A Quick Exercise to Help You Take Better Self-Portraits


This article will give you some tips on how to take better self-portraits. That is different than doing a selfie – let’s have a closer look at the issue.

A Quick Exercise to Help Improve Your Self-Portraits

Thank you to dPS writer Hannele Luhtasela-el Showk for contributing her self-portrait to the article.

The selfie – what not to do

The selfie has become such an important part of our culture. The invention of the selfie-stick shows just how important this phenomenon has become. Everyone is snapping pics and posting them online. Phones make it convenient to share images and show people the events of your day. But I would argue these images barely scratch the surface. They don’t do much more than give people a brief glimpse into how happy you were while visiting the zoo with your children.

Look back at your Facebook profile. Look at the pictures you’ve uploaded. If you are like the rest of us, I’m willing to bet you’ve filled your profile with images. Superficial images where you are smiling while hiking or maybe you’re shopping with friends. They don’t show much, do they? Sure you’re out having a great time, but there’s more to you than fun isn’t there? These smiling images don’t get at who you truly are. There’s a difference between a selfie and a self-portrait that shows something about you; an image that gets at who you are and tells your story in an intimate way.

A Quick Exercise to Help Improve Your Self-Portraits

We’ve all taken one of these images. You know the ones with terrible quality in low lit areas. This is a typical facebook selfie.

I think this is a pretty typical selfie. We’ve all posted images like this. Even I am guilty. Two happy friends together somewhere.

Self-portraits – take it up a notch

So if you’re like me if you’re tired of the superficial smile, then it’s time to think about how you can step up the selfie game and graduate to full-fledged self-portraits. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – good photography needs some forethought. There’s more to quality pictures than using the correct settings. Let’s take a look at a quick exercise you can use to help you create more meaningful, telling and compelling self-portraits.

A Quick Exercise to Help Improve Your Self-Portraits

This was shot after 12 hours working outdoors for a photo shoot. I was exhausted and wanted to show the toll my work took on me. Hopefully, I look exhausted.

Exercise – Discover Treasured Objects

I’m going to ask you to get out a pen and paper. Sorry, but it’s necessary, and I promise it won’t be too onerous. It’s time to do some brainstorming and soul searching.

Let’s pinpoint the things that are really important to you. Think about all the physical objects you hold dear. Start by writing without restraint. Jot down the items that quickly come to mind. Try not to evaluate them too harshly. This is about fleshing out ideas. You can use your judgment later to question whether an object should stay on the list.

If you want to create a list no problem. Or if you’re like me and none of your thoughts are ever linear then maybe an idea web (or word cloud, or a mind map) works better for you, just go for it. Write down your thoughts in the way you are most comfortable. Maybe one of the items you list is a treasured photograph of your grandmother or a plastic beaded necklace a friend gave you. It doesn’t matter just get it down on paper. Try to list at least 10 objects.

A Quick Exercise to Help Improve Your Self-Portraits

Thanks to dPS writer and team member Simon Pollock for contributing his self-portrait to the article.

Here’s my mind map. I struggled to get 10 objects as I’m not someone who has a lot of physical possessions but I will bare my soul to you all.

Here are my brainstorming efforts.

Plan photos around your objects

Now that you’ve got your mind map all worked out it’s time to consider the items you’ve jotted down. How could you incorporate one of these items into a photograph? How will you portray yourself to the world? Use these treasured objects to help you to craft meaningful self-portraits.

Here’s the image I created after completing this exercise. I hate being in front of the camera so this was a big challenge for me. I spent an afternoon twirling around in my aunt’s deerskin dress. She often used this dress during sunrise ceremonies before she gifted it to me. The dress is an important part of my heritage. I wanted to show the world something about that part of my culture.

A Quick Exercise to Help Improve Your Self-Portraits

You don’t have to show your face to create self-portraits. Other details can tell a story.

This is in contrast to the following image. I created this one with my cell phone. I shot it while sitting on my couch watching TV. Is there a story here? Or is this just a nice picture?

A Quick Exercise to Help Improve Your Self-Portraits

Ask yourself this question

It might help to consider the following question when crafting your self-portrait.

