• Charlotte Woolrych

How to take Self Portraits

During this blog I will be referring to both cameras and phone usage and editing or not editing the photos afterwards. This is in the hope that I can be helpful to a wide variety of people so if a section doesn't seem relevant to how you're shooting please just skip to the next one.

I'd also like to add that just because I talk about editing it's not a requirement for self portraits. Equipment and expense and time don't necessarily equal a better final product it's much more about the concept and emotion that you can convey with your photos.

I think it's important to start off by managing expectations for self portrait shoots. I definitely thought that it would be very easy and when I first started I got frustrated because it took much longer than I thought it did for other people. You should also expect that 99% of your photos will not be good or not perfect and that's all part of taking self portraits!

It takes me about 30 mins to set up my background and light, and then about another 30 mins to get costume and makeup together. It then takes me between 2 and 3 hours to shoot the photos and from that I will get between 100 and 200 pictures to choose from. From these images I'll normally choose between 2 and 4 that I really like and I edit them - that normally takes about an hour (per photo)

As you can see from the above numbers there are about (95%) 190 photos that I take of myself that I don't like the look of, maybe the pose is wrong or the lighting is wrong or the costume's wrong but it's important to remember that not every shot will be perfect and that's fine.

I keep checking every 10 photos on the back of the camera (or my phone) to make sure that the lighting is right and I review the photos I've taken. If I don't like them then I change it. If you don't like 30 photos of yourself in a row, it just means you haven't quite got the right pose yet but it doesn't mean that you can't take self portraits.

The Physical Setup (Camera and Phone)


Always start by looking at where your light source is coming from. Ideally (for most photos) you should have a constant light source that will light your face and body in a flattering and soft way from the front or slightly towards 45 degrees. For most people a large window is perfect especially if you're in a room with light coloured walls because then the light bounces off the walls and onto you.

If you have a ring light or you prefer to use flashes or another form of constant light, you also want it to be in front of you and lighting you and your background.

The background you use should be dependent on the type of photos you want. I find myself limited at home because we have no white walls which is where I would prefer to shoot a lot of portraits so I've been adapting my creative ideas to walls I do have. A good example of this is this Queen photo where I saw my wallpaper looked very ornate and decided to try it and do an ornate look to go with it.

In these photos, I tried to match the background to the theme of the photo. From left to right, I pinned up fabric, used my wallpaper and my shower wall!


There are several ways you can create backgrounds without using plain walls.

One of the most popular ways that people make backgrounds at home is by pinning up a sheet or fabric in a different colour as you can see below. Remember that colours can be changed in Photoshop or by editing later so sometimes the texture off the background is more important than the colour.

Here you can see that my fabric wasn't actually wide enough to fill the frame I had! I stretched it as much as I could and then I cropped the image in, and filled in some gaps in Photoshop.

If Photoshop isn't an option, try some more close up portrait shots, or use the background to make more interesting framing!


I had to retake a lot of photos from this shoot because I had moved too far off my background so remember your pose and just re-take them if that's a problem!







Setting up your camera or phone:

This is the bit that frustrated me most when I first started taking self-portraits. My camera does not have a screen that turns round nor does it have a Bluetooth remote so I have no choice but to use the 5 second timer and take photos one by one. This does mean that photos take a long time to take for me so if you do have an phone with a face camera or a DSLR with a screen that flips this process will be easier for you.


Every walk forwards and back is only one photo! You can see I adjust stuff and check as I go for focus and lighting and pose changes.

It's not glamorous or easy and I look a bit dumb but it's all part of the process!



Your camera should be approximately at head height for most self-portrait ideas so if you're using a window maybe the window sill or an appropriate table nearby. There's a common misconception that you have to use a tripod {which is safer} but I don't own a tripod so I balanced my camera on my desk.


I tried having my camera both on the small window sill and on the bookshelf I pulled forwards to try and center the camera more!

The bookshelf is more waist-height which is why I chose to try some kneeling poses which worked out!


If you are trying to take portrait photos on your camera and your lens is pointing down due to the way cameras are shaped prop up the lens to be straight on with anything you have around you for example a book or a makeup palette.

I would advise before getting into costume or makeup to take a few test shots to work out if you like your lighting and background because it's easier to move it beforehand then during. Also take the time to collect any props you think you want and bring them to your setup area so you don't have to distract yourself whilst creating!

