How To Take A Self-portrait
Taking Versus Creating
In truth, taking a self-portrait is as simple as can be; you place yourself, somewhere in the frame, and trigger the camera shutter, by whatever means. That's it, you're done.
However, creating a self-portrait that has substance, depth, context, and meaning is another story entirely. Since you've sought out an article on self-portraiture, I'll leap and assume that you want to create a fantastic photograph — one where you, the photographer, are the subject.
As long as there have been artists, there have been self-portraits. They are an essential tool for connecting to one's creative self and fostering greater awareness of, and appreciation for, what it's like to be on the other side of the camera.
During that process of connection and discovery, we— photographers— are inevitably forced to confront some measure of fear, discomfort, and apprehension, all-natural and reasonable, given that we are engaging in a powerful act of vulnerability.
Vulnerability is a vessel of artistic-evolution and a conduit for creative-development. The topic of vulnerability is far beyond the scope of this article; however, it's a noteworthy and necessary component of every artists’ journey toward their respective dreams, goals, and aspirations.
Method, technique, and approach all vary greatly, depending on what type of portrait you intend to produce, and what you have available to the end of that production. Suffice it to say, though, ingenuity and inventiveness will afford one far more possibilities than high-end gear alone.
I'm writing this article because I adamantly believe in the power, profundity, and necessity of self-portraiture for all photographers— especially those who photograph people. For me, self-portraits have proved to be an act of self-love, appreciation, and gratitude. Each session has empowered me to connect with myself and my art, to an astonishing degree.
Furthermore, by embracing vulnerability, and moving through the associated fear and anxiety, I've gained a more profound respect and admiration for anyone who chooses to step in front of my lens.
What follows is an, admittedly biased, exploration of self-portraiture. By this article's end, should you last that long, I sincerely hope that you feel not only inspired but excited to embark on an incredible journey of self-discovery and artistic growth.
Also, I must add one note: while all self-portraits are necessarily a sort of selfie, not all selfies are, themselves, self-portraits. Per my definition, at least. ;)
Why Produce Self-portraits
The Rationale And Reasoning For Photographing Yourself
The most pragmatic and practical reason for creating self-portraits is logistical — ease of access. Sometimes, it can be extremely challenging to secure a subject, especially when it's for non-project related purposes like experimenting with lighting modifiers, gels, etc. Every time that you want to create, practice, test, or anything of the sort, you should be available!
To that end, self-portraiture allows one to practice, experiment, fail, and refine without the burdens of being watched or feeling indebted to produce final imagery. It's a creative free-for-all where no holds are barred, and anything goes. It's a time to get excited, get frustrated, laugh, cry, or possibly have a mini-meltdown.
At some point, you'll probably trip, fall, knock something over, converse with a strobe, or throw an inanimate object against a wall. I mean, I've never done the latter two, at least not in the past 24 hours, but to each their own. What happens during self-portrait sessions stays in self-portrait sessions. All jesting aside, the freedom to play creatively without expectation is a veritable panacea for skill development.
But, of course, art is more than mere technique. It's an expression, it's individuality, it's an embodiment of the artist. One of the questions photographers often ask, especially as they start to take the craft more seriously, and give serious thought to what it is that they're creating, is how to develop one's aesthetic, or visual-voice.
My answer to that question is always to consume, create, and experiment. Consume art in all of its forms and take note of what compels or inspires you, in terms of light, feeling, colors, textures, environment, framing, narrative, connection, etc. Deconstruct and reconstruct. Experiment; emulate, recreate, keep, discard, aggregate, fail, succeed, and ultimately — evolve.
Self-portraiture is a safe haven for experimenting and creating. It's a place to test new techniques, to refine foundational approaches, to cast borders, boundaries, and limitations aside in favor of what could, might, and will be.
My studio, or location, during these sessions, is a place for me to be bold, honest, and unwavering in pursuing my passion; it is a crucible and a catalyst, space where I am permitted to dream, imagine, envision, and explore without constraint. Your creative space holds similar, if not more significant potential, for you.
Of course, it hasn't always been that way. When I first started to delve into self-portraiture more seriously, I was wrought with fear and anxiety. To me, then, to photograph myself was to magnify all that I was fighting against; self-loathing, body dysmorphia, impostor syndrome, and a prevailing sense of inadequacy as an artist and photographer.
