Self-Portrait Photography

Have you ever asked a random passerby to take a picture of you, handing your camera to this person? The situation is especially common when you are exploring new travel destinations. Even if you are not traveling alone but want to be captured in a picture together with your partner or friend, you need somebody else’s help.

travel self portrait

“Excitement” captured by Kissed by Fire

Do you recall how many terrible photos have you received from all these strangers? Photos that were poorly composed, out of focus, blurry, etc. Have you ever regretted those missed photo opportunities? Especially when you traveled to some unique place that you will not be able to visit again anytime soon? Oh… I’ve experienced this situation many times.

Have you ever thought you can take much better photos yourself without any help from other people? Yes, you can take high quality self-portraits that you will enjoy all your life. Technically correct photos with proper composition, focusing, and exposure. And you do not need any special, expensive equipment.

Equipment for Self-Portraits

Your current DSLR with a kit lens (18-55mm, 18-105mm, 18-135mm, or 28-135mm, etc.), mirrorless camera, or even point-and-shoot camera will work well. You just need a basic tripod and ideally (but not necessary) an infrared remote control for your camera. And, of course, you will need some practice.

How do you take self-portraits?

This article is not about cheap bathroom selfies or primitive cell phone pics. The photos you can take using the described techniques will be at a much higher level. Yes, you can achieve almost professional quality, depending on your experience, equipment, and time spent. You will not be time limited and can spend a lot of time on every shot by polishing it.

You have probably already guessed that first you will need to mount your camera on a tripod. Then, find a shooting position, adjust the height of the tripod, focal distance, ISO, aperture and shutter speed to get correct exposure. Focus the lens either at infinity or at a reference object that will be very close to you, like the branch of a tree. Finally, set either a timer-delayed or remotely triggered shutter release.

I would recommend starting your self-portrait practice with an 18mm or similar focal distance and an aperture of f/8 using a DSLR with cropped sensor camera or 11mm and f/8 on mirrorless camera. On a full frame camera the corresponding focal distance will be 27-28mm. At a wide angle and narrow aperture you will have most everything in focus, so there is a high chance of a good shot from the beginning. This works best for individual self-portraits.

self portrait photography

“‘Follow the Rainbow’, New Zealand, Northern Island, Tongariro, National Park, Self Portrait & Rainbow” captured by Chris Ford

Depth of Field and Focus

For couple portraits, it is much easier to play with a low depth of field because you will have your partner standing in a fixed position in front of a camera, and you can focus on his/her eyes at f/4 or even lower, and then you will step into the frame. This way you can get both of your faces in focus and have a blurry background. If you do not want a blurry background and prefer a wide depth of field (everything sharp), simply take all self-portraits at f/8-10. For individual self-portraits, especially if you want to achieve narrow depth of field (blurry background), try to focus on something standing in your place at the same distance. For example, you can use second tripod as a control object. Focus on this object in manual focus mode, then remove the control object and stand exactly in the same place to capture the photo.

couple self-portait

“Happily at the
Plain of Jars” captured by Vera & Jean-Christophe

Camera Settings

I recommend shooting in aperture priority mode. But do not forget about correct ISO, and make sure your shutter speed is fast enough (1/100, 1/125, 1/160, or shorter) to minimize negative impact of people’s motion in the photos (motion blurring). With a point-and-shoot camera use simple auto mode. I suggest shooting in JPG+RAW formats so you can use JPG files for quick uploads to social networks and RAW files for advanced editing later.

Shutter Release

A remote control is a best way of triggering the shutter release because you will not have to run back and forth between camera and shooting position: just stand in front of a camera, relax, smile, and press the shutter activation button. Another option that can also be used efficiently is timer-delayed release, a standard default feature on most DSLRs, mirrorless, and point-and-shoot cameras. However, with a timer-delayed release it is trickier to get the best composition and face expression since you will always have to move around; you will need more time to polish your shots if you want really good results.

What are the limitations of these self-portrait techniques?

There are virtually no limitations—only your creativity and experience. I have heard a story about a traveling newlywed couple who took wedding pictures using this method and their photos turned out beautifully. They were exploring a new country, and it was difficult for them to find a professional photographer there. But a tripod, some technical skills, and patience helped them to replace a real photographer with decent results.

You, too, can create awesome self-portrait captures by releasing your inner creativity.

About the Author:
Tony Campbell (website and blog) is professional photographer from Houston, Texas.

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