Actual Camera Settings (Camera)


From shooting my own self-portraits here are some tips and tricks I used to get focus correct in camera. Normally (not in lockdown) I shoot at a very low aperture (f1.8) to give the background that nice blurry quality but when the background is quite plain or neutral, I don't need to worry as much about that so I can sacrifice the aperture to be higher. (aperture diagrams and numbers) The higher the aperture the greater the chance that you'll be caught in the cameras focus range and the easier you will find it to shoot the self-portrait. I found an aperture of around f4 - f6 tends to work well as you can focus on the background and reliably still be in focus if you stand just in front of it.


Getting the focus right is definitely the most frustrating part of the process so if you can ask somebody to stand where you'll be standing and focus on them then lock the focus on your camera it will be much easier. If you know you're going to have trouble remembering where they were standing mark the floor with some Sellotape so you know where the focus is correct.


This might be controversial advice as obviously you want to get your focus as clear as possible but if your focus isn't perfect but is very nearly there uploading it to Instagram or Facebook the viewer probably won't be able to notice so give yourself a tiny bit of leeway for that. A couple of my photos that haven't quite been in focus have been easily saved in Photoshop afterwards so that's always an option.

Once you got your aperture to where you want it to be, I would then control your lighting using your ISO and your shutter speed. As I was taking my photos at 1:00 AM in a very darkroom I have my ISO at 1000 but normally inside I find 400 or 600 works just as well and then I only adjust my shutter speed (the lower the shutter speed number the lighter your picture will be).

Actual Camera Settings (Phones)


If you're shooting on an iphone or similar phone and when you keep moving the lighting keeps changing, there's something you can do to fix this. If you press and hold on your background or face, the square on the screen should pulse twice and then lock to that location you can then use the little sun next to the square to adjust your exposure which then should not move as long as you don't move too much.

How to change exposure and other iphone tips!

Some people prefer to take portraits on phones by videoing themselves posing and then scrolling through the video and screenshotting the poses they like. If you are going to do this, I'd recommend holding your poses for longer than you think you'd need to minimise pixelation and remember the smaller you are on an phone screen the more pixelated you will be. Using the self-timer function on an phone and taking multiple pictures (mt preferred method) might allow you to have more control over your posing and feel more like you're taking individual shots rather than rushing to get a full video however this is just personal preference.

Actually Shooting the Portraits: (Camera and phone)

This is the hardest part of the whole process and definitely the most frustrating and testing when you're on your own. To make this easier make sure you've given yourself the time you need have water or snack handy, and try to be realistic about you're outcome.

What do I mean by this?

Let me explain... it can be really hard to see photo after photo on a camera when you don't think you look your best, and if you're in the wrong frame of mind or you get frustrated or upset then it gets harder.

Not every photo you take will be 'The Photo' that you were thinking of and instead of getting frustrated with photos that aren't perfect look at them with an analytical mind and work out what's wrong.


This photo didn't work!


This was actually me trying the original concept of my shoot - an angel falling from heaven!


I couldn't get my legs out of the way enough sadly so I'll return to it another day, but it's a good example of putting my all into something that didn't work!

I have about 100 photos of this pose, hoping I'd get the right angle but it didn't work in the end.


It's not because I look bad but I don't have the space (or athletic ability) to get the shot I wanted!




Set Yourself Rules:

I have several rules when shooting self portrait for myself to make sure that I stay focused on the photography and don't get side-tracked personally into worrying what I look like.

I look at every photo analytically whilst shooting and work out what's not working. Often I find I need to move my pose because it's the light that's hitting in the wrong way not me looking ugly. or I need to adjust my prop or move my costume but it's important to work out what the problem is not just blame yourself for being in the photo


More Rejected Photo Analysis!

I thought this pose would look delicate, but as you can see, it didn't quite work!


I've compressed myself in, covering myself up so it looks like I'm hiding!


Also I've hidden most of my neck/shoulder skin so there's nothing to break up the photo, and it's confusing to look at!

I tried to add a new lighting element to this photo, with a kind of sash of lights, and my lightsaber! It's overall too dark, to harsh in lighting and doesn't make sense to look at or really tell enough of a story!


None of these are 'bad photo' they're just not what I was going for!



I'll do a post on lighting soon but in the mean time: HARSH LIGHTING CHANGES HOW YOU LOOK DEPENDING ON THE ANGLE! Depending on where the light hits you, on the widest or smallest part of your legs for example, THAT'S WHAT THE CAMERA SEES! Always try moving harsh lighting around until it hits the right part of your body!

