How To Tell Stories Through Unique Self-Portraits


Self-portraits are an excellent tool for storytelling images where you are the subject and the storyteller. This way, you will invite the viewer into your life story to share a bit about you or your interests. This article will look at how to tell stories through unique self-portraits.

self portrait with cat
Photo by Laura Chouette

You may have many stories in your life, and a self-portrait is a way to show or tell one or more of those stories. Self-portraits could be photographs that tell something about you or your world, so you can either create and photograph one of those stories that show your true self or you can capture a setup story like fantasy or sci-fi.

Taking pictures of oneself can be an emotional process for many and a fun process for others, depending on the theme and story you will be creating. Emotional stories could be deep and based on personal and fond memories of what happened or is happening in your life, while the fun ones can be all the exciting things that you go about in your day-to-day life.

Here's a great video on self-portrait photography guaranteed to inspire you with fresh ideas:

Finding The Story For Self-Portraits

So, before you get into the process of photographing yourself for a self-portrait, it is good to find a story that you will feel comfortable capturing as a self-portrait. If it is for personal documentation, you can capture all the stories that you can about yourself in your personal space, and for self-portraits that you will be sharing with others, you will need to choose stories that you are comfortable sharing with others.

You will need to sit down and spend some time writing down the things that you are passionate about or are important in your life. This could be your pets, your love for a particular food or drink, a hobby like photography, baking, craft, sewing, gardening, community work, environmental conservation, your profession, etc. Just finding inspiration from any aspect of your life that you enjoy the most and paying attention to it for effective storytelling images is the best way to move forward.

Pro Tip: Whenever possible, use natural light. Position yourself near a window or go outside during the golden hour (early morning or late afternoon) for soft, flattering light. Avoid harsh midday sun.

Once you have the interests or stories about you written down, select one or two aspects that you feel are quite close to your heart and that you are comfortable capturing a picture of. Visualize how you can bring that story to life in a very authentic and compelling way. You may sometimes need to use props and poses to make the storytelling images engaging and look visually appealing.

Besides the above fun way to create a self-portrait, you can also go for professional-looking studio portraits that are a self-portrait of yourself. The biggest advantage of having self-portraits made is, you do not have to feel uncomfortable posing in front of a photographer or another person. You can take your time to set up, start shooting when you are ready and capture soulful portraits of yourself.

self portrait boudoir
Photo by Nel Mel

Gear Required To Capture Self-Portraits

To capture self-portraits, you will need a camera and a tripod, which is essential as you will photograph yourself posing or doing something. Here is the essential gear that will be helpful when capturing self-portraits.

1. Camera

You can capture stunning self-portraits with any camera that you have. We recommend using a camera that will allow you to adjust the exposure manually, but any camera, including a point-and-shoot, GoPro, or even a smartphone, will be sufficient for capturing self-portraits.

Sometimes you may want to capture self-portraits through something, like things in a refrigerator, washing machine, dishwasher, or cabinet, storage boxes, etc., and in these situations, you will need a wide-angle lens to capture the things around in the frame. A GoPro will be a perfect choice for this kind of photograph as it is small and compact, plus weather-sealed, but you can also use your smartphone or a small camera. Care needs to be taken not to damage the gear during this process.

Photo by William Thomas

2. Lens

Your choice of lens depends on the visual storytelling for your self-portrait. If you will be capturing environmental-style portraits where you wish to capture some of the surroundings along with you, then you will need to use a slightly wide-angle lens for wide-angle shots.

If you will shoot some real closeup details, then go for moderate focal lengths like 50 to 85mm. Generally, a 35mm or 50mm lens that most photographers have in their kit should be a great choice for self-portraiture.

3. Tripod

A tripod is an essential tool to capture self-portraits. You can use any tripod you have as long as it can hold the camera-lens combination and tilt it to the desired perspective. If you have a lightweight camera or are using your smartphone, then a Gorillapod can also be used instead of a tripod.

Even compact tabletop tripods can come in handy as long as they can hold the camera lens combination without a problem. They can definitely be a good addition to your accessories if you are someone who likes capturing self-portraits.

Pro Tip: Look at self-portraits taken by professional photographers or artists for inspiration. Analyze what makes them compelling and try to incorporate similar techniques into your work.

If you do not have both the tripod and Gorillapod, then find a smooth, flat, and sturdy place to keep your camera safe, but this is not recommended; it will not be efficient or safe when shooting at slight angles. This way, you will also be limited to where you can take your photos from and the perspectives and angles if you are looking for creative self-portraits.

