3 Lessons I Learned by Doing a Self-Portrait Project

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As photographers, we often spend most of our time behind the camera rather than in front of it. I certainly was no exception! However, this past year, I made a conscious effort to put myself in front of my own camera more often including doing a self-portrait project. I was surprised by the ways in which those experiences have shaped the way that I now interact with my clients as a photographer.

Here are three of the lessons that I learned through my self-portrait project, as well as the ways that they’ve helped me become a better photographer.

3 Lessons I Learned by Doing a Self-Portrait Project

1. Being photographed is really awkward!

As I began my self-portrait project, one of the first things I noticed was how absolutely awkward it was to be in front of the camera. I initially started out tethering my camera but decided that I really wanted to emulate the way that my clients feel in front of the camera as much as possible, so I ended up simply using a remote.

The remote method was much more challenging and much stranger! I knew what types of posing would be most flattering in theory, but I discovered that when I was in front of the camera, sometimes the posing instructions that I’d typically use left me with a lot of questions.

When I gently rest my hand on my neck, should my fingers be open or closed? Where exactly should my hand be on my neck so that I don’t look like I’m strangling myself? When I’m looking to the side of the camera, exactly how far to the side should I look?

3 Lessons I Learned by Doing a Self-Portrait Project

Put yourself in the subject’s shoes

As photographers, we’re around cameras and photography equipment regularly – it’s just a part of our lives. It can be easy to forget that this is often not the case for our clients. Often times, clients have portraits done annually (if even that often) and may arrive for a session feeling just about as comfortable as they might at the dentist.

They know they want to end up with images that are both flattering and capture their personalities, but they aren’t quite sure how to make that happen.

Since I’ve been experimenting with self-portraits and experiencing that awkwardness first hand, I’ve started nearly every session with a brief conversation where I essentially say, “Hey, I know that having your photo taken can feel really awkward. I might ask you to stand or move your body in ways that feel strange and unnatural to you, but try to trust me – I’m on your team, and want to deliver photos that you will absolutely love!”

It’s so simple, but even just acknowledging that sometimes portrait sessions might feel a little strange and uncomfortable can go a long way towards making them much less strange and uncomfortable.

3 Lessons I Learned by Doing a Self-Portrait Project

2. Posing and wardrobe are really important

My personal photography style typically tends more towards lifestyle/documentary than styled sessions. As such, I don’t often give a ton of complicated posing directions or wardrobe instructions for my sessions.

To model that, I tried taking self-portraits in a whole variety of clothing options. I captured myself wearing everything from a hoodie sweatshirt to a dressy sweater and scarf. I tried taking portraits with my hair up as well as down, and I experimented with heavy makeup as well as no makeup. Also, I tried posing in the ways that I usually sit or stand, followed by some of my “go-to” gentle posing techniques for women.

I knew that both posing and wardrobe/styling were important, but I’m not sure that I realized just how important they were until I was able to see some side-by-side images of myself in different poses and the same pose with different clothing choices.

3 Lessons I Learned by Doing a Self-Portrait Project

The long sleeves here are important to put more emphasis on my face, as opposed to the arms like the image on the left.

Make specific wardrobe and posing suggestions

I now find myself being a bit more specific when clients ask for clothing suggestions. For example, prior to my self-portrait project, I probably would have told clients, “The most important factor is to wear something you feel comfortable in. As a general rule, most people look great in jewel tones.”

Now, I’d be more likely to say something like, “The most important factor is wearing something that you feel comfortable and confident in! When it comes to portraits, I recommend that you wear a jewel-toned jacket or cardigan with a solid black, grey, or white tank top or t-shirt underneath, which allows us so much versatility in your images.”

3 Lessons I Learned by Doing a Self-Portrait Project

Similarly, I’ve found myself giving more detailed instructions when it comes to posing, often even using my own body to demonstrate exactly what I mean. Most clients were excited to receive more specific instructions to follow – it leaves less open to interpretation, which in turn makes them feel more confident that they’ll love the end result of our session.