Tips for Shoot ideas:


Most obviously, creativity is subject to the person shooting the portraits, but there's some basic rules you can follow to make a cohesive looking self-portrait.

If you want to do a historical concept, you're going to want to avoid modern day props like electronics. If you're shooting with the wall behind you try and avoid plug sockets being in the background if you won't be able to edit them out.

If you want to do an era themed shoot such as an 80s theme sheet then it's worth looking into not only what other photographers have done but also key styles from the time such as hair, clothes and makeup so you can match them.

Colour is also super important when shooting portraits. If you're going for a more historical photo you might want to stick to neutral tones but more vibrant photos can look more modern. Remember if you editing the photos afterwards then you can always change the colour tones then.

Editing your self-portraits:


Of course, these tips will depend very much on your style of shoot and on your style of photography. Please take these as helpful tips, not set rules for editing! Art is subjective.

1. Clean up (background)

  • The first thing that I had to do on all of my pictures was clean up the background whether it be removing skirting boards and plugs or wrinkles from fabric or having to pull out more of the background because it didn't fill the frame.

  • I'd recommend if you do need to do this step that you start with it because it can be much harder to colour tone when you don't have the final image, you're going to be looking at later.

2. Retouching

  • (I'd like to quickly say here that when I say retouching, I mean removing spots and temporary marks from the skin or hair of the model not changing the shape or size of their body)

  • A quick retouch of yourself in portraits can be a great way to make it look like a much cleaner final image. As with phone images they tend to be more pixelated I apply a rule called 'does it look like dust'. This means that I only clean up areas that look like from far away if you look at the picture it might look like dirt or dust on the phone even if they're freckles or moles that are just pixelated. With DSLR's, a much more standard retouched can be applied and I definitely would do this before doing any other colouring to your image.

3. Colour correction

This will be the most universal step for both cameras and phones. (this applies to everyone)

  • Whatever style of portrait you have taken it's always fun to play with colour and see what kind of mood you can create in the photo. For iphone I would recommend the Lightroom app but there are also numerous apps out there that you can change colours and retouch on.

  • On your camera I would recommend on Photoshop using the selective colours in layers (one colour layer tends to work best for layer masking) or of course Lightroom if you prefer. Again, there are numerous free apps you can also use to colour grade your images these are just the ones I use.

  • If you are struggling to find 2 colours that complement each other or find that your colours seem to clash lately I would recommend using Adobe colour online. It's a website that allows you to put one of your colours into a generator that then shows you the other colours that go with it according to different colour theories so you can pick and choose. Of course, it's not always perfect but it can be a great starting point if you're struggling with where to go. I used it to find the exact yellow I needed for the Halo in my renaissance angel picture because when I picked a yellow myself it was far too modern and bright and actually the colour, I needed was a yellowy-green which I never would have guessed otherwise.

IF IN DOUBT BLACK AND WHITE

  • I can't tell you how many photos I've saved just by putting them in black and white. If your photo has very harsh lighting or seems too bland in colour just trying to put it in black and white can make a huge difference especially if you also add some contrast to the image too. now remember in editing less is more so if you add too much contrast it will start to show the pixels on your photo so you want to use it in small amounts.

Clearly, the edit has saved the image! It's sometimes worth trying something that scares you (like this scared me!) to see if you can get the result you want! Colour would NOT have worked here to black and white has saved the toning and texture!

Over the next few days I'll be releasing blogs showing posing ideas prop ideas and how to colour grade images in Photoshop and on apps so if you think you need some more help stay tuned for those.

if you want to see Adobe colour in action or how I speed edited my last photo checkout my YouTube channel CharlotteWoolrychPhotography, where I have a video on that.


Good luck with your own self-portraits and please tag me in them when you post them so I can give them and like and support you guys and see what you create!

Remember it might take a few tries to get your perfect result but just wait till you're in that creative mood and eventually you'll get there.

It can be really easy to fall into that trap of thinking that it's easy for everyone else to do but the first four times I tried self-portraits during lockdown I got super frustrated and thought that I was the ugly one. After working out how it worked best for me, I’m not much happier with the work I'm creating.

Good luck to you all and my Instagram is open for any questions!

Charlotte xxx

© 2019-20 by CHARLOTTE WOOLRYCH

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