Are you looking for self-portrait ideas so you can create powerful, eye-catching results? If you’re a frequent self-portrait photographer, you’re bound to struggle with inspiration now and then, so this article will be a big help. And if you’re a first-time self-portrait photographer, then you’re certainly on the right track; the ideas I share below will get you started taking gorgeous self portraits!
Now, if you are a beginner, you might be wondering: What’s the difference between a selfie and a self portrait? It gets a bit complicated, but selfies are usually taken spontaneously with a phone camera (often with the intent of uploading the images to social media). Self portraits, on the other hand, are more thoughtfully composed, and aim to explore deep themes such as identity.
In this article, we’ll look at 22 ideas for engaging self portraiture, perfect for photographers of every skill level.
A brief history of photographic self portraiture
The first surviving photographic self portrait is a daguerreotype by American Robert Cornelius taken in 1839, just 12 years after the oldest surviving photograph was made.
Today, self portraiture is a way for photographers to express either themselves or an idea on the opposite side of the camera. However, the exact purpose of a self portrait depends largely on the photographer.
While some photographers create self portraits out of convenience, others seek catharsis. Some photographers use self portraiture as a means of documentation, while others appreciate the creative control and transformative process a self-portrait shoot can entail. Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and Vivian Maier are all well-known self-portrait photographers.
Equipment for self portrait photography
Self portraiture can be a tricky form of photography, as you must act as both the photographer and the subject.
Therefore, a few basic pieces of equipment can aid the creative process. You’ll want a decent camera setup, and a tripod can help hold the camera in position for a shot. In addition, while the self-timer function on many cameras will give you time to get in front of the camera, a remote is much more convenient, and will let you trigger the shutter without having to run back and forward to the camera before each shot.
Now, without further ado, let’s take a look at 22 ideas for beautiful self portraits!
1. Try a change in perspective
First on our list of self portrait ideas is perspective. Many self portraits are made with a traditional straight-on perspective, but others are made from a low or high perspective, which adds a sense of scale and dynamism to a shot.
Both approaches have benefits: traditional straight-on portrait perspectives make for intimate photos, whereas perspectives that convey a unique point of view give a viewer a sense of movement or activity.
So if you normally use a traditional perspective, why not try getting high or low? And if you’re more of a dynamic, angled self-portrait photographer, calm things down to create a standard, intimate portrait.
2. Include motion blur
While many self portrait photographs are pin sharp, a long exposure can create fascinating visual effects. By setting the camera to a slower shutter speed and introducing movement during the exposure, you can create unique, even surreal, results.
3. Make use of shadows
By thoughtfully applying shadows, you can create dramatic effects; for instance, you can obscure areas of the face, body, and the surrounding environment. Harsh light can be used to apply impactful or even mysterious patterns to a self portrait, while shadows with a softer gradient can convey a more subdued atmosphere.
4. Experiment with minimalism
Minimalism is a form of abstract art developed in America in the 1960s, typified by artworks comprised of simple geometric shapes. Reveling in the beauty of simplicity, minimalist self portraits emphasize the central figure by cutting down on superfluous detail. Some minimalist self-portrait techniques use plain or simple backgrounds, a shallow depth of field, and/or shadows or highlights to direct attention to the subject.
5. Emphasize color
Color in self-portrait photography can convey emotions and ideas, and it can also direct attention. Using color as a tool to express the self is a simple and effective way to create engaging self portraits. While reds can create an eye-catching shot, blue is more calming and reflective.
Color can indicate location or time of day, the emotion of the sitter, and the atmospheric tone of the image. Mindfully incorporating colors into a self portrait is a way to attract attention, set a scene, and reinforce the actions of the subject.
6. Go abstract
Abstract photographers aim to create visually appealing images without relying on conventional self-portrait approaches. A few examples of abstracted self portraiture include the use of intentional camera movement (ICM), subject movement during a long exposure (discussed above!), and selective lighting. Double exposures can be another way to create abstraction in an image; by combining layers of photographs, you can create a hauntingly evocative result.
7. Make a faceless portrait
A compelling self portraits doesn’t always need the face of the subject. Faceless self portraits draw attention to the form and the context that surrounds the subject – because by excluding the face, a self portrait highlights other elements like line, shadow, color, and light, which can create atmosphere and mood. The use of props or interesting environments can add clues about the personality of the photographer, too.
8. Experiment with depth of field
If you’re just getting started with self portraiture, consider experimenting with different depth of fields. Depth of field dictates the areas within a photo that appear sharp, so by incorporating careful depth of field control, you can combine focused and unfocused regions in an image. Introducing unfocused features into the foreground can add a greater sense of narrative and detail.
9. Make multiple exposures
Sometimes, a single photo won’t cut it. A multiple-exposure technique combines two or more exposures into the one image. In film photography, a film frame is exposed multiple times, whereas in digital photography, many cameras provide a multiple exposure function.
