Through the Gadling Lens: self-portraits!

A confession:

I hate having my picture taken. Hate it. When someone offers to take my photograph, I immediately respond, “Oh, no. No, no, no. I was designed to be behind the camera, not in front of it.”

You can imagine what a joy I am to travel with.

The result, of course, is that I rarely, if ever, end up in any holiday photographs. So this week, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about taking your own self portraits while on holiday. That way, you never have to worry about someone getting your “bad side.” Besides, earlier this week, Heather Poole mentioned she’d like me to lay down some tips on how to take your portrait in an airplane lavatory. Far be it from me not to rise to the occasion.
The time-honoured Stretch-Your-Arm-Out Method

Probably the most common way of taking a self portrait is to put your camera in your shooting hand, take your arm, stretch it out in front of you, and aim and shoot at yourself. It sounds pretty simple, right? What techniques could possibly be needed for this?

I didn’t used to think that there were any tricks to taking your portrait this way, but when I visited my friend Susannah Conway in Bath, England this past fall, I learned that, in fact, there’s a whole process to taking a photo in this way.

First of all, this really only works well with a point-and-shoot. It is possible to do this with a single lens reflex camera, of course, but SLRs tend to be somewhat heavy and bulky, and it can be a bit cumbersome to stretch one arm out and hold the camera steady to take the shot.

Secondly, it turns out, there’s sort of a sweet spot to holding the camera. “Let me take the shot,” said Susannah. “There’s a particular way I have to hold my camera.” She immediately put one arm around me, and held her camera up and to the left.

“Really? There?”

“Yup, trust me,” she said. And then she smiled and took the shot.

As it turns out, when looking at the self portraits of others taken this way, most of the really good ones have been taken using this method: camera held slightly to one side and slightly upward. I think there are a couple of reasons for this:

a) By holding the camera somewhat elevated, you minimize the possibility of any double chins, and your face and neck look leaner; and

b) By holding the camera slightly off centre, you’re more likely to minimize any distortion that can be cause by a camera with a lens angle that might be too wide for portraiture. Also, holding the camera slightly off centre maximizes the possibility that you’ll get some of the background into the shot (which is always good for remembering where you took the shot years from now).

A couple of additional examples:

What makes this great shot by Joshua Yetman so fantastic is the emotion that’s displayed: Josh and his wife Avi were celebrating their first anniversary, and their affection for each other is palpable. In addition, by having the camera just slightly off centre, you can see Grenada behind them — there’ll be no question where this shot was taken years from now.

And under the heading “Don’t try this at home, folks”:

This photograph was taken by my crazy husband, while on a cycling trip in the Canadian Rockies a few years ago. While I would HARDLY recommend taking a photograph of yourself while moving at about 17 miles an hour down the road, I have to admit this is a pretty cool shot: you can see the intensity on his face as he concentrates on the road, but he also manages to capture the beautiful mountains behind. Great shot.

The Shoot-Into-A-Mirror Method

This is probably the second most common way to take a self portrait: aiming at your reflection in a mirror. In this case, the main thing to remember is to turn off your flash. Think about it — you’re shooting into a mirror. If you take a picture with your flash on, 9 times out of 10 you’re going to get a picture of … your flash. The other time you might get lucky, but why take that chance?

Turning off your flash necessarily means that to get a decent shot, you’re going to have to be mindful of the available light around you (and for the purposes of those of you who will be taking your shot in an airplane toilet, that might not be a whole lot). For this reason, you’re going to want to check your ISO to make sure that it’s adequate for the ambient light — then aim, and shoot.

For a few other tips, let’s take a look at some examples:

Now normally, I would tell you to move the camera from your face when you take a photograph of your reflection — but in this case, I love this shot by Josh. Taken in an elevator when he and his wife were vacationing in Antigua, the shot works because while his face his hidden, he managed to catch his wife checking her look in the mirror — which, after all, is what a mirror is designed to do. A fun shot.

In this shot by my friend Andrea Scher, she capture herself in the rear view mirror of a bright orange VW van, while visiting her friend in Seattle. She also managed to get a little bit of the surroundings in the shot, as well, which helps place her in context. Another fun self portrait.

And incidentally, when taking a self portrait, keep in mind that your reflection doesn’t necessarily need to take up the majority of the frame of the shot — in fact, oftentimes a small reflection can make a much more intriguing image. Case in point: the following shot, also by Andrea:

Andrea says one of her favourite things to do when visiting someone’s home is to take a self portrait in their bathroom — and this is a very cool portrait which clearly brings your focus on the surroundings (helped by the fact that Andrea wasn’t looking into the mirror at the time she took the shot, so she directs your attention away from the mirror). I love this idea — and it might prompt me to start taking photographs in bathrooms of places in all of my future travels (or even in the lav, as suggested by Heather!).

Finally, one more mirror shot, this time by Susannah:

Another great example of how minimizing your reflecti
on and maximizing the surroundings can help create amazing context — this was pretty obviously shot at an open air market in London. Great image.

And finally, there’s one more way you can take your self portrait:

The Just-Give-A-Hint-That-I-Was-There Method

In this case, you don’t actually concentrate on capturing a nice crisp focused shot of your face; instead, you simply try to capture the ambiance of your surroundings, with a more subtle indication of your presence there. As it turns out, Susannah is a master at this type of self portrait, as shown in the following shots:

Similar to the mirror shot, Susannah took this shot of her reflection in a window — and therefore the focus is on the street behind her, and she appears as merely a prop on the resulting image.

And finally, the above shot of Susannah’s feet: in this case, Susannah wasn’t trying to capture her feet, per se, but the memories of what she was feeling and experiencing right at that very moment on that cold, rocky English beach. In this case, the photograph is a tool to record emotion, rather than to document scenery.

Hopefully, this will give you a few ideas for capturing your own self portraits, whether in airplane bathrooms or beyond. And as always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.