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Self portrait photography tips and equipment

Updated on April 23, 2013

Improve your self portrait photography

If you are looking for some self portrait photography tips, and want to know what photographic equipment you need ti do some self portrait photography you have stumbled on the right article.

Self portrait photography isn't easy and capturing a good self portrait is a bit more involved than simply holding the camera at arm's length with the lens pointing towards you and pressing the shutter button. In fact, capturing a good self portrait is actually quite difficult and requires some essential pieces of kit, as you will soon see.

So, if you want to know how to make yourself look good and capture the best self portrait you possibly can, check out the following tips and advice below.

1. Self portrait photography tips - Use a prime lens

A prime lens is the best lens for all portrait photography and self portrait photography is no different. There are many advantages in using a prime lens, including;

1) The image quality of a prime lens is superb and they pick up every detail.

2) Prime lenses have a wide maximum aperture which allows you to get the background nicely out of focus.

3) Prime lenses are fast and allow the use of fast shutter speeds which allows you to freeze the action and ensure tack sharp shots.

Prime lenses with a focal length of 50mm - 100mm are perfect for self portrait photography, and the ideal length is down to personal preference and/or the funds available. The 50mm prime lenses are cheap and cheerful but the image quality of these lenses is simply superb so they are well worth a purchase.

Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX DG HSM lens

The 50mm prime lenses are available in three different models, including the f1.2, f1.4 and f1.8. All of the lenses are very good however the best of the bunch has to be the f1.4. The f1.2 has the best maximum aperture but it is very expensive. The f1.8 is cheap as chips but the build quality is questionable and the maximum aperture isn't quite wide


The branded 50mm f1.4 lenses are very good but they are expensive. The Sigma 50mm f1.4 is more affordable and almost as good, which makes it excellent value for money. The Sigma is well built, has excellent image quality, is sharp, has vivid colours that aren't over saturated and controls distortion very well.

The Sigma 50mm f1.4 is available for all major brands of digital slr camera, including Canon and Nikon so everyone can benefit from using this lens. If you are looking for an affordable and quality 50mm f1.4 lens and want the most bang for your buck the Sigma 50mm f1.4 is the lens to buy.

Other 50mm lenses than may be of interest

If you shoot a Canon digital SLR camera you may prefer to use the Canon 50mm f1.4 lens instead of the Sigma. Similarly, if you shoot a Nikon digital SLR camera you may prefer Nikon's 50mm 1.4 instead. Both of these lenses are very, very good but they are a little more expensive than the Sigma 50mm 1.4.

Canon 50mm f1.4CHECK PRICE

Nikon 50mm f1.4CHECK PRICE

2. Self portrait photography tips - Use an external flash gun

Self portrait photography is easiest indoors where ambient light levels are low. In these situations you need to use an external flash gun to provide enough light for the correct exposure. Since the flash will be the primary light source you need the most powerful one, i.e. the one with the highest guide number you can afford. It is far better to have a flash that is too powerful and reduce the power output than buy a flash gun that is not powerful enough.

Setting the flash gun for the correct exposure is going to take some trial and error, unless you use a flash meter of course. Fortunately, when doing self portrait photography you have time to play around with the flash settings to get the correct exposure so a flash meter, whilst useful, is not really necessary.

Metz 58 AF-2 external flash gun

There's no doubt about it, the best and most powerful flashes are the branded models such as the Canon 600EX and Nikon SB900, however these models are very expensive and unless you are a professional photographer or have deep pockets, a bit of an overkill.

If you want a powerful flash gun that is well built, offers full manual control and is easy to get to grips with the Metz 58 AF-2 is something you should take a look at. This flash gun is ideal for self portrait photography and whilst it may not have all the features of the Canon and Nikon flash guns it has everything an enthusiast is ever likely to need. The Metz 58 is the best value for money flash gun and it is available for all major brands of digital slr cameras, including Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Olympus.

3. Self portrait photography tips - Use a tripod

Using a tripod sounds obvious but there are still people who simply hold the camera at arm's length with the lens pointing towards them and press the shutter button. This method is always going to result in a blurry photograph because it is impossible to hold the camera still enough to capture a tack sharp image, even when using very fast shutter speeds.

A tripod is an essential accessory for self portrait photography to get a tack sharp photograph. When choosing a tripod you have to ensure it is strong, sturdy and tough enough to securely hold you camera and lens combination. A cheap and weak tripod is going to be no use, so it is advisable to dig a bit deeper and spend a little more on something sturdy in the first instance.

There are plenty of top quality tripods on the market and two of the best brands are Manfrotto and Gitzo. If you buy a tripod made by one of these manufacturers, any tripod at all, you will get a top quality product that is tough, durable and perfect for self portrait photography.

