As a photographer, you'll either need to or want to take a photo of yourself at some point. Maybe you need a new Facebook avatar or Twitter. Maybe you need a photo for your bio and you want it to have "your style" to it. Maybe you are simply tired of taking photos of mannequin heads and there are no models available when you are ready to shoot.
This article couldn't have been any more helpful on my recent trip to Arizona to Desertlypse IV. One evening in our downtime, we were joking around trying to take a self portrait of ourselves and we were failing miserably. A few serious photographers just couldn't make it work. We'd like to blame it on the wine and exhausting shoot schedule from earlier that day, but in truth, it's because we ignored ALL the tips I'm about to recount below.
Arms Length and Mirrors
Facebook and MySpace are filled with the photos taken at arm’s length from the hand pointed back at your face. I feel like it's related that if you are using this composition, you must make a funny face or throw a gang sign. This technique presents a few problems. They are often too close and you have to use a wide, wide angle and the subject is highly distorted. There is also a great perspective shot of the arm in the bottom third of the photo.
So, the more natural solution is to just shot into a mirror and let the camera end up in the shot. I've seen some very artful usage of this; just remember that you cannot use the flash when doing this. You'll end up with a photo of nothing but flare.
One thing I've adopted for video purposes is an extender arm. There are two popular devices out right now. One is called a QuikPod and the other is X-Shot. Both offer the same function with some different features between the two. Each look like a small tabletop tripod that extends to a 24"-36" arm. This lets you hold the camera at a "normal" distance and to remove your arm from the photo. This lets you look more natural because your shoulders are relaxed and you are able to use something other than total wide angle zoom settings. Look for a review of those in an upcoming blog post.
Hold It Steady
A tripod goes a long way to making the self portrait work. This has been a choice of mine when I'm using myself as a stock photo model (surprisingly, I'm not a bad selling commercial model. And my modeling schedule always works out with my shooting schedule.) The tricky part of using this method, you need to make sure that when you purchase your tripod, you get one that is tall enough for your height. I typically like to shoot pics of myself at an angle above eye level. I'm a little overweight and it helps minimize my double-chin and I just look better from that angle. Finding a tripod that extends that high, is a little tricky and options became a little more limited with that height requirement I put on one. It's important you figure out what you need and get what will work for you. I've bought enough wrong equipment to figure out that no matter how hard you work, you can't always "make it work". Just save up and buy the right gear the first time.
After you get the camera stabilized, how do you compose the image without looking behind it? I've heard of users that will either work in front of a mirror or stick a small mirror to the front of the camera/tripod. I have had little luck with these methods. My Point and Shoot that had a flip out LCD was wonderful for helping with this step, but now that I shoot with a DSLR, that convenience is no longer and option (for me, Some DSLRs offer this feature and/or the option of LiveView to a laptop. These would all be very useful tools for this step.)
I decided to use my head. My mom is a beautician and when she was in school, she used these cosmetology heads. As luck would have it, they were just collecting dust in her basement. I position the head on the end of an unused light stand, adjust the height to my eye level of where my final pose will be and put the head in position. This lets me adjust my lighting, focus and exposure all on a stand in before I'm ready for me to take the stage. When you are ready to hop into the scene, be sure to mark the floor position if you are going to be standing for the photo.
Triggering the shutter can be the fun part. If your camera is supplied with a handheld remote, certainly use it. Be sure to remember to set the camera into self-timer mode so you have time to remove the remote from the shot. I've caught a number of images where the subject has tried to creatively conceal the remote when they could have just set the self time and take the 9 seconds to get ready for the release.
Canon Timer Remote
I've had this little gadget for a bunch of years now and love it. For a while, it was a pretty unique device. It allowed me to setup a custom self timer mode from a handheld wired remote. This device allows you to set a "time delay till shutter release", "time delay between frames", and a "total number of frames" (and for those BULB mode users a shutter duration timer). I usually set mine up to give me a 15 second delay, and then a photo ever 3 seconds for about a dozen photos. This lets me get into position, have a few seconds to make adjustments between shots as I would if I were shooting a model series and enough photos to hopefully "get it right". I limit it to a dozen so I have time to review and check my work so I don't end up with 30 or more frames that are completely unusable.
So, take all these tips and play around and practice with some self-portraits. It will at least give you more practice shooting. It will help you understand how your model feels sitting in front of the camera (yes, it can be intimidating.) And if you don't something scheduled to shoot, it's better than wasting that time on the internet reading blogs. So, go shoot yourself and post your results online and give us a link back and let us know how you did.