my top 10 tips for taking a decent self-portrait


Every now and then, I find myself in immediate need of an updated self portrait.  Sometimes it's because an organization needs it for a speaking engagement they've asked me to do.  Other times, it's just because I'm tired of the image on my Facebook page. Still other times, it's for an upcoming article.

It's for this last reason that I found myself taking a photograph of myself this week (for an upcoming piece on StyleUnited, by the way.  But not the one that's up now.  That one's about recuperating after a hard night out, and I promise you, the morning after a hard night out, I never look as smiley as I do in the photo above ).  I shared the shot on Facebook, and got a few requests for tips on how I take my self portraits, so I thought I'd oblige.

Now, to be clear, I don't consider myself a particularly talented self-portrait taker:  I mean, trust me, I'm no Xanthe Berkeley, nor am I artistic like Hula.  Also, I'm much more of an aim-at-a-reflective-surface self-portrait-taker, rather than a turn-the-camera-on-myself-and-use-a-remote-shutter one (which I suspect is the more professional way of doing it).  In any event, I've figured out what sort of methods work for me, so in the off-chance you're dying for a better picture for your Twitter avatar and are tired of waiting around for someone to take a shot of you that you like, here are my top 10 tips for taking a decent selfie.

1.  Take some care with your appearance.  To be clear, I'm not saying that you should do this because otherwise you won't look good (I am The Beauty of Different girl, after all).  I'm saying this because you are invariably going to judge yourself harshly when you look at the images (we all do).  So do yourself a favour, and take a little effort beforehand:  be sure your face is clean (or wear make-up, if this makes you feel more confident), fix your hair how you like it, make sure your clothes fit, and wear a colour that you feel awesome in.  You don't have to look like you're getting ready to visit Buckingham Palace; in fact, you can be totally casual (I'm wearing a hoodie in the shot above, after all!).  But do whatever it takes to make you feel good.

2.  Find a large mirror.  When I say "large," it doesn't have to be that large -- the one I use is actually only about 18" x 36", that I pull off of a bedroom wall -- but large enough that you can comfortably sit (or stand) in front of it to photograph yourself.  Also, you want to be able to move it around, so that you can maximize the light, as well as your surroundings.  And finally, be sure the mirror's clean -- there's nothing more frustrating than getting the shot you want, only to realize that it has been ruined by a huge smear across the reflective surface.

3.  Grab your camera, and make sure you use a normal lens.  You can, of course, use a point-and-shoot to take your portrait; however, if you're using a dSLR camera, I would recommend using a normal (around 50mm) lens.  I find this is the easiest lens to use, because anything more telephoto or wide-angle is hard for your eye to judge what you're shooting when you're taking the photograph -- you want to capture what you see in the shot.

Also, for the record, I'm a big fan of autofocus when taking a self-portrait.  That's not to say that every shot will be in focus (you'll see below that this is not always the case), but since you're going to have your camera way from your face, autofocus is the most likely way you're going to make sure you're in focus).

4.  Find some good light.  Go outside, or find a large window to prop your mirror up against.   As you look for good light, keep in mind the following:

  • If you choose to photograph yourself inside, make sure that it's during the day time, and prop your mirror up so that the back of the mirror is against (or in front of) the window (so that the light is falling directly on you).  Be mindful, however, of shadows that are caused by the window pane.  For example, I took the shot above in the morning, in front of my front door (which has frosted glass panes).  Had I waited until the afternoon, however, when the light came directly through the glass, I would've had weird streaks and shadows all over my face, which wouldn't have been attractive.
  • If you choose to photograph yourself outside, make sure you're doing it out of direct sunlight (like under an overhang, or even better, under overcast skies).  The reason is because direct sunlight can cause bad things to happen, like make you squint, or cause weird shadows on you.  Definitely avoid midday sun, when the overhead light can make your nose cast a shadow on your upper lip, giving you a Hitler-esque appearance.  Nobody wants that.
  • Under no circumstances should you use your flash.  Remember, you're photographing yourself in a mirror.  If you use your flash, the only result you'll have is a lovely portrait of a ball of light.

5.  Sit yourself in front of your mirror (about three or four feet away) and check your background.  You don't have to take your photograph against a flat surface or wall (in fact, I prefer not to), but if you choose not to have a flat surface, be sure to check your reflection for what's visible behind you.  Trash or extraneous items behind you might be a bit distracting, so remove them out of the frame.  If you photograph yourself outside, dark shrubbery always makes an awesome backdrop (like in these selfies I took in my back garden -- with the same bedroom mirror! -- a couple of years ago).  Lately, I've preferred to take my selfies in my entryway in front of my front door, because I sort of love the "story" that's told behind me  (the picture frames, the lighting from more interior rooms of my house), but I'm always careful that everything's in its place.

