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Self portraits are tough for a number of reasons; you can’t see yourself to know how you look until after the fact (tip don’t forget to suck that gut in). Setup can be more time consuming due to the running back and forth setting timers. Focus is difficult because again you can’t see where that focus point is resting and if you are using a timer mode there is a chance you weren’t in the frame when the camera found something to focus on.
On the other hand, shooting self portraits can be invaluable because you learn how to direct people for better portraits. What? I mean, that as you walk yourself through a portrait (of yourself) you gain insight in how to explain to people how to pose (you learn how to pose). The best way to direct people is to show them what you want and if you can do it for a self portrait, you can show your subject how to pose for you.
Another benefit is you can move your lights, angle you camera, and just do plain crazy things a subject such as friends, family or a client might not have the patience for (unless you pay them well).
So what to do? Well here are some ideas (tried and tested) to increase your chances for getting that self portrait to look like what you had planned in your mind (or close to it). Of course everything might not apply to you, but there are sure to be a few tips that you could apply and benefit from, and no matter how well you prepare there is always room for improvement.
The DPS crowd seems to be a group of DSLR owners for the most part so I will assume you are using a DSLR, but everything discussed is applicable to other digital cameras (and some of the discussion can be applied to film).
Pick up a tripod. Nearly any tripod will do so I won’t go into much detail, but the tripod is essential as it gives a flexible yet sturdy mount for the camera.
Pick up a remote; if you are using a Nikon or Canon camera there are wireless remotes available for the less expensive DSLR’s that cost about $20. These things are a real time saver and make it easier to fine tune your self portrait without looking all sweaty by photo number 20.
Shoot tethered; most digital cameras have a mini video if not a HD video out. I borrowed my son’s DVD player (the one he watches movies in the car with) on multiple occasions for the sole purpose of shooting self portraits. This is where the remote comes in great; you can fine tune the composition by watching that little monitor, without having to run back and forth. If you have a newer DSLR with an HD out then you could hook up your laptop or HD monitor.
Lighting, a single flash can do wonders for your portraits. I won’t go into any lighting details, but photography is about capturing light. You don’t need to buy a flash, I first started learning lighting using work lights. You can pick up a small but powerful work light from home depot for around ~$15.
Time to talk about technique. I think where most people get stuck on self portraits is the coming up with ideas (I know I struggle here). What really got me going was thinking about what I own and how I could use it in a photo. Now I am not just talking about props, but I am talking about features also. One of my prominent features is my bald head. So could I work that to my advantage?
Just thinking about my hobbies and past times, inspired all sorts of photo themes. In fact when I sat down and listed items, I quickly had more self portrait ideas than I could shoot in a single month (shooting a theme a day).
Environment, sometimes environment can inspire the image. For instance one night of January was extremely foggy.
Another environment I used was my previously extremely pregnant wife.
Two items make a photo, the subject and backdrop, and I think that they are equally important. This is where your lens choice comes into play. A long lens allows you to send the back ground out of focus and narrow down the amount of background in the photo. A wide lens keeps the background in focus and allows it to be a key part of the image. Either way the background is playing a big factor by being a key element or by not distracting from the subject.
In fact the clothing was a big part of my inspiration for any particular image, so you could say my clothing was what set the theme and I just had to act the part (and I mean really act). Two simple articles of clothing I found very useful were an old brimmed hat and my leather work gloves. Though the items were small and pretty common, the items were great for creating a theme.
Want your photos to look boring, then act bored. The facial and body expressions you make are huge in setting the tone of the photo. This is where having a tethered setup can really help (you will be able to see results and nail it down). Aim for over the top, I mean really go crazy. The more emotion you show the better the photo will turn out.
If you are trying to act angry, think of the guy who cut you off on the freeway and let out your pent up rage. If you want to look like you are happy then think of the guy YOU cut off on the freeway and laugh out loud (DPS does not condone cutting people off on the freeway).
When you are done look through the photos and see what worked and what didn’t. Make notes about what you liked and didn’t like. Enjoy looking though the photos. If certain photos didn’t turn out then do them again. If you do it right your going to love it!
See more from Nathan Marx at his blog nathanmarxphotos.blogspot.com
Learn more about Self Portraits in our eBook: The Art of Self Portraiture
Become a Contributor: Check out Write for DPS page for details about how YOU can share your photography tips with the DPS community.
August 16, 2013 05:58 am
your good but ive seen better (:
September 21, 2011 05:18 am
obviously like your web site however you have to check the spelling on quite a few of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling issues and I to find it very bothersome to tell the truth then again I will certainly come again again.