Techniques in the darkroom or in Photoshop can also create multiple exposure effects. But no matter the method, multiple-exposure self-portraits effects condense more information into a single image, allowing you to explore deeper messages and themes.
10. Work in black and white
Number ten in our list of self portrait ideas: black and white photography.
A black and white format can lend a unique, distraction-reducing aesthetic to a self portrait. The absence of color emphasizes contrast, drawing attention to the light-play in a photograph. Photographing a self portrait in black and white can also accentuate a unique atmospheric density, and create a more formal, thoughtful, or documentary format.
11. Experiment with reflections
Making self portraits in reflective surfaces has a few benefits:
The camera can be included in the photograph for added information about the subject.
Shooting a self portrait from behind the camera allows for easier exposure manipulation.
A reflective surface can incorporate the surrounding area, adding interest and context.
12. Venture into the great outdoors
Many self portraits are taken in an indoor studio setting. However, venturing into the great outdoors is a great way to expand the story! Forests, meadows, waterways, or even urban nature are versatile environments that convey context and depth. Nature-based self portraits can also indicate season, time, place, and a connection with the surrounding landscape.
13. Introduce objects
Objects have been used to complement photography since the early days of self portraiture. Many well-known photographic self portraits involve the use of items to help convey a mood or insight, such as Andy Warhol’s Polaroid self portraits of 1979. Of course, all self portraits are as unique as the photographer, but additional items can add to the overall image narrative.
14. Play with light
We’ve already discussed sculpting with light through shadows and color, but there are other ways light can be used to transform a photographic self portrait. Make use of the soft morning light spilling from a window, or experiment with light painting. Harsh light peeking through a curtain can create interesting lighting effects indoors, while natural light outdoors can introduce different temperature effects.
15. Make a photo within a photo
Making a photograph can be broken down into layers; photographing yourself as the self portrait sitter is one layer, while including a photograph inside the photograph is a way to add depth and intrigue to an image. Try incorporating polaroids of yourself, or use photographs of yourself on your phone. This adds an extra level of dimensionality and playfulness to a portrait, inviting a viewer in for closer analysis.
16. Photograph your passion
Self-portrait photography gives you the opportunity share personal perspectives and experiences. In this way, many photographers choose to include additional information about themselves in a self portrait, often in the form of conveying what they love or are passionate about. Plenty of photographers feature a camera in their self portraits, emphasizing their preferred creative methodology. Other options might include making a self portrait in nature, or shooting in an intimate home setting. Choose locations or props that provide the viewer with an insight into you as a person.
17. Experiment with objects in front of the lens
Sometimes, the addition of simple objects or tools can alter the atmosphere of an image. You can use prisms to bend the light before it reaches the camera sensor for beautifully ethereal effects. You can also try attaching stockings to the front of the lens for a dense, atmospheric effect. You might even add glad wrap and Vaseline to the camera lens to create a romantic, unfocused aesthetic.
18. Try frozen motion
We’ve already covered subject motion, but frozen motion in a self portrait can offer a compelling result. Frozen motion photography is made when a fast shutter speed captures motion and translates it into a single physical frame of movement. Action shots in sport of wildlife photography are a common example of frozen motion photography, but the technique can be applied to self portraiture, too. Set a faster shutter speed (starting at 1/250s), and use the camera timer or remote to activate the exposure once you’ve started to move.
19. Shoot a self-portrait in landscape orientation
A landscape image is wider than it is tall, while a portrait image is taller than it is wide. Portrait-orientated images are named so for a reason: they’ve been historically used for portrait photography. But capturing the essence of a person is not reserved to a portrait orientation, and you can experiment with landscape orientations for eye-catching results.
20. Photograph detail
Not all self portraits have to include a whole person, and zooming in for a closer look can reveal a lot of information. Photographing details like hands or eyes can complement full-body portraits or headshots, though they can also stand alone as an intimate portrayal of a subject’s physicality. Scars tell a story, as do wrinkles. Detailed self portraits document the stories revealed by the body over time.
21. Try framing
Framing is a common compositional device in all forms of photography. Doorways and windows are great ways to frame a self portrait, while other objects like plants, holes in objects, shadows, puddles, old keyholes, and mirrors can add depth and impact to a self portrait, too.
22. Reference other creative works
From painters to graphic designers, there are countless artists creating self portraits – and you can always draw on these images for your own photography. Some pre-shot research will undoubtedly open up creative possibilities for self portraiture, plus you can emulate and pay homage to other artist’s self portraits (or portraits) of the past.
22 self-portrait ideas: final words
Self portrait photography can be a lot of fun – so hopefully these ideas get you inspired! From sculpting with light and shadow to paying homage to past artists, self portraiture is a diverse field of photography rich with self expression and creativity.