Self Portraits

Self Portraits |
A Beginner's Guide

Ever wanted to learn new lighting techniques and have fun with photography without the pressure of another human being staring at you the whole time? My name is Alissa Cincotta and this weekend, I’m going to be doing some self portraits in our home in O’Fallon, Illinois using the Westcott FJ80, the Westcott FJ200, and the Westcott Universal Wireless Flash Trigger, the FJ-X2m. 

I’m going to show you how to do two things with off-camera flash in this shoot. You don’t need an assistant; you don’t need anyone else around. This is the perfect time to brush up on your off-camera flash skills and maybe even learn some new lighting techniques so you can get comfortable with your gear. It’s also a great opportunity for you to get comfortable in front of the camera. Because once you are comfortable in front of the camera, you can explain the experience to your clients. So, this is a perfect time to refresh everything—lighting, posing, concepts, details, and more. Test on yourself. You don’t have to actually do anything with these images, just have some fun and get creative with the lighting.

This past weekend I wanted to take some time to practice with off-camera flash without the pressure of having a client in front of me. I had the luxury of splitting my self portrait session into two days. I knew I wanted to do one at night where there was no natural light involved, and I decided to do the 2nd scene the next morning so I could give myself time to review what I did right and what I did wrong the first time around

Scene #1: Dramatic & Edgy

I started setting everything up on Saturday evening at about 5:00 PM, and I wanted to let the light go down a little bit more before actually shooting because I had this really moody portrait I wanted to create. For my concept, I chose some really bright reds mixed with neutral khaki colors, and it’s a pretty fierce concept to start with, but hey– go big or go home, right? 

So the first scene is definitely more on the edgier side of things, so I’m going to use the FJ80. I took some test shots to get my scene set up with all of the props, but I wanted to wait until the sun went down a little bit more because there was still a ton of natural light pouring in from our windows. You could balance this using strobe and create a nice, soft light, but what I wanted to do for this look specifically is let the room get a little bit darker and then fill my scene with a bunch of warm ambient light and light myself using the FJ80 to create a nice, edgy, moody portrait.

I started setting everything up on Saturday evening at about 5:00 PM, and I wanted to let the light go down a little bit more before actually shooting because I had this really moody portrait I wanted to create. For my concept, I chose some really bright reds mixed with neutral khaki colors, and it’s a pretty fierce concept to start with, but hey– go big or go home, right? 

So the first scene is definitely more on the edgier side of things, so I’m going to use the FJ80. I took some test shots to get my scene set up with all of the props, but I wanted to wait until the sun went down a little bit more because there was still a ton of natural light pouring in from our windows. You could balance this using strobe and create a nice, soft light, but what I wanted to do for this look specifically is let the room get a little bit darker and then fill my scene with a bunch of warm ambient light and light myself using the FJ80 to create a nice, edgy, moody portrait. 

There are three things I would recommend doing before you start shooting:

I want to set up my scene: Make sure I’ve got all my props set exactly where I want them and then get dialed in on the light just to get a general idea of where I want to go with the overall look and feel of the images. 

Go get dolled up. Hair, makeup, and wardrobe need to be on POINT. 

Pour a nice, tall glass of wine so I can chill out and enjoy this. 

There is SO much you can learn about portrait photography in general and creating a mood for your images when you do self portraits. For the first look, I was able to create this warmth and moodiness with the FJ80, the fairy lights and red florals as eye candy in the foreground, and our lamp in the background. I ended up adding the magnetic grid and full CTO gel to the FJ80 to really, really make sure all the light that was hitting me was very controlled and also the same toning as the rest of the image.

There are definitely times where it looks nice to mix different color light in your images, but for this scene it didn’t make any sense to have all this warmth in the image to throw in light that is daylight balanced. It just needed something extra in there to make it all come together visually. 

The biggest challenge of everything for scene #1 was making sure that the camera caught my eye and kept that face-tracking focusing because I had a very, very, very busy scene. And when you’re that far away from your camera’s LCD screen, you’re very limited to what level of detail you can really see. It was a lot of take 10 to 15 pictures, go check it out. Is it even in focus? If not, try again. So that’s what you want to make sure you’re doing. Take a few shots, go to the camera, make sure it’s in focus, make sure you like the way you’re looking, adjust. It’s a lot of that back and forth. So even when you have your light dialed in, even when you have your scene dialed in, you still have to keep going back and forth to make sure everything’s in focus. 