6.  Take a test shot.  Just grab your camera, focus on yourself by looking through the shutter, and take a test shot, to make sure your lighting is how you want it:

Notice my front door to the right of the image, above.  That gives you an idea of how much light was coming into my entryway.

Notice my front door to the right of the image, above.  That gives you an idea of how much light was coming into my entryway.

Once you've taken the shot, adjust your ISO, shutter speed and aperture accordingly (a refresher on what those things are and why they might need adjusting can be found here).  Now you're ready to take your shot.

7.   Be sure that your lens is in the same plane as your face.  One of the challenges of doing a self-portrait this way is ensuring that your face is in focus.  To make sure this happens, make sure that your lens is the same distance from your mirror as your face is -- because your lens is going to focus on whatever is in front of it.  So either hold the camera to the right or left of your face (so that your lens is next to your face), or hold it in front of you, so that the lens is directly below your face.  And then, make sure you're holding the camera aimed straight ahead.  This is actually harder than it sounds -- you'll find, when you check the back of your camera, you've aimed it slightly up or down.  Just readjust as you go along -- with the 50mm lens, and sitting 3 - 4 feet in front of the mirror, you should be able to get the shot framed correctly.

8.  SMILE.  I promise you, I don't care who you are, you look better when you smile.  You look approachable. Warm.  Which is exactly how you want your selfie to look, right?  So smile.

Now, I know that it can feel a bit weird to smile at yourself in the mirror, but here are few tips:

  • If you want the photograph to look like you're smiling at whoever's looking at the final shot, be sure to fix your gaze on the reflection of the lens of the camera as you smile, not your own reflection.  Remember, your camera is taking a photograph of a reflection, so if you look at your own eyes when you smile, the resulting shot is not going to look like you're smiling at the viewer. 
  • If you want to look away when you smile (which is often more comfortable than grinning at yourself in the mirror), then just look slightly to the left, right or above your own hairline.  In the mirror, any movement from dead centre is going to feel a bit exaggerated, so just make slight movements.

And don't forget to smile.

9.  Click away like a madman.  Seriously, click like your life depends on it.  Take a ton of shots.  And then take a ton more -- because, as I mentioned in the first item, above, you're going to be really harsh with yourself when you see the final shots, so you're going to want a lot to choose from.  To wit:  to get the one shot that I liked, at the top of this page?  I shot 550 images.  I mean, there were a few others I liked as well, but in general, whether or not I'm shooting myself or something else, I generally am satisfied with only 1 of 10 shots.  So take tons of images.  Tons.

Another reason you want to take a lot of photographs is because you're going to take a few images that you didn't mean to take -- you're going to blink, or you're going to be holding the camera in a way that doesn't frame yourself the way you wanted or whatever.  As proof, here are some of the outtakes from this self-portrait photo session:

Focus? I don't need no stinking focus.

Focus? I don't need no stinking focus.

I just thought I'd take a little nap.  What?

I just thought I'd take a little nap.  What?

Hm.  Perhaps  this  is the photograph I should have used for  that overindulging article  ...

Hm.  Perhaps this is the photograph I should have used for that overindulging article ...

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

10. Pick your favourites, and process as usual.  So once I got the images downloaded on my camera, I picked my favourite -- I liked it because it was in focus, and my smile looked like I think my smile looks, and not some cheesy facsimile thereof:

The shot I decided to use, unretouched.

The shot I decided to use, unretouched.

So, then I processed the shot.  I tend to have a pretty light touch when I process photos in general, and I did the same here:  I bumped up the contrast a bit, and then vignetted the edges so that the focus was on my face:

The final shot.

The final shot.

(For the record, when I process the shot, I never reverse it so that it's right -- I like that you can tell it's a self portrait from the backward "Nikon" on the camera.  If that bothers you when you take your photograph, then flipping the image is a relatively easy fix.)

And that's it!

Now, I know it seems like this is a lot to do, but I promise, once you get the hang of it, it doesn't take much time at all -- taking this self-portrait, from grabbing my camera and the mirror to processing the final photo, took all of about 15 minutes, 550 shots and all.  

So happy clicking, friends.  And if you want to share a link to your own self portraits once you take them in the comments below, I'd love to see them!

Song:  Me, myself and I by De La Soul