photographic expression. Modern smartphones have ditched the shabby front-facing potato cameras of yore in favor of 12 megapixel depth-sensing arrays with Night Mode and simulated studio lighting.
That means there’s no excuse to suck at selfies anymore. Here are some top tips that might help.
Use the Best Natural Light Available to You
Natural light is amazing in that it’s both free and flattering. You can use daylight to your advantage to create a range of effects, even in harsh direct sunlight.
Smartphones have notoriously small camera sensors. The more light you can feed them, the better the image will be. Dark selfies, particularly on older devices that lack a Night Mode feature, can look grainy and dirty even in moderately lit scenes.
Many photographers use windows to take flattering, naturally lit portraits. Pick a window that’s not receiving direct sunlight for the best effect, since this ensures that only diffused light illuminates your face. An overcast day produces the best light, since cloud cover acts like a big diffuser. You can see the effect when you look at the soft edges of shadows on a cloudy day.
Taking photos outside in direct sunlight is more difficult, particularly since you’ll be squinting which often produces unflattering photos. Sunglasses are an instant remedy to this situation, but you might also want to use a bounce card to direct some light back up at your face to achieve a more even lighting effect.
You can create a bounce board out of some cardboard and white paper. Experiment with different colored paper for different effects. For example, warm hues create a warm glow. Hold or position the card so that it acts like a “fill light” that fills in the shadows created by the harsh sunlight. Practice moving the card around to see how it affects the final image.
Poor Light? Create Your Own Instead
It’s not always possible to use daylight so sometimes you’ll need to create your own light. You might be tempted to use a desk lamp or similar, but if you go this route you might find the quality of light isn’t up to par. It’s hard to balance for white using lamps and other household lights, which usually skew “warm” in terms of white balance.
This can result in skin tones that don’t look right, regardless of what your natural color is. You might have more joy bouncing these lights off a wall to diffuse them, but you could still have issues with skin tones that don’t look right (especially if you have multiple sources of light in the same room).
LITTIL Selfie One - Rechargeable Ring Light Clip-on for iPhone, Android, Tablet, and Laptop Camera Photography and Videography | 3 Adjustable Light Modes | Beauty and Influencer Selfie Ring Light
This ring light features three tones (warm, natural, and cool), plus adjustable brightness, USB charging, and it works with most smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
Cheap ring lights (like this one) are perfect for the casual selfie taker or anyone who wants even lighting with the click of a button. These accessories are inexpensive, rechargeable, and usually offer a range of brightness settings and even temperature control. Avoid ring lights with exposed LEDs that lack a diffuser (usually an opaque plastic cover) for more flattering results.
Lume Cube 18" Cordless Ring Light Kit for Smartphones and Cameras | Bicolor Light for YouTube Videos, Zoom, TikTok, Twitch, Streaming | Adjust Color & Brightness, Carry Case & 6.5 ft Stand Included
A more elaborate ring light setup featuring a stand, more powerful ring light with temperature adjustment, and smartphone mount.
Most cheap ring lights are clip-on affairs that are compatible with your smartphone, tablet, and laptop (and are perfect for sprucing up a Zoom meeting). You can buy more elaborate setups (like this one) that feature more powerful ring lights with stands and smartphone mounts, but these are aimed at vloggers and content producers with a steeper price tag.
Look Up, Not Down
The angle from which a selfie is shot can massively affect the outcome. You should play around with different angles to see which effects you prefer, but one rule is generally golden: look up, not down.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you always need to hold the camera above your head, but it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re facing 90º or greater for the most flattering results. Slightly tilting your device can also help exaggerate the effect.
This works by extending your neck and accentuating your jawline, minimizing some of the flaws (like wrinkles) that many of us focus on in our photos.
Pay Attention to the Background
A distracting background can ruin a good selfie. In most cases, a selfie is taken to showcase the foreground subject (that’s you) rather than the background. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, you’ll want to keep the background to a minimum to focus on what’s important (your face).
There are few ways of achieving this. Many smartphones now feature a “Portrait” mode on the front-facing camera, which uses depth-sensing sensors on the front of the device to blur objects in the background. This effect can work well in turning the background into a blurry mess, as you’d see on a portrait lens with a wide aperture.
This creates a dreamy, faux bokeh look that can add a certain mood to your images. You don’t have to use it though, and simply picking a neutral textured background may be enough. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and you might take a shot you’re fond of that has a lot going on in the background. A nice tight crop on the subject of the photo can help train the eye to go where you want.
Of course, there are no hard rules in photography. Removing the background isn’t always ideal, especially if you’re trying to show off a landmark or place of interest in the same shot.
Ditch the Selfie Stick for a Tripod Instead
You may love your selfie stick, and we’re not here to tell you you’re wrong. But it’s also true that images taken with a selfie stick tend to look very similar. Most are shot from the same distance in front of your face, at the same slightly elevated angle, with one or both arms extended to hold the stick steady while you shoot.
If you’re feeling inventive, there is a better way. Cheap smartphone tripods allow you to position your smartphone almost anywhere. You can use a GorillaPod (like this one) to turn virtually any solid object into a tripod, and this allows you to take far more interesting photos.
Joby GripTight Smartphone/Action Camera Flexible Tripod Stand Kit
Joby's classic GorillaPod clamping mount turns anything into a tripod. This Pro model has a longer reach and tighter grip than the entry-level version.
You can use the timer function on your smartphone camera to set a delay before the image is taken, or maybe your smartwatch allows you to use your wearable to trigger the shutter from afar. You’ll get more natural results this way since it will at least appear that you aren’t holding the camera in front of you.
Try Incorporating Movement Into the Shot
Static images can all too often look boring and staged. Introduce some movement into the shot to transform it from a sterile portrait into an interesting action photo. This is a great way to lift your selfie game, and it’s a lot easier than you might think.
Hair is a great way to introduce movement, especially medium to long lengths. A simple desk fan or gentle breeze can introduce enough movement to your hair to create some motion blur.
Tip: For best results set your shutter speed at a slow enough pace using a manual camera app — around 1/40 should do it.
There are other ways to do this, like taking selfies while walking, using public transport, using playground features like swings and roundabouts, or even jumping into a pool (just make sure your phone is waterproof first).
If you’re lucky enough to have an iPhone 11 or later, you can even use the slow-motion selfie (or “Slofie” as Apple calls it) using the “Slomo” setting on your front-facing camera to make these fast-paced shots even more interesting.
Keep Shooting Selfies
Selfies have been given a bad rap in recent years, with many think pieces condemning them as a symptom of a generation that’s overly obsessed with image. But this obsession with image existed long before smartphones, and there’s evidence that your selfies can be a force for social good.
Selfies are a valid outlet to practice your photography. By seeing how different variables like angles and light can have an effect on the intended outcome, you’re learning too.