4 Things Photographers Can Learn From Self-Portraits

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Self-portraits are by no means a recent invention — painters have been doing them for centuries and it didn’t take photographers long after the invention of the camera to start immortalizing themselves in photo form.

In more recent times (the social media era, specifically), the self-portrait has sort of morphed into the more colloquially recognizable “selfie.” While the terms tend to be used interchangeably, I’d argue there are some distinctions.

Generally, self-portraits are more intentional and meant to be read as art (or an attempt at art). Selfies are less formal, more spontaneous and usually meant to convey one’s current mood. A purist perspective might even take into account what kind of camera is being used, resolutely condemning selfies to the domain of the cell phone camera.

Of course, none of this is universally accepted — hairsplitting dialogue about terminology and semantics is far less important than the reasons why anyone might even bother to capture themselves in a photo.

selective focus photo of black camera self-portraits
Photo by Joshua Ellish

Why Self-Portraits?

While unabashed vanity is certainly a motivating factor for some, there are a few reasons for a more measured nature that compel people to make self-portraits.

  • The perfect model. You set your own schedule, you wear what you want, you’re happy to be paid with food and you have total control over the final image.
  • Practice. Photographing the human form can be tricky. The more you practice on yourself, the easier it will be to make portraits of others.
  • Documentation. A self-portrait is essentially saying, “I was here.” Sometimes that’s all anyone needs.
  • Explore and experiment. Self-portraits allow you to explore ideas and themes free of interference or judgment from others.
woman in black framed eyeglasses self-portraits

What Can We Learn From Self-Portraits?

Despite how long they’ve been around and how many millions of them are shared online on a daily basis, it would seem that self-portraits (or selfies, if you like) have some deeper, enduring value. Here are four things we can learn from self-portraits.

  1. Self-portraits can promote self-acceptance. Though I mentioned vanity as a possible motive, I would assume this doesn’t apply to most people. Indeed, plenty of people aren’t inherently comfortable with how they look in photos. Even those considered to be especially attractive will complain about one or more of their features. I supposed it’s akin to how people tend to hate the sound of their own voice.

    Self-portraits can teach you to learn to accept your perceived flaws by allowing you to see yourself in a way that’s more in line with how others see you — which might not be as bad as you think.
  2. Self-portraits can develop the imagination. When you sit down in front of your camera, you’re free to be anyone or anything you want. You exist in a judgment-free zone, in a world of your own creation. You can play with different moods, colors, styles, and settings, all of which will expand your imagination. In the process, you will likely learn some important things about yourself.
  3. Self-portraits teach about progress. Self-portraits aren’t stagnant. If you’re changing and growing as an individual, your self-portraits will reflect that and become a document of your evolution. Of course, you will have to photograph yourself for some time in order to draw any significant conclusions, but that’s ok — as long as you’re alive, you’re an inexhaustible resource. The more you shoot, the more there will ultimately be to unpack.
  4. Self-portraits provide a connection with others. The more you know about yourself, the more easily you can relate to and inspire others. If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then just imagine the impact you can have on others simply by sharing your self-portraits. Self-portraits allow you to communicate without having to utter a word.
Woman Taking Photo of Herself in Small Mirror self-portraits
Photo by Lisa Fotios

Final Thoughts

If you’re “selfie” obsessed, by all means continue to indulge, but consider taking the time to craft a more intimate, creative, or thoughtful portrait of yourself. What camera you use doesn’t matter. Self-portraits are more about the creative process than technical know-how.

Self-portraiture can be as intimidating as it is revelatory, and this alone makes it a worthwhile exercise.

What has been your experience with self-portraits? Feel free to share in the comments.

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About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

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