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Final Images

Settings: 1/20 @ f2.5 ISO 100

Settings: 1/20 @ f2.5 ISO 100

Settings: 1/20 @ f2.5 ISO 100

self portrait tips

Settings: 1/20 @ f2.5 ISO 100

Scene #2: Soft & Romantic

The second look I’m going for is soft and feminine. My main goal here is to mimic the look of natural light without actually having any natural light in the scene. Obviously, natural light is gorgeous, but having off-camera flash always allows you to control your scene a lot more than you would be able to do with natural light.

For this scene, we’ve got a really long hallway upstairs and it’s extremely dark. There are no windows at all, but we have a room at the end of the all and if I crack that door open, there’s this beautiful, natural light that leaks in to the back side of the scene.

So I wanted to create this mood where I’m back-lit by the natural light coming in from the room at the end of the hallway. I’m sitting on the floor, and that backlight is just kind of making the flowers I had in the scene pop since I didn’t want those to go too dark in the image. I could have used strobe back there, but I wanted to mix strobe and ambient here. 

I started off thinking I was going to cool the scene down by adjusting my camera white balance to 3200 Kelvin and add CTO gel just to kind of play with some toning in the image. It looked terrible. Don’t fight it. If you look at the picture in camera and it’s not (visually) the look you were going for, don’t spend hours trying to force something that’s not right. Instead, I took the CTO gel off completely, used the magnetic grid on the FJ80, and adjusted the camera white balance back to 5200 Kelvin to make sure everything in the scene was daylight balanced.

You guys. After a few test shots, I was in love. The scene is just so pretty and moody, and I had that FJ80 right up on me. So it was feathering across the front of my body and not just blasting me in the face or slamming light onto the walls around me. It’s so important that you know your settings so you understand how to create something IN-CAMERA that has a painterly feel from that very, very, very soft and subtle light washing over your subject. 

Final Images

Settings: 1/15 @ f4 ISO 100

Settings: 1/15 @ f2.5 ISO 100

Settings: 1/15 @ f2.0 ISO 100

Settings: 1/15 @ f4.0 ISO 100

Settings: 1/15 @ f4.0 ISO 100

how to take a professional self portrait

Settings: 1/15 @ f2.5 ISO 100

Top 5 Tips for Self Portraits

1. Have a Solid Plan

When I say plan I mean more like, these are my two concepts. I know I want to do this kind of light and this kind of light. Have your concepts contrast each other, so you can have a good variety in your final images vs everything looking the same. The entire point of this self-portrait exercise is to brush up on your lighting, posing, and creativity. So don’t do the same thing for every single concept. Also, having a plan doesn’t mean you have to stick to that plan exactly. I’m not suggesting you create a full script like, “I’m going to sit down at a 45-degree angle and hold my arm this way, and the lights going to come from this angle at 73-degrees.” All I am saying is have an overall idea of what you want to do, and then experiment from there.

2. Make Sure Your Gear is Prepped and Batteries are Fully Charged.

Charge your freaking batteries, man. What a rookie move on my part. So I had planned to use the FJ200 and the Rapid Box Octa-M Softbox to create a really nice soft light for the second scene, but I forgot to charge the batteries for the FJ200 and didn’t have any more backups. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to use the FJ200 in my weekend selfie shoot, but I was still able to create some really, really magical light using the FJ80. So it made me think maybe the FJ200 would have been a little bit too much light for that second scene because I was set up in this very small, narrow, and dark space.

3. When It Comes to Makeup, More is Right.

This tip is more about you as a person, not so much about your photo skills, but understanding makeup. This is something that’s really good to be able to communicate to your clients now that you’ve experienced it yourself. You want to make sure your makeup is on point, man, because you don’t want to spend so much time in Photoshop fixing things that could have been done right ahead of time. I’m saying this about light, I’m saying this about composition and posing, and I’m also saying this about your makeup. Get it right in camera so you don’t waste hours in post-production. 

