Seven Steps To A Powerful Self Portrait & A Confidence Boost

People Photography, Photography Inspiration, Photography Tutorial

Written by Karin van Mierlo
Karin is a pro photographer with a bachelor's degree in photography bringing 25+ years of experience to your table. She is the driving force behind Photography Playground and loves to write and teach about all things photography related. She is the developer of the Fearless FrameWork, a holistic method of learning photography.

Self Portrait Photography:

The Story Behind My Power Shoot

 

At the tail-end of 2019, some seemingly random events came together for me resulting in self portrait photography and a breakthrough moment. 

The Number One Mistake

It all started with an email I received a few months ago. I’m subscribed to a lot of newsletters about photography to keep myself informed about what’s going on around me. 

So, this particular newsletter was from an online photography school that teaches parents how to photograph their kids. The topic was the number one ‘posing for females’ mistake beginning photographers make. My curiosity was tickled. Are you ready? 

Apparently, the number one mistake is ‘squared-to-camera shoulders’.

Turning the shoulders away from the camera while having the face turned towards the camera flatters the subject because it slims and softens. This only applies to girls and women mind you. The email made me angry. Why do we need to make our daughters smaller? Because that’s what actually happens. A small thing maybe but it somehow stuck with me.

To be clear, I do see the value of posing with the shoulders turned away from the camera. There are for sure situations when it’s a valid approach, for instance for more formal portraits. 

What bugged me was that this is a tip given to parents of young girls. And even though it might appear to be a small thing it could send a message I never wanted to send to my daughter.

So, next time you’re shooting a portrait of your daughter, please, make the ‘squared-to-camera shoulders’ mistake!

self portrait photography, how to take a self portrait, self portrait photography tips | Photo: Black & White Portrait Zoey van Mierlo | Copyright Karin van Mierlo, 1999 | Photography Playground

A studio portrait of my 8-year old daughter Zoey | 1999 | Analog Black & White Photography.

Powerful, Wild & Free

The other event was a documentary I recently saw on Netflix called ‘Feminists: What Were They Thinking’. Cornerstone of the documentary is the book Emergence, a series of portraits of women made by Cynthia MacAdams in the seventies.

I was a teenager in the seventies and I was in awe of these women just 1 or 2 decades older than I was at the time. They looked into the camera with such power, freedom, wildness, purity, and realness it left me shook up.

And no … their shoulders were not turned away from the camera. 

Feeling Big

After watching this documentary something shifted inside me. It made me decide to photograph myself as a fearless, powerful, and yes female photographer. So that’s what I did.

Somehow the decision alone to photograph myself in an empowering pose made me feel big. Afterward looking at the photos and choosing the one that made me feel even bigger felt really good.

I’m sure I grew at least an inch that day.

And then it started to come together. The ‘squared-to-camera shoulders’ mistake to avoid, the portraits in the documentary and my own power photo shoot. 

The way we photograph ourselves, our daughters and our sisters matters. 

So I dare you ….. spend an afternoon making a power portrait of yourself and envision yourself as the fearless human you are!

self portrait photography, how to take a self portrait, self portrait photography tips | Photo: Self Portrait Karin van Mierlo | Copyright Karin van Mierlo | Photography Playground

How To Do Self Portrait Photography.

 

Step 1: Give Yourself Time.

Carve out a few undisturbed hours for yourself. It’s important to be able to just let go uninterrupted by roomies or family members.

This is about you.

You’ll need some time to ease in the process and become comfortable in front of the camera. 

Step 2: What Do You Want To Express?

Think about the clothes you want to wear. And pick an outfit that says something about you. Being comfortable in the clothes you wear is for obvious reasons very important. 

So for me, from the moment I started to envision my power shoot, this was what I saw myself wearing (or not wearing in the case of my bare feet). These are my favorite pair of jeans and I wear them often. And ever since I can remember I love to wear a leather jacket. Of course, my camera had to be with me. 

Step 3: Find The Light.

Find a place in the house with enough natural light. I decided to go for soft window light in front of me. It evenly illuminates my face and body.

Being a nomad and all I don’t have a studio lighting set anymore but I do have a small ring light that is very useful to add some extra light. The light coming from the window was not enough so I placed my ring light at the same distance and angle as my camera was positioned.

