How to Take a Great Self Portrait
Note: All of my self portraits in this article were shot with my Canon Rebel T3i and an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II lens.
Why take a self portrait?
Ahh, the selfie. While smartphone self portraits may seem like a fad for teenagers to post on their Instagrams, having a nice, high quality portrait can be an extremely useful marketing tool. Sure, you could hire a photographer or have a friend take your picture, but when these resources are not available, or if you just want to test your creativity, taking your own portrait is an easy solution.
- Camera (preferably with a self timer, flash, and front facing screen)
- Background or setting
- An outfit
- Wireless remote control for camera
- Photoshop or other editing software
1. Know Your Camera
Whether you are shooting with a professional grade Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR), such as I do, a point and shoot, or even a smartphone, it is important that you understand the different settings and the effect they have on the final product. You could go through and read your whole owner's manual, but who has time for that? I think the best way to learn your camera is to get out there and practice. It may take some trial and error but the satisfaction of teaching yourself a new skill is worth it.
By knowing how to manipulate the settings on your camera you can increase your versatility and capture nice pictures under a variety of conditions.
2. Use a Tripod
While it is not absolutely necessary, I highly recommend using a tripod. By using a tripod you are able to stabilize your image, producing a crisper, cleaner image, especially while shooting in low light conditions. Using a tripod also allows you to be further away from the camera, allowing a full body shot if desired, and will eliminate the awkward "holding my camera as far away as possible while trying to keep my arm out of the shot" pose, as well as reflections if you are wearing (sun)glasses (nothing ruins a self portrait for me more than a glasses reflection of the camera being held out - unless it is intentionally done of course!).
3. Choose Your Background
Your selection of background will often depend on the intended usage of the photo. For example, the image below was to be used as a profile image on a professional website so I chose a neutral background (we've all seen those photo fails of embarrassing items in the background right?!). To achieve the look in this image I stood in front of a sunny window covered with a sheer curtain, creating the back lit effect you see. In Photoshop I was able to adjust the levels to white out the curtain further (it was actually a light blue), essentially fading out the background entirely while producing a nice glow around the edges.
4. Prepare Yourself/Gather Props
As with the background, your outfit will probably vary based on where the photo will be used/who will see it. If you are taking a professional photo you will likely want to limit the amount of jewelry and makeup, however for more casual, fun pictures props can be a great way to liven up your picture, or even change your look completely. For example, one of my favorite props to play with is wigs (Arda Wigs has a great, affordable selection) and makeup. Portraits are a great way to express your personality and creativity, so don't be afraid to experiment!
5. Find a Focal Point
When I first got into photography and began taking self portraits I found that getting the camera to focus correctly was the most difficult part. If you are using a self timer or a remote most cameras require the lens to be focused before the countdown can be enabled. This typically means that you are behind the camera while focusing it, not in front of it, so how can you be sure that the focus will be correct once you are in place?
A trick I learned early on was to position yourself near a connection, such as the corner of a room. You can then focus your camera on where the walls meet and when you move into place you should be in focus. Another method I like to use while shooting outside, say, in a wide open field with no objects to focus on, is to bring a pole that is approximately my height and use that as a marker. I set up the pole, focus on it, remove the pole and position myself in its place, then snap the picture. This method does take a little more time so it helps to have a remote control.
Whichever method you use it will take some practice to get it right. Even then not every photo is perfect, which is why I use the continuous shooting mode, taking several photos a second. Often this means that you will get several images that look very similar, however I find that even a slight shift in posture can make a huge difference in the photo (especially if you were blinking!).
Posing is another aspect of self portraiture that can take practice, more so for some than others. It takes some trial and error but eventually you will find which angles work best for you. You can also try looking online for examples of poses if you are stuck. One of the benefits of self portraits is that you are both the model and photographer, which not only gives you complete freedom but also allows you to be more relaxed and not worry about being awkward or embarrassing (because lets face it, who doesn't make some interesting faces while trying to take a good picture?).
Photoshop is one of the greatest tools of our time. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating...but not by much. When used properly Photoshop can turn a less than perfect photo into something much better. For example, I really liked the photo below but felt it could be better. In less than 30 minutes of work I cropped and resized the image (expanding the canvas on the left side), recreated the part of my hair that was out of frame, erased some fly aways, fixed my hairline where it is thinning (yay stress!), touched up a few blemishes, and adjusted the lighting and contrast.
The downside to Photoshop is that it is rather expensive and can take some time to get good at. Luckily there are many helpful tutorials available across the internet that can be found with a simple search (ex: how to whiten teeth in photoshop).
If you are not able to afford Photoshop there a variety of free programs on the internet (Pixlr is a popular one) that allow you to apply filters, adjust lighting, etc. They don't offer nearly as many functions as a full editing program but are often enough for a beginner.
The best way to improve your photography is to share your work with others and get their feedback. Take a lot of pictures, practice, and refine! There is no shame in being proud of a photo of yourself, so get out there and take some great ones!
Feel free to share your favorite self portraits in the comments!