Confronting: Fear And Vulnerability
Fear, Anxiety, Apprehension, And Vulnerability
Without question, the most common complaint, conflict, or concern I encounter when chatting with fellow photographers, regarding self-portraits, is intense discomfort. Frequently, that discomfort stems from fear and anxiety centered around vulnerability and exposure — the being seen kind, not the histogram variety. Bad wordplay, I know.
Notwithstanding paltry attempts at humor, discomfort is often a massive oppositional force, when beginning to experiment with self-portraits. Generally speaking, for most, being in front of the camera, formally, is uncomfortable.
Couple that generalized lack of ease with lighting, framing, wardrobe, posing, emotion, timing, and other elements, both tangible and intangible, and you have a time-tested recipe for distress.
Not to diminish, or dismiss, the technical and production elements, but those variables are often inflated to overshadow that which has a tendency to lie beneath; fear and anxiety, both about being seen and seeing one's self. Vulnerability — we meet again, my old friend.
In my humble opinion, to create a meritorious self-portrait requires us— the photographer— to embody a state of being that is transparent and unguarded.
My journey started with a lot of duck-facing and a lot of retouching. As I began to create and share self-portraits, with intent and consistency, I quickly became aware that I was spending more time processing and editing those images than even my commercial work.
Truthfully, it was eye-opening, upsetting, and somewhat depressing. Seemingly, all that I could see was imperfection: age, scars, asymmetry, physique, height, proportion, etc. It was hard to look at myself through my own lens. That was a profound realization and a powerful revelation.
While I was producing self-portraits that were pleasing to the eye and well-received on social media and in online communities, I was not creating self-portraits that felt significant to me. I didn't feel good about the images because I didn't feel like the images were me.
So, I set off to create shots that felt right; I began to look at myself like I would look at a client. In essence, I decided to craft a bespoke narrative for myself as a man and artist. I commissioned a portrait of me by none other than me.
Suddenly, things took a turn for the interesting, and I found myself feeling empowered to express and awash in an almost overwhelming sense of pride, fulfillment, and inspiration. Through self-portraiture, I was able to (re)connect with myself. Punctuating that the last sentence made the little hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Wow.
This article is about creating amazing self-portraits; though, not about my story. However, I feel like it's necessary to share fragments of my journey because while we all walk our own path, we tend to share many steps, in one form or another.
My point is that fear, anxiety, apprehension, discomfort, tension, distress, and struggle are all part of the process, not only of self-portraits but of art. The plight of the artist is proximally related to the potential and power that we, as artists, wield.
I wish I could share some sort of magical formula that, if followed to the letter, would represent a surefire route through the storm. However, I cannot. What I can say with certainty is that the inevitable confrontations hold immense promise and potential; that discomfort and tension will fade and be replaced by ease, creative expansion, and infinite expression.
Ultimately, all things are ephemeral. Feelings, states of mind and being, and moods will pass. My method, as of late, has been to allow whatever I'm feeling and experiencing to wash over and move through me; to breathe. As I create space in my lungs, so too is space created for new emotional states, and states of being.
The only sure path is to find your own answers; in doing so, you'll find parts of yourself. You can. You will. You've got this.
Consume. Create. Experiment. Every day, or as often as possible.
Consuming: Inspiration And Aspiration
Curating Inspiration, As An Aspirational Wellspring
We're incredibly fortunate to live in an age where near-infinite quantities of inspiration are available to us; vast archives of brilliance, for any and every genre of art, are but a few taps, clicks or swipes away,
In my opinion, it's essential to cast a wide-net when sourcing inspiration, whether on a macroscopic level or for something more specific such as potential creative direction for a project. Take time to step away from photography and explore painting, cinema, sculpture, music, design, dance, and any other forms of creative expression.
Immerse yourself in the chaotic order of nature as well as the curated collections at the museum. Establishing a pattern of seeking inspiration will radically change the way you see and interact with the world in exciting and unexpected ways.
Use your device to collect and organize inspiration; take notes or craft lists; create Pinterest Boards, and explore the great masters of painting. But, also, take time to set your device aside and engage with the tangible and literal.
