How to Create Captivating Self Portraits

How to Create Captivating Self Portraits

Have you ever had an incredible idea, but couldn't find a model to help you? Learn how to bring your vision to life through the art of self portraits.

As photographers, we spend most of our time behind the camera and prefer it that way. For some, the fear of stepping in front of the camera is comparable to the fear of public speaking. Odds are, though that at least once in your career, you needed a good portrait of yourself and could not find anyone else to take it at that moment. Not to mention, it's also the cheapest option for getting a professional headshot that you're happy with. Discover who you really are, and dive into the art of self portraits today. They are not as scary as you might think.

Why Shoot Self Portraits? 

You may be asking yourself why is it necessary as a photographer to step out from behind the camera and be your own model and creative muse for once. Isn't that what models are for? Taking self portraits may be out of your comfort zone, but it's worth a try! Let me tell you a little story of how I got started taking self portraits and how it changed my career forever: 

It was a Friday night and my family was having a massive dinner. We invited the whole community. One of the people who came to the meal was one of my close friends. Her name was Linda. Linda was an incredible, intelligent, and deep 75-year-old woman with a lot of history to tell. She ran a non-profit that helped kids in Africa, and while on her many trips abroad, she would take portraits of the kids she was helping. She had an eye for photography. She quickly became my harshest critic. That week, she asked to see my portfolio, so I mentioned to her that I didn't really have much work to show of models because all the photos were of me. She took one look at them, and gave them back to me and said: Eli, these are stale, boring, and fake." It was just me staring into my camera. There was no story or no substance to the photos. I went to bed that night thinking about what she told me, and she was right. That week, I took new portraits trying to just be myself, forgetting the camera was there. I took them back to her the next week and she saw improvement. They were more real, less staged. Each week, I would come back with new portraits, and each week she would critique them. But one week, she gave me some advice, and it has stuck with me to this day. She told me:

If you're going to try to make a living photographing other people's portraits and telling their stories, you must get to know yourself before getting to know them.

That idea resonated with me and inspired to me to put a part of myself in every piece of work I create. It changed the way I connect with the subjects i'm photographing and how I get to know them.

How I Started

When I first picked up a camera, I would shoot anything and everything around me without any direction. When I photographed portraits, I would use my camera as a wall between me and the subject. I would do a two-hour shoot and not say a word. I was extremely shy and didn't know how to communicate my vision to the subjects. So, for the first six months of my portrait career, since I wasn't comfortable photographing other people, I started photographing myself. I knew myself best. Every Saturday for six months, I would take my camera out for four hours and shoot portraits of myself. Each week, my pictures became a little more real and less staged. I started to discover what made me tick as a creative and what didn't. I discovered my strengths, weaknesses, and everything in between. Any idea I had in my head I would create. There were no limitations and no one telling me I couldn't. So, whatever I was feeling, I would create. It became like therapy for me. No one was judging me for who I was. I was the only one I had to please and I slowly became more comfortable with who I was as a person and creative and broke down my insecurities. Photography literally changed who I am as a person. 

To this day, the camera has been by my side during the darkest moments and also during the happiest. Each time I have an emotion, I set up my camera and shoot self portraits. It has become my strongest voice. 

Building the Story

When someone looks at your self portrait, they want to see something that is unique to you, something that shows your perspective of the world or captures an intimate moment in your life. Shoot things that mean something to you and share your stories with the world. 

How to Shoot 

Taking a self portrait is simpler then you may think. You don't need any fancy gear: all you need is a tripod, a camera, a way to trigger the camera (remote or self-timer), and yourself. 

Step 1: Setting Up the Camera

To start taking self portraits, the first thing you'll need is a way to keep the camera still. For my shoots, I use a simple tripod, but if you don't have a tripod, simply just stack some books on a chair, put the camera on top, and you're good to go.

Step 2: Focusing the Shot

Nailing your focus when you don't have someone else behind the camera checking for you can be tough. To nail your focus every time, simply put an object or tape for where you will be posing and set your focus there. Then, turn off autofocus and step in. 

Step 3: Capturing the Image

Now that your camera is locked down, to capture the images, there are a couple methods. The first way is to use a self-timer on your camera and run into place each time. Another option is a trigger release. The last option and the one I use the most frequently is Wi-Fi and a phone app. From my iPhone, I'm able to set focus, change my camera settings, and capture the images. If your camera does not have Wi-Fi capabilities, any of the above will work. 

Step 4: Viewing the Images

As you're shooting the images, ideally, you want to be able to see them as you're shooting so you can check focus, exposure, or composition. If you have Wi-Fi capabilities, you can see them from your phone. The other method I use is tethering the camera to Lightroom on my computer. 

To tether to Lightroom, open Lightroom and click on File - Tethered Capture - Start Tethered Capture. 

Select where you want to save the final images and how you want to name them. 

The images will pop up live as you shoot. Share your self portraits in the comments below! 

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26 Comments

Jen Photographs's picture

Coincidentally, I recently dug up some old selfies, and re-shared them on my blog.https://jenphotographs.wordpress.com/2018/03/07/3-more-project-ideas-for...

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Ha ha thats awesome! Keep sharing! :D Just shot this yesterday as I was wrapping up my article!

Jen Photographs's picture

I like!

Looking through my archives had me feeling a little nostalgic, and today I dug into the back of my closet and found my old ballgown. However it doesn't zip all the way up. Argh! Strange because I actually weigh less than I did when I got it. Bodies are weird, man.

Must think of something else now...

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

You got this! Yesterday I got the urge to create this image and 30 minutes later it was created. thats also the bts

Dave Henshaw's picture

Great article Eli, I shot a self portrait earlier this year to help me understand what I put my clients through every time I photograph them, I wanted to see what they see, clearly they are a brave lot! :-)

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thanks for the kind words! Great stuff!

Self-portrait? Done.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Sick dude! Cool work!

Gil N's picture

Shot this about a week ago, first time trying an autoportrait in years.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Cool! Keep shooting!

Lorin Duckman's picture

Da Vinci

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Love it!! Love the light!

Lorin Duckman's picture

Thank you so much. I didn't think anyone would look at it, yet alone like it.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Of course! Thank you for sharing! never be scared to put yourself out there. The world is waiting to hear your unique voice.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

BTW I'm also based in Florida!

Lorin Duckman's picture

where are you?

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

I'm in boca. :)

Lorin Duckman's picture

I am in Boynton. Come to my studio.

Geert L's picture

I had some timing issues here....

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Ha ha I hear! But fantastic lighting!

Lorin Duckman's picture

ok, another day to shoot myself.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Looks like a painting!

Lorin Duckman's picture

Great. My style is painterly, dark, intense and vulnerable.

Mikael Grahn's picture

Theaterblood and myself in front of a black background. A fitting comment would be "Why so serious"

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Wow! Beautiful use of color, light, and expression!! Love that you experimented with the blood! Keep it up

Adnan Alić's picture

I tried long exposure portraits, wanted to make something creepy. Hope you like :D