How Self-Portraiture Can Make You a Better Photographer (Guest Post)

Self Portrait of Liz Badley

I take my picture every day as part of my style blog, Reston Style. In addition to seeing that my sense of style was evolving, as I learned to remix my clothes in different ways, I noticed that I became more and more interested in the evolution of my photography. In the beginning I was using photos as a tool to document my outfits. I have to admit, even though I was using a DSLR in manual, they were snap shots. Then one day I started to think about how I could make my blog look better, and I realized that better photos were the answer. But where to start?Well, some common advice is to look at pictures you like, figure out why you like them, then try to recreate it. So I started there. I realized that there were two things in common with all the photos that I liked, a shallow depth of field and a slightly overexposed back ground. But to recreate those effects I needed to learn a little more.

Self Portrait of Liz Badley

Shallow depth of field – well, in my novice mind I thought about one thing and one thing only – aperture. I really wrote this one off thinking that I couldn’t recreate the look I wanted with self portraits because the only high aperture lens that I have (50mm, 1.8 nikon lens from the early 80’s) won’t auto focus with my camera. I really thought for a long time that I would just have to wait to achieve this effect until I could buy an AF-S 35mm 1.8 lens. Then one day I was looking at my photography portfolio from high school and noticed that I had some great portraits of neighborhood kids with the EXACT blurred background that I wanted and I knew I had forgotten that aperture isn’t the only thing that affects the depth of field! I was able to achieve those shots with my Nikon F series camera, some 400 speed film and none other than my Nikon E series 75-150mm 3.5 lens (also from the early 80s)! Focal length was the answer! It was then that I swapped the 18-55mm lens that came with my D5000 and put on the 55-200mm lens, and since then, the starter lens that came with my camera has been “collecting dust” (ie – carefully stored in my camera bag).

Self Portrait of Liz Badley

The slightly overexposed background – why did I like this? Well for starters, it makes the subject more of the, well, subject! Secondly, to achieve the effect, you have the sun slightly to the rear of you, so you don’t have to squint into the sun (a mistake that I sometimes still make when thinking about and setting up a shot). Model comfort is paramount (it’s a huge theme in post 101 ways to improve your portrait photography). And lastly, it works really well with the blurred background that I get with the shallow depth of field. However, achieving this effect while setting up the camera on a tripod and then stepping in front of it with a remote is a lot easier said than done. Which leads me to the whole point of this post – how taking self portraits can make you a better photographer.

In order to achieve the photos I wanted to, I had become a little more intimate with my camera.  I had to start working with all the settings, not just the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. I realized that one of the things I was always adjusting after the fact was the white balance. I played around with the on camera white balance settings and decided that the cloudy setting gave me the best effect for what I wanted and required me to do less adjusting in post. I also finally figured out how to get the underexposed look I wanted by playing with the exposure compensation.

In addition to getting to know my camera a little better, taking self portraits has made me slow down and think a little more about my shots. I come from a film background (one year of high school photography with a fully manual Nikon F series – and that’s probably why I exclusively shoot in manual) so I used to think and plan my shots, but since finally getting a digital point and shoot in 2005 (yes, I was late to the game) and a DSLR in 2009, I was starting to adopt the “shoot now, think, sort, and edit later” philosophy. It’s a common trap to fall into when you don’t have to pay to process images! Planning is paramount in photography, as long as you don’t over think!

Self Portrait by Liz Badley

The best thing about self portraits is that all you need is you (well, and your camera, a tripod, and a remote)! I can read about a new technique and immediately try it out, without having to find a model (or convincing a friend to let me take their picture). Now, I take my pictures every day for my blog, but recently I have also been setting aside some time to take self portraits other than just my outfit shots. Another great thing is that you don’t need to block off a huge amount of time, just whenever it fits in with your schedule.

Now, I still want a fast aperture lens (I have my heart set on both an 85mm f/1.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8) to get even more of that background blur, and I think a hand held light meter would cut down on some of my trial and error time when it comes to exposure, but all in all, I’m pretty happy with my ability to make due with the equipment I have available. And that’s another great lesson, work with what you have and make what you have work for you.

So that’s why taking your own picture can make you a better photographer! Hopefully you have gained something from the experiences I have shared and you will take on the challenge of being your own photographer! Check out Liz's portfolio here, and check out her style blog if that's your thing (All I wear is sweatpants in order to reinforce stereotypes about bloggers, so I'm not interested).

13 thoughts on “How Self-Portraiture Can Make You a Better Photographer (Guest Post)”

  1. great idea. thanks. I didn’t catch what body you are using, but I understand your lens desire. I too felt that way. then I learned another little known secret about converting lenses. with the 1.6 crop factor cameras, like mine, my 50mm prime 1.8 becomes almost the same as the 85. Further, with a little adaptor available on ebay, I have found scores of wonderful glass from years ago for a song- its all over, you just have to look. Its all manual, which most people just dont want to learn. this opened up my photography. I use old m42 mounts. I almost use them so exclusively that I sold all of my canon lens except my primes and a super wide. I got a 50 mm 1.4 for 40$ wich is like 75mm equivalent. I use some vivatar primes, 200mm 2.8 (which is like 300) some beautiful 105mm mamiya, 28mm takumars, some great russian lenses ( ! my fave ) and more more more. now I have nikon f, pentax, yashica and more in my camera bag. I am dedicating my site to artistic photography and am building it up, but I just shot an entire wedding with all manual glass.

    I found your post to be interesting, so thanks for the insight. if you want to know more about the nerdy details of conversions, send me a note, I dont have the info built up into my site yet, as its really new.good luck to you! 😀

  2. This is great, thanks for sharing this post! My boyfriend and I are planning a self-portrait project quite soon (our holiday shoot, as an excuse to actually start). We’ll definitely appreciate all these tips. 🙂

  3. Thanks for all the info! I think I might need a photography class to brush up on my skills…haven’t had one since h.s. and the 10 yr reunion is fast approaching.

    btw…your pics look amazing!

  4. I think Casey’s comment was rude. I LOVE this idea and can’t believe it’s such a simple thing I haven’t thought of! I’m always thinking how I would love to go do a shoot today but have nobody to take shots of… DUH – I can set up my tripod and put myself in front of the camera! Thanks for the common sense smack in the head!!!

    It’s a great way to learn your camera, settings and try new things without wasting someone else’s time.

  5. A great article Liz, though I am not a professional but 55-300 mm lens work for portraits as well. try aperture @4-5 and focal length of 150-200mm. I get excellent close ups and great bokeh.

  6. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  7. I definitely agree with you. Mindset is also incredibly crucial for your individual good results, I value your content material and look forward to hearing from you once again, all the ideal for now!

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