July 11, 2011 02:12 pm
I tried hooking up my Nikon Coolpix P90 to my portable DVD player as suggested, but the screen just says, "No disk." Any other ideas?
April 30, 2011 11:44 am
I have this D1 Quad Band Three Cards Three Standby Dual Cameras TV Bluetooth Java 2.2 inch Screen Phone- Black With Silver Side too: http://www.mallextreme.com/d1-quad-band-three-cards-three-standby-dual-cameras-tv-bluetooth-java-2-2-inch-screen-phone-black-with-silver-side_p26192.html.
April 5, 2011 06:59 am
AUDREY HEADLEY - GRAPHIC ARTIST
February 1, 2011 02:53 am
Wow!! I'm just about doing some crazy photo shoots and this article helped me a lot! Will keep in mind it when the time arrives... Thanks~
January 3, 2011 12:37 pm
Great article. My resolution for 2011 is to take more self portraits - this is great inspiration!
October 26, 2010 06:08 pm
I'm a bit of surprised there was no mention of HIV.
I'm an amateur and was hooked in self portraits that I wonder why so many pros and serious shutterbugs dislike HIV in cameras. Probably all they need is a camera that purely shoots for money and one with HIV is just a novelty feature nobody in their level would care to try or even to love.
A wide angle lcd is better than a normal lcd but an all angle lcd (HIV in this case) is not any better than a wide angle lcd. I can't find the logic in this equation.
In self portraits I used the Hinged Image Viewer (HIV) of a camera to seemingly toying with it in a corner, as if doing something (AIDS) when actually I am taking candid shots in ASAP (all shooting angle possible). That includes self portraits with ease of framing.
September 13, 2010 01:36 pm
why could we make any lighting in 2 dimension ut still in 1 photo?? thx b4
August 20, 2010 11:37 pm
what does a 'work light' look like?
April 8, 2010 11:55 pm
Very nice writeup!! Excellent examples to demonstrate the same...compliments!!
February 28, 2010 01:05 am
Amazing pictures! I love the foggy one. Very mysterious..
Thanks for the tips. ;-D
January 22, 2010 01:13 am
these pictures are amazing.
However what did you use to edit the pictures.?
December 10, 2009 03:53 pm
this was super helpful!! thank you so so so much!!
August 7, 2009 01:23 am
great article . I really learn a lot from it.
thanks so much for sharing this great tips :-)
June 2, 2009 09:07 am
Thanks I saw both of your websites and found them helpful. The people who criticize need to get over themselves. I came just looking for ideas, and your photos gave them to me. :)
April 17, 2009 05:21 am
You made me start my own Self Portrait program, thanx for ideas, thanx for tips. I hope I will make it...
March 19, 2009 09:21 am
I've never given this a try, but I think it's about time I do.
March 19, 2009 03:58 am
I always used to take my own picture with my compact camera coz its so much more easy for me to manage (without tripod). Only recently I got myself nikon D60 with VR 18-105mm lens. I have no idea how to work with that camera yet. And I really do want to continue shot self portrait with DSLR.
I will try again with useful tips that given by professional people here. Thank you
March 19, 2009 01:34 am
I LOVE THIS WEBSITE! I hate being in pictures and had to do a self portrait. With your ideas I came up with some really cool poses. Thanks! Keep up the good work! Your pictures are awesome!
March 18, 2009 05:40 am
Great tips! I used to do self-portraits while I was completing my degree (all of my work was of myself) but over the years I've really lost patience doing it. This gives me a bit of motivation to get into it again.
@ thekevinmonster: I love your focusing tip! Usually I put an object where I want to stand and focus on that from the triplod, but what a pain that is! Your idea is much better. And so you remember the spot you focused from, put a small piece of tape on the floor there so you know where to return.
March 18, 2009 05:04 am
This is an excellent and very usesful article!
Got to check out your blog now!
March 17, 2009 01:12 am
Thanks for the tips. I think I am going to try some of these this weekend.
March 16, 2009 07:47 pm
Great post. This will really have me shhoting more weird photos of my self than before.
March 16, 2009 11:42 am
Good shots and some very useful tips. I prefer being behind the camera than in front, but whenever I have been in front, usually am disappointed with the output. Maybe these tips will help to set that record straight. Thanks !
March 16, 2009 10:37 am
OK Thanks I need to add emotion and dress the occassion
March 16, 2009 10:01 am
I LOVED this! I never try anything beyond holding the camera and shooting into a mirror, which never seems to work very well. Also, as many pictures as I take of others, there are few of me and I'm very uncomfortable in front of the camera. Maybe playing around like this would help fix that.