When you are capturing photos from unusual perspectives, like from inside a fridge looking out or inside a shelf, storage area, etc., you will not need the tripod or Gorillapod. You can just place the camera inside on a shelf when capturing self-portraits. Tabletop mobile holders can come in handy for these situations, so you can safely place the mobile where required.

camera and tripod
Photo by Michael Soledad

4. Remote Release

An infrared remote release is a very important accessory for capturing self-portraits. It saves you from constantly running between the camera and shooting space, so once you have composed and focused on the right spot, you can just release the shutter whenever you are ready for each shot.

Sometimes you may be sitting among the props and other things, unable to move between each shot and pose. This is another great time when the remote release will come in handy.

5. Camera Apps

If your camera has the option to connect to an app in your smartphone that can be used as a remote trigger, by all means, use it. This way, you will also have the option to see a preview of the scene and yourself, just like how it will be captured. You sometimes will also have the option to change camera settings if necessary; hence, this will be a great way to capture self-portraits.

Here's a comprehensive list of camera apps perfect for self-portraits!

  1. Camera+ 2 (iOS):
    • This app offers a wide range of manual controls, including focus, exposure, and white balance.
    • It has advanced shooting modes like portrait, macro, and slow shutter.
    • The “Smile Mode” automatically captures a photo when it detects a smile.
  2. ProCam X (iOS and Android):
    • ProCam X provides manual controls for focus, exposure, ISO, and shutter speed.
    • It includes various shooting modes and options for adjusting settings like white balance and grid lines.
  3. VSCO (iOS and Android):
    • VSCO is known for its impressive filters and editing tools.
    • It offers manual controls for exposure and focus, as well as a self-timer and grid options.
  4. Halide (iOS):
    • Halide is a highly regarded camera app for iOS that offers manual controls and RAW photo capture.
    • It has a user-friendly interface and a self-timer for self-portraits.
  5. Open Camera (Android):
    • Open Camera is a free, open-source camera app for Android with a wide range of manual controls.
    • It includes options for exposure, white balance, and focus.
    • The self-timer and remote control features are handy for self-portraits.
  6. Adobe Lightroom (iOS and Android):
    • While primarily an editing app, Adobe Lightroom also has a camera function with manual controls.
    • You can adjust settings like exposure, focus, and white balance before taking a photo.
  7. ProShot (iOS and Android):
    • ProShot offers manual controls for exposure, ISO, shutter speed, and more.
    • It includes various shooting modes and features like grid lines and a self-timer.
  8. A Better Camera (Android):
    • A Better Camera is an Android app with numerous shooting modes, HDR support, and manual controls for focus and exposure.
  9. Google Camera (Android):
    • If you have a Google Pixel or certain other Android devices, the Google Camera app offers excellent HDR+ capabilities and a selfie mode with beauty filters.
  10. Moment Pro Camera (iOS and Android):
    • Moment Pro Camera offers manual controls for focus, exposure, ISO, and shutter speed.
    • It provides features like grid lines and a self-timer.
closeup self portrait
Photo by Pablo Jose Garcia

Lighting Techniques For Self-Portraits

Lighting for self-portraits is similar to how you will use lighting for portrait photography in general. Lighting affects the mood in your images, so based on the story you want to capture and portray, you will need to use the right light.

1. Natural Light 

Self-portraits can be done either indoors or outdoors. So if you are outdoors, you will mostly use only natural light. Try to capture portraits when the sun is low in the sky to get beautiful soft golden light illuminating you from the side or the back.

If you will shoot indoors in natural light, use doors, windows, or light through any other openings as natural light sources. You can side-light yourself and adjust light intensity by using diffusers, moving towards or away from doors, windows, etc.

It is always advisable to capture a few test shots to see which light is desirable for the final photograph. You can also use white reflectors to illuminate the darker areas in the frame if required.

2. Artificial Light

If you wish to capture studio-style self-portraits, you can usually get this done with natural light as long as you have a room with a good-sized window or door that will let in light at an angle. If not, you can use other sources of light.

Positions the lights based on the look and mood you are going for. You can create many beautiful lighting effects using a single light source and a reflector. So experiment with what will work best for telling stories you plan on capturing.

Besides white light, experiment with different colored lights as well if that will help to bring the desired mood or if you are going for an artistic lighting setup. You can use tungsten bulbs or make use of colored gels and paper to create different colored lights.

single light source
Photo by Mason Summers

Shooting Techniques For Self-Portraits

When capturing self-portraits, a few techniques will help get the job done efficiently. Here are some techniques to remember:

1. Focusing Technique

When capturing self-portraits, it is always good to use manual focus. With autofocus, your camera can refocus somewhere else when the shutter releases, making your photos look blurry.

