Self portrait photography techniques and secrets for pro level selfies

Self portrait photography is such a part of modern life that knowledge on how to do self portraits is almost essential. If you have a business, you need an online presence. Or if you’re always the one taking photos, you need to get into photos. As photographers we’re fortunate to have the equipment needed to update our profiles and social media on a regular basis.

No excuse for out of date profiles for photographers!

I don’t mean self portraits with a phone. I think most people have a basic idea of how to do that. I mean how to take self portraits with a DSLR. That’s definitely not so easy – you can’t exactly hold it aloft with one hand and click the button.

So, here’s how I go about taking self portraits with my DSLR.

Self portrait photography pose using a chair

Because my DSLR doesn’t have wifi, or eye autofocus, and I don’t have a remote, this is the most basic self portrait photography set up you can get.

Self portraits with a mirrorless camera are super easy in comparison!

Why are my self portraits blurry?

Three reasons for blurry self portraits are:

  • Missed focus
  • Aperture too wide
  • Slow shutter speed

We’ll cover each of these portrait camera settings and a few others below, but first you need to set the scene.

How do you take self portraits?

Before we get started with how to take self portraits, especially if your gear is as basic as mine in terms of technology, you’re going to need a few things:

Something to put your camera on

A tripod is ideal as you an easily move it around to where you want it and adjust the height. If you don’t have a tripod, don’t worry, you just need to search around for something sturdy and level to put your camera on.

Then make sure it’s at your eye height in the image, whether that’s sitting or standing.

How to focus for self portrait photography using a background stand

The chair is back to camera. I placed my background stand in against the chair where my face would be so that I could focus on the pole and then lock in focus for my self portrait. You can see the shot further down this article.

Something to focus on

I’ve seen other photographer use a large teddy bear, but if you don’t have one of those lying around, don’t worry, you can use anything.

The most important criteria is that the object you select is positioned as close as possible to where your eyes will be in shot.

Next consideration – make sure the object has enough surface for your camera to focus on.

Sounds obvious, but I wasted a load of shots by using my smallest lightstand positioned on the chair I was going to sit on. Turned out the pole was too thin for accurate focus and all the photos were blurry as the camera focused past the lightstand on the wall in the background.

So I had to set it up again with my background stand, which was perfect. A standard sized lightstand would also work

What I like about using background stands and lightstands is that they’re really easy to move around and you can extend the pole quite high. This makes them versatile when setting up for both standing self portraits and sitting self portraits.

Top tip for using a lightstand to set focus for self portraits – put a marker on the ground in the middle of the lightstand beneath the central pole. Then, when you’re posing, make sure that your face is on exactly the same plane as the marker – i.e. directly above it.

If you don’t have a lightstand, the handle of a broom would work really well too. You’d just need to prop it up (straight!) against something. Just remember to position your marker before clearing it away.

A mirror to check out your awesome selfie

It can be really helpful to have a floor standing full length mirror near(ish) the camera so that you can check out your poses ahead of clicking the button. Just don’t become too distracted by your reflection while taking photos.

Speaking of which:

  • Practice your poses before taking the shot so that you know what you’re about to do
  • Shoot in sets of 10 photos (more on this below) so that you don’t have to remember too many poses at once
  • Keep pose adjustments small between shots
  • Be aware of where the light is coming from (suddenly it’s much harder to remember than when you’re on the other side of the camera!)
  • Know when to stop – expressions become stale and forced after a while

Posing for self portraits in the studio

I placed a foot on the lower rung of my Ikea 2-step stool so that I lean on my knee to create a more interesting shape than just standing there.

How to focus for self portrait photography

So, you have something with enough surface area to focus on set up exactly where your face will be. Now let’s get into the details of focus.

You can focus manually, or you can use autofocus. My preference is autofocus., so that’s what I’ve used in the self portrait steps below.

What is the best focus mode for self portraits?

There are two aspects to autofocus:

  • Autofocus area mode – where you’re focusing
  • Autofocus mode – single or continuous focus

Because they sound so similar many photographers get confused.

Further reading: Focusing modes and autofocus area modes – nail autofocus, get the shot

Autofocus area mode for self portrait photography

This varies depending on whether you use mirrorless or DSLR.

  • Mirrorless camera – the best autofocus area mode is eye autofocus
  • DSLR camera – the best autofocus area mode for self portraits is single point autofocus

Autofocus mode for self portrait photography

You can use either:

  • Single autofocus (AF-C for Nikon and One Shot AF for Canon)
  • Continuous autofocus (AF-C for Nikon and AI Servo for Canon)

The trick is that once focused, you lock it in. Here are 2 ways:

Back button focus

If you use back button focus it’s really easy, because the focusing mechanism is separated from the shutter button. Use the back button to focus and then whenever you want to take the shot just depress the shutter button.

Further reading: Back button focus technique – how to use it and why it’s your BFF

Autofocus then switch to manual focus

If you’re not set up for back button focus, simply focus on your stand-in object, then switch your camera’s autofocus to manual focus. This is probably a switch located on your lens.

With either of these self portrait photography focusing options, until the camera moves or you change the point where you want focus to be, you won’t need to refocus.

