Starting a self-portrait project? Want to capture beautiful portrait photos using nothing but a camera, a tripod, and your own ingenuity?
In this article, I share my favorite techniques, gear, camera settings, and technical secrets for instant success. I also include plenty of self-portrait examples so you can gain inspiration along the way.
Doing self-portrait photography isn’t always easy, especially when you’re just beginning. But as this article shows, once you get the basics down, your images will instantly improve – and you’ll be ready to create bigger, better, and even breathtaking photos.
Let’s get started.
1. Use the right equipment
The simplest self-portraits can be captured with a minimalist setup (ie, a smartphone camera and a tripod). However, to make things easier on yourself and ensure the highest-quality results, I do have a few additional recommendations.
First, grab an interchangeable lens camera for portraits, such as a DSLR or a mirrorless model. The specifics aren’t important; you simply want a camera that is capable of high-resolution, tack-sharp images.
You should also purchase a tripod. If you plan to shoot your self-portraits at night and without strong artificial lighting, then you’ll want to make sure your tripod is sturdy. If you plan to shoot outdoors, you’ll probably want a tripod that’s lightweight and portable. Otherwise, the tripod pick doesn’t matter much – you just need it to hold your camera while you pose!
Technically, you can shoot your self-portraits by mounting your camera on your tripod, hitting the 10-second self-timer, moving into position, then waiting for the camera to fire. However, this is inconvenient and can lead to a lot of frantic running, adjusting, and posing. That’s why I highly recommend you purchase a remote shutter release, which won’t cost too much and will allow you to fire your camera from a distance.
If you have plenty of ambient light in your setup – for instance, you plan to shoot by a window – artificial lighting isn’t totally necessary. But if you want to enhance your shots and expand your creativity, I do recommend you invest in a single speedlight, a light stand, and maybe a softbox. You can grab the whole setup for around $100 to $200, or you can just grab a flash and a light stand in the $50 to $100 range.
Finally, if you want to improve your skills fast, consider purchasing a software program that offers tethered shooting, like Lightroom or Capture One. (You might even be able to shoot tethered using software provided by your camera manufacturer.) This simply allows you to see your images on your desktop computer moments after you’ve hit the shutter button, and it’s a great way to inspect the results for Technical, compositional, or lighting errors.
Some tethering programs will even give you a live window to the camera sensor, so you can adjust your pose and see exactly how the shot will turn out in real time.
2. Use hobbies, interests, and other art to inspire ideas
If you’ve just embarked on a self-portrait project, you’re probably wondering:
How do I ever come up with enough ideas for a whole month or year of photography?
But developing self-portrait ideas isn’t as hard as you think. You can find inspiration all around. Here are just a few ideas:
- Think about your favorite hobbies. Can you create any self-portraits that rely on its themes or props?
- Your interests, be it history, science, mathematics, old architecture, or cars. How can you turn them into self-portraits?
I’d also encourage you to look at other art. Don’t copy, but find inspiration in movies, TV, painting, and even other photography. Every time you see something that interests you, write it down. Pretty soon, you’ll have a long list of possible portraits!
By the way, you don’t have to stick to hobbies, interests, and visual arts. You might think about the settings you pass on the way to work or even your physical characteristics. One of my prominent features is my bald head, so I created a self-portrait that used it to my advantage:
At the end of the day, it’s really all about what you find compelling. Identify that first, then the ideas will flow!
One final note:
Self-portraits are generally planned, but they don’t have to be. You might consider walking or driving around with your camera and tripod – in your neighborhood, in a park, in the nearest city. Just see what you can find!
3. Every self-portrait should have a theme
When you’re just starting out, you may be tempted to set up your camera (and lighting), select a pose, and start shooting. But that will get old very quickly, and even if you take the best self-portraits in the world, you’re going to get bored after a few days.
