The Ultimate Guide to Taking Self Portraits

Self portraits are easily dismissed when there are nothing but “selfies” on Instagram and Snapchat, but it truly has been a popular form of expression ever since man first saw his own reflection (Oh hey - Narcissus!)  From Van Gogh to Ansel Adams, to extreme conceptual artists like Cindy Sherman, self portraiture has become a way to express personality, share your story, explore one’s self, or to play the part of someone else.

Left to Right - Self Portraits by: Ansel Adams, Cindy Sherman, Frida Kahlo

Photographers often use the excuse that we are awkward in front of a camera and that is why we are behind it. For some of us, this is definitely true… just kidding! :) Self portraiture does not have to be glamorous - it simply has to be you. And if you are “awkward” be someone else in your self portrait. Be honest, we’re all a bit self-conscious about having our photo taken, but with self portraits you are in complete control.

Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started:

Vivian-Maier - Self Portrait in New York City 1950’s

Vivian-Maier - Self Portrait in New York City 1950’s

Location & Composition:

What does your location say about you? Like taking a photo of someone else, composition and location are just as important. The best part is you already have so many spaces that are particular to just you - your bedroom, your bathroom, your favorite park, any place you find personal already exists. Maybe you are a private person and do not want to share those spaces, conceal it with anonymity and use that as part of your expression.  

Composition of your image will help make it stronger than just a “selfie.” You do not need to be directly in front of the camera. Experiment with different angles and positions. Are you completely in the frame? Or only a piece of you? Maybe you are not there at all. Play around with a variety of looks, but remember you will have to reset your own camera and focus every time you change. Don’t let that hinder you, just be aware.

Self Portrait by: Rosie Hardy

Self Portrait by: Rosie Hardy

Technicalities:

You have your location, composition, and modeling skills all ready, but how do you actually take the photo? There is absolutely no right or wrong way to do it and in some cases you may have to get really creative. (I had a classmate in art school who taped his DLSR to the ceiling with duct tape - I do not recommend that) I suggest starting with these three options: tripod, human tripod aka friend/sibling/life partner volunteer, or handheld.

Tripod:

When you take self portraits, prioritize safety by not placing your camera on risky platforms. Use a tripod to keep your camera in a consistent and safe position. Once you have your camera facing where you want it to be, it can be tricky to gain focus on you while you are behind the lens playing with settings. Put something in your composition where you will be posing. Focusing on this object will help the camera focus on you when you trade spots.  Height of the object is not as important as distance, but try to match it to yourself as best as you can for accuracy.

You can also try focusing with a remote or autofocus while you are in front of the frame. This may take a few tries, but once it is established it can save you time an energy of getting up, focusing, and going back to position.

If you do not have a remote, try using the timer and burst mode on your camera. This will at least give you time between your pose and pressing the shutter. The burst mode will give you multiple options in one sitting (so you can guarantee your eyes will be open!)

Handheld:

If you decide you want to handhold your camera to take your photo, remember that your distance between you and the lens is relied solely upon the length of your arm. Naturally, you may also shake which could result in blurry images. On the other hand, this may be the exact kind of framing and effect you are seeking.

Using Assistance:

You are not cheating if someone assists in taking the photo for you, but use them only as a human tripod and remote. You still need to have full control of the image and how it is taken. Set everything up and direct your human tripod to stand and focus where you want.

Take Your Time:

You may not be a professional model, so getting into a pose and finding what feels/looks good to you may take some time. Self portraits are filled with infinite possibilities, but has some limitations. It is exhausting. When losing energy, you’ll feel very impatient, irritated, and uncreative. Take breaks, have snacks, listen to your favorite music, and treat yourself like you would your best model. Are you getting discouraged? Call it a day and try again later.

Self Portrait by: Raffaello Faniuk

Self Portrait by: Raffaello Faniuk

Capture You:

A self-portrait should be a very personal expression, not a mirror of something you've seen somewhere else. Think about who you want to be and how you want to say that. What does using yourself as the model say differently than what you would say with someone else? Sometimes the self portrait may not be about you, but rather using yourself to depict another person. But why use yourself, instead of the other person? What is the narrative?

Self Portrait by: David Uzochukwu

Self Portrait by: David Uzochukwu

Lastly, Do Not Be Afraid of Judgement.

It can be intimidating to use yourself as a subject. Self portraiture is not vain and narcissistic. It is more widely accepted today with the social media promotion of selfies and sharing your life. You have every right to experiment and evolve as an artist. Self portraiture can teach you patience, independence, and feeling comfortable in your own skin. It is the ultimate opportunity to get to know yourself better. Remember, if you ever receive unnecessary negative criticism, it is simply a reflection of that person’s closed mindedness.

Self Portrait by: Omar Victor Diop

Self Portrait by: Omar Victor Diop

Here are some examples of self portraits to get you inspired:

Francesca Woodman

Liu Bolin

Liu-Bolin-Hiding-In-The-City-Balloon-2012.jpg

Diane Arbus

Diane-Arbus-Double-Portrait.jpg

Andy Warhol

Left-Andy-Warhol-Self-Portrait-in-Drag-1981-Right-Andy-Warhol-Self-Portrait-with-Skulls-1977.jpg

Genevieve Gaignard

Lee Friedlander

Lee-Friedlander-New-York-City-19661.jpg

Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Robert Mapplethorpe

Left-Robert-Mapplethorpe-Self-Portrait-1980-Right-Robert-Mapplethorpe-Self-Portrait-1983.jpg

Fumiko Imano

Ready to create? Submit your self portraits to the newly open Self Portrait Challenge!

We cannot wait to see YOU!