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How Self-Portraiture Makes You a Better Photographer

As long as art has existed, so too has the self-portrait. Van Gogh famously painted more than 30 self-portraits, using the available subject-of-self as both an outlet for his artistic talents, and as a method for perfecting his craft. Rembrandt, as perhaps the most prolific master of the self-portrait, painted, etched and drew more than 100 images of himself throughout his lifetime. One can even imagine the cavemen as having injected some degree of self into the prehistoric images painted on their cave walls.


Self-portraiture is NOT the same as a Selfie

But as rich in history as the self-portrait is, its categorization as a photographic ‘art’ is vulnerable due to the endless arms-length phone snaps, or ‘selfies’, now littering the internet. Lately, there has been a blurring of lines between the selfie and the self-portrait. As someone who has focused his own artistic energy toward self-portrait photography, I feel obligated to promote this art form, as self-portraiture provides value in terms of both the photos it produces, and the education if offers you as a new photographer.

The most patient model ever – you!

For me, self-portraiture began as a way to develop my own portrait photography skills, without the need for a model. As you probably know, learning the principles of photography, and the strategies for creating and controlling light, is a time-consuming process. It involves a great deal of trial and error, and asking a model to pose patiently while you make mistake after mistake isn’t always ideal. But you, yourself, are an infinitely more willing subject. Hours pass, memory cards fill with lackluster images, yet you don’t complain. Alone, you’re able to relax and focus on the task at hand: learning to become a better photographer.

Image: Experimenting with artificial light (orange-gelled strobe imitating fire)

Experimenting with artificial light (orange-gelled strobe imitating fire)

Use self-portraiture as a creative outlet

When enough solitary time passes, you’ll find that you begin to produce decent results. Soon, what began as a learning device morphs into a creative outlet. Self-portraiture is no longer an exercise to be performed in preparation for real photography; self-portraiture has become the real photography. Unlike selfies, your self-portraits are well conceived. The location, framing, lighting, depth of field and posing associated with the images are carefully planned. You work both sides of the camera with increasing efficiency, and the quality of your photography reflects the education received.

Image: Self-portraiture offered a unique photo opportunity during this extended flight delay in Shan...

Self-portraiture offered a unique photo opportunity during this extended flight delay in Shanghai

From that point forward, you don’t hesitate to jump into frame should the inclusion of a person improve your photograph. When you want to test a new piece of gear, fine-tune a new technique, or kill a boring Sunday afternoon by setting up your camera, you do so with absolute independence. When photographing other subjects, you borrow from the lessons learned through self-portraiture, and the result is stronger photography, all-around.

Image: ‘Producing’ self-portraits offers both artistic challenges and skill-building opp...

‘Producing’ self-portraits offers both artistic challenges and skill-building opportunities

For those considering an attempt at self-portrait photography, here are a few tips to get you started:

Technique – focus

While taking self-portraits, one of the more difficult aspects to nail down is focus. You don’t have the luxury of pinpoint-focusing on the subject’s face, for example, when you, yourself are the subject. To get around this challenge, it is important to have a stand-in object on which you can focus the camera. I personally use my light stand, as it’s usually with me, and is tall enough to mirror my own height.

First, I determine where, in the frame, I will position myself and I place a ‘mark’ on that spot to ensure I’m continually in the right position. Small rocks, a line of chalk or a crack in the sidewalk have all worked well as my mark. Next I focus my camera on the light stand. Once my focus is perfect, I switch my DSLR to manual focus mode. From that point forward, unless I make manual focus adjustments, the focus will remain unchanged. As long as I stand on my mark, I’ll be in focus. This is particularly important when using shallow depth of field, where a single step forward or backward will cause you to be out of focus, ruining the shot.

Image: Proper focus was critical to the success of this image, taken at a razor-thin f/1.4

Proper focus was critical to the success of this image, taken at a razor-thin f/1.4


  • Tripod – when you’re in front of the camera, you can’t also hold the camera. Therefore, a tripod is an absolute must for serious self-portrait photographers. This is an obvious recommendation, I know. My real tripod tip is this: invest in a quality tripod that’s robust, yet light, so you won’t mind carrying it. Also make sure it offers flexibility with regard to the positions it can assume. If the legs act independently, and if the tripod can effectively hold your camera at heights from ground level to eye-level, it’ll come in handy.
  • Wireless remote trigger – while not essential, a wireless shutter release for your camera is a definite plus. The timer setting built into most cameras can get the job done, but for those serious about self-portrait photography, an inexpensive wireless remote is a no-brainer, and will save you from having to walk back to the camera after each frame.
Image: My flexible tripod, offering a low perspective, and the remote in my pocket, allowed me to wo...

My flexible tripod, offering a low perspective, and the remote in my pocket, allowed me to work quickly


  • Self-portrait photography is a production. The act of selecting the location, framing, camera settings and your own placement within the frame is a slow and deliberate process. Taking self-portraits forces you to consider all of the individual components that combine to make a good photograph, and successfully intertwining these ingredients into a successful end result requires planning. So, plan, and learn to enjoy the process of planning your next photograph. The mental thought process will help your self-portrait photography as well as any other type of photography you choose to tackle.
  • Create and maintain a ‘shot list,’ which includes the theme, location, lighting information, prop information and any other specifics related to your upcoming shots. A shot list will help your photography in a few different ways. First, it will help you plan your upcoming shots, by forcing you to think through all of the photograph’s elements. Keeping a shot list will also cause you to view the world through your own photographic lens. You’ll find yourself on the lookout for new ideas, and will regularly pull out your phone (where my shot list is saved) to add new photo ideas. Finally, and most importantly, keeping a shot list will motivate you to get out and photograph more. It’s like a ‘honey-do’ list for yourself, and a shot that lingers for too long on the list will begin to bother you.
Image: This image was on my ‘shot list’ for more than 3 weeks while I waited for the per...

This image was on my ‘shot list’ for more than 3 weeks while I waited for the perfect rainy night

If you are eager to learn the art of photography, getting in front of the camera can provide a boost in your educational journey, and just may evolve into an enjoyable creative outlet.

Have you done any self-portraits? Please share in the comments below.

For more tips on doing self-portraits pick up the dPS ebook The Art of Self-Portraiture or read the 5 Benefits of a self-portrait project.


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Ryan Pendleton
Ryan Pendleton

is a semi-professional photographer, husband and father of two. His main passion is documenting his own growing family, although he also enjoys travel, night and self-portrait photography. Visit his website or 500px profile to see a selection of his work, and connect with him using the social links below.

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