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Self-Taught via Self-Portrait: How to Turn the Lens on Yourself

Editor's Note: Need a willing victim for photos? Today, Sara Lando wraps up her series on portraiture, with an idea-filled look at how to turn the lens on the most available subject there is: yourself.

Also, be sure to check out the link to Sara's latest project at the end of the post.


By Sara Lando -- If you’re not sold on the advantages of letting another human being take your portrait, this leaves you with one option: self portraiture.

There is a big advantage in being both the photographer and the model: you don’t need to read between the lines, you know when the subject is tired, uncomfortable or hates a particular shot. You also don’t need a release.

When I suggest doing it, most people come up with the following set of excuses:

1. Easy for you to say, but I’m not photogenic
2. I tried, but the photos sucked
3. It feels stupid

I’m not going to write in detail about the technical side of taking a self portrait (in short: get a tripod, use a self timer or a remote control, stand where the focus point is going to be, enjoy). But I hope that by the end of this post you might feel like giving it a try. Let’s start by addressing #3:

It Feels Stupid

It does. At first, at least.

You are going to be in an empty room pretending to interact with someone just outside of the frame, tentatively laughing at a dark void, pretending to be way cooler than you actually are. You are going to do what you usually ask your subjects to do, and now you will see that it’s kind of easy to suck at pretending to be natural.

[The art of looking unimpressed: when I start shooting, the first few frames I always look like I died and was embalmed by a bad taxidermist.]

Truth is: it’s only going to be uncomfortable for the first 20 minutes. Then you start adapting and things get better. You might start enjoying the process and that’s when good pictures start to happen because you realize that you’re allowed to act stupid and nobody needs to know.

Do it; it’s going to be our secret: delete each and every picture that sucks or makes you feel uncomfortable, realize that you’re completely free to do whatever crosses your mind and no one is going to judge you for that. Maybe remember to lock the door if you don’t live alone, TRUST ME on this.

But do not delete pictures while you’re shooting: being able to review the whole process on your computer when you’re done is an amazing tool to see what works and what doesn’t in terms of poses, facial expressions, mood and whatnot. It’s important to remember to keep the making and the judging two separate processes, in order not to kill the fun after two shots.

It’s also an amazing way to learn what works for you: after a while you realize you do have good angles and you’re not as hideous as you assumed you were. You understand some of your self-image issues were actually posing issues: a slight change of posture and you switch from the Hunchback of Notre Dame to Captain Phoebus; when you can see that in yourself it’s going to be a gazillion times easier to see that in other people.

Plus, it’s way cheaper than a therapist.

There isn’t a single person on the planet who isn’t photogenic, but there are a lot of bad photographers. Forget models and the naturally gifted, think rock stars and actors: Patti Smith’s portrait by Mappelthorpe with the white feather, Janis Joplin as seen by Richard Avedon, Zach Galifianakis photographed by Martin Schoeller. These aren’t people who have perfect features or who are model-size, but have you seen them in those images? They are mesmerizing. They are beautiful.

So cut the crap and make that perfect picture of yourself that would look great on the cover of a magazine and then go take pictures of people that make them feel like they’re rock stars.

Now that I’ve covered #1, let’s go into detail for #2

Taking Self Portraits That Do Not Suck

The challenges of taking a self portrait mainly fall under three categories:

1. Nailing Focus

This is a bit tricky at first, especially if you’re planning on using a shallow depth of field. With some cameras you can use a remote and half press to focus, but it’s not always possible and sometimes the camera focuses in random places (things get easier if you hold a small torch next to your eye while the camera auto-focuses. Cameras are dumb, you just need to work around it).

For those who are part of the 10-seconds-and-run club, things can be a bit tricky sometimes. There are the obvious pointers (use a tripod, close down a little bit, focus on your pig mask before sneaking into the picture, make sure you have switched to manual focus after you have, mark the exact spot you need to stand on, so you know precisely where you should be), etc. You need to realize it’s going to take a bit of practice.

You can’t just spray and pray (even though setting up and intervalometer can sometimes help a little bit). Which means you’ll probably end up taking way too few pictures. It takes more effort and you need to walk back and forth a million time, but you really need to put the mileage in.

A simple trick for the spatially challenged can be to use a string. You attach one end to the tripod (or camera), measure the distance to your stand-in first, focus on the stand in, then cut the string to length. In those 10 seconds of madness while you’re running in front of the camera, you just need to find the time to place the end on your nose.