To successfully focus on the spot where you will be when capturing the self-portrait if you have someone else with you, you can make them stand in the location where you are going to stand, then manually focus on them and then go, make them move and stand there yourself in that spot when taking the picture. If you do not have anyone, then place something in that position and focus on it manually so you can stand there before the shutter releases, and you will be in focus.

Pro Tip: If your camera or smartphone allows it, consider using manual focus. This gives you complete control over where the focus point is. Before taking the shot, adjust the focus manually to ensure your face or the main subject is sharp. This can be especially helpful if your camera's autofocus struggles to lock onto your face.

2. Self-Timer Mode

This very important technique will come in handy when taking self-portraits. Since you will be photographing yourself, you can press the shutter after setting up a delay timer of 10 seconds and then quickly go to the space and pose before the shutter releases.

Each camera will have a different method or menu to set the self-timer. Go through the manual to see how this should be set. If using a smartphone, use the self-timer feature in the camera menu.

window light
Photo by Carolina Heza

Continuous Shots Using Timer Delay

Sometimes you may want to take a few shots of you doing something continuously or doing different poses and for these situations, there is also an option to set the number of shots using timer delay. If you have that feature in your camera, then use it to get a set of photos so you don’t have to move back and forth between the camera and your shooting space.

Set the self-timer to take a specific number of shots (maybe 20 to 30 or more, depending on how many your camera will allow) at an interval of a specified number of seconds (maybe 1 or 2 seconds). During this time you can change poses, or you can keep doing things that your camera will continue to capture during the set interval.

3. Burst Mode

Burst mode is a great way to capture a few poses in a single shutter release. This is especially useful if you are moving continuously, like a dance or something similar, or if you are throwing things in the air and you want to capture their movement in various frames so this way the camera can capture a series of images for you to select the best after the shoot.

self-portrait with a mirror
Photo by Toa Heftiba

How To Capture Unique Self-Portraits 

Self-portraits are unique because you will be capturing your own stories that are only about you and your stories. To make the stories unique, capture your self-portraits to portray things about you and your surroundings. Even simple things like your day-to-day life, profession, and hobbies can be captured or created as stories for powerful self-portraits. 

Your first photo or the first couple of shots can be quite difficult, uncomfortable to capture, etc., but once you get the idea, with some practice and thought process, you can excel, be more creative, and be comfortable photographing yourself. 

Pro Tip: If you're struggling to get the focus right, especially with manual focus, use a mirror to help you position yourself correctly. Focus on your reflection in the mirror and then take the shot.

You can use a variety of styles to tell a story through self-portraiture. Some of them are discussed below:

1. Environmental Self-Portrait

Many of the above-discussed scenarios for self-portraiture will call for a beautiful environmental portrait where you will be capturing a story of yourself doing something or posing in the environment that you live in work, or spend your leisure time – it could be outdoors in nature or even be your little comfort zone at home. Think creatively and write down your creative process of how you want the final photograph to look. Bring that visual story to life through your creative photography.

2. Documentary Style Self-Portrait

When you are going about your daily work or hobbies, you can document them as self-portraits where you will be documenting yourself in the image doing your job or something else that interests you. This can be documentary photography done as one photograph or a series of photos in one photo session that can be taken from morning to night to narrate a day's story in your life.

3. Faceless Self-Portrait

You do not always have to include your face in self-portraits. If you feel uncomfortable showing your face, there are many creative ways to include hands, legs, back/side of your head, etc., when capturing self-portraits. This kind of portrait can feel mysterious and make the viewer more curious when looking at the photograph.

When capturing faceless self-portraits, use props and other things in the frame and effective lighting techniques to add depth and make the story interesting, engaging, and meaningful.

documentary self-portrait
Photo by Majestic Lukas

You can even blur your face using long exposure techniques if you do not want to show your face or if that technique goes well with the story.

blurry self-portrait
Photo by Sayan Ghosh

4. Fantasy Or Sci-Fi Self-Portrait

If you are interested in fantasy, sci-fi, etc., you can create fairy tales or fictional kinds of stories through self-portraiture. In this case, you will need the right costumes, props, and some extra time invested in post-processing to get the desired outcome.

fantasy self-portrait
Photo by Alice Alinari

5. Studio Self-Portrait

You do not have to keep the self-portraits limited to environmental or documentary but can capture amazing studio-quality self-portraits of yourself in a controlled location or environment with good light (desirable for your style). You must capture some test shots to decide on the lighting for your studio portrait.

studio self-portrait
Photo by Hosein Shirvani

6. Multiplicity Self-Portrait

Multiplicity photos are a great way to portray various characteristics of yourself in a single frame creatively or to capture a series of poses, actions, or other things in one frame. You then need to make a composite of the shots using an application like Photoshop.

