How to take a self-portrait
As a studio photographer, I'll often end up trying something out on myself - I might not be the prettiest model but I am the most likely to be in the studio! I've come up with some shots that I like and, more importantly, made a lot of mistakes along the way and learnt what I was doing wrong! So this photography blog post from GCPhoto is the latest in the 'photography tips and advice' and is all about how to take a self-portrait. It's aimed at those with a small home studio set-up, but most of the tips are equally relevant to photographers shooting with natural light or even speedlites.
There are many ways to take the perfect portrait, self or otherwise, and a lot of it will come down to preference, so this is my way, not the only way! Also, of course, whenever you're doing portrait photography, you'll need to adjust your camera settings and light set-up for your subject (i.e. you) so even with this list of tips, you'll still need to test and practise until you get it right! So let's begin...
Use the manual settings on your camera
Just like any other studio photography, you'll probably be using the manual settings on your camera (if you're using, for example, natural daylight then you might be on aperture priority, A or Av). The settings will be more or less exactly the same as if you were shooting a subject in front of you. Except...
Use manual focus and a long depth-of-field
Your camera has probably got brilliant autofocus, particularly if it's got facial recognition and eye-focus technology. However, personally I like to set the focus and make sure that it can't move from where you want it while you're shooting. I'll usually put something (a tripod, for example) exactly where I'll be standing, autofocus on that, and then switch to manual focus (on the camera and/or the lens) so it can't wander off elsewhere. I'll also use a long depth-of-field (high F-stop, shortish focal length and not too close) so that it doesn't matter too much if I'm not precisely in the same place for each shot.
Experience says that if you fill the frame with, for example, your face then there's a good chance that you'll chop off a bit of head/hair/chin so I tend to set the field of view a little wider than I normally would and then chop a couple of inches off once I've caught the perfect image.
Use "big" lighting
If you're shooting yourself, you can't see where the light is falling. If you've tried studio portraiture before, then you'll know that where the lighting is placed can be crucial and a tiny movement of the subject can make a huge difference to the image. Therefore, I avoid those critical set-ups, such as Rembrandt lighting, because a slight movement of the head will ruin the shot, and I'll use 'big' lighting that is more forgiving for small changes in the position of the subject. In general, a 'high-key' approach with lots of light flooding the studio will be a simple way to get flattering self-portraits. Typically, I'll use two large umbrellas or soft boxes and pull them a little further away than a standard portrait shot (don't go too far else the light will be too hard) so that the lighting doesn't change too much even if I move a touch.
But... I think I look better in a grungey grainy kind of light, so I also often use just one light directly to the side of me - this gives a very harsh light and is not necessarily very flattering for a 'normal' portrait, but it's very easy to line up your head with the light and can look very dramatic.
Use a remote control
If you have one, use a remote to set off your camera - it's a whole lot easier than pressing the button then running back into position! However, make sure that you've got a delay (say, 3 seconds) between pressing the button and the camera firing, otherwise you'll have a photo of yourself pointing the remote towards the camera!
If you don't have a remote, then you'll have to use the timer button on your camera. If you do it this way, it's worth making your camera take a number of shots with a couple of seconds between each shot and to take, for example, 10 shots. Hopefully one of them will be spot on, and also you can bounce around and see what works and what doesn't in the same set of shots.
Use a mirror
Unlike a normal portrait shoot, you can't see your subject or where the light is falling so a mirror is invaluable... but make sure you put it as close to the camera as you can, or better still, almost behind it. That way you'll be able to see where the light falls and you'll be looking at more or less the same thing the camera is. Ideally, the mirror should be at the same angle as the camera otherwise the camera and you will be seeing two different things.
Also, remember that the mirror will bounce light around, possibly at you, so make sure that your mirror is not too close to the lights. If you've set the mirror near/behind the camera it probably won't be a problem, but keep it in mind when you're setting up.
Use tethered shooting
If you have the right equipment, you can use 'tethered shooting'. What this means is that the camera is linked to a computer so that you can see the images on the screen straight away rather than having to squint at the back of the camera. Most cameras these days will allow you to use tethered shooting but you will need a handily placed laptop and some software (e.g. Lightroom). Tethered shooting means you can take a shot and immediately know if it worked, if you need to change position slightly, or if the lighting needs adjusting. It's particularly useful when used in combination with a remote control.
The downside to tethered shooting – and this is just a personal preference – is that it can slow the shoot right down. The transfer of files to the computer is not instantaneous (particularly if you're shooting a high-resolution RAW file) and then you'll spend time staring at the picture assessing it. This can be useful if you're trying things out, but can kill the spontaneity of the shoot.
Know your angles, your lighting and your focal length
Everyone has their angle (it's probably the same one you use when you're looking in the mirror) and everyone has their ideal lighting set-up. Take an honest look at yourself and work out what lighting will suit you. It's a subject for another day, but some lighting set-ups can make you look lighter or heavier, can hide or emphasise features, so work out what will work best with your features. You'll be limited a bit when shooting yourself (see 'big lighting' above) but you can work out the broad strokes that will suit you best.
Similarly, everyone has their ideal focal length - some faces benefit from a longer focal length (e.g. 100mm) while others look best using a shorter focal length (e.g. 30mm). As a guideline, start at around 50mm (which is similar to what you see) and then test up and down from that. My focal length is around 85mm, and it's a thing that every photographer should know!
No one can see you... get creative... or silly
It's an odd quirk of human nature that most people, when they take a self-portrait, get really self-conscious even though no one is watching! You're using a digital camera, you're going to take lots of shots while you practise and experiment, but you can delete them all once you're done if you don't like them! So get creative, get silly, have fun!