I LOVE self portraiture. I’m a people photographer, but self portraiture was and still is my greatest source of creative inspiration. There are just few things better than creating art in my chosen style (portrait photography) with zero pressure and no expectations.
Making a self-portrait is one of the most rewarding ways to flex your creative muscles as a photographer. Not only does it give you a chance to experiment with different techniques and styles, but it also allows you to explore your own identity, artistry, and sense of self. In this article, I’m going to walk you through how to make a creative self portrait and help you see how the process can influence your growth as a photographer.
First, allow me to convince you.
Why you should give self portraiture a shot (yes, it’s a pun):
Taking a self-portrait can be a deeply introspective process that can lead to personal and artistic growth. Here are some ways the process has helped me over the years:
- Self-Reflection: By focusing on yourself as the subject of the photo, you are forced to reflect on your own identity, emotions, and experiences, which can help you see yourself in a new way. I have often felt that creating self portraits has allowed me to look at myself objectively, as a subject in a photo, rather than seeing just my own ego reflected back to me. This can lead to a deeper understanding of yourself, the version of you that you show the world, and your greater artistic vision.
- Creative Exploration: Self-portraiture allows us to experiment with different styles, techniques, and poses in a low-pressure, non-stress environment. You can create a portrait without the pressure of having to pose and direct and communicate with another human. You can experiment with a new technique that you’d be too nervous to try on another person or a paying client, or you could spend three hours on a single image, which may drive a model crazy. Using yourself as your subject can lead to new photographic insights and approaches that can be applied to other shoots in the future.
- Technical Mastery: Making self-portraits can help you achieve a high level of technical skill, particularly in terms of camera setup, lighting, and composition. Practicing these skills over and over (again, with no pressure) can lead to greater technical mastery and confidence as a photographer of other people, too. You can move through a lot of beginner trial and error without fear of discomfort from your model.
- Empathy: By putting themselves in front of the camera, photographers can develop a greater sense of empathy and understanding for their subjects. I firmly believe every (people) photographer should experiment with self portraiture at least once or twice, because even though you’re still all alone (which makes it easier), you will still experience much of the way it feels to be on the other side of the camera and to feel the common trial of portrait anxiety. This can lead to more empathy for how your subjects feel when they are in front of your camera, which can lead you to create more authentic and nuanced portraits.
- Self-Acceptance: Finally, taking self-portraits can be a powerful tool for self-acceptance and self-love. I’m friends with a number of experienced self-portrait artists, and they all agree that self portraiture can be considered a type of therapy. There’s even a #selfportraittherapy hashtag. And circling back to the first point above: by seeing yourself in a new way, a creative way, or a positive way, you can develop a greater sense of confidence and self-worth.
So, now that I’ve convinced you, how do you start?
Getting started can be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to taking a self portrait, especially if you’re feeling nervous or self-conscious. Here are some tips for starting out:
1. Start Small
Being overly ambitious about what type of self portrait you want to create can lead to frustration and disappointment if you’ve never created a self portrait before. By starting small, you can get comfortable with the process and build confidence while you ease into self portraiture. Honestly, I think the best way to start out is just to plan something simple like a standard “headshot” or simple portrait in front of a relatively plain background (probably indoors) with natural light, because then you can focus only on the technical aspects (which I’ll discuss below) of making your image. Making self portraits is not very technically complicated, but the first time you do it can be difficult depending on the tools you have available. Additionally, if you’re feeling self-conscious, consider starting out with a shot that doesn’t show your face such as in the images below.
2. Create a Supportive Environment
Choose a location where you feel comfortable and safe. This could be your home, a familiar outdoor space, or a studio with a supportive photographer or friend. Having a supportive environment can help you feel more relaxed and confident. I personally like to shoot 100% alone. For years, I wouldn’t even let my spouse be in the same room with me while I was shooting!
3. Use Props or Disguises
If you want to really tell a story with your image or to make a photo that could be “of anyone,” try using props or disguises to take the focus off of yourself. This could be an object, a hat, sunglasses, or even a mask. This can also add an element of playfulness and creativity to the photo. Alternatively, you could even just be shooting an object you’re holding and the “you” part of the image is the prop.
4. Be Kind to Yourself
Remember that taking self portraits can be a vulnerable and challenging process, and it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Be kind to yourself and focus on the process rather than the outcome. Remember that practice makes progress, and every photo is an opportunity to learn and grow.
Once you’ve knocked that basic headshot off your list, it’s time to keep experimenting and keep making more selfies! Read on for my best tips for the process.
The Step-By-Step Process
Step 1: Find Inspiration
Before you start shooting, it can be very helpful to find some inspiration for your self portrait. Take a look at other photographers’ work to see what styles, techniques, and poses you like. Sometimes these are other self portraits, but often just standard portraiture can be a huge inspiration for ideas. Make a list of concepts or poses or styles to try and put your own spin on them. You can also draw inspiration from other art forms, such as books, films, music, sculpture, paintings, and performances.