7. Instantaneous Self-Portrait

Sometimes you may be somewhere and find that you are closely attached or can relate to that location or moment. In situations like these, if possible, think of how you can show your feeling towards that location or scene, come up with a pose, and capture pictures that can portray the raw emotion in that particular instant.

outdoor self-portrait
Photo by Wes Hicks

8. Other Factors To Consider And More Tips

Besides the above, here are some tips for capturing self-portraits:

  • When using props, light, costumes and colors, choose them wisely to suit the story. Dull, dark, and moody stories must be shot in low light and moody weather or light conditions. Foggy and overcast weather can be great for capturing moody stories, whereas golden hour and sunny days are great for cheerful and vibrant self-portraits.
  • Do not forget composition. Compositional guidelines can be one of the most effective ways to draw viewer’s attention, and take them into the image and keep them engaged for a while.
  • Also, pay attention to your facial expressions, pose, and body language. These tell a lot about the subject that is you and so, make sure they are relevant to the story that you are capturing.
  • Do not worry about imperfections in self portraits because sometimes that is what will help with the true story. Besides, if you go wrong on something, remember that you are only working with yourself. So reshoot the story till you get the desired results.
creative self-portrait
Photo by ammar sabaa
  • Include people or pets that mean a lot to you, in your self portraits as it can add more meaning, interest to certain stories that you will be capturing.
  • Find inspiration from movie stories or others especially for fantasy and Sci-Fi kind of self portraits. You could even get ideas for locations and props when watching your favourite programmes.
  • Always shoot raw whenever possible so you have the flexibility to adjust various settings and pull out details to bring out your creative vision.
  • Plan ahead of the shoot for engaging images that tell a story. Pay attention to all the small details you will be including in the photo because they matter a lot. Even a simple story by the coffee table in your own space can give a personal touch to your self portrait.
cheerful self-portrait
Photo by Caju Gomes

Editing Self-Portraits

Editing photographs is important so that you bring the right colors and details out of the file. So, import all the photos to your favorite post-processing application and sort out the best images. Choose the images that show your true self and tell a strong story.

Here's a collection of useful tips for editing self-portraits:

Your raw file can look dull with fewer colors and contrast. So make some basic adjustments to give a little pop to the images. Some adjustments you should be looking to make are:

  • Adjust white balance – If you did not get your white balance right in camera, make adjustments when post processing. Shooting raw will help you with adjusting white balance accurately. Also, if you are looking to bring in a mood in your images, for example, warm, cold, rustic, etc., then adjust the white balance to suit the story.
  • Remove distracting elements – Sometimes there may be distracting objects or elements that accidentally got into the frame or there may be things that you need to clean out before presenting or finalising your image. Use the clone or heal tool to remove unwanted or distracting elements from the frame.
  • Exposure – Exposure adjustments depend on how you want your final image to look like and will also be based on the story you are telling, for example bright for cheerful and dark for fear, melancholy, etc. Based on your artistic vision, adjust the exposure to the desired value. This could be slight overexposure or underexposure.
  • Contrast – Increase contrast if your image lacks the required contrast.
  • Highlights and Shadows – Use the highlights and shadows tools to bring in details in highlights and to recover details in shadow areas if necessary.
  • Adjustment brush tools – if you want to locally make adjustments in specific parts of the image to adjust exposure or work on shadows and highlights, then use the brush tool to achieve the desired looks.
  • Vibrance – If your image lacks a pop in colour, then increase the vibrance. Do not overdo this as it can make the image look unreal and the colours look awkward. Sometimes this will also introduce unwanted artefacts in the image.
  • HSL Panel – If there are specific colours that you need to work with, then make use of the HSL panel to adjust the hues, saturation and luminance values for specific colours.
  • Sharpen – Apply sharpening if required. Again, do not overdo this.

Pro Tip: The foundation of a great edited self-portrait is a well-exposed and well-composed original image. Ensure that your lighting, composition, and focus are as close to perfect as possible before diving into editing.

Capturing self-portraits and sharing it with an audience can make some people feel vulnerable. Prioritize your feelings towards this process and work on it only if and when you feel comfortable.

Self-portrait just like any form of photography is an art form and with each shoot, it will help to capture your stories better and more creatively. If you capture self-portraits, what are some tips that you think will help other photographers overcome fear and gain confidence in capturing their stories? Please share your tips with us in the comments section below!

Further Resources:

About Author

Dahlia is a stock photographer and full time educator at Light Stalking. You can find her on Gurushots and see some of her more popular articles at The American Society of Media Photographers. Get to know her better here.

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