My Guide To Self Portrait Photography

My Guide To Self Portrait Photography

A lot of my photos are self portraits, usually this is due to the fact that the location I have gone to for some landscape shots is not as good as I thought it would be.  I enjoy the challenge of creating new, interesting portraits that either tell a story or are from a different perspective than the norm.  In this ‘tutorial’ I will explain my thought process and what elements I consider when taking a self portrait.

Essentials for self portrait photography

The main thing about a self portrait is that YOU are taking a photo of YOU, this means that a camera with a self timer is essential (almost) and a tripod is also a major advantage, the only other option to a tripod would be a safe platform to place your camera on.  That said I have taken self portraits by just resting the camera on a bean bag or even the floor but this obviously limits the angle of the shot and you cant be sure that the camera wont move at just the wrong time.

Mood of a self portrait

I enjoy taking slightly dark, moody portraits as I feel that they portray a bit more mystery and often do not require an attractive backdrop or props.

I have a background stand and black backdrop that I purchased on eBay for not much money (less than £80).  I also have a Canon 430 ex Mk11 external flash with both a TTL lead and wireless trigger, these are not essential but add a bit of flexibility to what angle I can create the light source from.

A diffuser for the flash is also useful to soften the light slightly but this can be improvised from tracing paper or similar.

In the below shot I was taking a self portrait for a competition and wanted to go ‘against the normal’ trend.  SO I thought I would hide my face from the camera.  This seemed to do the trick as I won the competition!!! ;0)


As you can see form the photo the light source is set on the left of my face (from my perspective) using my TTL lead attached to the flash.  I darkened the photo slightly in Camera RAW to remove any trace of creases in the backdrop.  Other than that the photo was just cropped and sharpened slightly.

Location for self portrait photography

I often look for urban locations that portray a different atmosphere and include colour a texture.  Making sure that there is not too much going on in the background is very important as you don’t want to draw the eye of the viewer to the background but do want to make it interesting enough for the viewer to ‘have a look’ around your photo.  I often use HDR in my portraits to bring out the colours and textures and this technique can be quite tricky to get just right…..too much of an HDR effect and it looks like a cartoon!

The photo below was processed in Photomatix and then in Photoshop to adjust the levels.  My processeing in Photoshop usually follows the same steps more or less which is set out further on in this article.


I also find that a great effect is taking a portrait where the whole backdrop is sky.  This can be tricky as not only do you need a sky that has some definition (not just blue or grey), but you also have to find a location (like a hill) where there is nothing in the background, such as trees or buildings, to block parts of the sky.

In the photo below I have mixed HDR (the sky) with a normal photograph (me).


It did take quite a few shots to get the position of the sun just right but I feel it was worth it as it adds a bit more to the overall effect.

In the below photo I actually took the photo accidentally whilst adjusting the camera.  Luckily the photo came out quite well!! ;0)


Little Touches for self portraits

Small touches in a portrait can be the difference between an ‘ok’ photo and one which you are really happy with.  IN the example below I have removed all of the colour apart from my eyes.  At first you don’t notice it but it does make quite a big difference.

I achieved this effect in Photoshop by adding a layer on top of the original colour one and removing the colour from that second layer. I then added a layer mask and using the brush tool (set to black), removed the parts of the layer over the eyes.  I then softened the image using the Gaussian blur set to 50% opacity on a new layer and repeated the above steps to remove the softened areas over the eyes.


Theme for self portraits

I like portraits with a theme, in the example below I had just watched Ocean’s Eleven and thought it would be fun to try a casino style portrait.  Now I am not going to pretend that timing th card throw with the flash triggering was easy (it took several dozen shots!) but was fun.  I had to use the flash (straight in front of me in this example) to achieve the shutter speed high enough to capture the card clearly enough without blurring.


I think that the above shot is the only one where I have actually ‘dressed the part’, this is important to achieve results for certain shots (such as playing cards in a casino).  I was also trying to portray someone at the end of the road and completely out of luck, knowing that this is the emotion that I wanted prior to taking the shot helped with my pose and facial expression (a smile wouldn’t have quite worked!).


Though not self portraits I also took a series of similar shots for a friend after he saw this one, they can be viewed here.

Try Something new for self portraits

I like to try new techniques when taking self portraits and love the weird and wonderful.  ‘Multiplicity’ photo’s have always caught my eye so I tried my hand at it with the following result.


The unexpected!

A couple of my self portraits have been taken when I am at a loss of what else to take!  The photo below was literally born out of frustration and although I wasn’t actually going to stomp on the camera, I did feel that I wanted to, and that’s what gave me the idea!

It was tricky to get the focus correct but I balanced over the camera and used a remote trigger to focus on my trainers and eventually managed not to fall over before the shot was taken!


This next shot was simply when I was deciding what to take a shot of next……..


This shot is HDR and I have ‘dodged’ the areas in the photo where the gravel paths meet at a crossroads.  I also slightly dulled the colour using the desaturate tool in Photoshop.


I took the below shot as a joke about how I am not one for reading about the technicalities of photography and prefer to just experiment with my camera, it is entitled ‘Not a clue’.  This is just processed in Camera Raw using a technique described as the Dave Hill effect on Scott Kelby’s website.


Perspective for self portraits

Taking the shot from a different angle is a good way of your photo standing out.  In the below shot the camera was placed on the ground using the self timer.  The focus is on my trainer and taken with 3 bracketed shots to achieve the HDR effect.   I then added a vignette, softened the photo and desaturated the colour slightly.


My normal post processing follows these steps;

  • If HDR, processed in Photomatix
  • Opened in Photoshop
  • Sharpened
  • New layer set to ‘Soft light’ and opacity adjusted
  • Gaussian blur added to new layer and set to between 25% and 50%.
  • Adjustment layer added and area of photo removed that I wish to emphasise (eyes etc)

There is usually some other asjustments I make but the above steps are pretty much always followed.

Written by Barry Chignell

I believe that advice should be free, with this in mind FPR contains over 600 photography articles covering all areas of the photography world. From wedding photography to HDR and from interviews from retailers to pro photographers. I am always interested to hear from anyone in the profession regarding new and exciting ideas and ventures and am happy to help photographers publicise their work. If you would like to discuss your photography and how FPR can help, email me at


  1. Leslie

    For the ocean’s shot (cards), did you use a wireless trigger or the camera timer? If you used a trigger, which one was it?

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