“How is this portrait I am creating a story, rather than just a visually interesting image?”

I’m not sure who first asked me that question. It was probably some wise old grizzled photographer with years of knowledge. I wish I could remember. Use this question along with the exercise above to create a meaningful self-portrait.

You can also make idea maps that show important relationships or meaningful thoughts. Be creative, but try to push your self-portraits past the mundane. You don’t have to shoot portraits with a DSLR you can use your cell phone, but take a few minutes to consider the shot before you push the button. Look at the story you’re telling and leave your mark. Show the world exactly who you are.

dPS writer Sean McCormack took this self-portrait using a remote trigger.

A Quick Exercise to Help Improve Your Self-Portraits

Thanks to Hannele for contributing another image to the collection.

A Quick Exercise to Help Improve Your Self-Portraits

A self-portrait can be a silhouette. We don’t always have to see your face. Thanks, Simon for contributing this shot.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Erin Fitzgibbon is a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher, from Ontario, Canada. She specialises in portrait, sport, and fine art photography. In her free time, she escapes to the backcountry or the beach with her family.

  • Ron Olivier

    Thank you for this article, Because the ‘selfie’ is such a popular craze, I think it has made the jump from an impromptu capture of a moment to becoming a major annoyance. You can hardly visit some tourist attractions without having to walk around people holding their phone at arm’s length. It was refreshing when somebody at the beach handed me their camera and asked if I could take their picture.
    I prefer self-portraitures. Below is one of my first attempts at it from a couple of years back. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c6f1475c052d9096f96e3e3a16c0b77a44e9adb705a61ad6fc2daffdbcb6290c.jpg

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Awesome Ron. Thank so much for sharing and I’m glad to see you considering the art of self-portraits. This is a great first attempt.

  • Andy

    I always was looking for photographers for family photo sessions on different sites and social networks. Then I learned about CoolJonny (https://cooljonny.com) and was shocked how quickly there you can find the services you need. You simply point out your city and see the list of professional photographers who provide their services nearby you. You just need to choose the type of photo shoot and place and then just order that service. Try it! You won’t regret.

  • Von Will
  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Nice job!! The light is lovely. Well done.

  • gtvone

    Cheers, Erin πŸ™‚

  • As a my point of view this is very useful information. Thanks for sharing.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Cheers right back at ya :))

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Oh good I’m so glad you found it useful. Thanks so much.

  • Brian J. Geraghty

    I consider this to be my favorite self portrait. My wife hired a professional photog to take me around some of the lesser known parts of Barcelona last year; I kinda felt like Icarus in that I got to feel like a pro “For One Day”. There’s a lot of disorganized technology behind the glass, which also says a lot about me.


  • Jim Singler

    I take lots of self portraits to try out different lighting setups. My wife and dogs don’t like to pose, so that leaves me as my subject.


  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    LOL Jim I love it. Get a long lens and be sneaky. The wife and dogs will never know you are there. That’s a great portrait. I can see how much fun you’re having.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Very nice. That’s definitely a unique self-portrait. It’s interesting and certainly different than a typical selfie. Well done.

  • CSchubert

    Loved the article. I’m beginning a new phase of my life (retirement). After reading your article I think the art of self-portraiture is an excellent way to figure out who I am and where I want to go. The ‘object’ listing is a really good start! Thanks.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Awesome!! Glad to hear it. The best part of self-portraits is you don’t have to bribe anyone to participate in your experiments. :))

  • Annapoorna Sitaram

    loved your article, generally I am anti selfie, but your article made me think
    below is my version of a selfie https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5e2c81d4f51bdb32db1aa4bf8ab744a450ba992e0b6bd04328156830d3b0ee17.jpg

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Wow!! that’s awesome! Very emotive. It’s also an unusual composition. Well done.

  • Annapoorna Sitaram

    Thank you very much, coming from you I shall certainly treasure your reply

  • Justine Stewart

    This is a lovely article and I’ve tried a self portrait before with miserable effect as the light inside was hopeless. My question is…how do you ensure the focus when you’re not behind the camera?

