Easy Ways to Spice Up Your Self-Portraits So They Stand Out

Most people, especially when starting out in photography, find self-portraits to be a nerve-wracking venture; and some, to be sure, never really get over the disquieting dread that accompanies having to get in front of the camera when they’re so accustomed to being behind it.

It’s normal, I guess. We could probably engage in a lengthy and ultimately convoluted discussion about self-esteem, body image, and a whole host of other psychological implications related to why some people don’t like looking at themselves, but that’s not going to fix anyone is it? I doubt it. There are plenty of websites you could visit to try and work all that stuff out, but before you go, allow me to run a few ideas by you; ideas that might ease you into making self-portraits or, if you are already making them, some ideas on how to improve them. You never know, it could be the creative spark you need to help you overcome your fear of self-inflicted photographs.

What Gear Will You Need for Self Portraits?

You really don’t need a whole lot of fancy stuff to take a self-portrait. We’ve all seen and/or taken more than our fair share of web cam and cell phone shots and they work to varying degrees. But if you’re interested in a self-portrait that is more than just marginally better than the ones typified by the average teenager on Facebook, there are a few items you should invest in — if you don’t already have them.

  • Tripod – Photographers tend to fret over tripod purchases. It’s understandable, I suppose; there’s a reason you look for something with excellent build quality and stability, and is also lightweight. The stakes aren’t as high with self-portraits, however (though it is not entirely unfathomable that you’d take a some shots of yourself during a windstorm), so don’t worry about some company’s flagship tripod; just get something that can support the weight of your camera without tipping over. If you can’t buy a tripod and you’re a particularly resourceful person, I’m confident you can fashion a useful support out of items you have in your home.
  • Remote – A remote shutter release will probably be your greatest ally in your conquest of self-portraiture. You can opt for a wired or wireless remote. Wired remotes are typically less expensive, but are limiting in that they’re physically connected to the camera by a length of cable. Wireless remotes, while providing some additional freedom and flexibility, are also limited by their operating range, which maxes out at around 330ft/100m (range varies according to model). Some remotes are designed to control the camera’s timer and drive mode settings, a feature that will save you trips to and from your camera. Of course, the more features a remote flaunts, the costlier it will be; a simple $10 remote may serve you just as well.
  • Lighting – Don’t think that you have to be an expert strobist in order to create effective portraits; a single light source and a little ingenuity can go a very long way. If you’ve only got one flash, that’s all you need (even better if you can get it off your camera). Don’t have a flash? You can use a $20 work lamp. No matter the light source, positioning is important and can have a dramatic effect on the mood of your self-portrait. You can modify the light by using things such as reflectors or diffusers — a light box, an umbrella, a white wall or ceiling. And don’t forget about natural light. If you want to shoot outdoors, early morning and late afternoon are best; cloudy days can provide particularly intriguing lighting. If you’re indoors, try setting up near a window.
  • Tethering – Connecting your camera to a monitor will allow you to get a real time view of what your self-portrait is going to look like and you can make tweaks to the composition without having to get up and run back to the camera, which is likely to get exhausting after a while and suck all the fun out of your project. Shooting tethered is by no means a necessity, but it will eliminate a significant amount of trial and error.

How to Set Focus on a Self Portrait

  1. Focusing – One of the first questions that people ask before attempting a self-portrait with their dSLR is, “How do I make sure I’m focusing on my face?” Well, you could always do the hold-the-camera-at-arms-length thing. But if you’ve bothered to read up to this point, I will assume that you’re looking for something a little more sophisticated. Indeed, the solution I offer you is just slightly more sophisticated: use a stand-in — a stuffed animal, a tree, anything that might be a suitable temporary substitute for you. Think about how you will pose for your photo and try to focus the camera on where your eyes will be in relation to your newly employed body double (use autofocus to lock it in, then switch your lens to manual so you don’t accidentally lose your focus setting), but keep in mind that distance is more of a concern than height. As long as you focus at the correct distance, you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting your face in sharp focus.
  2. Timer – Now that your focus is set, it’s time to shoot. If you don’t have a remote, set your camera’s timer to its highest setting so that you will have time to move into the frame and get settled into your pose. If your camera allows you to use burst mode in conjunction with the self-timer, it’s something you should consider so that you can vary your expressions or poses while the camera snaps away. If you are using a remote, just click away to your heart’s content…or until your memory card is full.

Some Tips on Getting a Unique Composition

Self-portraits afford you the opportunity to disregard everything you’ve learned about traditional composition and go a bit crazy. Your self-portrait doesn’t even have to include your face, for example; you can frame your shots around various sections of your body. Additionally, you can alter your perspective by deviating from the standard eye-level shot — get a shot from up high and from down low. Don’t be afraid to experiment and take some risks when it comes to composing your self-portraits.

Hello World by jDevaun, on Flickr

A Short Guide to Post Processing

As with composition, when you’re processing your self-portraits, you will find that you have the freedom to do things with those shots that you wouldn’t be able to do if you were working on photos for someone else. It’s the perfect time to take those sliders to places you’ve never taken them; learn exactly how all those commands under Photoshop’s “Filter” impact your photos. Regardless of what post processing software you are using, there will be no shortage of options available to you aimed at putting a unique personal imprint on your self-portraits. Don’t get the impression, though, that self-portraits have to be zany, they can be whatever you want. You have a limitless creative license here — use it.

Tell Your Story

Every self-portrait you make is a quick glimpse inside your mind, not just a representation of what you look like. So, when you’re planning a portrait shoot for yourself, be sure to convey who you really are; include things you like or dislike, wear your favorite articles of clothing, show off one of your hobbies or talents. Worry less about what you look like and focus on presenting yourself to the world in the way that you want everyone to see you. Exercising complete control over your own image can be quite empowering.

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