For photographers who have been bitten by the cosplay bug, or for cosplayers discovering the joy of photography, self-portraits are a challenging but rewarding way to showcase both of your passions in one. Before tackling a self-portrait session, it’s best to have some previous shoot experience behind the camera. But if you’re a photographer who’s already comfortable with posing and positioning others, self-portrait shoots can be great learning tools to push your creativity and explore a seldom-seen photography technique.
This self-portrait shoot was born because I needed photos of my Black Widow costume and had no one to take them for me. The costume was put together in under a week, not meant for a convention and other than a quick snapshot on my iPhone, there was really no evidence I’d worn this costume at all. I had done self-portraits in the past, but each time, they’d been clumsy efforts hampered by the fact that I was doing them in my backyard and had to rush so that neighbors wouldn’t wonder what I was up to. This shoot was the first time I felt confident enough to do a full session, taking everything I’d learned, putting it to use both as model and behind the camera. If you’re looking to do a self-portrait of yourself, either in costume or even just casual headshots, read on to find out some tips on making the most of a self-portrait session.
Location is one of the hardest variables to nail down for a self-portrait. The last thing you want is for the photos to scream: “Hey! I totally did this in my living room/garage/backyard because I didn’t want to scout for a better spot!” Most of us will go to extra lengths to scout out the perfect location for other cosplayers; we should at least offer the same courtesy to ourselves. Unless your shoot is portraying a character who hunches down in front of the television or computer all day (so unless you’re cosplaying L from Death Note), leave your house, or at least your living room. Besides the clutter of furniture, piles of old magazines and game consoles scattered all over the place, living rooms are usually cramped spaces that won’t give you the freedom to shoot with anything more than a less-than-flattering super wide-angle.
Here are some better places to shoot:
- an unfinished basement (without tons of stuff stored in it)
- local parks early in the morning (less traffic and people staring)
- back alleys or parking lots of neighboring businesses in the evening after work hours
- high school grounds on the weekends
- public libraries or public city buildings with interesting interior architecture. Keep in mind some of these buildings bar the use of flash equipment but are usually amenable to photographers (as long as they’re not disruptive).
A huge hurdle of location is also mental. Unless you’re doing photos in your house, there will inevitably be people walking by and wondering what you’re up to. During a multiple-person shoot, you have strength in numbers, but when it’s just you, you may feel embarrassed or shy. The suggestions above for public spaces are all for off-hours, so the staring should be minimized – but if you really want to do self-portraits, then you’ll have to realize that a certain number of weird looks is inevitable and take it in stride. I took the Black Widow photos in my basement, which is unfinished and suitably creepy and was roomy enough for me to move around.
To do self-portraits, you must own a good tripod. Without a tripod, you won’t be able to position the camera at the correct angle, and risk the camera falling off any surface you’ve propped it on. A good tripod will have some heft to it; you’re not going to be there steadying the camera and you don’t want a stray gust of wind knocking it over. Self-portrait photography also involves running back and forth making minute adjustments, so invest in a sturdy tripod that’s easy to adjust.
Although I’ve done self-portraits with prime lenses before, I find that zooms are easier to manage. Because you’re both the model and the photographer, the shoot is going to be time-consuming enough; you don’t want to spend time changing lenses. A good range for self-portraits is around 28-70mm. Any wider than that will cause unflattering distortion, and any longer than that will cause you to have a hard time posing yourself to get your whole body in the frame, especially if you’re shooting in a cramped space like a basement.
You could use the 2 or 10 second self-timer, but the most difficult thing in the world is to focus the camera on the space where you think you’ll be, set the timer, sprint to your destination, strike a pose, and try not to look awkward as the shutter clicks. It’s virtually impossible at 2 seconds, and even at 10 seconds, it’s very hit-or-miss. With a shutter remote, you eliminate the guessing game. Most remotes allow a few seconds delay so you can stuff it in a pocket before the shutter clicks. You’ll also want a decent-sized LCD (around 3 inches, standard on most DSLRs nowadays), so you can scrutinize your pose and expression. My main camera, a Canon 1D Mark II, is an older camera that has a tiny LCD, so for this shoot I used my newer Rebel T2i instead.
Everything else is optional. Additional lighting equipment, softboxes, umbrellas, etc. are great if you have had practice using them. If you don’t normally use external lighting, don’t be tempted to make your first experience a self-portrait shoot. Self-portraits are difficult enough already. For this shoot, I used a Canon 430EXII external flash modified with a 24″x24″ softbox.
I find self-portrait sessions extremely useful to teach how minute adjustments of body, head, or limbs can completely change a photo. Not only is this great information that I can pass on to future clients, but I can experiment with different poses at leisure to see what does or doesn’t work and not have to worry about wasting a client’s time. Allow 5-10 minutes per pose idea. I find that the first few shots for a pose are either out of focus or my head is cut off. As I refine my concept toward the middle, that’s when I get the best photos. Toward the end of the 10 minutes is when I start to add in some wild ideas that (once or twice) have yielded some cool results, but most of the time end up those end up crashing and burning because I’ve exhausted my creative thinking on that pose. That’s when you know it’s time to move on.
Most shutter remotes act similarly to the shutter button on-camera in that pressing it down halfway will allow focus lock. Since you can’t use the viewfinder with self-portraits, this feature will become your best friend. Don’t be discouraged if you have no idea how far to stand away from the camera or what focal length to use. Take a few photos, review the LCD, and move back, forward, left, or right as it indicates. Manual focus is possible with self-portrait photography, but requires a lot more trial and error and trips to the LCD. Because focus is so tricky, I usually don’t go wider than f/4.
I’ve experimented with a few motion shots during self-portraits. Jumping or spinning shots are extremely awesome when you manage to nail them, but they’re also some of the most difficult photos I’ve taken because of the challenge of both the moving pose and pressing the remote while anticipating the shutter click. The spinning photo above was composed of two different shots. I pressed the shutter button on the remote and hid it in my boot as I started to turn. Then I anticipated when the shutter would click, and tried to judge the correct moment to look directly into the lens as I turned my head to create the hair whipping effect. It took 15 minutes to get two usable photos.
After The Shoot
I usually wind up with around 6-7 publishable photos after a 2-3 hour self-portrait session. If you get more, congratulations! If you wind up with only 1 or 2, that’s good too. Everyone takes to self-portraiture differently, and the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be. I’ve known some photographers to come away from an hour-long session with only a single photo that they think is acceptable.
While editing, I try to let my ego take a backseat to my critical eye. Most of us don’t particularly like how we look in photos, and I’ve had plenty of other photographers send me photos that they think are awesome while I nitpick the way my eye looks. Try to look at the photos as you’d look at photos of a friend or a stranger rather than wondering if this costume really makes you look fat.
Even if I don’t end up with many good photos, I find that the best part of self-portraiture is how much I learn from simple trial and error. Think of it as a 3 hour masterclass with your camera as the teacher and you as the bumbling student. Hopefully after those 3 hours you’ve learned some new things about your camera, some new things about yourself, and some new things about photography.
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