Check out art books from your library or order a few online. Seek out fellow artists and creators in your community. Offer those that you admire a meal, coffee, or cocktail in exchange for their time. Embrace art — connect, to art, in all of its shapes and forms.
Along the way, begin to identify patterns in what moves you, visually, verbally, auditorily, and kinesthetically. Are there specific colors or sounds you're drawn to, certain silhouettes that you can't seem to look away from, thematic elements, narratives, or mythologies that leave you transfixed? This is about who you are, and who you want to be, how you see the world, and how you wish the world could be or be seen; about what and who matter to you most, and why.
In a more directed sense, compile inspiration for lighting, posing, and styling. If at all possible, explore your sources of inspiration and seek to elaborate on those connections. Before you start to express your singularly unique aesthetic, as an artist, you will begin to know what that looks and feels like. It's surreal and sublime.
Enough inspiration; however, it's time to create!
Creating: Intent And Ingenuity
Technique, Methods, And Approach.
Before delving into the deep-end of technique, let's take a moment to address the elephant in the room. High-end gear does not make high-end photographer make.
That being said, particular gear, apps, and software can make the creative process a lot more efficient; and, potentially, make creating art less burdensome and more fun. Ultimately, we are limited only by our imagination and willingness to think outside of the box.
A question that is often posited in digital, creative communities is how one should go about lighting a subject or whether the lighting approach was sound, practical, appropriate, well-executed, etc. These questions, invariably, are met with reactive questions such as what are you trying to say, convey, or evoke, what mood or aesthetic were you striving toward, and— most importantly — what do you think, feel, or believe.
This cuts to the core and reveals intent; technique and approach are predicated on intention. If you want to magnify texture, it's reasonable to opt for hard, directional light. If you want to minimize texture, it's reasonable to opt for soft, indirect, feathered light.
If you want an image to feel retro and filmic, dense grain, muted colors, and a subtle lack of clarity may make sense, when editing. If you want an image to feel modern and commercial, those same elements would probably be inappropriate.
That's one of the reasons I fervently shoot film to this day. And a reason why I think everyone should! Outside of being obsessed with the magic of film and analog aesthetic in general, it helpsfor—forces—me to exercise discipline and forethought.
The medium necessitates intent. When shooting my Mamiya RB67, I know that I only have 10 frames per roll. I spend time brainstorming, relative to my subject, environment, light and shadow, colors, textures, and the like. I evaluate different possibilities and decide on a mixture that I feel will be most in-line with my intended result.
From there, I meter the light, adjust my settings, cock the shutter, focus on the subject, take a breath, and depress the shutter release. It's almost meditative and has a strong propensity for inducing a state of flow.
Sorry for that miniature, pro-film rant. Back to you.
So, this is your tale to tell... What do you want to say?
Of course, nuance and detail will vary widely, depending on the specifics of your equipment, environment, intention, and experience. For now, we'll focus on critical foundational elements.
Yep! You're incredible and, as such, are the single most crucial element of the self-portrait. Without you, even light doesn't matter... Yeah, take a moment appreciate how amazing you must be if the importance of light is predicated on you. I digress.
I know, I know, this seems like an elementary, obvious element. But, it's so important that it bears repeating, over, and over, and over, and over again... As photographers, before all else, we communicate in the language of light and shadow; their proportions and interplay.
Let's be honest, without a source of light, everything else is moot. In the end, light is light; the source is not nearly as crucial as its properties. Light and shadow will make or break your portrait, regardless of the other elements and facets. Natural light, constant light, strobe light, or some combination thereof will all work just fine.
Heck, Paolo Roversi lit many of his masterpieces with nothing more than Maglites. The magic, or lack thereof, is all in how you integrate and modify your light source(s).
Now is a great time to reference, revisit, or expand what you've compiled as inspiration. Whether you're looking to recreate, partially emulate, or simply organize pieces into your own aggregate, explore those sources!
A good starting point for evaluating and defining lighting options is mood. Are you striving for bright and airy or committed to dark and moody, whimsy or woe, triumph or tragedy, isolation, or integration? Also, what exactly are you trying to light; your face or full body?