3. Positive affirmation is absolutely crucial

Since I wasn’t working with my camera tethered to my laptop, I had absolutely no idea how things were looking as I was shooting, so hearing comments from people as they walked by was huge! When one of my daughters walked by and said,”Oops! I can’t see your head!”, I knew I had to stop and make adjustments right away.

3 Lessons I Learned by Doing a Self-Portrait Project

Any sort of feedback like that was helpful, but when someone positively affirmed how the images were looking, it held a lot more importance than I would have thought!

For example, one afternoon a neighbor friend drove by and hollered something positive out her window as I was working on a self-portrait in the front yard. That simple comment gave me a huge confidence boost, and the next images in the set were significantly better than any of the ones I’d taken previously.

Conclusion

I’m an introvert by nature, and can sometimes have a tendency to go inside my head while I’m working. My brain is sometimes going a mile a minute, and I can forget to communicate what I’m thinking or seeing to those in front of my lens.

Since practicing self-portraits, I have really focused on positively affirming my family, friends, and clients as they’re in front of my lens. Telling them what an amazing job they’re doing with super awkward posing makes a difference. Commenting on how much you love the images so far is huge as well. Commenting on real attributes that make the person in front of your camera feel incredible makes a huge difference.

Give your friends, family, and clients the necessary feedback and positive affirmations that will allow their confidence in front of the camera to grow, and it will be a game changer for your sessions!

Have you ever done a self-portrait project? If so, what did you learn? Please share your experience and self-portraits in the comments section below.

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Meredith Clark is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She believes that photography is for everyone - it is a gift that allows us to capture and document both ordinary and extraordinary moments in our lives. You can see more of her work at Meredith Clark Photography or connect with her on Facebook.

  • KC

    I can relate to a lot of this on so many levels. There are actually very few images of me on anything other than ID cards. I’ve been in front of a camera, in a studio, a few times. I completely disconnected from the experience. It was acting the part. I have huge respect for anyone who has modeled for me. A few suggested we “trade places” just for fun. They got to handle the camera, I got the whole “primped and posed” experience. Amazing and a bit surreal.

    If you really want a shock to your persona, be a hair model. I got “volunteered” for that. A friend who modeled for me, decided she wanted to be a stylist instead. In the course of a year, I had six different hairstyles and colors. Luckily my hair grows out fast, and the cuts and colors were excellent.

    Now I have a bit of mental block about it. I was in an accident a while back. Physically I may be “repaired” but in my head the damage is still there and very visible.

  • Day Tooley
  • Stacey

    Its such a valuable experience putting yourself in front of the camera. Learning what your body feels like when you put it in certain positions means you can accurately describe what it should feel like, important when it can be a really unnatural position – like doing turkey neck to reduce chin flab and get jaw separation. I found getting tips on posing useful, people like Lindsay Adler have some great tools available, knowing how to avoid foreshortening and ways to enhance the silhouette are really useful. Good article, its fun being in front of the camera too when only you are looking at the end result 🙂

  • antidemagogue

    Thank you so very much!
    Could not think of a greater experiment in empathy.

  • Meredith

    I’m so glad you found it helpful!

  • Meredith

    Such good points Stacey! It’s also a really good reminder about how vulnerable our clients can feel knowing that WE are the ones who see and cull their images!

  • Meredith

    Oh gosh! This is such a cool image, but it is totally giving me flashbacks of

    Un Chien Andalou!

  • Meredith

    Oh KC, I totally relate. I had thyroid surgery about three years ago, and it has definitely changed/affected the way I see myself and feel about myself in photos. It’s so hard!

  • Stacey

    I forgot to include one of my self portrait images in my previous reply 🙂 I am a fan of Brooke Shaden and taken part in several of her challenges, and use her style initially to model my process on. Have since evolved into other directions but those photos are a bit too “adult” to post here 🙂 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d150d1272fd4a4b51b87a7b0fe22bf3745f7dd1097b5ae09c7113512403b7c0b.jpg

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