  • You can set it on auto focus and hope it hits you, use a smaller aperture like f/8 so you have enough DOF to cover you if you move a little and preset the focus to a spot like a stool then sit on it

  • Justine Stewart

    Thank you very much! This is the first time I’ve actually used the forum, so nice to get a prompt response.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Gee thanks

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    I’ve also used a stand in to help me focus on a position. Then I’ve set my timer and jumped into the space when my stand in was. Hoping focus was good. Stand in can be a person or it can be a stuffed animal :))) Anything really so you can lock the focus. Set it on manual focus or use back button so it doesn’t change. As long as you go to the same spot each time you should be okay.

  • Justine Stewart

    Great idea re the stuffed toy!

  • You’re welcome. It’s not really a forum and usually, the authors here on dPS try and reply to all questions on their articles. I’m the editor, I answer when I can as well.

  • Chic McCormick
  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    LOL interesting treatment Chic.

  • Roger Love

    Some nice photos here. It’s a challenge to take a self portrait that doesn’t come across as a selfie. Here’s my humble contribution. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/13141b4a25fc1ce8d9c016e1161629a38956b992d12865e6bb11b1dd1360c18f.jpg

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    And that is definitely not a selfie. Well done Roger. I love the darks. Chiaroscuro feel to it. Well done.

  • Mark Sanders

    This was my first attempt at low key photography. Took roughly an hour to get the settings and flashes close to where I wanted them but I enjoyed the results. I did not enjoy posing for the camera. if you could see my face I am probably blushing LOL https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f155a7f77188979a350fbd0c56f36e2c6b9b5d1b11aefbfd5912f0dd47a48738.jpg

  • I love these ideas for creating unique self portraits. What a fabulous idea to create a list of meaningful objects (love your mind-mapping, by the way.)

    Monashee | Photo Consultant

  • So great that you were inspired to do a self portrait. This is brimming with emotion. Love all the shapes as well.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Thanks so much glad you like the suggestion. The mind mapping is the teacher in me lol.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    It’s a great photo Mark. I love the lighting. I hate being in front of the camera too. Writing this article and shooting the portraits was difficult. I felt very self-conscious.

  • Nice article! I’m glad to have contributed. πŸ™‚

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Thanks and I’m so glad you helped me out with some images. It’s nice to show folks what’s possible in self-portraiture. Cheers

  • SteveR

    I purchased a wired remote trigger a few years ago. I have since purchased extension cords so that I can shoot from 25 feet away. I place an object in the chair or on the stool, focus on the object, and know I will be in proper focus from 5.6 and smaller. I will practice on myself to see how different poses and lighting setups affect the image. The wired remote I purchased was around $40 US, so not terribly expensive and I have used it for low light and bulb images such as fireworks and night shots. The greatest advantage of the remote as compared to the timer is that you have plenty of time to pose and get settled before the shutter releases.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Excellent points Steve. There really are so many different ways to take and manage self-portraits. Thank you for sharing your information.

  • I still like this one, even though it’s technically a selfie taken with a simple point and shoot camera at arm’s length. Taken a few years ago when we still had cold winters in the Netherlands. I can still feel how cold it was on that day; it’s a miracle the photo turned out more or less sharp.

  • Cyberdansken

    I got told by my therapist that taking selfportraits was a good way to get to know your self better. So I tried.. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f23af0ee861a013c6af6ad0e2f7e8c5b42d81aa660aa8355e5058d859afb7cd4.jpg

  • Cyberdansken
  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    lol, I think it is a good way to know yourself. I’m always so nervous to be in front of the camera. Taking self-portraits has made me more confident.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    It’s a great photo. Looks a pretty cold day.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    I really like this one. A very cool emotive effect.

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    Very nice and creative.

  • E.L. Bl/Du

    I tried to put up a photo and it would not allow me to, says I need to be signed in, thought I was…??? Help anyone?

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    That’s very strange. Try again try signing in with google. If not post it as a link like on your flicker page or something along those lines. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6827207b0c30ac0bbed87d348da2bebe12d1e2003b113af6a3fb5e177ccd9a5e.jpg

    I’m just testing with this little png file I have.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed