Self Portraits – Have Fun and Gain Experience


I would have to say that the most fun I have with my camera is when I am doing self portraits. There is no one to offend. You know exactly how far you can push your subject (you). And you don’t mind experimenting on yourself. I also find that my most experimental works, especially in the portrait side of photography, is when I turn the camera on myself. In my portfolio, I have several self portraits, some of which you can see here. I have learned a lot from all of the self portraits I have taken. I would encourage any photographer to experiment with self-portraiture. Here are a few tips on getting started.

What Makes a Self Portrait?

Sounds like a simple question with a simple answer, doesn’t it? The answer would simply be “you” right? Well, yes. But you are able to bend the rules a little bit. You don’t have to show all of you, for example. I would even argue that your face isn’t even a required element. In some cases, it’s more interesting if your facial features aren’t fully discernible. Profile shots, shots where your face is in darkness or even shots where you aren’t the main focus of the photograph may make for interesting photography. I have seen some self portraits by other artists include a crystal-clear shot of someone else’s eye and you can make out the photographer in the reflection. Or there is always a photographic interpretation of M.C. Escher’s famous reflective ball portraits where he drew himself looking into a ball that he was holding.

Tips for Shooting

An emotive self-portrait with my face obscured.

Shooting self portraits can quickly become complicated. You have to think about how best to get on the other side of the lens. If you’re shooting into a mirror (a very popular technique, a bit overdone but fun to do), a flash will almost always cause some unnecessary inclusions or completely obscure your face if the camera is too close to you. Otherwise, you’ll almost always need a tripod. When setting up the tripod, think about angles. A self portrait is usually going to be more interesting if you can incorporate a unique perspective or a bizarre angle. You may want that tripod to be adjusted to achieve such an angle. A tried-and-true method for getting on the other side of the lens is to utilize the timer feature in your camera. Give yourself enough time to get into position and adjusted before the shutter opens. But don’t give too much time – you don’t want to induce impatience or frustration as you will likely want to take several shots to achieve your needs. If you have a remote trigger for your camera (you should get one if you don’t), string that along for ultimate control. I would even go so far as to say that you don’t always need to crop it out of the photograph. It’s just one more clue that it’s a self portrait, after all.

Playing with Light
I like to play around with the light when I do self portraits. Of course I like to explore traditional lighting techniques, or sometimes I like to bend the rules (as I did in my self portrait at the top of this article).  I also like to experiment with light redirection or an atypical light modifier.  As soon as you introduce a flash or two, it’s amazing what kind of fun you can have.  In the case of the photo at the top of this article, I did a simple single-strobe setup shooting through an umbrella.  Shooting in manual, I pushed the limits of my camera and flash in high-speed sync mode and I was able to shoot as fast as 1/200.  This allowed me to control the room:  You may not believe it, but this was shot in my well-lit living room without a backdrop.  The reason you can’t see anything else in the shot is simple:  I overpowered the rest of the room.

Fun with Post-Processing
One of my favorite self portraits today is Indecisive (below). Without the use of Photoshop, this type of composite photography would not be possible. All together, this photograph was comprised of 7 separate photos. I changed outfits between each photograph, got in different positions and did not move the camera in any way. In Photoshop, I layered them all on top of each other, made any fine tweaks in position to make sure they perfectly lined up, and then used layer masks to place each copy of me over the background shot. I had to be careful to include shadows and reflections and, of course, the dents in the couch. The complete work took me a couple of hours from camera set up to finished product. But I had a lot of fun pulling it together. This type of thing is a great example of how much fun you can have with self portraits. It’s also a great example of how much experience and practice you can get out of a single photograph.




About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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