How Self-Portraits Can Benefit your Work

How Self-Portraits Can Benefit your Work

How Self-Portraits Can Benefit your Work with Shannon K Dougherty

I’ve probably spent just as much time in front of the camera as I have behind it. I started taking self-portraits when I first picked up a camera. It became the best way for me to learn the technical side of photography. It also let me be an artist and experiment with wardrobe, posing and lighting. 

Let’s be honest with ourselves as photographers: Most of us don’t like our photo being taken. It’s easier to be on the other side and not focus on ourselves. Plus, self-portraits are hard! There are a lot of technical things to think of, and it’s time-consuming. We might worry that others will see us as vain for photographing ourselves and sharing it with the world. I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Self-portraits will benefit you and your work, and help you build your own personal style for your brand.


Here’s something that is pretty amazing: You get to think like an artist again! This is your time to create and work on whatever you want. Often, when we get busy with client work, we can forget that we are creatives and need to feed that. I can’t tell you how bad the burnout has hit me because I was only working on client work and not shooting something completely for myself. It really can ignite a fire inside of you as a reminder that you love photography—it’s not just creating for others, but for yourself too!

You can take your portraits of yourself beyond the basic headshot, wedding, or whatever you shoot for your business. Maybe there is something you’ve been waiting to create but haven’t had a chance to with a client yet. This is the time to think outside the box, get weird, get creative and push something in your work. When I’m ready to shoot a self-portrait, I will write down ideas that I would love to try for a creative shoot and then test them on myself. I work out everything from wardrobe to lighting to poses—you name it. I also don’t always want to look like myself, so I add in costumes, wigs and makeup. I consider what lighting I’ll need and how to set that up, and what location would be best. I do most of my self-portraits in my studio, but I have taken my camera and wardrobe to the beach and shot there (with many onlookers wondering why I was in a sequined gown, in the ocean, during wintertime). 


Next, you get to put yourself in your client’s shoes, so to speak. There is an emotional component to having your photograph taken, and I think we forget how it feels to be on the other side of the camera sometimes. Self-portraits are a great reminder about feeling vulnerable in front of the lens. I can recall the first couple of times I took self-portraits—I was shaking, sweating, and too nervous to even look at the images. Having that moment of vulnerability made me understand my clients more. Most of our clients aren’t photographed all the time, and having their portraits done is a significant moment in their lives. I owe it to them to understand how they feel so I can better coach them to an amazing experience in my studio. This has brought me more patience above all else with anyone I photograph. 


This is the perfect time to practice and grow as a photographer. Self-portraits are a great way to experiment and try new techniques. Maybe you have new gear to learn and test, or new concepts to work on, and you’re not confident enough yet to try them on a client. I will be honest—one of the hardest things for me to learn while doing self-portraits was the lighting, since I didn’t know my gear that well when I first started. When you don’t have it right in front of you, it can be hard to know what is working and what isn’t. It took time to learn what was best for what I was shooting. This also let me play around with my camera more. I learned so much more about the gear I was using by doing self-portraits. One thing I learned that works better for me is using a remote instead of the timer on the camera. This gives me more time and control to set up my composition and pose, and get my wardrobe set before I hit the shutter.


Experimenting with composition can make your portraits stand out. I mentioned earlier that I shot self-portraits at the beach. This was a way to really push myself with angles and compositions, and get creative with building a narrative to the portrait. These can be a bit more tricky, so finding a desired spot and focusing the camera on that before hitting the shutter will help with the image being in focus. There will be trial-and-error to start. 

Self-portraits are a time to play with posing as well. I feel like this is a subject many get lost on when it comes to working with clients. Take a couple of images of yourself, and really study what is working with the posing, expressions and mood, and what isn’t. This will build your confidence and help you flow through the posing with your next client. 


When I’m strolling through Instagram and clicking on what the influencers are doing, I can see they are all showing themselves and showing their brand. We should definitely be doing that as photographers. Sometimes, we get so busy with client work that we forgot to do a photoshoot for ourselves and show ourselves off for potential clientele.  Self-portraits have been a huge creative outlet for me that has really helped build my brand. I get to share with my clients and potential clients who I am and how I can give them an amazing session as well. Self-portraits open a vulnerable side of myself to learn and grow as a photographer and as an artist.

I love getting to share that side of me with my clients and build that relationship and trust with them. People want to see you. They want to see the person behind the lens and the business, so show them. Sharing my self-portraits with my followers and clients has helped build my business and showcase who I am as a person and a brand.

Don’t let self-portraits intimidate you. Learn, grow, put on some makeup and get shooting.

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To read the full article, launch the digital version of the December 2019 magazine.

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