January 3, 2018

5 Ways to Take Better Self-Portraits

Now, before you say anything…

Self-portraits are NOT selfies (I just needed to get that out of the way)!

Capeesh? Yes?


Okay, good.

Self-portraiture always created, and still creates, a cathartic and artistic mode of expression for me.


Well, let me explain:

For those of you that don’t know, I’m an introvert.

And, when I was younger, I lacked self-confidence, and dealt with a lot of anxiety.

But, seeing myself in a different light, gave me another perspective, and helped me to become more introspective by accepting what I was feeling when I felt it.

I photographed my emotions. I photographed myself in the most honest way.

So, after a while…

Instead of scoffing at my reflection in the mirror, I said, “You’re beautiful.”

Instead of limiting myself, I expanded what I thought I was capable of doing, and accepted that I was a passionate, talented, and capable individual.

In short, self-portraiture helped me on a deeply personal level. But, unbeknownst to me, it also helped me to define my photographic style (I’ll get into this a bit later).

Now, before I get started with my approach, I just want to say that I do NOT claim to be a self-portrait connoisseur or expert by any means. I just want to share my approach, and what has worked for me in the past and what works for me now.

I. Movement

Throughout high school and my undergrad, I second-shot with professional photographers at weddings. As a second shooter, you’re a fly on the wall, capturing moments as they unfold.

I enjoyed this because it gave me a relatively stress-free environment to learn about wedding photography.

But, what I found out when I started first-shooting on my own was that I was (and am) terrible at posing the couples that I work with.

Some photographers are brilliant when it comes to classic portraiture.

“Put your arm here. Move your hips like this! Turn your legs like this!”

I’ve NEVER been good at that. And, I’ve always hated to admit it.

I stumble over my words, and lose my train of thought.

Of course, I still direct and curate during my sessions to make sure that couples look their best, but mostly I’m a hands-off kind of photographer, and I have second-shooting and self-portraiture to thank for that. If I’m not posing myself in my self-portraits and I’m instead incorporating movements and actions, why should my wedding photography or portrait photography be any different?

So, instead of posing my couples, I give them something to do.

An action. A movement.

To me, this gives me the opportunity to capture more beautiful and authentic images. This gives me a chance to tell a story.

So, my tip for you then, would be to incorporate movement into your self-portraits.

Put your camera on a tripod and a self-timer, and dance and twirl listening to your favorite song(s) or music.

Throw your arms in the air.


Be yourself.

II. Throw Away Your Expectations

If there’s one thing that self-portraiture taught me, it’s that expectations and playing the comparison game are wastes of time.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have goals for yourself and for your photographs. I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t plan and prepare for sessions or curate them.

But, I *am* saying that getting caught up in the way you think your photos should look is a dangerous game. Our desire for control more often than not destroys the creative process and intuition that we photographers have. It’s almost like we fear the creative process and desire more so to replicate another’s work.

Some of my best images that I’ve captured happened when I didn’t even mean to capture them, when I wasn’t trying so hard.

So, another tidbit that I have for you, would be to let go.

Find inspiration through music, cooking, poetry, and words.

Let your creativity flow.

Don’t put your creativity in a neat, and tidy box.

You’ll regret it.

III. Golden Hours

To most photographers, this tidbit is old news.

But, if I’m going to choose any time of the day to take self-portraits, it would be during the golden hours. Of course, I don’t always get that luxury, but in a perfect world, these would be the times that I would choose.

If you’re unfamiliar with golden hours, they happen twice a day! Once in the mornings, and once in the evenings.

These are periods during the day that happen shortly after sunrise and before sunset during which the daylight is much redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky. All is golden, hence the name. The sun emits this beautiful, warm and soft light during this time of the day, and it creates a unique look that can’t be replicated (sorry!) with photoshop. There are even some filmmakers that base their entire career around shooting at sunset.

So, I LOVE to use the magic hour and backlight myself with setting sun–I absolutely love the effect!

This all sounds great, right?

Well–here’s the twist: 

Golden hour doesn’t always last an hour, and it isn’t always easy. 

Depending on where you are in the world, what time of the year it is, and a multitude of other variables, the shootable time during golden hour may only be 40 minutes or less! You have to time your session perfectly! And since YOU are the model AND the photographer, that should be relatively simple with the right amount of discipline and preparation.

You should scout your location, and estimate the exact amount of shooting time that you will have.

To do this, one of the resources that I use, is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE)! This program helps you plan outdoor photography shoots in natural light using a map-centric calculator for the sun and moon. It tells you how the light will land for any location on Earth.

It doesn’t quite tell you the time of the golden hours, but it does tell you the times for sunrise and sunset, and tells you where sunrise and sunset will be based on the address and date you provide. This tool used with scouting your location around golden hour should bode well for you!

Another difficulty about golden hour is that the light can change by the second, and sometimes, you’re chasing the sun. Under a controlled lighting situation, you may only have to set your exposure once, and leave it the same for the remainder of your shoot. However, any time you’re using natural light, proper metering and other adjustments need to happen quite regularly since the light is always changing. But, since the changing of light is exaggerated exponentially by the golden hours (because of the small slot of time), you have to be quick in your adjustments! And, this can be hard!

But, despite all of the hurdles, I challenge you to challenge yourself to shoot during golden hours.

You might surprise yourself!

IV. Don’t Fight Nature

Cold. Wind. Snow. Rain. Make use of it!

The images below were taken during golden hour, but taken on a day with stingingly cold wind. The light landed on the hill beautifully, so I braved the weather conditions, anyway. Uncertain of the kind of photographs that I would get, I was pleasantly surprised, and happy with the results!

I let my hair flow with the wind, and loved the effect, and intimacy I captured in each photograph.

I believe that making use of your surroundings (especially those of nature) can add a different dynamic to your self-portraits and create more feeling, and mood.

V: Shallow Depths of Field

Last but not least, shoot in shallower depths of field!

I love the airy and dream-like effect it gives my self-portraiture.

If you’re unfamiliar with depth of field (DoF), depth of field, also called focus range or effective focus range, refers to the front-to-back zone in a scene where objects appear acceptably sharp.

A small zone of focus is a shallow depth of field, and a large zone of focus is a deep depth of field.

To achieve a shallow depth of field, there are three factors that you must consider:

  1. Aperature
  2. Distance
  3. Focal Length

For the sake of time, I’m just going to cover aperture!

Shallow depths of field require a large aperture! 

Large aperture = small f/stop = shallow depth of field

Example: f/1.4 is a much larger aperture than f/4.0

At f/1.4, I’m taking in way more light than I would be at f/4.0, and I’m making the focus shallow by blurring all objects but my subject.

At f/4.0, much more of the objects in a scene would be in focus, and less light would be taken in by the camera.

So, I don’t recommend using a shallow depth of field for landscape photography (although I’ve done it, and it was a success), but I highly recommend it for portrait photography!

That’s about it for the time-being!

I hope you’ve learned some nuggets of knowledge and wisdom throughout this blogpost! But, if you have any further questions, I’d love to hear from you!

Keep shining!

– Kayla

I'm a small wedding and elopement photographer based in the beautiful and mountainous North Georgia. I absolutely LOVE what I do, and truly believe that it's my life's calling to capture and craft incredible elopement days for intentional, eco-conscious couples! But, when I'm not adventuring with couples, you can find me out in nature with my adventure pup Kamots and my love Robert. 

hi, I'm kayla

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