A Question-Answer Segment

Over on my personal blog, I asked readers to submit questions for me to answer. They asked me a lot of good stuff, and over the coming week or two I'll be answering them all. But one of them was really more appropriate to answer here on this blog, so here goes.

Little Spoon asked:

How are you able to take such perfect self-portraits? Is there some kind of trick or equipment I don't know about?

Now, there are two ways to think about this question (which technically is two questions). I could just take it as a compliment phrased as a question, like when I ask Mocha, "Why come you're so gorgeous?" LS's question implies that she likes my self-portraits, so I could just say, "Aw, shucks, thank you," and be done with it.

However, I'm going to go with my second response option and answer the question as if it were asked in sincerity. (Because a) I do think LS wants to know, and b) I think others might also want to know about my self-portraiture.) While my self-portraits are far from "perfect," I am proud of what I have been able to accomplish in this genre. When I come up with good self-portraits, it is usually due to six main factors:

1. Equipment
2. Lighting
3. Subject Prep
4. Framing
5. Un-Self-Consciousness, and
6. Volume


Since you asked, LS, yes, there are certain pieces of equipment that make self-portraits easier (and produce a higher percentage of good shots). First and most obvious, the better quality camera you have, the better quality pictures you will get. Everyone says, "Well, duh!" so I'll move on.

Now, my self-portraits have always been taken one of two ways: by hand in a mirror, or with the self-timer on the camera. If you'd like to take the shots by hand, a mirror is always going to be better (and, in my opinion, easier) than extending your arm out as far as you can and aiming the camera back at yourself. With a mirror, you have way more options of angles for your shot, because you're not holding the camera in quite as awkward a position. I think some shots are nicely accessorized by having the camera visible, but if you don't want to see the camera, you may have a bit of trial and error finding the right way to hold and aim the camera to get the shot you want. Also, if you want to take mirror shots, it's best to actually invest in one or two large-ish wall mirrors that you can move around to different locations; otherwise, you end up with the same background in every picture.

If you decide to use the self-timer or a remote for your camera, you will need a) brilliant engineering skills, so that you can always construct a sturdy base of the appropriate height on which to place the camera; or b) a tripod. I recommend getting a tripod because they're really not very expensive and they really come in handy, especially for self-portraits. The important thing to remember when using a tripod and timer/remote is that when you're setting up the shot, something needs to placehold where you will be - if not, the background will be in focus and you will be blurry. Do a few tests to make sure the set-up and focus are good, then shoot away!


I've covered all the equipment I use, so let's move on to lighting. I don't use a flash when I take self-portraits, for a couple different reasons. First and foremost, all my self-portraits were - for a long time - in the mirror; using the flash in a mirror is a good way to get a picture of the flash and not much else. So then I had to work hard to establish good lighting around me to avoid dark, blurry pictures. (Though trust me, I have a lot of dark and blurry pictures around.) Indoors I try to open windows and/or turn on lots of lights, depending on time of day and the look I'm going for; outdoors, it's all about the sunshine, of course. To avoid weird shadows or backlighting, always face towards the source of light, whatever it is. I generally prefer natural light to artificial, but I've had good results with both.

Oh, and the other reason I don't use a flash is because I'm pale and it washes me out. Sad, but true.

Subject Prep

By this, I basically mean how I prepare myself as the subject of my photos. What will I wear? How will I do my hair and/or makeup? If there is something specific I'm trying to achieve, I can do a lot of that through my own preparation.

(Wow, that one was quick.)


One of the first things my friend Balee told me when I asked him about improving as a photographer was about framing my shots. I'll try to paraphrase here (and if I mess up, he can correct me in the comments):

When setting up the shot, imagine the field as a tic-tac-toe board. Basically, many pictures are more interesting if the subject is NOT in the center square. I'm sure there's a legitimate explanation for why that is more visually stimulating for humans, but I don't know it. I do know it's true, though, for the most part. Most of my favorite self-portraits are framed to one side or the other: See here, here, and here for examples.


Honestly, this might well be the most important part of taking self-portraits, the factor to most directly bring success or failure. How many of you have ever thought of taking a self-portrait and had this thought (or one like it) run through your head:

I feel so silly/stupid. I can't believe I'm going to sit around and take pictures of myself.

If you feel that way about your self-portraits, you're pretty much doomed to fail. As a photographer, you quickly learn that you have to help your subjects feel comfortable in front of the camera, otherwise all the shots will come out feeling tense or awkward. When you are your own subject, that rule doesn't change, so you need to learn not to be self-conscious about taking those pictures. Keeping a few important things in mind will help with that: For one thing, remember that you have all the control in this situation. You can take a picture and immediately delete it if you feel it's awful - no one else ever has to see it. So feel free to experiment with your poses and facial expressions. Also remember that you are on your own time schedule, so don't rush yourself. Take the time to test things out before committing to anything, and feel free to shoot the same general pose multiple times to make sure you get it just right.

The less self-conscious you feel, the more you can branch out in your self-portraits. I've taken pictures of me crying (here), laughing (also here), and even pictures of myself nude (here). All of those photos took bravery, but I ended up being so glad that I took them.


Last, but not least, TAKE A LOT OF PICTURES. I'm sorry I shouted at you, but it's really that important. The more pictures you take, the more good ones you will have left over after you go through and delete the ones that are too dark, out-of-focus, or just generally unflattering (in whatever way is most important to you). If you only take five pictures, well, at best you'll have five good self-portraits, and at worst you'll have none. If you take 150, your chances of finding some nice ones are much higher.

Well, Little Spoon, there is my long-winded answer to your question. I hope if you read through this that at least one small part of it was helpful and educational for you! Now, go take some pictures already!


Hanlie said…
Great post Lara! I found it really interesting and I'm going to try these techniques, although I dont have the best camera...
tpiglette said…
I like your haircut!! :)
Maggie said…
Great post! I have always wondered just how you did your self portrait shots -- and I am thrilled to find out! That's something I want to try to do more of...
Christina said…
Lara, this is such a great post! I have never been good at self portraits, but I have an idea in mind...I'll have to put your tips into practice. Especially the bit about self-Consciousness. ;o)

I had not known much of your history, but I saw some of it by clicking on the links here. And I just wanted to say what a strong, inspiring, incredible person you are. Hugs!
Toner said…
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Major Bedhead said…
Excellent information, Lara. I'm going to try playing around with this when I have some time (hah!). I need to get a larger mirror, though.
Anonymous said…
I thought you had forgotten about me! Thank good ness you didn't b/c wow, thank you!

And yes it was a compliment question :)

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