From there, determine if the light is appropriate for your intended mood and frame. If not, why? Do you need more or less light, deeper or lighter shadows, softer or harder light, etcetera?
Modify your light, as needed, until you feel as good as you can. Yes, there's a lot than can be done in post-processing, no doubt. However, I'm of the ilk that it's more efficient and fulfilling to get things as close as possible in-camera. That's just my take.
If there's one piece of equipment that every self-portraitist needs, it's a sturdy tripod. Preferably, one that offers a lot of range in terms of height and angles, while being relatively easy to adjust. In a pinch, you can affix your camera directly to a light stand or precariously prop it on and against something, if you're feeling dangerous.
Speaking of angles, I like to be able to shoot both vertical and horizontal frames without issue. To that end, I've outfitted my camera with an L-Bracket that pairs to any Swiss-Arca mounting plate. This allows me to effortlessly switch between frame-variants without having to position my camera in a manner that places more stress on the supporting elements and increases the likelihood of my tools-for-livelihood crashing down to the ground.
While you don't have to spend a bundle, this is not a place where your main goal should be to save a few pennies. Remember, this tripod will be supporting your camera and lens! On that note, I actually check my tripod before each session where it will be used, just to make sure that nothing is loose, stripped, or failing.
Make sure everything is tightly secured, please! I've made this mistake in the past, and it's not very enjoyable. :/
So, your lighting design looks spectacular, and your tripod is so robust that it'd support King Kong. Good. The question becomes, how will you trigger the shutter of your camera?
There are a few options, all with benefits and pitfalls. Some have a lot more of the former than the latter, to be sure.
If you're looking to get some exercise during your session, and possibly become stressed-out enough to prematurely age, this is a great option. I joke, but until I made the jump from Pentax to Sony, this was my go-to method. Since I always managed to forget my remote trigger, my approach would usually entail setting up all of the elements of the frame, pressing the shutter — set to a 10-second timer— and scurrying across my studio to a designated spot where I'd do my best to strike an intriguing pose.
The failure rate was high, and my level of frustration tended toward bewildering, but I persevered and creating some incredible portraits.
If your frame doesn't happen to include your hands, this is a nifty option. The significant advantage of this approach is that you don't have to sprint from the camera to your particular spot, and you can shoot as many frames as you'd like, as you adjust angles, posing, micro-expressions, etc
The downside is that you don't know what your frames are looking like, as you sequentially trigger the shutter. You may wind up with 20 frames all equally blurry and askew if you're not checking your work with regularity.
Remote Trigger with Timer
This option allows for a lot of levity in terms of positioning, posing, etc. I like to pair a remote trigger with a short 3-5 second timer. In doing so, it allows me to trigger the timer and still have a few moments to settle into a posture or expression.
In my humble opinion, this is the Holy Grail of all approaches. I can only speak to Sony's Imaging Edge app, as I don't have much experience with any other brands' mobile applications.
The Sony app allows me to connect to my camera via WiFi and offers a real-time point of view as if I was looking at the display screen from behind the camera. This allows me to frame and pose myself without having to shoot a slew of test shots.
Furthermore, I can change camera settings directly from the app, so if I want more or less light, in the studio, it's as easy as opening or closing the aperture. Just as importantly, and discussed in greater detail momentarily, is that the app allows me to confirm focus before triggering the shutter. It's damn-near magic!
This is another method that I've successfully used. Paired with Capture One, so long as your camera is supported, this is an excellent option. You can position a laptop just out of the frame and use C1 to not only check your framing, focus, light, etc. but also directly control your camera's settings, and remotely trigger the camera
If I was using a camera system that didn't offer a viable app, this would be my top choice, no doubt.
One of the most common inquiries I receive regarding my self-portraits revolves around how I manage to focus appropriately and produce sharp images. Having used cameras with, arguably, the worst and best autofocus, relative to class, for self-portraits, my answer is a bit divergent.
When I was shooting Pentax, my method was to switch to manual focus, use the display screen's focus peaking capability, and pre-focus on a defined area. That might have been a chair, mannequin, backdrop, pile of books, or whatever else was, or could be placed, closest to the relevant spot. This method works best with apertures smaller than f/5.6, for greater levity in the focal plane.