Self portrait photo sitting on a chair backwards leading on backrest

I removed my background stand, hit the shutter button and sat down ready for my selfie. I made sure that my face was in line with where the background stand was. Really easy when you have the back of a chair as a reference point. Aperture was set to F4 and I used 1 light with a large, diffused umbrella to light me.

Best aperture for self portraits

Because aperture is one of the main factors controlling depth of field, it’s important to take care when setting aperture.

In portrait photography a great way to isolate the subject is with a blurry background. So, if your background is busy, then you’ll need a wide aperture to blur it out.

If your self portrait background is not at all cluttered, like a plain wall, you don’t really need a wide aperture. In this case, I’d advise F4 maximum.

Remember, with a wider aperture, your depth of field will be narrower, and the narrower your depth of field the greater the risk will be of capturing a blurry photo.

Even if you’ve been very careful with focusing on a stand-in object, how sure are you that your face is on EXACTLY the same focal plane as the one you focused on when setting up? Small movements can make a really big difference when shooting wide.

F5.6 or F8 would be even better than F4, but if photographing indoors you’d need to ensure you have enough light first so that your shutter speed isn’t too slow, or your ISO too high.

Depth of field is also affected by focal length. So if you’re using a longer focal length, again you need to take care that you’re in exactly the right position for a sharp self portrait.

Further reading: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition and blur

Shutter speed for self portrait photography

Just because your camera is guaranteed to be steady by being positioned on a tripod or level sturdy surface, doesn’t mean that you’re safe from movement blur.

As with any portrait photography, camera shake is not the only factor that leads to blur. Subject movement also causes blur. I’d recommend a shutter speed of 1/80th and above. In fact, my preference is always to be above 1/100th.

If you use natural light only, when taking self portraits indoors make sure you’re near a window to allow you to use a wider aperture and fast enough shutter speed without having to increase the ISO too high.

What techniques are used in self portraits?

Okay, so now that we’ve covered the basics of camera settings for self portrait photography, let’s get into the finer details.

If you don’t have a remote, use the self timer on your camera. This is what I do.

Self timer settings:

  • Self timer delay – 10 seconds to give you enough time to get into position after pushing the button, but not so long that you get bored before you start!
  • Number of shots – set to the maximum number of frames it will take. On my D810 it’s 9.
  • Interval between shots – I find 1 or 2 seconds works well so that you have just enough time to think and alter position slightly.

Three quarter length self portrait photo taken in the studio

When taking three quarter length or full body self portraits I still keep my camera in landscape orientation on the tripod. I just make sure there’s enough room either side of me, or even better, to the one side, to crop the image if necessary.

Camera orientation

Self portrait photography is the one time I’m not fussy about framing the shot exactly as I’ll eventually use it.

Most of the time self portraits are for use online and if that’s the case, the aspect ratio will vary from one social media platform to the next. If you’re taking selfies for Instagram you might need several different aspect ratios, depending on whether you’re using your self portraits in your newsfeed, stories or reels.

Plus, it’s easier to securely position your camera on a tripod or flat surface if you’re shooting in landscape orientation.

So make sure you leave enough space to the side of you. Then you can simply crop the images to portrait or square orientation as needed. Negative space in a business photo is also a great place for text.

Cropping is another reason why it’s important to ensure that your selfies are sharp. The closer you crop in the more obvious any focus mistakes or movement blur will be.

Vital last step for a successful self portrait photoshoot

Don’t just set up and click away without checking. In fact, check regularly throughout your shoot, even if you don’t change the set. Yes, this will have a big impact on how long your selfie session lasts, but at least you won’t have wasted your time altogether.

Can you imagine spending all that time carefully setting up a shoot, then shooting for half and hour and finally packing everything away only to discover when you view the images on the computer that they’re all blurry?

You can easily check quality throughout your selfie shoot if:

  • Your camera has wifi capability – connect to a device with a decent screen size
  • Or even better, tether your camera to a computer

A slightly longer way is to remove the card from your camera every few minutes and upload the images to your computer where you can more easily check focus etc.

It will save you time and frustration in the long run.

Cropped self portrait photo to improve pose

My pose was not at all flattering and the shirt is way too baggy (bad clothing choice)  so this selfie definitely benefitted from cropping!

While you’re at it, you should also check:

  • Which expressions and poses work best and stop doing the ones that aren’t working
  • Wardrobe – take the time to make sure that your clothes look flattering and are hanging nicely. If not, change into something else. Loose clothes look good when we’re moving around, but in a still photo when clothes are too baggy they can often make us look bigger than we are.
  • Wardrobe malfunction – make sure all buttons and zippers that should be done up are done up!

Further reading: What to wear to a family photoshoot – style tips to look good in photos

Self portrait from behind of photographer working on website

Last point on self portrait photography

You don’t have to be looking at or even facing the camera. It all depends on what you want to achieve with your photo. For example, here’s me hard at work with a coffee.

Or am I?

Leave a comment

If you have any questions on how to take self portraits with a DSLR, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if my self portrait photography tips have helped you, share that too.

Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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