By no means am I a male model. So, it is not without some hesitation that I embark down a road giving people advice on how to take a better self portrait. Then again, having spent more than a decade posting my mug on the Internet in various forms and on a variety of websites, social networks, forums, blogs and even on television – I’ve learned a few interesting things about what makes a really good self-portrait, and what doesn’t.
I should also point out that I’m not a professional photographer. My advice here is more about the substance of the photo – where you look, what you wear, and things like that. If you’re looking for photography tips, I highly suggest some other authors here, like James’ 5 photography tips for beginners, Bakari’s amazing guide to digital photography, or Tim’s effective photo fixes. I need to add that Tim is one of the most professional photographers I’ve read tips from – so if you’re looking for pro tips I highly recommend seeking out his other photography articles here at MUO.
For my part, what I have to offer are simple things – things that most people don’t even bother considering when they quickly take a snapshot for Facebook or for their blog profile, but that really make perfect sense when you stop to think about it. Why I made those mistakes early on, I’ll never really understand, because a lot of it just comes down to common sense and presenting yourself in a way to the camera that doesn’t make you look like a total fool.
Taking Great Self Portraits – Less is More
If you want to take a serious self-portrait, lay off the accessories. You don’t need sunglasses for a photo op. Most people have really nice eyes even if they don’t realize it. They say eyes are the windows to the soul, right? Show them off to the camera at every opportunity. The same goes for everything else – your hair, your face, everything. You may not like certain features about yourself, but believe it or not other people are not as critical of you as you are…so stop trying to hide yourself in a self-portrait!
Tip #1 – Don’t Try So Hard to Look Cool
There is of course the flip side to taking great self portraits – the pictures where you are just trying to be funny. In that case, don whatever costume you like – the point isn’t so much not to look silly, but to look more silly. However, in one of my first self-portraits for the holidays the first year that my personal blog was active, I tossed on a Santa hat, threw on some sunglasses (it’s a site about spying and espionage after all), and took a shot that I really thought was a semi-serious, semi-tongue in cheek snapshot at the time.
So, here’s what I got wrong in my first attempt. No one wears sunglasses and a leather jacket indoors unless you’re trying to look cool. Let’s face it, if you have to try, then you’re not. Kapeesh? So stop trying, and you might actually end up looking cool without even realizing it.
Other problems, I didn’t think to wear a shirt that matched with a black leather jacket, and the huge goofy Santa hat completely mashed down my hair, giving me a completely whacked out hairstyle that I don’t actually have. Okay, so it turned out a bit goofier than I originally intended. But I guess that’s okay because it was meant to be a little funny.
Tip #2 – Don’t Force Emotion
My next attempt at a self-portrait for Facebook fell flat. First, take a quick look before we get to the gritty details.
At the time, I actually thought the photo came out good, but after posting to Facebook, both friends and strangers started making odd comments, saying things like it looks “gay”. Gay? Where on earth did that come from?
My attempt to portray an expression of serious focus and professional “toughness” ended up doing the exact opposite. Tim would have a field day with this photo, I’m sure. The lighting is so dark that it makes it look like my head is floating in mid-air. My hand is just sticking out of the right side of the photo – where the hell did it come from? And you would have thought that I would have at least slept long enough to get those bags out from under my eyes before taking the photo, right?
Okay – so that was failure number two, and I was almost ready to give up. I didn’t though, I did an article or two about creating silly photos of yourself using a portable webcam. You might remember the spooky photo that I created using the special effects described in that article.
It wasn’t meant to be a serious self-portrait, but you know what taking those images taught me? It’s that there’s a time and place for making an expression in photos. If the lighting, the situation, how you’re dressed and everything else in the photo demands a serious look – by all means look fierce. If it demands a spooked out, freaky, wide-eyed look, by all means go over the top. The secret to a great self-portrait then is this – don’t force the emotion. Make your expression natural, look directly at the camera, and you’ll look awesome.
Tip #3 – Lighting Really Is Important
Another self-portrait tip that I learned by accident (which incidentally is how I’ve learned nearly 90% of what I know), is that natural sunlight makes for the absolute best lighting for any photograph. Pro photographers out there are probably laughing and going – “well duh.” But you know what, for most of us non-photography minions, such a simple concept is so overlooked.
People sit inside their dark houses, rig up all kinds of fake lighting and try to create a good Facebook profile photo – but things always go wrong. There’s too much shadow. There’s too much shine. It’s just really hard to make the lighting look natural. However, after looking at a picture I took of my daughter and I during a carriage ride, I saw just how natural lighting can make you look when the lighting is direct sunlight.
That’s a really close-up photo that would probably look horrid under artificial lights. But under direct sunlight, it gives skin, clothing, hair, and everything else, this warm, soft glow. It’s amazing what sunlight can do. That’s a memory I’ll never forget. I just wish I’d been looking at the camera instead of squinting in the sun. Of course, that gets me to my next point…
Tip #4 – Look at the Camera
I know it sounds absurdly simple, but nearly ever self-portrait of friends on Facebook or Google Plus that I’ve seen that make my jaw drop because they’re just so awesome, they’re nearly always looking directly at the camera. As I mentioned above, the eyes are the windows to the soul. If you want to make an impact on someone, look them directly in the eyes. You can make them smile, you can make them feel afraid – you can make your self-portrait have much more of an emotional impact when you seem to be looking directly into the eyes of the person that’s looking at your picture.
Everyone said I looked like a bank robber in that photo! Truth is, it was like -9 degrees F and I wanted everyone to see how freaking cold I was, so I took a snapshot of myself while driving (before it was illegal to do such a thing!)
That natural stare right at the camera (not forced like my earlier photo) immediately made people think of the emotions I tried to fake in that earlier photo – a tough, non-nonsense fierce intensity. It came through better when it wasn’t forced.
Putting it All Together
So, given all of those simple lessons that I’ve learned through the years – things that pro-photographers know right out of the gates – I feel a lot more confident about creating a self-portrait that doesn’t look totally ridiculous. Again, it’s about looking cool without trying to, portraying emotion with the context of the photo rather than trying to do it all with just your face, using natural lighting, and looking directly at the camera.
A few months ago I was interviewed by a TV documentary film company – these guys had every trick in the book. They were pros. This was a snapshot from the film.
They did it all right – they were able to fake the natural lighting, they made me dress up in a shirt and tie and created the context using a green screen in the background, and in all honesty they made me appear on screen a lot better than I do in real life!
Taking all of those lessons to heart, but using real natural lighting, I attempted to create the perfect self-portrait. I wanted to to portray my true nature – a laid-back and somewhat silly kind of guy that can also get down to business at a moments notice. I went outside to take the photo, with the backdrop of my cedar-sided house. I set the camera up on a tripod at just the right distance and height, and set the timer. Making sure to look directly at the camera, imagining that I was sitting across from one of my readers, during an in-depth, fascinating conversation – the camera clicked.
To date, I think it’s one of the best self-portraits I’ve taken without the help of a pro. I keep working at it – and reading the tips of guys like Tim, James and Bakari. But ultimately, when you’re taking that photo for Facebook or for your blog, all you really have to work with is your ingenuity, your own digital camera, and a little bit of common sense.
Do you have any other tips about taking great self portraits for people out there hoping to take a better profile picture? Any pro photographers out there willing to help out us amateurs look better on camera than we deserve to? Share your ideas and tips in the comments section below!
Image Credits: Attractive Young Man via Shutterstock
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