Taking the Most Flattering Self-Portraits 101

Far too many people think of the annoying and dreaded selfie when they hear the word self-portrait. That’s an outrage because before the advent and ubiquity of smartphones… a self-portrait required you to put a real camera (not smartphone camera) on a tripod, set the timer and strike a pose.

That’s what we’re going to explore today – not the selfie non-sense that means that every teen girl can (and likely has) technically shot a self-portrait! There’s a big difference between shooting a handheld selfie and taking a legitimate, professional self-portrait. It’s like driving a Prius or rolling into town with a Rolls-Royce. It’s that significant.

image by Patty

If you want to learn how to snap a great self-portrait that you can be proud of instead of the imitation that is the selfie, read on.

The Setup

A real self-portrait is shot from a tripod, period. Using a tripod produces more consistent outcomes even if it takes much longer than just taking a selfie. You’ll be going back and forth to the tripod to check each shot and, when in front of the camera, wait for the timer to finally count down.

You could speed things up a smidge by connecting your camera to your TV and then using a remote. With this setup, you can actually see how you’ll appear as you keep snapping self-portraits.

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If you want to opt for the timer and setting up the camera farther away from you, here’s something entertaining you can try: Set the timer to go off quickly, so you have to run into the shot to make it in time. This will create shots that are more action-oriented, as you’ll hopefully photograph yourself running into the shot or posing with some otherwise hurried or silly expression!

Another approach is to set your camera to take multiple shots. This allows you to, instead of holding a pose or a facial expression, behave with real motion. Then, when you evaluate the multitude of shots, you can simply choose your favorites from the collection.

Things to Consider During the Self-Portrait

During the self-portrait, you’ll have many things to consider to make sure that it comes out the best. Here are the most important factors.

  1. Where You’ll Look

    Where your eyes gaze in your self-portrait can provide important visual cues to your viewers. It can also affect the overall impression of the portrait. One thing to keep in mind is the so-called eye lines and what they can achieve for any portrait.

    Ask yourself: Where do you want your viewers to look in the photo, at you or another object in the shot? Looking straight at the camera creates eye contact, meaning your viewers are prompted to look right at you, yet if you look off to one side or corner of the frame, then this produces a visual cue that your viewers will follow.

    Totally up to you, but just know that playing around with your gaze like this will alter how viewers appreciate your self-portrait.

  2. Not Showing Your Face

    Wait! Here’s a crazy-though-innovative idea: Don’t even bother showing your face. Sure, you’ve got a lovely mug, but try to throw a curveball at your viewers by taking a self-portrait of, for instance, everything below the neck or the waist. This produces a highly interesting shot that will take your viewers by surprise for a moment or two.

    The best part about taking a self-portrait minus your face is you can show off your clothes. Let’s say you’re wearing a nice, new dress or polo shirt. Get it in the self-portrait! Wearing a cool, new pair of loafers? Just take a self-portrait… of your feet.

  3. Playing with Your Facial Expressions

    We’re all used to, unfortunately, the typical selfie shot from a person’s smartphone where his or her facial expression is either a straightforward smile or a silly face with the tongue sticking out. To fight back against this complacent expectation in self-portraits, ensure that you’re showing some unique form of emotion during your self-portrait.

    Don’t just smile broadly as in a headshot or make a silly face (as in an Instagram photo!). Change things up by getting a person in the self-portrait with you. If it’s your best friend, then you’ll likely have a super-excited facial expression. If it’s your frenemy, you may wear a phoney grin that betrays an element of unease… but at least it’s an interesting facial expression!

    Something else to try during a self-portrait could be you reacting to stimulus happening off-camera that the audience doesn’t see. Have a person standing next to the camera – as it’s shooting you – making funny gestures, trying on different clothes, etc. Anything to get a reaction out of you!

  4. Bringing in Props

    Using props for your portrait will give it that extra sense of realism and candid perspective that creates a natural feeling in the shot. Props are also good for helping you express your personality. If you’re a beer drinker, bring in that huge pint and take a sip of it during your portrait. If you’re into restoring old cars, bring in a huge, shiny classic car that you’ve just worked on.

    The way you position that specific prop that you bring into the shot isn’t as important as using a prop that you really enjoy. That personal connection to an object that says a lot about your personality will unleash a sense of frankness that’ll connect with your viewers more effectively.

Self-Portraits, Not Selfies

The self-portrait has sort of been besmirched by the abrupt and ubiquitous popularity of smartphone selfies (thanks, social media!). However, an actual, well-done self-portrait is something that any amateur or professional photographer can and should be proud of. Pulling off a self-portrait takes timing, technical know-how, and an understanding of composition.

Unlike selfies, self-portraits are not self-absorbed celebrations of egotism. They’re a well-developed photography tradition that belong in your portfolio. Use them to impress clients or just show to friends and family looking for new, artistic ideas.

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