March 16, 2009 09:34 am
I have this remote too: http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.5483
I use it for my Canon XSI and my Nikon D60.
Works great for taking remote pictures.
March 14, 2009 10:12 am
would you mind sending me the steps in an email if it isn´t too much hassle.
I think i have it figured but just to try and get the whol eidea clearer in my head.
Just in case you feel like obliging my mail is: email@example.com
In advance thank you very much
March 14, 2009 06:40 am
The photo with different versions of self (bathroom shot) are often called duplicity photos. This is where a tripod and a remote are especially helpful. Simply setup up the view you want on tripod, and then take multiple photos, change clothes whatever. Use photoshop to color in the part of the photo you want.
Difficult to give more detail in a comment.
March 13, 2009 10:24 pm
You are right Brian, thank you very much.
March 13, 2009 01:20 pm
Hi, I got the inspiration thanks.
In time, I earn nothing with this but I really cannot imagine anyone paying US$ 18 for an RC-5 or US$ 22 for a RC-1 (Canon, I don't know what is the Nikon model) at Amazon (and I know, this is not Amazon fault but Canon's) when there are other options.
There are options even in Amazon (other brands) but I'd like to recommend one really cheap that work for Canon, Nikon, Pentas, Minolta, Sony and Olympus owners: http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.5483. For this price why no give it a try? I did and can recommend. It really works very well for Canon (I could not test it on other brands but it claims to work). I had a lot of good experience with DX site and there are many other remote controls there (even wired ones - but I prefer, at least now, do not have anything from a knew brand connect to my DSLR). Again: I have nothing to do with DX or remote control brand. I only think that save 15 USD (yes, it has free ship) can give your wife or son the right to drink another soda, did you take my point?
March 13, 2009 10:59 am
To Pablo & Simon, I believe the name for the style of portrait used in the mirror shot is known as "cloning" - where you use multiple exposures, combined in Photoshop to create a "clone" of yourself.
March 13, 2009 09:43 am
great stuff ...i love it
March 13, 2009 09:41 am
Well I'm still trying to figure out the tethering thing - it seems like a really good idea but don't understand how it works.
March 13, 2009 09:24 am
Great tips, I always had issues with self portraits.
March 13, 2009 09:10 am
Hi, I think your tips are fabulous, I especially like that you've said to be over the top when doing portraits. I photographed my gf's wedding and had a shot where she stood on the verandah and hubby stood on the ground below with them holding hands and said now gaze up at her like the Goddess you know she is and they both thought it was corny, however i captured them with the beginnings of smiles and laughter and it's one of the better shots from there wedding!
March 13, 2009 08:05 am
Wow, nathan i must say that i have not delved intot he world of self portraits as I struggle to feel the pictures, but since seeing htat mirror shot i really want to give it a try - how did you manage tot ake the mirror shot if you dont mind my asking?
Anyone who could help me out witht hat one it would be greatly appreciated.
March 13, 2009 06:51 am
I like the picture on the mirror, what is the name of that style of those self portraits? I remember I read about that here but I can't find it now.
March 13, 2009 05:11 am
Nathan these are all stunning examples of self portraiture. You're certainly inspirational! I love the mirror one!
March 13, 2009 04:32 am
(Off topic:) When will you remove the f*ing irretating newsletter-blackmail-popup? I've almost stopped using the site because of this. Popped in today for the first time today and found out you still have it. Which is sad because it's a shame to remove such a (potentially) good site from my bookmarks.
March 13, 2009 02:55 am
here are some of my tips:
- This one isn't from me (I found it on the net), but a cool trick for focusing (for us DSLR guys I guess) if you don't have a trigger that can trip the pre-focus on your camera is to hold your camera where you want to stand and focus on the tripod's mounting plate. re-mount your camera and tada! Unless you're using some insane shallow DOF, you will be in focus, at least for your face.
- If you are upgrading a camera, look for one that can trip the full self timer from a wireless remote. My pentax k100d is limited to 3 seconds for a timer when using the IR remote, which means it's hard to be in the shot and not look like you are holding the trigger in your hand.
- To avoid a double chin, think about what causes a double chin, or rather why you can see it. Your double chin is under your chin, so if you can see under your chin, you'll see it. It sounds obvious. Then, think about how you pose when you pose - do you go and stand up nice and straight? That's going to pull your head back, as if you were a strutting rooster. That will bring your chin down closer to your neck, and puff out your double chin. Then, look at where your camera is on the tripod. If it is shooting straight on, or slightly up at you, you'll look fatter. Where's your light coming from? Is it lighting you up under your face? Not recommended unless you want the Are You Afraid of the Dark? flashlight effect.
