Deconstructing a (Self)Portrait Photo Shoot

Sigma 105mm f/1.4 for Nikon on tripod. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Prepping, Posing & Possibilities

Fall is here. A new school year has just begun. So, let’s talk portraits, self-portraits, and the need to update profile pics.

In this post, I’ll talk about self-portraiture, but this can apply to any portrait photography session, too.

Before you begin thinking about a portrait or self-portrait photo shoot, or any other kind of photo project for that matter, think about the following:

-GOAL – the goal or purpose of the photo shoot and resulting photographs


-EVOKING MOOD, EXPRESSING PERSONALITY based on the goal and in particular when it comes to portraits and self-portraits while using makeup, hair, clothing, and props

"Shadows" Covid-19 Shadow of the Creative Self. A Self-portrait.
“Covid-19 Shadows” – a Self-portrait.

Notes of GEAR, & techniques; more about this in an upcoming post

So, let’s take it one at a time, shall we?

Every photograph, photo essay, or visual story usually has a goal, or a purpose, be that to express facets of one’s personality or evoke a mood, (see above), send a message, support a cause, bring awareness about an issue, etc. Usually, there has to be a reason, a purpose for the photograph.

So, in the case of a self-portrait, maybe you need a new image of yourself:

  • to renew/update an old social media headshot or on your website and/or blog
  • to use for a promo campaign
  • to share with friends and family
  • just because

Based on those goals and based on how and where your image will be used, decide on the crop:

Example of home studio setup for self-portrait photo session and/or lighting testing
Example of home studio setup for a self-portrait photo session and/or lighting testing. Photo by Alina Oswald.
  • headshots (only)
  • 3/4 length
  • full length
  • various crops, in case of a photo essay or an editorial, for example

Based on those goals/ideas, decide on the facet(s) of your personality you want to reveal in your self-portraits and that best enhance the purpose of your images. That, in turn, will help decide on other aspects of the photo shoot: lighting, pose, props, post-production workflow, etc.

For example:

  • a dramatic look might be enhanced by converting the image to black and white
  • a more airy, carefree personality might be enhanced by using soft colors, and soft light that wraps around the subject

In general, make sure that you have all the elements or pieces of the puzzle necessary to create “the look” that you’re after. Use posing (body language, facial expression, gesture, etc), hair and clothing, props (jewelry, sunglasses, accessories, etc), and backdrop to help sketch out that particular “look.” And, very importantly, use lighting–directional light, lighting patterns, etc–to create that “look.”

Note: if you’re like yours truly, and cannot apply makeup in real life, learn how to apply makeup in post, in Photoshop, for example. If you know how to apply makeup, style your hair, and whatnot, or have somebody who can do it for you, give it a try!

On gear – you’ll need:

  • a tripod
  • a camera
  • lights – natural, artificial, light modifiers, etc. to create the look that you’re after
  • stand-in (tripod or someone who can volunteer to stand in, in front of your camera, so that you can focus on the subject and get your gear ready for the self-portrait photo shoot)
  • lenses: portrait lens, yes, but remember that, say, at f/1.4, there’s very little room for error, in terms of what’s in focus and what’s not; at a shallow DOF, your nose can be in focus, but not your eyes, or, if you turn your head just slightly, one eye can be in focus but not both eyes and so on, so…

Also, you can use:

  • camera’s self-timer
  • shutter release cable or wireless remote
  • SnapBridge app, on your mobile device, if you’re a Nikon user. I’ll talk more about SnapBridge in an upcoming post, but, in a few words, SnapBridge is a free app Nikon shooters can download on their mobile devices, and use to remotely control their cameras via WiFi or Bluetooth. It works, kinda, but it does take a lot of time and practice. [similar apps might be available for other camera manufacturers]

Fog Silhouettes. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Fog Silhouettes. New Orleans, La. Photo ©Alina Oswald

In summary:

When embarking on a self-portrait photo session:

  • decide on the purpose of your photograph(s)
  • based on that, decide on the look, feel, goal, and message of your images
  • research/look through images that might give you a better idea of how to create your self-portraits
  • based on that, choose your props, hair and makeup, clothing, posing, etc.
  • and also photo and lighting gear, setup, background, lighting patterns, etc.
  • be patient and take your time; you can also piece it (the photo shoot) together: work on it one layer at a time, while focusing on one aspect at a time–pose, crop, look, lighting, etc.–then put it all together
  • and have fun while at it, too

Thanks for stopping by and, ’til next time,

Happy Photographing!

Alina Oswald

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.