Now that I'm shooting Sony, I almost feel as though I'm cheating, to be honest. The app, combined with Sony's eye-AF and real-time tracking, is damn-near foolproof. Once I'm in position, I simply press the app's shutter button to establish or confirm focus and release. That's it, really.
This is where everyone is going to have a different method; relative to their camera manufacturer and model. If you have an option for a functional app— that's your go-to. Otherwise, if your camera offers any type of eye or subject tracking, you can explore if those features are compatible with remote triggering and the timer function. If all else fails, go old-school, manually pre-focus, and revel in your badassery!
I am an ardent believer in the old adage stating that simplicity is synonymous with elegance. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Silly - that's my interpretation, at least.) I have a penchant for making things more complicated than they ought to be, and I know I'm not alone in that regard.
Especially when starting out, focus on keeping everything as simple and straightforward as possible. As you explore, experiment, and begin to define your arsenal of technique and workflow, add in elements as warranted.
What to wear? One of the top ponderings for those about to self-portrait. As with all of the facets we've explored so far, there is no right or wrong answer. Is your self-portrait session about every day or something less typical? Do you have definitive inspiration; if not, have you decided on a location, lighting style, theme, etc.?
As an editorial and fashion photographer, the wardrobe is of the utmost importance to me. Sometimes, I build details of a shoot around the wardrobe. Other times, I cater styling to the details of the shoot. Either way can work exceptionally well.
Also, two words: Thrift Store. Seriously. Nearly everything that I've worn in self-portraits was sourced from thrift stores in my area. Once again, this an area where inspiration plays a significant role. If you have some ideas in mind, before visiting a thrift store, or any place to source clothing, you'll have a much higher likelihood of finding appropriate pieces. Curate your vision!
This could be indoors or outdoors, nature or industrial, a studio, or a park. Given that I spend most of my time in the studio, that environment is most comfortable for me. Your mileage may vary.
Starting out, I'd highly recommend starting inside, if at all possible, to avoid contending with elements like wind and whatnot. Superlative self-portraits have been created in dank basements, cramped apartments, and arid carports. Don't allow location to dictate your vision.
Posing is all about body awareness. Body awareness stems from mindful practice. Any activity that brings you into your body is aces in my book. I look to classically-trained dancers as the apex of this type of awareness.
One guaranteed way to improve your posing is to stand in front of a mirror and practice— guess what— posing! I know that sounds simple and silly, but it is all too true. Focus on your form as a gesture drawing; deconstruct yourself into shapes and lines. Think in terms of curves, triangles, and parallel elements.
Not only will focusing on posing vastly improve your self-portraits, but it will also embolden you with an uncanny ability to direct those whom you're photographing. A highly valuable skill unto itself.
One of the most critical aspects of expression is whether or not it aligns with the pose and posture. Cohesion is the name of the game when it comes to creating something visually intriguing. Yes, I know, dissonance can be used effectively as well, but that's a topic for another day and another verbose article.
Regarding expression, as it relates to self-portraiture, I usually direct myself as if I were an actor; I dig for experience, memory, and association, relative to whatever I am striving to convey. In that way, the mood or state comes across as much more authentic and significant.
It's far too easy to get stuck using very generic, linear perspectives when shooting self-portraits. I'm a big fan of shooting low-to-high, as well as creatively implementing the distortion present in wide(r) angle lenses.
This is a prime place to test and push boundaries. Movies, and cinematography in general, is an excellent source of inspiration on this front; and a solid jumping-off point for experimentation.
Framing and Cropping
Yes, there are a lot of customarily-followed rules and guidelines regarding composition, cropping, and the like. The thing is, though, rules are made to be broken. Don't be afraid to leave a ton of negative space near frame borders, or crop-in on a portrait to just above the brow and below the chin.
This variable is very much associated with your intent; what are you trying to say? If it's about proximity and intimacy, a tight crop with a focus on the eyes may work well; whereas if it's about loneliness and isolation, a wide(r) environmental shot where you take up only a small portion of the frame may better convey that concept.
Experiment. Experiment. Experiment.
Now that we're creating self-portraits, how do we go about engaging in an honest evaluation and constructive critique?
