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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