- Use DOF and the Hyperfocal distance to your advantage. If you want to be in the shot with your whole body, you'll probably be using a wide angle lens. If you focus it at the hyperfocal distance, everything from half the focal length to infinity will be in focus. With a wide-angle lens and a small aperture, your hyperfocal distance will be close enough to the camera that it makes for a good body shot. Otherwise, pick up a depth of field calculator (or just do it on the internet and write down some common values), and use that to figure out where to stand. The more DOF, the less perfect you have to be in getting to the right spot. You might get your feet into that tape line on the floor, but then you unconsciously lean in or back....
- If your camera is fancy enough to have custom bracketing options, or if it has a three shot burst mode that can be triggered from a wireless trigger, fire off three shots. Then, move just a little, as if you were 'relaxing' before a pose, when you take the picture. It might help avoid that 'deer in the headlights' stuffy frozen look.
- Ever think you look good in the bathroom mirror but ugly in a self portrait? The light on your mirror is over your head, shining down, and it's pretty close to your face when standing at the sink.
March 13, 2009 02:34 am
I have recently started taking some self portraits, and found it quite difficult to get the results I was looking for, this article has shed some light on the subject for me and I will be giving it another try tonight. Thanks for the advice and tips.
March 13, 2009 01:41 am
Great article. Not much into shooting myself but good ideas to try!!
March 12, 2009 10:11 pm
I like all the tricks and tricks given here.It will help my having a nice collection of my photographs.
March 12, 2009 09:44 pm
I place a mirror near the camera so I can see (and freeze) my facial expression when I take self portraits.
March 12, 2009 04:56 pm
THANKS so much for this. I love taking my own picture, but aren't as good at it as I'd like.
March 12, 2009 04:06 pm
Some tip top photos and top tips in this post. I've tried the odd self-portrait and a double chin always seems to appear when I don't really have one. Perhaps I need to focus more on my surroundings rather than me. Hmmm.
March 12, 2009 03:03 pm
Very nice post!
March 12, 2009 12:19 pm
Love all the portraits and thanks for the tips. I want to give this a try soon.
March 12, 2009 10:07 am
Great article! As someone who is struggling in directing people well, I think it might be time to turn the camera round and shoot myself (Not literally... yet!)
Lots of good starting points here - and some cool shots too! Thanks for sharing!
March 12, 2009 09:41 am
Great additional tips, beside remembering to turn off the auto off, use the delayed timer. Allows time to put the remote down and pose!
Glad I could share something useful! DPS is such a great resource!
March 12, 2009 09:08 am
Great article. I'll have to give this a try.
March 12, 2009 08:32 am
Amazing self portraits. My biggest problem is finding the right lighting especially in an outdoors scenario.
March 12, 2009 04:56 am
Those portraits are awesome, and the tips are great as well. One of the better articles lately ... :P
March 12, 2009 04:41 am
Great article. He's two tips. Turn off the cameras preview feature and the 'auto turnoff feature'. My self portrait frustration hit the roof when I was ready to take the shot and the camera just looked at me. No matter how hard you press the remote trigger it won't work if the cameras waiting for you to hit the shutter button. lol
March 12, 2009 04:33 am
Nathan, this was a great post and your photos are wonderful. I wish I had been able to read this last year when I was doing 365 Days, but I'll be able to use it now that I'm doing 52 Weeks.
March 12, 2009 04:30 am
Fantastic stuff! Love the photos too!!
March 12, 2009 03:33 am
Great article and great tips. I love self portrait photography and would love to get better at it. I so need to invest in a wireless remote.
March 12, 2009 03:08 am
I have a fear of portraits. I just don't seem to be any good at shooting people. Perhaps self-portraits are a good starting point -- after all, I'm the only one who ever has to look at them anyhow!
Great tips. Thank you.
March 12, 2009 02:45 am
You are going to love this lady for self portrait ideas (if you hadn't seen her already): Miss Aniela
March 12, 2009 01:14 am
Nice photos. I'm a huge fan of self portraits. My style is more as a personal photo journal rather than trying to be professional. I think everyone should try self portraits, even if you never show them to anyone the practice is somewhat introspective.
March 12, 2009 12:09 am
Hehe, great tips, goes along with last DPS assignment :)
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