How to photograph a self-portrait.
Many of my favourite conceptual photographers started out, and continue to be, self-portraitists. Obviously it’s going to be difficult inserting yourself into a photo if you only shoot flowers or product photography but generally it’s advisable in most styles of photography to feature a human. So if you don’t have an available family member or friend willing to twist themselves into awkward poses, your best option is to use yourself.
There’s much freedom and convenience that comes with being able to find or construct a scene and throw yourself into it spontaneously, without having to go to the effort of finding the appropriate model and explaining your concept to them, because by then the sun has come out from behind a cloud and your SHOT IS RUINED.
Also, it’s quite difficult early in your career to phone up a friend and ask them to come round, take their shirt off and lie amongst ant-riddled rocks and dirt while pretending to be dead. You could employ a model but this will either be costly or you’ll be expected to TFP (trade for print – where an amateur model trades their time for a copy of the photo for their portfolio), but if you’re still learning, what if the shot doesn’t work out? That’s why self-portraiture is the easy answer while you’re still experimenting because no one else is invested in the outcome. There are mistakes you will invariably make in your career that you’ll want sorted out before you have a client breathing down your neck.
But as with anything fast and cheap it does have its drawbacks. Like the majority of the population, for many years I avoided being in photos because I hated the way I looked. “I’m the most unphotogenic person in the world!” I’d shriek whenever a camera was in my vicinity. I always felt awkward and pulled stupid faces, so of course I hated photos of myself because I wasn’t actually trying to look halfway decent. But once I learnt how to pose myself I stopped purposely sabotaging every shot and these days have no problem whipping out a smile for a happy snap.
So my first tip for photographing yourself is to get to know your face and expressions. What poses work? What don’t? What style of lighting emphasises or minimises your faults? What features will you constantly be fixing in Photoshop and how can you best disguise these?
For example, I know that I have a bent fat nose, wonky features, shallow eye sockets, saggy neck, yellow teeth and flabby arms, so I have to pose in ways that don’t draw attention to these features. And because hiding behind a rock is not an option, these techniques include lengthening my neck, tilting my head forward and using make-up and retouching, or obscuring my face altogether.
In the course of your self-portraiture you will also learn what poses look good – which are the most dynamic, the most graceful, the most subdued. It’s a fantastic exercise in posing that you can use in the future when directing models. Also, using yourself as a subject makes you realise how incredibly akin to torture it is to hold an uncomfortable pose so when asking a model to take their shirt off and lie in ant-riddled rocks and dirt – you can say ‘hey, I did that once! I know it sucks, but if you lie this particular way it will minimise the discomfort’. And they’ll likely be more receptive to the idea.
So how to shoot a self-portrait? Well shooting yourself is actually kinda difficult (but sort of fun too) and if there’s mistakes to be made I’ve made every single one so here’s my tips:
- Before you begin shooting yourself you’ll need to decide how to trigger your camera. Either you can set your camera to ten second timer, press the button and then run in front of the camera and pose (great because you can hear the 10 seconds counting down, bad because you have to run back to the camera every time). Or you can get yourself a remote to trigger the camera. I use very cheap remotes purchased on eBay. There’s a little switch on the back that you can change to 2 seconds allowing time to trigger the camera, hide the remote and strike a pose. You can also use a tethered (corded) remote but I haven’t personally found the need.
I also have a Trigger Trap which is a device you buy online that connects your phone to your camera, allowing you to use the Trigger Trap app to take photos using fancy methods such as clapping, whistling, facial recognition and detecting movement (along with heaps of other really cool features). If you have a dog though, remember to lock it in a different room from you because all the clapping and whistling is guaranteed to drive them mental. (Having learnt from experience.)
- Find a tripod or something to stabilise your camera. If you can’t find or afford these things you could just try sitting it on the ground and angling the camera towards you. Miss Aniela started out using this technique and it actually became part of her early style.
- Use a lens that will fit your scene in but also allow you to be close enough to the camera for it to see the remote. I try to use a 50mm. It’s a touch too close on a cropped sensor (maybe a 35mm would be better) but fine on a full frame camera. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve got myself into an awkward pose only to find that the camera won’t sense the remote. Also go into your camera settings and find the ‘auto power off’ feature and ensure it’s set to a reasonable time. Mine was set to 1 min (until just now when I finally discovered you could change it!) which means I constantly have to get out of my pose to wake my camera back up.
- Getting focus on yourself can be tricky. Either ask someone camera-savvy to help, use a stand-in person or object to pre-focus on, or focus on the area of the ground where you’ll be situated. Then lock your focus by switching your lens to manual focus (or just use back button focus) so it can’t change. Another tip is to activate Live View on your camera if you have it, zoom right into the area where you think your eyes will be and manually focus on that area. It’s advisable to take shots of yourself moving slightly back and forward so at least a few will be in focus.
If your camera is set to autofocus you can also use your remote to find focus on you before it takes the shot. Just be sure to change your focus point to one that corresponds with the area where you want it to focus. While this seems like an easy option I can never remember how to turn off back button focus so I rarely use it (and funnily enough, no articles on the web tell you how to change it back because NO ONE EVER DOES). It’s also a bit hit and miss because my camera likes to focus on my fringe rather than my eyes which sucks on a wide aperture, and leads me to my next point.
- When you first start shooting yourself don’t use a wide aperture. Sure, portraits look great when the eyes are in focus and everything else is soft, but it’s so hard to hit that narrow spot of focus when you can’t see what you’re doing. Starting around f/5.6 is safest.
- Don’t choose difficult poses, locations or props that require a lot of interaction. It is painful and annoying to get up and down and run back and forth to check pose and exposure on the back of your camera. My thighs often hurt for a few days after. Start simple.
- If you’re doing all this publicly, prepare to be stared at and look stupid to everyone. I gotta tell you though, after years of stressing about how I look, shooting self-portraits has made me way less self-conscious. It’s surprisingly easy to become the character in your story (even if you practically failed acting at school.)
- If you’re one of those strange people like me who constantly has a black elastic band around your wrist for ease of putting your hair up, remember to take it off!
And that, dear readers, is how you graduate from a selfie taker to a self-portrait maker while getting in some practice to be the world’s best photographer. And if you just want a killer Facebook photo, no one ever has to know you took it yourself. (Although the compliments are generally better if you admit it.)
Now I want to know what YOU look like. Share your shots – failures and successes both welcome!