Here are a few of my favorite self portrait artists to get inspired by:
- Marina Williams
- Joel Robison
- Rosie Hardy
- Lizzy Gadd
- Ben Zank
- Jamie Beck
- David Ozuchukwu
- Ana Luisa Pinto
- Brooke Shaden
Step 2: Choose Your Location
The next step is to choose a place to create your self portrait. Think about what kind of mood or tone you want to convey, and choose a location that supports that feeling. It could be a quiet corner of your home, a gorgeous spot outside, or even a busy public space. Consider the lighting as well – natural light can be very flattering, but you may also want to experiment with different artificial lighting setups. Sometimes, I’ll even choose the location 100% because of the lighting in the space, so keep your eyes peeled for amazing light everywhere you go! I’ve definitely started most of my self portraits with the thought “that lighting is gorgeous; I want to make a portrait there; let’s use myself as the model.”
Step 3: Set Up the Camera
Now it’s time to set up your camera. This is the “technical” step. You’ll need to use a tripod or other support to keep the camera steady (please choose tripod—as opposed to something sketchy!). You’ll also need to choose your shutter-release method.
There are four main ways you can do this, each with pros and cons:
- The “ten-second dash:” Simply set your camera to self-timer mode, focus on where you think you’ll be standing, press the button and run to get into the frame! Pros: you don’t have to buy any extra gear and it’s 0% complicated. Cons: you have to keep running back and forth to your camera, and focusing can be very tricky.
- Use a wireless infrared remote (like this one) that will trigger the camera from up to around 16 feet away. This enables you to utilize autofocusing, which results in more sharp shots overall. Pros: cheap/not valuable and thus easy to chuck out of the frame without fear when you’re shooting so that the remote is not visible in the final image. Cons: distance limitation, and focusing can still be moderately tricky until you get the hang of it.
- Use a wireless radio remote (like this one) that will trigger the camera from up to around 300 feet away. Works essentially the same as the infrared remote, but allows for a huge distance between you and your camera. Pros: allows that greater distance; still not too expensive. Cons: can still be tricky to focus.
- Use your phone/tablet: I saved the best for last! Use the phone app from your camera brand to trigger the camera’s shutter. You can see your image in real time from your phone/tablet screen while you’re standing in the frame, and you can autofocus by tapping on the subject (you) on the screen. Pros: focusing is by far the easiest when you use an app, plus you can see the image and your pose/expression in real time while you shoot; you can even adjust your cameras settings in real time from your phone. Cons: only compatible with wifi-enabled cameras (which includes most cameras these days, but still), distance limitations, and you still have to get your device out of the frame, so you either have to have a place for it to safely stay out of frame (they make light stand adapters that hold phones/tablets, or stand next to a tall piece of furniture) or you have to toss it out of frame before the shutter clicks, which is problematic since you don’t want your expensive device to break. This is why I still use my infrared remote very often, because it is handy to have something that I’m not very sad to lose if it breaks.
Step 4: Experiment with Angles and Poses
The fun part begins! It’s time to experiment with different angles and poses to find the perfect shot. Try shooting from above, below, or at eye level, and see how the perspective changes. You can also play around with facial expressions and body language to convey different emotions and moods. Don’t be afraid to try something unconventional – sometimes the most interesting shots come from taking risks, and things that can feel strange to “model” may actually look awesome on camera. I often recommend that beginners take a few shots with varying poses/expressions before returning to the camera to look at the captured images. This keeps you from instantly judging the images based on not liking that angle of yourself or what you look like that day, because you’ll have a few to scroll through at that point, and hopefully you’ll like one of them and you can expand upon that pose!
Step 5: Review and adjust
After taking the photo, review the image to see if it meets your expectations. Often what starts off as a “messy” or imperfect self portrait just needs a few tweaks to become something you’re proud of! Adjust the camera settings or the composition as necessary to achieve the desired result, and don’t stop shooting until you get something you’re happy with! See my examples below of some first/test shots (terrible ones, haha) vs final shots from two shooting scenarios.
Step 6: Edit and Finalize
Once you’ve taken your self portrait, it’s time to finalize and perfect it with editing. I personally love editing and how it can enhance or create a distinct mood in our images. You can use Adobe Lightroom or a similar software to adjust the overall style and mood of the image and to ensure your exposure and color look their best, but don’t be afraid to get creative with your edits, too! This is another opportunity to put your own spin on your images. I personally like to incorporate Adobe Photoshop into a lot of my images to add some surreal effects or components, too. You may also enjoy doing this as you continue shooting!
Now, it’s your turn!
Remember that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to self portraiture, and experimentation is key. Try different camera settings, lighting setups, and poses to find what works best for you and your style. With practice, you’ll develop stronger technical skills and creative vision to create beautiful and meaningful self portraits. Maybe, like me, you’ll find yourself transformed by the process.