Manfrotto 055XPROB Tripod

All Manfrotto tripods are tough, sturdy, well built and capable of supporting a heavy dslr camera and lens combination. With a Manfrotto tripod you can be rest assured your set up will remain rock solid and will not move, which makes capturing a great self portrait shot much easier.

When I was looking for a tripod I viewed a lot of Manfrotto tripods and I was impressed with all of them. I ended up purchasing the Manfrotto 055XPROB model because there was a great deal on at the time that included the tripod, a tripod strap and a fully adjustable tripod head, a deal that was too good to miss.

The 055XPROB is an excellent tripod that is very sturdy, rock solid and capable of holding a big dslr camera and long telephoto lens without moving an inch. I was told the "tripod is a photographer's best friend" and whilst the 055XPROB isn't my best friend, it is a close one that I take everywhere with me.

The 055XPROB is an excellent tripod and I can't recommend it any more. Use one and you won't be disappointed.

4. Self portrait photography tips - Leave the camera's self timer alone

One way of capturing a self portrait is to set the camera's self timer, quickly run in position and wait for the shutter to fire. Using this method you are not going to get great self portrait images unless you are extremely lucky. Even if you use the longest time on the self timer you are going to struggle to get in the correct position before the shutter will fire. The best thing to do is to leave the self timer well alone.

In order to overcome the above you need a remote shutter release. You can buy wired or wireless remote shutter releases and the choice is entirely down to personal preference. Neither one is better than the other, and neither one is expensive.

With a remote shutter release you can set up the camera, get in position, strike the pose you want and then fire the shutter when you are ready. With a remote shutter release you can also use the camera in burst mode, which means you can fire off several images in quick succession. The slightest change of facial expression can turn an ok image in to a great image therefore it is always worth using burst mode in self portrait photography.

Wired Remote Shutter Release

When it comes to remote shutter releases there are effectively two different types available, being wired and wireless. Both types are very good and affordable, although I would recommend the wired version over the wireless version every time.

When I used a wireless remote shutter release I experience times when it failed to work first time, which was very frustrating. You have to have the remote pointing in exactly the right place otherwise the remote won't work. A wired remote shutter release will work first time every time, providing it is correctly plugged in to the camera of course.

There are many brands and models of wired and wireless remote shutter releases and there really is no need to buy one of the expensive models as it won't work any better than the cheaper models.

5. Self portrait photography tips - Ensure the background is clean

When doing self portrait photography you are the subject and nothing else, therefore you need to be the focal point of the image. In order to ensure you are the focal point you need to ensure the background is "clean" and free from all distractions, and the best way of doing this is to use a photographic backdrop.

There are several things you can use as a photographic background such as white sheets or seamless paper or card, however, the best clean photographic background is the muslin backdrop.

Muslin backdrops are seamless and they make the subject stand out. What's more is that muslin backdrops are also cheap. You can tape a muslin backdrop to the wall but the best way of using them is to use a specific backdrop stand.

Backdrop stands are large when erected but they come apart and are small and easy to store when not in use. The backdrop stands are also affordable and are an excellent purchase if you are serious about self portrait photography, portrait photography and still life photography.

Cowboy studio Photography Black and white Muslin backdrops with support system and carry bag

You can buy a backdrop and tape it to the wall or hang it over a curtain pole, but this set up is not ideal. The best way of using a photography backdrop is to use a special support system, such as this one from Cowboystudios.

The Cowboystudio kit includes everything you need to achieve a clean and professional looking photography background. The support system is lightweight but more than strong enough to hold the supplied muslin backgrounds. The support system is quick and easy to erect, and take apart again, and it packs neatly away in its own carry case which is also supplied.

Overall, the Cowboystudio backdrop kit is an excellent product and one that is well worth buying. As well as using it for self portraits this kit is also ideal for taking portraits of friends/family/pets, still life photography and fashion photography. If you are serious about a clean background you won't go far wrong with this kit.

Self portrait photography - Conclusion

Capturing a decent self portrait photograph isn’t easy and it is going to take some time and practice. The crucial thing is to make sure everything is correctly set up before sitting in front of the camera and firing that shutter.

A self portrait tutorial

If you are still confused on how to take a great self portrait and would like a video demonstration check out the video guide below. This footage is full of useful information and, I have to say, is one of the best self portrait tutorials I have found. Enjoy!

If you have any comments, rants or raves please feel free to note them in my guestbook. Similarly, if you have any self portrait photography tips you would like to share please do so here. Thanks.

Your comments are welcome

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      woodenplans 5 years ago

      Hahaha! Number 4 is funny, run run run. I can imagine the self portraits that come out of this one. :)