This is one of the many reasons you should ALWAYS carry a piece of string with you. Always ask yourself: what would MacGyver do?

I usually tie a ring at the end of the string to make sure I can throw it out of the frame.

[As you can see I am using a very shallow depth of field and both my ear and my hand are soft, while my eyes are sharp. I also found out I have a white hair. Too much sharpness hurts.]

2. Getting a Decent Framing of Someone Who is Not in the Picture

I’ve been doing ballet since when I was younger, which is great for teaching people where they need to stand so that they don’t kick other dancers in the face. Yet, it took me a while to understand how not to cut my whole head from the frame when taking self-portraits.

One way to do that is using references and placing yourself between, say, a lamp and a table. As long as you’re there, you know you’re visible. From these pictures it’s pretty obvious that if I place myself on the right hand side of the boxes, I am not going to be in the frame.

Things are a bit trickier when you’re using a plain background. What I did at first was to use 4 pieces of masking tape to mark the corners of my frame. Then I’d zoom in a little bit and I knew that as long as I kept myself inside those corners, I’d be in the picture.

This is exactly what I did when I set up a photo booth at my wedding: you can’t ask drunk people to have a sense of direction, so I made a big masking tape frame to use as reference. That’s my dad testing it in the first frame. As you can see, he’s who I got my unimpressed face from.

A turning point for me was realizing that a lens is just your camera’s eye. When you’re talking to someone you are perfectly capable to see where he/she is looking at and the same goes if you start thinking of your camera as someone’s head. (Spending too much time alone in a room takes its toll.)

But seriously: if the lens looks like it’s watching your right elbow, you might want to recompose.

3. Not Pulling a Noah Kalina

(I.e., same expression in each frame, different background for hundreds of pictures)

Here comes the real challenge. There’s a high possibility that for the first 30 minutes you’ll sit there, unfocus your eyes, and produce the same blank expression over and over. It’s frustrating.

One thing that helped me a lot when I started was actually cheating: instead of being in front of the camera I’d stand right next to it, in front of a mirror. I’d look right into the lens inside the mirror and I could see what I was doing. You can also shoot tethered and it’s kind of the same, but I found it way easier to use a simpler setup (plus, my face on TV was way more intimidating than my face in the mirror).

[This was shot in my bathroom with a MVC-FD88. The background is black t-shirts duct taped to the wall and the only light is the one on top of the mirror. You really don’t need to be fancy.]

You might want to set your camera to snap five or ten photos in succession, so you can vary your pose/expression. This will give you much more variety when it comes time to edit your photos and gives you a better idea of how your subjects feel in front of your lens.

It is going to be hard, at first, because you won’t know what to do. You’ll have to learn to take several versions of the same image with small adjustments. After a while it becomes way easier to distance yourself from the emotional attachment to your image: you become negative space, shadows, surfaces and from that point on it’s like a switch turning on: it becomes fun.

Be silly, go crazy, pretend you’re someone else. Be willing to be ugly in order to get some actual emotion going on.

(Bottom: final image. Top: what I was doing right before.)

Remember that everything you don’t like you can delete.

Something that will help you immensely is building your self portrait around a concept, a prop, a particular location you can interact with. If there is a story going on in you head, it’s going to be way easier to end up with a compelling image rather than a passport picture shot with expensive lights.

If everything else fails and you still hate to see your face pop up on the monitor... get a bunch of masks! It might sound like a joke, but there is a sort of freedom in being hidden behind a mask and lots of people start really using body language in bold and interesting ways, once their face is removed from the equation.

Make up rules and break them, and remember than 100 years from now no one will remember how you really looked, so make sure that when your great-grandchildren will discover a box with pictures of you in it, they are going to think they actually have good genes.

One More Thing…

Editor's Note: David here again, with a quick heads-up:

So, if you have been following the portrait series on Strobist by Sara, you'll definitely want to check out her latest project that she has just published a few days ago.

It's called Magpies, and it is best described as a (photo)graphic novel. But what's especially cool is that she cobbled it together with paper, masking tape, cardboard, bits of string, cut-out pictures and an odd variety of bits and pieces from here and there.

It's digital, DRM-free and pay-what-you-want. Even zero. Or a billion Euros (upon which she'd fly to your house and read it to you, I'll bet.) Whatever.

But mostly, and not surprisingly, it is super creative. Check it out here.


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