When communicating this information to your clients about their makeup in preparation for their photoshoot, the thing you should heavily stress is: Less is NOT more, more is right. More is correct? I don’t know. You get my point here. I’m talking heavy, heavy contour. Stay away from highlighter and dewy makeup products because they’re just going to make you look oily in the pictures. You can always go in and add the look of highlighter in post-production if you want that look. But when it comes to contouring, you’re using artificial light to shape your body, which means you’re going to be shaping your jaw line too. So really, really enhance that contour on your cheekbones, on the edges of your forehead, and under your chin. Somebody on YouTube once told me that I need to have a “snatched” jawline, and I think this is exactly what they meant.

4. Your Poses Should Be Exaggerated… And It's Going to Hurt.

Posing is probably the most awkward thing to do when you’re by yourself, because you feel like you’re performing, but then there’s no audience, but then there’s just a camera stuck in your face and you’re doing all sorts of weird acrobatics. Your back is bent, and your knees are bent, but don’t forget to point your toes and have a good expression all while you’re thinking about these 800 different things going on. Understanding the importance of over-exaggerated posing is very important, especially if you’re going to be doing any kind of feminine portraiture for your clients. You need to know what it feels like to pretzel your way into some of these positions because you can’t expect your clients to do this intuitively and be comfortable doing so. These poses freaking hurt. I mean, my arms were trembling in some of them, but it’s all about your angles. So if you can explain to your clients, now that you’ve experienced the experience you’re giving to your clients, how to pose with the ability to relate and explain to them, “Yeah. It’s going to hurt for a minute. Just push through. I swear, it’s going to be worth it.” Then flip that camera around and show them how it was worth it– that’s when they’ll be mentally invested in the shoot and trust you fully. 

For me, I was doing a pose and I thought I was bending SO hard. Oh man, I’d go look at the camera and realize I look ridiculous. Or I thought I was really smiley, but all of my pictures in an entire sequence I had resting bitch face. So that’s fun. These are the things you will learn about yourself, and it will all help you learn how to communicate better to your clients.

5. Use Lighting and Set Design to Create the Mood.

Setting the mood for your images comes in many different forms. I’d say first and foremost, you set the mood with your lighting. Anybody can take a natural-light portrait. I think what will elevate your work from everybody else is that you can create a mood whenever, wherever. You don’t need to be held hostage by only being a natural light photographer. I mean, of course natural light is beautiful and it’s easy, but we have to stop being lazy as photographers. You need to be able to recreate the lighting in any situation, whether you have windows or don’t have windows, whether you have north light or west light or whatever it is. You need to be able to know your gear well enough that you can create these scenes and this mood for your clients.
 
Not only do you set the mood with your lighting, you do it with your set design as well. So get creative. I mean, we are photographers. We have the best jobs in the world. We get to create visual magic for our clients. So take some time and create a full set and mix things up. It doesn’t have to stay exactly as you set it from the get-go. Take a test shot. Does the light placement look right? Do your props in the scene look right? Adjust that stuff to make it right. Make it perfect.
 
What I would recommend doing here is create one (or a few different) set(s) so you don’t have to mess around with the details when you have actual paying clients. You can keep them set up in your studio space or take a picture of the setup so you can recreate it the next time you have a client photoshoot.

BONUS TIP: Take a Gradual Approach in Your Looks.

Your progression, for both clients and for yourself, should be a very gradual approach. Don’t do what I did. I did it backwards. You should always start with your lighter look with your hair and makeup. If your hair is going to be up eventually, start your shoot with the outfit where your hair is down and your makeup is a little bit lighter. Then you can build to the more dramatic looks from there.  
 
So I hope this inspired you guys to get out there and try some self-portraits. It’s super awkward, but it’s awesome because all you have to do is make sure your spouse, your significant other, your cat, your dog, your kids, I don’t care, kick them out. Have a weekend to yourself. If you can’t do a weekend, fit it into one day.
 
Definitely check out the Westcott FJ80 and the FJ-X2m Universal Wireless Flash Trigger. The Westcott system is beautiful and so simple to use. I only wish that I could have used the FJ200 this weekend, but maybe on my next self-portrait.