Six Steps to Sharper Selfies

Six Steps to Sharper Selfies

So, you want to photograph yourself but don’t have anyone to stand in to get your focus set? No problem, all you need is a tripod and a coin for sharp selfies, every time.

1. Set Up the Camera

First, you need to work out the composition, so put the camera on a tripod and set it a way back from where you need to be. Be sure to include a little extra space around the edges, as you can always crop in later. Make sure the camera is at head height.

Set the camera up on a tripod

Place the camera on the tripod far enough away from where you want to stand to ensure space around your head and shoulders.

2. Focus, Focus, Focus

Take the camera off the tripod, move to the spot you’re going to be standing in, and place the autofocus point over your tripod and focus up. If it’s too dark, just engage Live View and zoom in on the screen, then manually focus the lens until it’s sharp. 

Focus up on the tripod

Autofocus through the viewfinder is super accurate, but if it's dark, the AF may hunt' in which case, engage Live View and adjust the focus ring until it's sharp.

3. Place a Marker

Grab a coin (or anything really) and place it down between your legs, making sure it lines up with the center of the tripod. This is your mark; when you come back to pose for shots, you’ll stand over this to ensure you’re consistently sharp in the shot.

Put a marker down on the floor

Use a coin or anything else to mark the position you'll return to after you've pressed the shutter release button on the camera, to keep things consistently sharp

4. Put the Camera Back

Pop the camera on the tripod once again, and turn off autofocus, being careful not to nudge the focus ring and spoil the setup. If you do, repeat from step two. Now, you need to engage the self-timer mode on your camera and set a 10-second delay. If it takes you a while to get in position, then set this to 20 or 30 seconds instead.

Place the camera back on the tripod

Place the camera back on the tripod, and get ready to take a test shot by engaging self-timer mode.

5. Take a Test Shot

In Aperture priority mode (Av for Canon shooters), open the aperture to f/5.6, which on a 50mm lens should give you enough depth of field so your whole head is in focus. If the shutter speed is too slow (below 1/50 sec), then boost ISO to get a faster shutter speed and prevent motion blur when you’re posing.

Take a shot to test your focus and composition

Take a shot to test you've got focus and composition nailed. If not, readjust the camera position and refocus.

6. Adjust Your Composition

Take a look at your test shot and move the camera until you’re in the frame with some space around you. This gives you the option of cropping in tighter later; you won’t be able to do this the other way around later (at least, not without a hefty dose of editing).

Change your composition if needed

Take note of your test shot and adjust the camera up or down on the tripod to get a good head and shoulders shot.

That’s it! Six simple steps to get pin-sharp selfies every time. Of course, I’m sure there are other ways to do it, but short of using a friend or a mannequin, I’ve found this to be the most reliable method of attaining good focus for selfies. What are some of your favorite techniques?

p.s. Extra points if you can guess what kind of coin I was using!

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16 Comments

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

At this point in camera development, I think face detect and even eye detect AF are what most folks looking to do selfies would use to accomplish this. They probably will have chosen a mirrorless camera by now for other reasons.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Great point, Lenzy. You're right, eye and face detection on modern cameras is an easier way to go, but there's a couple of issues with this. First, not everybody has a camera that does eye or face detection (mine doesn't) and second, if your rear screen doesn't flip round (again, like mine) you can't see if the focus detection is working or not, you kind of just have to trust it. I feel that Canon are ultimately better for this because more of their cameras have a vari-angle screen, whereas Nikon are still stuck with the tilt screens.

Robert Nurse's picture

I've been trying to do self portraits now and again and was using the brute force method of trial and error. My camera does have face detection in live view mode. But, I never thought to use or experiment with it until now!

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

That's awesome, Robert! Glad it's sparked a process for you.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I get it, regarding not all cameras having the newest tech. I still use a 5D3 for some things.

But for a few years now, I've been doing most of my work with Fuji X-T bodies. They don't have forward-facing screens and I really don't need it. The face detect AF works just as reliably as standard AF. And at portrait focal length / distance, I don't think I'd be able to tell whether AF was working using a flip around screen. It's just too small to see.

My point was the folks who would be looking to do this kind of task will likely have chosen a better tool than their DSLR. If I needed to do this and didn't have a mirrorless camera, I'd just attach my phone to a tripod and use the built-in timer in the camera app and use the front facing camera (not the selfie camera) for better image quality.

The simplest way to accomplish this task and the simplest way to accomplish it with a DSLR are two different things.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

You're totally right Lenzy - there are better/easier tools out there to get the job done. My point of view on this post was to make it as inclusive and tech-free as possible so literally anyone can do it. But yep, your technique would be much easier if you have the option of doing it.

Jen Photographs's picture

1. Manually focus on...what? You can't focus on the wall because when you (the model) step in, you'll be out of focus.
2. Why not just use a wireless remote? They're $10 for a basic one.

John Cliff's picture

did you read it fully? the author sets out the steps clearly...walk to where you're going to be with camera in hand, focus on the tripod head from there, mark your spot, put camera back on tripod, pose where you left mark

Deleted Account's picture

Seems like a rather convoluted process when you can just use face detect or just set your AF group to the widest possible and focus/release the shutter remotely...

If you're closing your aperture down enough that this process will work, then even without Eye-AF, face detect with most DSLR's would work just fine. If you're wide open, then you'll probably not have critical focus on your eye doing this anyway.

Herman Munster's picture

UK One Pound - Floral Design Series ?

Lorin Duckman's picture

I set up the camera, sit in front of it and shoot tethered. I know the camera is focused when the timer starts.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Brilliant technique, Lorin!

Jerry Norman's picture

Nice article Jason. I have used qdslr running on a tablet and a Nikon D750. I had qdslr in live view which allowed me to focus the camera by touching the tablet screen. I held the tablet out in front of me and touched the tablet's live view of my eye, moved the tablet out of view of the camera, and took the shot using a radio trigger. You could also trigger the shot using qdslr but you have to be able to touch the qdslr's screen shutter release button while looking at the camera.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Thanks Jerry. Yep that's a great way of doing it - I used to use the WMU app on my phone to trigger, but the connection between devices took a little while and wasn't always solid so I turn to this technique because it's so quick and reliable. Will have to give it a try with QDSLR!

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Great to hear it helps, Alison. I've been there - trying to save a blurry image is just impossible. I find there's no replacement for getting it sharp at source.