A few years ago, I decided to start a self portrait project after hearing how it greatly benefitted a close friend of mine. Now that I’ve completed it, I’m quite surprised to hear that there is such a negative connotation towards self portraits. Today, I’d like to share with you my experiences and show you the many ways that it can help speed up your learning process.
Table of Contents
1. You Learn How to Pose Your Subjects
Unless you have experience in modeling, coming up with poses may not be something you’re naturally good at. When working with non-model subjects, it is very likely that they will be looking to you for guidance on looking their best. The question is, if you don’t have access to professional models who can teach you, how can you learn the art of posing?
In my case, a self portrait project allowed me to practice each and every day without pressure from clients. I didn’t have to worry about getting the right shots or making sure that things don’t go wrong while experimenting.
By putting yourself in your subjects’ shoes, you gain a much better understanding of what works and what doesn’t with each background and lighting scenario. You also learn tons of creative ways to use props throughout the process.
On a real shoot, clients have a much easier time mirroring your poses rather than taking verbal instructions. Since many of them have never done a photoshoot before, it is imperative that you help raise their confidence levels. One way to do that is to get good shots quickly without fumbling around too much.
Bonus: Now when your friends pull out a camera for a group shot, you’ll know exactly how to look good so you don’t have to have to untag yourself on Facebook later.
2. You Learn New Lighting Techniques
Most photographers will agree that lighting is one of those things that make or break a photo. And it’s true; I’ve done shoots with my iPhone where most non-pros would not know, since all the photos were well lit (and well composed). I’ve also noticed that lighting is the one area that many new photographers struggle with.
When I was new to photography, I was a master of a popular technique called “fake it till you make it.” I had a decent portfolio just from doing a large number of free shoots, even though each one netted me no more than one or two keepers. The point is that my clients expected me to have a solid understanding of the thing they’re hiring me to do, so I had to act confident.
Yeah, I read a few guides online but had no idea how to implement the concepts in real life. I would place my subjects in random spots, take a ton of photos from different angles, then hope for the best. In between shots, I’d let them know how good their photos are coming out (even though I knew that wasn’t true). That was very stressful.
During my self portrait project, I bought a few flashes and remote triggers to experiment with lighting setups I found on Strobist. I then learned how to use a light meter to apply different lighting ratios for cool effects. After watching a few YouTube tutorials, I went outside and learned how to consistently find soft light. I practiced over and over until I didn’t have to guess anymore.
These days, I instinctively know where to place my subjects on a shoot. Not only that, I learned how to combine multiple strobes with natural light. In between outfit changes, I’m proud to show clients pictures on the display because they all look good. When they see great photos in real-time, they can’t help but feel more confident and excited for the remainder of the shoot.
3. You Learn Creative Ways to Compose Your Shots
I bet you saw this one coming. To not rehash the same points from the previous sections, I’ll instead talk about creativity. In all art forms, creativity is like a fresh breath of air. It is something highly welcomed in photography. Without it, your pictures will look the same as everybody else’s.
So, what makes a photo unique? The answer is, “many things,” but you already knew that. But when you look at a new picture, the first thing you notice is probably the way it was composed.
Now, I’m not saying that you should use some crazy wacko composition that only looks good to you. After all, if someone is paying you, they probably don’t want you to deviate too far from the ideas in their head. However, it’s the little on-the-spot adjustments that set your photos apart from your neighbor’s.
As you know, these intuitions don’t come from nowhere. It is built through years of experience in thinking outside the box. Between all the weird compositions that don’t work, you’ll find a few that make you go “wow!” The problem is that a paid shoot is not where you want to be practicing these shots. You’re hired to produce, and the best way to do so is to rely on shots that you already know would work well.
This is where our fun project comes in. With a tripod and cheap remote, you can go through all the different ideas that you have without worrying about botching a shoot. Even though you can (and should) find a few friends to practice on, you don’t want to be limited by their availabilities. The more you shoot, the faster you learn. And with yourself as the model, you’re always down for a shoot.
After completing this project, I gained a neat bag of composition tricks to use on each shoot. These days, I know when to stick to the basics and when to break the rules. I have a few key shots that I make sure to get — but because I do them quickly — I have the rest of the shoot to experiment and come up with cool photos that really stand out.
4. You Learn How to Commit to a Project
I’m leaving the most important point for the very end — learning how to finish what you started. In my experience, business and creative people can sometimes differ in the way they work on things.
I’m not saying that photographers are lazy in any way, but that as artists, we’re always be coming up with new ideas. We get so consumed with them, but when another cool and exciting one comes along, we switch gears. While business oriented people also have new ideas, they structure plans and schedules to ensure their work’s completion.
The self portrait project can help better your commitment skills. I’ve found that it takes 30 days or so of repetition to create a new habit. By setting aside time each day (or each week) to snap a new portrait, it will eventually become a part of your routine — just like work or exercise.
If you stick with this project to the very end, you will gain many skills in the process. Oh yeah, make sure to also create an online folder or public page just for this. You’ll have a much harder time quitting randomly if you think people would notice.
Self Portrait Project Essentials
- Camera: If you’re looking for a good camera that will last you a long time, I recommend the Canon 70D or the Nikon D7100.
- Lens: If you have the Canon 70D (or any other APS-C camera), check out our detailed roundup of the best budget-friendly lenses. For Nikon D7100 (or other DX) shooters, this lens shootout was created just for you.
- Tripod: To protect your camera from unexpected damages, you want the most sturdy tripod available. The one I use is the Manfrotto MT055XPRO3. Since I require smooth panning and tilting for video, I decided to go for the Manfrotto 502 Video Head.
- Wireless Remote Control: Unless you want to rely on the 10-second timer, you need one of these. I like the AmazonBasics Wireless Remote Control (Canon version/Nikon version).
- Flash: A very popular and budget-friendly flash is the Yongnuo YN560 IV. You can get four of them and they will still cost less than one ETTL-capable flash.
- Wireless Transmitter/Receiver: If you chose the flash I recommended above, also pick up the Yongnuo 560-TX (Canon version/Nikon version) for wireless triggering.
I hope that this article has convinced you to start your own self portrait project. With this many benefits, perhaps one day it will become something taught by all photography schools.
Just to recap, by embarking on this journey, you will gain valuable skills in posing, lighting, and composing. Not only that, you will also learn how to efficiently take a project from start to finish. Sounds like a good deal to me!
Any thoughts or questions? Connect with us. If you have experience in self portraits, definitely share with us in the comment section below.
P.S. If you shoot Canon and are ready to invest in equipment that will take your photos to the next level, check out our extensive and juicy review of the best Canon lenses for portraits (Stay tuned for the Nikon version).