Home How-To Tip Of The Week Art of the self portrait—07/05/10
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Monday, July 5, 2010

Art of the self portrait—07/05/10

Five tips to help you make a great picture of yourself

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Whether you’re after a top-notch profile pic for Facebook or a frameable gift for someone special, making a great self-portrait is easy with the right gear and setup. Secure your camera on a tripod, set the self-timer (or better yet, hook up a long cable release or remote camera control) and use these five tips for surefire self-portrait success.

1. Pick the perfect location. If the weather is cooperative—and that means not only nice, pleasant temperatures but also not too windy—take it outside. If it’s a bright and sunny day you’ll have better luck choosing a location in open shade like the shade under a tree or in an open doorway, for example. In that scenario a white or silver fill card, or a location with naturally reflected light from a white wall or other structure close by, provides the perfect soft key light for flattering portraits.

If the weather isn’t cooperating and you need to choose an indoor location, look for the same qualities you’d look for outside. Usually that means finding a nice window-lit room with, ideally, a north-facing window and a simple, clean background. Choose a space that isn’t too cramped so you can get distance between yourself and the camera, as well as distance from you to the background.

2. Warm up the white balance. In each of the locations I just mentioned, the light is going to have a bit of a cool cast. To compensate for this blue hue and produce a warmer, more flattering portrait light, adjust your white balance manually to a higher color temperature—more like 5000 or 5200 degrees Kelvin (rather than 4800 or 4600). This warmer cast is not only generally flattering for skin tones, it also counteracts the cool colors from open shade—which are definitely not portrait friendly. You can manually set the white balance by color temperature, open shade balance preset, or even by creating a custom white balance from a neutral-gray card.

3. Use a wider lens than you normally would. Sure, 70mm and longer lenses tend to be ideal portrait glass, but when you’re setting up a self portrait the narrow field of view from a telephoto lens can make it tricky to get yourself positioned accurately in the frame and to maintain focus. Don’t go crazy with an ultrawide that won’t flatter your features, but choose a normal lens—such as a 50mm—to give you more room to make sure you’re in the shot. The wider lens will also increase the inherent depth of field so you’ve got a better chance of being in focus too. While you’re at it, choose an aperture that gives you a little more leeway with depth of field. Rather than wide open, choose an ƒ/stop somewhere in the middle, like ƒ/8, ƒ/11 or even ƒ/16.

4. Turn off your autofocus. I’ve learned the hard way that autofocus can be really hit or miss in a self-portrait. If your composition puts your face fairly front and center, autofocus can work quite well—but since your eye isn’t to the viewfinder how can you be sure? Either way, to be safe I prefer manual focus. To do this I position something temporarily in the frame where I plan to ultimately put my face. That means a tree branch or a chair back—anything I can use to find a point of focus when I’m behind the camera, and that I can easily remove after I’m in position. This way the camera doesn’t re-focus automatically before every exposure.

5. Use a mirror to check your composition. Placing a full length mirror adjacent to the camera is a good way to monitor your pose, head position and expression. Better yet, utilize your digital advantage. The 2010 high-tech version of a mirror is tethering your camera to a laptop or viewing a swiveling LCD so that you can check each exposure in real time. Even better than an old fashioned mirror this approach lets you to make subtle movements between frames without totally starting over each time. It’s that same reason that makes a long cable release or remote control so valuable. Believe it or not, the hardest part of a successful self portrait is the trial and error of posing and positioning. Any advantage you can get in that regard—and you’ll certainly gain one by watching a monitor—will go a long way to improving your portrait.

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