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

In Portrait by Jim Harmer

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).

About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on