my 6 tips for taking self portraits

by Krystal Bick
July 20, 2020

Like many of you perhaps, since COVID-19 hit, I’ve resorted to working entirely by myself.

Granted, this isn’t a huge shift for me, given that most of my business I run completely solo as is (ah, the joys of a freelancer) but my biggest adjustment has been with regard to photography and how I create on my own. Don’t get me wrong, I love being behind a camera, but when you’re used to collaborating with fellow creators to tell a story that requires you to be in frame, it can certainly throw you for a loop when every role now falls on your shoulders. Back in March, I shared this post detailing a few tips for getting your own home photo studio up and running. Today, I wanted to break down a few helpful tips with regard to self portraits with an emphasis on ones taken outside on location — perhaps in a nearby park or around your neighborhood. I’ve gotten quite a few requests for this over the past several weeks, so I hope this helps make the process feel significantly less daunting!

At the end of the day, my main hope is, whether you create photos/content for a living or it’s simply a creative outlet for you, that you don’t feel afraid of trying and experimenting with a new skill.

1. Invest in a remote (but self-timer will also work) and a tripod: For the sake of today’s post, we won’t belabor equipment too much as far as the pros and cons as I think it’s worthy of it’s own dedicated post at some point (trust me, it’s in the works!). Instead, let’s utilize what you already have at your disposal, whether that’s a DSLR, a mirrorless point and shoot or your phone. For self portrait photography, especially on location, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with a camera, tripod and remote set up you feel comfortable assembling, adjusting and toting around yourself. Since April, I’ve shot primarily with my boyfriend’s Canon 5D Mark IV, typically with a fixed 50mm lens and I set it up with this Manfrotto tripod. At the moment, I’m in between wireless remotes, which means I have to rely on a self-timer and setting the focus before hand, which is a bit cumbersome, but you get resourceful when it comes to walls and other placeholders (like umbrellas) to set the focus where you intend to stand. Don’t be surprised if the first few times you head out to shoot on location somewhere that it feels disheartening or frustrating — I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to tear up just because something wasn’t working out properly or I couldn’t get a setting to work just right.

2. Explore your immediate surroundings/neighborhood to study light throughout the day: I started doing this pretty regularly during our daily quarantine walks with Elvis — and I find myself noticing light and shadow much more without even intentionally looking for it. Personally, I prefer golden hour, which now hits between 5 and 7pm here in New York, but perhaps you love how early morning light looks (softer and more ethereal), it all depends on what mood and feeling you’re trying to evoke. For the sake of feeling more comfortable shooting in various daylight settings, I would try to get in the habit of bringing your camera along with you during walks and take note of interesting corners, unique shadows at different times of the day. I have a running list in my Notes app on my phone of intersections I want to revisit at certain times of day, which helps give me a starting point the next time I’m preparing to shoot.

3. Storyboard/mood board shots before hand: I’m a big planner and the more I can visualize what I’m striving for in a photo, the more productive I end up feeling. This isn’t to say you should’t allow images to happen organically as you’re out shooting, but if you have a starting composition and framework in mind, it helps provide structure to work in and around. For that reason, I generally pull 3-4 images (from Pinterest, from photography books, from old films) that compositionally speaking, represent what I’m striving toward — so I know where to focus my efforts first. I think it’s also in good practice to understand as a solo photographer, you won’t be shooting and executing at the same rate had you been shooting with a photographer, meaning, you may have less “final” shots. And that’s OK. When I go out to shoot by myself, my goal is to hopefully get one photo that I’m proud of. The rest is a bonus. I feel far less pressure that way.

4. Research different composition and technical elements: Similarly, when you’re pulling and researching photo inspiration, try to take note of the technical things at play that draw you into certain photographs and make it a point to tackle them individually during shoots. Some concepts to study include negative space, shallow depth of field, objects obscured in the foreground (like this photo I took of Lydia with a flower petal), double exposure and slow shutter speed for blurred motion (like this photo that Carter took of me at Grand Central). The more comfortable you feel bringing these concepts to life individually, the more robust your “toolbox” becomes and you’ll feel much more inclined to combine and mix and match when the mood strikes you!

5. Bring props to help add interest and tell your story: You all know me, I love a good prop — an old book, a parasol, flowers — I guarantee you, whatever is around your apartment at the moment could likely be used as an amazing prop or two (including chairs that you could consider taking with you to shoot on location for a more editorial look and feel). Plus, the beauty of a prop, is that it’ll give you more of a “purpose” in the photo — as if you were caught mid-activity doing something.

6. Don’t be afraid to shoot near or in front of other people: This topic comes up quite often with you guys in my DMs. While I’ve been blogging more or less for the past 11 years, I still completely understand the awkwardness of shooting in front of other people — and it only feels doubly more vulnerable when you’re shooting alone with a tripod. Trust me, I get it. It took a lot of easing into the process of shooting with photographers and eventually shooting by myself to get more and more comfortable with onlookers and curious passerby. If you can muster it though, try to power through and you’ll like end up realizing that most people aren’t really all that interested anyway. If you get curious questions like, “What are you doing?” “Who are you shooting for?” “Do you need help with that?” I generally try to diffuse the situation quickly with some small talk and polite answers before eventually letting them know that I’m a photographer and while I wish I could chat longer, I’m currently working on a deadline. Most people will move along soon after. As far as keeping an eye on equipment, keep everything consolidated into as few bags as possible, to make it easy to collect, organize, keep tabs on and pack up. I carry my camera and lens in a backpack and my tripod in sling bag — and as much as possible, I try to avoid carrying any additional tote bags on top of that. A lot of you were curious if I’m ever worried about having the camera “too far” from me while shooting, perhaps running the risk of someone stealing it etc. The short answer is no, I’ve never felt overly worried, but I would recommend you study and understand your surroundings. No matter where you’re shooting, be hyper-aware of who is around you and how they’re making you feel. If someone won’t leave you alone, simply pack up and find a nearby coffee shop to recharge for a bit.

Photos by yours truly

5 thoughts on “my 6 tips for taking self portraits

  1. Such great tips, Krystal. I’ve been shooting self-portraits as well during quarantine (some times more successfully than others.) But it’s been interesting to push my creativity and vision. My editing skills have also gone from great to WOW! I’m shocked every day at the post production magic I’m able to create. So, there’s definitely been some good to come out of all this chaos. That said, I’m always so impressed with your shoot locations and I’m definitely inspired to get out and scout locations in advance. Keep inspiring!

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