Why all photographers should take self-portraits
Self-portraits tend to get a bit of a bad rap, partly because of the selfie craze. But self-portraits can be an incredibly useful process for photographers that can lead to great growth and skill development.
During my studies, I completed an independent course of study with one of my favorite photography professors. He passed on some of the advice he received during his studies, and it stayed with me entirely. He told me that every photographer should take self-portraits. For context, this was a professor in a program that focuses on conceptual artistic photography rather than commercial photography. However, his background was in commercial work prior to graduate school and I think this advice applies to almost all photographers, even well beyond the art world.
The rationale for this advice is pretty straightforward; Taking self-portraits can make you a better photographer. The main reason I was given the advice above was simply to make myself a more experienced and versatile photographer. Self-portraits, especially when done all by yourself, have some unique challenges that will more or less force you to improve. Depending on the type of self-portrait, they can expand and strengthen your creativity skills, your production process, your technical skills, and also prepare you to better understand how to work with models (professional or otherwise). As an added bonus, self-portraits can be great therapy!
In terms of subjects
The very first reason my professor gave me the importance of self-portraits is to just know what it feels like to be in front of the camera. Whether you are photographing fashion and working with professional models or documenting moments in life as a family photographer, a relationship with the people in front of the lens is enormously helpful. In fact, it is even more useful when you work with those who are not professional models and who express an aversion to photography. I’m sure anyone who’s taken portraits has heard the all-too-frequent âI hate being in front of the cameraâ or âI’m not photogenic at allâ! When I started taking self-portraits, I was actually one of those people. If you can explain that you know how it is and have tools from personal experience to make the process more enjoyable, you are sure to calm them down and help make the shoot more relaxed and enjoyable.
Standing in front of the camera will also help you understand better how you move and pose in front of the camera. Self-portraits can help you figure out which poses and positions work and which don’t, without wasting valuable time on a subject. In line with what was mentioned above, it will likely also improve your communication skills to achieve successful poses in a more natural and seamless way.
Of course, self-portraits can be incredibly simple and straightforward. At this point, however, I would like to concentrate on at least somewhat more elaborate, more elaborate self-portraits. As with any art form, if you take the time to think about new ideas and then implement them, you’ll work on your creative skills. Forcing yourself to think outside the box and come up with self-portrait ideas that go beyond a simple portrait can penetrate other areas of your photography and give you the opportunity to think more creatively in general. The reason why I think self-portraits in particular are so valuable for creativity is that you have more flexibility when you are the only creator and not dependent on the time or resources of others. You can take the time you need, try things out that you might not do if models or other team members were involved, and generally be willing to take more risks.
I’ve also found that I take significantly more risks when editing self-portraits than with any other type of photography. I allow myself to play around in Photoshop and manipulate images in much more meaningful and drastic ways. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but these self-portraits made me much better at Photoshop and also found new, more creative ways to express myself.
One of the other reasons I preach the importance of elaborate self-portraits is to get a taste of the production process without completely rushing to it yourself and others. While I occasionally had help with my shoots, I did the set creation (if applicable), hair and make-up, lighting and then of course all the posing and camera work completely by myself. I’m by no means a professional at any of these things other than being the actual photographer, but understanding what goes into a more elaborate shoot is extremely useful. Even if you are currently working with entire teams, in my opinion it is only beneficial to gain some of this experience on your own.
The process of planning a shoot is also an important part of why self-portraits can make you a better photographer. For a lot of my self-portraits, I actually sketched out pretty detailed plans of how I imagined the shoot. I planned things down to the color of my clothes, when makeup was needed, what I thought my hair should be like, what kind of setting I needed, and so on. This would allow the actual shoot to go a lot smoother, which is great when you are shooting on your own, but incredibly useful when you have a team of people who depend on you. First experiences with the creation of plans and their subsequent execution are reason enough to create self-portraits.
One of the more challenging, or at least time-consuming, aspects of self-portraits is working with the camera and standing in front of it at the same time. Whether you’re using a shutter-release remote or a timer, there’s always a lot of back and forth from behind the camera to the front as you lock up the settings and verify that the picture looks the way you want it. As a result, taking self-portraits will help you change settings and fully understand your camera’s focus system. If you can focus yourself without being able to look at the back of the camera and adjust, you will likely find it a lot easier to find focus when working with subjects other than you!
The final reason I cite when suggesting others take self-portraits is the therapeutic potential. Of course, this won’t be the case for all people, but for me self-portraits were an absolutely indispensable tool. As someone notoriously bad at talking about my feelings, self-portraits have enabled me to visually express what I am doing now. I could pour anything into this picture and don’t have to pronounce it or share things more explicitly. I was free to design and not explain more than the picture itself showed. They helped me to process big changes, to cope with difficult times and simply served me as a creative outlet when I simply felt the need to create something. Although I have become less dependent on them as I got older, they have been crucial to me for many years.
Have you made elaborate self-portraits? Share your reasons and the pictures yourself below!