Instead, use the interests I talked about in the previous section to create themes. Work with props, backgrounds, and even other people to create images that offer some concept, tell some story, or send a message. It doesn’t have to be serious, either; here, I asked my pregnant wife to participate in a silly self-portrait:
Your theme doesn’t need to be complex, but it should be present. Even a small prop or two can make a big difference.
By the way, a theme doesn’t necessarily need materials. As I discuss later in this article, you can use a specific emotion to anchor the shot, which often relies purely on your acting skills.
4. Don’t forget about the background
Since you’re a self-portrait photographer, you’re probably tempted to focus on the subject and (maybe?) a few props.
But the background matters, too. In fact, a good background will elevate your shot to the next level, while a bad background will relegate it straight to the trash.
Fortunately, once you understand the importance of a good background, it’s easy to incorporate one into your portraits. For instance, a neutral background is a great way to emphasize your subject:
While a black background creates drama and emphasizes emotion:
As you come up with more sophisticated ideas, you might consider adding a colorful backdrop, or even a background that provides context:
If you’d prefer to use natural backdrops (eg, buildings in the city, trees at the park), you can get great results, but you’ll give up a level of control. One way to handle a background that looks nice but is a little too distracting is with a long lens and a wide aperture; you’ll get a nice, blurred background that provides some context without overwhelming the viewer.
5. Dress the part
I’ve discussed the importance of themes and props, but I’d also like to direct your attention to clotheswhich can add that final touch to an already-strong photo.
Think about your chosen theme, then pick clothing that matches. You don’t need to invent a whole outfit, of course; just determine the parts of your body that will appear in the image and give yourself a quick makeover.
If you really like your idea, you might even consider shopping for clothes at a thrift store. Maybe add an accessory or two, like glasses and a hat.
Also, remember that you’re often playing a part, which means you should do your best to act. You don’t have to give an Oscar-worthy performance, but really give it your all and see how things turn out. If you shoot tethered, you can always check to see whether the acting works or whether you’re better off with a more generic approach. (Alternatively, you can check the back of your LCD screen.)
For this shot, I made sure to wear a brimmed hat and leather gloves, which really created that “farmer” effect:
6. Portray emotion
Want your photos to look boring? Then act boring. After all, the facial and body expressions you convey can massively impact a photo’s tone.
So instead of standing in front of the camera and staring, do what you can to create emotion. I suggest aiming for an over-the-top expression, like this:
In my experience, the more emotion you can show, the better the photo will look.
Of course, this is really all down to personal taste. I’d recommend experimenting with different levels of emotion – subtle, intense, and eye-poppingly crazy – until you arrive at an effect you like. You don’t need to remain consistent from shot to shot, however; One theme might call for an extreme expression, while another might be better complemented by a milder look.
I’d also recommend you consider your expression in the context of the self-portrait theme. An angry expression may seem out of place when used in a chess photo, while a mild expression might seem confusing if the background is post-apocalyptic.
So once you have your theme, think about expression. Act as best you can. And check your results to see if any adjustments are needed!
Speaking of checking results:
7. Look at your photos
The fastest way to improve your self-portrait photography is by evaluating your work with a critical eye.
So as soon as you finish a shoot (or a few hours afterward, if you want to gain some distance), take a look at your images. Identify what you like about each shot. Identify what you dislike. Then, while the photoshoot is still fresh in your mind, note what you should modify for your next self-portrait.
Pretty soon, you’ll have a sense of what you want to include and exclude from your self-portraits. And you’ll have a little book of lessons learned from each photoshoot.
Of course, if a photo didn’t work, you can always resolve to reshoot. And if it did work, then appreciate the result. Share it with friends. Post it to social media!
Self-portrait photography tips: final words
Self-portraits are incredibly rewarding, but starting out – developing ideas, selecting gear, working with backgrounds – can be a little daunting. Hopefully, you now feel ready to capture some stunning self-portraits.
So grab a piece of paper. Jot down some ideas. Then have fun shooting!
This article was written by portrait photographer Nathan Marx. To learn more about Nathan, check out his blog.