Learning From A Self-Portrait

Self-portraits are nothing new, and they most often reveal unexpected results. Why wouldn’t they? After all, the portrait’s author is also its main subject, so there’s got to be something happening...

Van Gogh is known to have painted at least 43 self-portraits. Often they are both beautiful and troubling in many regards. You might be tempted to say that Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Goya were all pioneers of the “selfie” before its time. And you wouldn’t be wrong.

For a photographer, taking a self-portrait can be a great learning experience, offering firsthand experience and insight into the art and technique of portrait photography. The feedback is instant. You have 100%, unfiltered and total control over your model. Plus you actually feel what a model feels about his or her own appearance. And, as an added bonus, your model is ready and willing to take all the time you need!

Don’t be surprised if your first feeling is that your photos look unfamiliar. If you are like most people, over 99% of the images you see of your own face are inverted because you’re looking into a mirror. No wonder you look strange on your photos. See? We just got started and you’re already finding out about how your models feel.

You can try everything

Take the time to have fun and try whatever crosses your mind. Make notes about every pose. Arms hanging, arms leaning. Play around with the position of your hands. Play with different clothing. Turn your body facing the camera, then progressively sideways: what happens when you do this? Keep your eyes staring into the lens while you turn and tilt your head. Lean in towards the camera, then lean back. Pretty soon you should have a chart showing how you feel about various poses and postures. Remember these and use them the next time you’re taking actual portraits of other people. Over time you’ll have better knowledge of what you need to do to get the shot that you expect.

Some may say that formal portrait photography is getting overlooked nowadays with millions of selfies taken every day. Sure, selfies are everywhere. But take just one look at a remarkable portrait and you’ll see what a resourceful photographer can coax out of a quality camera.

Still, there is a lesson to be learned from selfies: they are almost always spontaneous and more often than not they do a nice job of conveying feelings, decor, places and events. As photographers, we can learn from them, paying attention to visual clues and other details in selfies that help tell stories and set a mood. We can use these observations to create better visual environments for more “serious” portraits.

Add the spontaneous feeling of a good selfie to the control and quality of a good camera, and you’ll definitely be making better portraits.