But you can also go for light that comes from the side and create some shadows. It depends on what you want to express. 

For me, the even frontal light was important because I wanted to show my full self not hiding anything in the shadows. 

Give this some thought and if you’re not sure experiment with it. 

Step 4: Set Up Your Camera.

It’s not impossible to do this without a tripod but having a tripod enlarges your freedom in angles enormously. The process becomes a lot more enjoyable. If you don’t have a tripod see if you can borrow one from a friend. 

For my power shoot, I decided to go with a 50mm full-frame and a point of view that was slightly below eye level. More like chest level and tilted downward just a little bit to get the floor and the feet in the frame.

I also choose to shoot in a vertical orientation. That’s not something I do very often but because I wanted a full body shot and exclude any distracting elements vertical was the way to go. 

There’s some going back and forth involved in getting the frame right. This is the moment you want to set your camera’s drive mode to self-timer by the way so you can start to take some test shots. Play with distance to camera and different angles.

Take as many test shots as you need to get it right. Don’t be satisfied with the first set up, try to make it better and better. You deserve the perfect frame!

self portrait photography, how to take a self portrait, self portrait photography tips | Photo: How to set up your camera and light for a self portrait | Copyright Karin van Mierlo | Photography Playground

Camera and light set up.

self portrait photography, how to take a self portrait, self portrait photography tips | Photo: How to focus for a self portrait | Copyright Karin van Mierlo | Photography Playground

A broom works well to set your focus.

Step 5: Select The Optimal Camera Settings.

Of course, this again depends on what you want to express. But if this is your first self-portrait I advise you to select a small aperture and a fast shutter speed. What does that mean? Let’s get you into manual mode and I’ll explain. Even if you have never shot in manual mode before you can do this! 

Start by selecting Manual Mode and select a Shutter Speed between 1/100 sec and 1/250.

The second step is to select an Aperture of around f7. This will give you some leeway in getting the focus right. It results in a large depth of field meaning everything will be in focus.

The final step is to select an ISO to match your shutter speed and aperture setting depending on the amount of light.

What will definetely help you is to shoot in RAW because this will give you a little more room for adjusting your files in Lightroom.

My camera settings were a shutter speed of 1/100, an aperture of f7,1 and an ISO of 4000.

Once you have this figured out there’s no need to adjust it as long as the situation remains the same.  

Step 6: Get In Focus.

This is undoubtedly the most challenging aspect of self portrait photography.

There are several ways to go about this. The easiest way is to use a remote trigger. But I don’t have a remote trigger so I had to rely on a simple trial and error method.

What I did was place a broom on the spot where I was gonna stand in front of the camera and focus on that.

I use back-button focus and that allowed me to set the focus knowing it would stay like that when I activated the self-timer by pressing the shutter.

If you don’t know how to use back-button focus or your camera simply doesn’t have that option select manual focus. Then put something in front of the camera to replace you and focus on that. Make some test shots with yourself and check if you’re in focus by enlarging your preview. Adjust if necessary. 

Step 7: Be Bold & Have Fun.

Now everything is set up to start photographing yourself. All you need to do now is press the shutter, go to your designated spot (where you’re in focus) and be boldly you. Don’t hold back! 

To get into it more keep shooting for a while before you check the images. It’s already an interrupted shoot because you need to go back and forth to press the shutter and activate the self timer every time.

If you feel awkward or self-conscious doing self portrait photography tell yourself it is for your eyes only if that’s what you want. It’ll be like writing in your diary. You don’t have to share it with anyone.

Have Fun! Let me know in the comments if you’re gonna do this!

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4 Comments

  1. Huss

    Love your confident pose. I will be giving it a go as I am terribly shy in front of the camera. I think, if I get it right it will do wonders to my self esteem.

    Nice article, Thanks for sharing

    Reply
    • Karin van Mierlo

      You’re welcome 🙂
      And yes I’m sure it will be good for your self-esteem, it was for mine for sure. Even if you don’t get it right the first time you can try again until you’re happy with the photos. Just go for it!

      Reply
  2. Lina

    I always like to read your photography tips. Just recently i have started to use my back button for my macro and general focusing. Thanks for sharing x

    Reply
    • Karin van Mierlo

      Thank you 🙂

      Reply

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