Self-portraits tend to get a somewhat bad rap, in part because of the selfie craze. But, self-portraits can be an incredibly beneficial process for photographers that can lead to great growth and skill development.
Back during my undergraduate years, I took an independent study course with one of my favorite photography professors. He passed down some advice that had been given to him when he was a graduate student, and it has completely stuck with me. He told me that every photographer should go through the process of taking self-portraits. For context, this was a professor in a program geared towards conceptual, fine art photography and not commercial photography. That said, his background prior to graduate school was in commercial work and I think this advice applies to almost all photographers, even well beyond the fine art world.
The reasoning for this advice is pretty simple; taking self-portraits can make you a better photographer. The core reason the above advice was given to me was simply to make me a more skilled, and more well-rounded, photographer. Self-portraits, especially when completed entirely on your own, have some unique challenges that will more or less force you to improve. Depending on the type of self-portrait, they can flex and strengthen your creativity skills, production process, technical abilities, and also set you up to better understand how to work with models (professional or otherwise). As an added bonus, self-portraits can be great therapy!
Relating to Subjects
The very first reason my professor gave me for the importance of self-portraiture is simply knowing what it feels like to be in front of the camera. Whether you are shooting fashion and working with professional models, or you are a family photographer documenting life moments, being able to relate to the people in front of the lens is hugely helpful. In fact, it is even more useful when working with those that are not professional models and express a dislike for getting their photograph taken. I'm sure anyone that has taken portraits has heard the all too common, "I hate being in front of the camera," or "I am not photogenic at all!" Indeed, when I started taking self-portraits I was one of those people. When you can explain that you know what it's like and have tools from personal experience for how to make the process more comfortable, you are bound to put them at ease and help the shoot be more relaxed and enjoyable.
Putting yourself in front of the camera also gives you a better understanding of how to move and pose in front of the camera. Self-portrait work allows you to figure out what poses and positions work and don't work, without taking up valuable time with a subject. In line with what was mentioned above, it will likely also improve your communication skills in achieving successful poses in a more natural and seamless way.
Self-portraits can of course be incredibly simple and straightforward. However, here I would like to focus on at least slightly more involved, elaborate self-portraits. As with any art form, if you take the time to think of new ideas and then execute them, you are going to work on your creative skills. Forcing yourself to think outside the box and come up with self-portrait ideas that go beyond a straightforward portrait can then leak into other areas of your photography, giving you the ability to think more creatively in general. The reason why I've found self-portraits, in particular, to be so valuable for creativity is that when you are the sole creator and aren't dependent on anyone else's time or resources, you have more flexibility. You can take the time you need, try things you maybe wouldn't if models or other team members were involved, and in general be willing to take more risks.
I have also found that I take significantly more risks in editing when working on self-portraits as opposed to any other type of photography. I allow myself to play around in Photoshop and manipulate images in much more significant and drastic ways. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but I have become much more proficient in Photoshop as a result of these self-portraits and have also found new, more creative ways to express myself as a result.
One of the other reasons I preach the importance of elaborate self-portraits is to get a taste of the production process without fully throwing yourself, and others, into it. While I occasionally had help on my shoots, for the most part, I was handling the set creation (when applicable), hair and makeup, lighting, and then of course all posing and camera work entirely on my own. I am by no means a professional at any of those things other than being the actual photographer, but having an understanding of what goes into a more involved shoot is extremely useful. Even if you currently work with full teams, getting some of this experience on your own will only be beneficial, in my opinion.
The planning process of a shoot is also a key part of why self-portraits can make you a better photographer. With many of my self-portraits, I would actually sketch out fairly detailed plans of how I envisioned the shoot. I would plan things down to the color of my clothes, if makeup was required, what I thought my hair should be like, what type of setting I needed, and so on. This would allow the actual shoot to go a lot more smoothly, which is great when shooting on your own, but incredibly useful when you have a team of people depending on you. Getting experience drawing up plans and then executing those plans is reason enough to create self-portraits.
One of the more challenging, or at least time-consuming, aspects of self-portraits is working the camera while also being in front of it. Whether using a shutter release remote or a timer, there is always lots of back and forth from behind the camera to the front while you get settings locked in and verify the image is turning out as you want. As a result, self-portraits help with getting the hang of changing your settings as well as having a thorough understanding of your camera's focus system. If you can get yourself in focus without being able to look at the back of the camera and adjust, you will likely have a much easier time nailing focus when working with subjects other than yourself!
The last reason I give when suggesting others take self-portraits is for the therapeutic potential. This obviously won't be the case for all people, but for myself, self-portraits have been an absolutely essential outlet. As someone notoriously bad about talking about my feelings, self-portraits have allowed me to get out whatever I am dealing with at the time in a visual way. I could pour everything into that image and not have to talk it out or share things in a more explicit way. I was free to create and not explain more than what the image itself showed. They have helped me process big changes, work through tough times, and just served as a creative outlet when I simply felt the need to create. While I have become less dependent on them as I have gotten older, they were crucial for me for many years.
Have you taken any elaborate self-portraits? Share your reasons for them, and the images themselves, below!
I started taking self portraits as a means to better understand light. What should have been maybe a few photos has turned into a full blown series. It's great having one album where I can see my progression as a photographer.
I love that! And so true, it is really interesting to look back at some of my first self-portraits!
I’ve never taken a self portrait (unless you count my phone full of selfies with my dogs and baby lol), but this has inspired me to try!
Oh I'm so glad to hear that!!
I love self portraits. It has been incredibly therapeutic for me, and I have grown an entire career out of it. It has taken me places I would have never dreamt of, and has opened so many doors.
I just looked at your portfolio here on Fstoppers, and wow! You have some absolutely stunning images! I'm glad to hear I'm not alone in using them as therapy as well.
thank you for checking them out
I read your article coincidentally two days after taking my own self-portrait for some of the same purposes as you've written about...but mainly to see how the light looked from that particular window and because I had no one else around to stand in as my subject...usually my toddler Dylan is my model but he was napping with my wife at the time. We're also going through our own C-19 outbreak here in Vietnam after a year of avoiding it, so I've been stuck at home for a few weeks already. Great opportunity to "get to know me"...
What a great self-portrait! The lighting is excellent!
I am dating photographer and yet taking self portraits... in some ways I have been always my best friend 😉
The best thing about self-portraits is saving money on model fees
Ha, so true! That was honestly part of the reason I started taking self-portraits!