Evaluating: Celebrate And Critique
Reviewing In Earnest While Combatting Perspective-bias
I know that hate is a strong word, but I feel reasonably confident in stating that, especially at first, you are going to hate a lot of frames. Unless you've spent a decent amount of time in front of the camera, it'll take a bit for you to get to a point where you genuinely feel comfortable. Until that point, the road is going to be a bit rocky; full disclosure.
Once you begin to feel good, both about your methodology and being in front of the camera, you'll see a massive uptick in the caliber and consistency emerging from your sessions. There's also a good chance that you'll find yourself ever-more-critical about what you're creating. It's a paradox, but it's real. During periods of development, there are often stretches where the better we become, the more critical we become.
Of course, we must be honest and push ourselves, but it is far too easy to advance one's self toward dispassioned burnout and creative ruin. This is where inspiration and execution play a significant role.
Even if you're in a state of mind where you're overly critical of yourself, you can still find solace in what you created, if you effectively brought a vision to life, or emulated a technique or work of art with some degree of precision.
Though it may be challenging, it's also essential to begin to share your self-portraits as soon as possible. Whether on a private-scale with friends and colleagues or on a larger scale in safe, healthy, supportive, creative communities. Feedback is not only crucial for growth, but for a much-needed shift in perspective.
Seeing your work, if only partially, through the eyes of another, can be a powerful, transformative experience. With practice, we can begin to view, evaluate, and interact with our work, using that external perspective, as necessary.
Evolving: Authenticity And Expression
Connecting With Your Artistic-core
Art is, of course, expression; to be more exact, regardless of medium or subject, I believe that it is an expression of self. If we are not truly connected to ourselves, if we have, along the way, lost sight of who we are, what we're made of, and what's important to us, then our art is necessarily constrained by an incomplete self.
I am of the opinion that self-development and artistic-development are inextricably connected. To embrace our art, we must embrace ourselves. So too must we love ourselves, to love our art. That's a tall order. It certainly was for me.
But it is my experience that art is a means through which we can cultivate a newfound appreciation for and belief in ourselves. I know that art can heal. I choose to believe that at its finest, life is art and art life. There is no emulation, only a complete whole.
I used to think that the greatest gift afforded to me by photography was the ability to connect with others and the world; that it was a conduit through which I could share the stories of whoever stepped in front of my lens. I know those things to be accurate, without question.
However, I've come to realize that, for me, photography's most significant contribution to my existence, is that it has empowered me to (re)connect with myself. Through that connection, I find myself better able to express and, thus, create. It's a beautiful feedback loop wherein one hand feeds the other. It feels right. Self-portraiture has been a powerful conduit for me to be, laud, love, and embrace me; for me to live and share my story.
If you commit to a regimen of creating self-portraits, call it a transient act of creative-discipline, I feel confident that it will change you and your art, in profound ways.
The only thing louder than destruction is creation. This is a tenet that I live by. Now, more than ever, the world needs art. Now, more than ever, the world needs artists. You are singularly unique. You have something to offer, unlike any other. The world needs you and your art. But, to share your art, to unshackle your expression, you must first connect to yourself— your self.
You can. You will. You've got this.
Consume. Create. Experiment. Every day, or as often as possible.
Gear: Artistry Versus Acquisition
Experiment, For Innovation, Acquire, To Solidify
Artists will create, with whatever they have at hand. Technicians are bound to their tools and procedures. When creativity and ingenuity reign supreme, there is so much that can be done with so little.
In our art form, in our industry, far too often, we are made to believe that we are constrained by the details of our kit. Far too often, we are made to feel that acquisition of goods is more relevant and essential that the attainment of knowledge, refinement of skill, and mastery of technique.
The best investment we can make is in ourselves. Knowledge and skill are priceless. Hone your craft, discover your voice, connect with your inner-artist; the tools are merely a means to an end. You are the creator and conduit for expression. Anything else is merely an extension of you.
With that being said, whenever possible, it's ideal to select the right tool for the right job. Here are my recommendations for the burgeoning self-portraitist:.
L-Bracket :3 Legged Thing | Universal L-Bracket
Tripod: Tiffen Carbon Fiber Tripod
Ancillary/Accessories: Tether Tools | Tethering Cable
Jonny is an editorial|fashion photographer, and creative educator, based out of Denver, CO.
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