Seven Things You Need for Self Portraits

By Zombie Photography

Self portrait photography is probably one of the easiest ways to get some portrait practice in. It allows you the opportunity to learn about lighting, posing, composition and even camera inner workings at your own pace. No need to worry about your model getting impatient or cranky while you mutter, “let me just tweak this” for the 187th time.

The absolute bare minimum you can get away with is a stable surface like a table or a desk, and you can do a 10-second dash. But why limit yourself to just that? By adding a couple items to your gearbag, you’ll have the flexibility to shoot in different locations, with different lighting, and so on.

So, here’s my list of what you need, which is fairly utilitarian, yet not bare minimum.

  1. Camera manual
  2. Tripod
  3. Shutter Remote (wireless recommended)
  4. Flash
  5. Off-camera flash transmitter/receiver set
  6. Reflectors
  7. Patience

Camera manual

This probably will seem obvious and I’m sure some people will raise their brow at my including this on the list. But what seems like common sense to one person won’t necessarily be to the next.

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Back when I got my first dSLR, the Pentax k10d, I decided to get some practice in doing self portraits using self timers. For whatever reasons, my pictures were never in focus, and I did everything I could think of to fix the problem. Everything except the one thing I should’ve done in the first place. I reset the factory settings. I changed lens. I eventually gave up and went through complicated dances to take SPs using manual focus.

After I complained to a photographer friend, who snidely told me to check the manual, I discovered that due to a quirk in Pentax cameras’ factory-set programming, the camera would focus before counting down the timer. If I had read the manual in the first place, I could’ve saved myself the trouble! All I had to do was change that menu setting so it’d focus after counting down. Duh. Definitely kicked myself for that.

Also, with some wireless remotes and certain camera brands, you may need to go through certain steps to sync the remote to the camera. Your manual will come in handy here. You didn’t chuck it, did you? If you did, check your camera company’s website – most of them offer pdf versions for free.

Don’t forget to check the section on selective focus. Because you’re not behind the camera, you need to plan your shoot in advance, and know where you’ll be standing, and you’ll want to set the camera up so it chooses the right thing to focus on – you. Otherwise it might decide that wall behind you is more interesting.

Like in the below snow picture – I forgot to change the camera from auto focus to selective, and it decided to focus on the shrubbery behind me. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until I’d already gotten home (it was damned cold that day!).

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As I said earlier, tripods give you flexibility in choosing your location. Go outside! Experiment!

Which tripod though? I don’t recommend the el-cheapos that you find in Walmart for $15. They are made of flimsy alum and/or plastic and usually very lightweight. You might think that’s a good thing – lightweight = portable, right? Nooo…light = top-heavy and flimsy. I had an el-cheapo that I picked up at a garage sale, thinking I had a bargain, but tossed it after a few months. Too many close calls! I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather pony up an extra $150 for a decent mid-range tripod rather than $1000-$3000 for new camera body and lens.

The exception to this rule is the GorillaPods with the bendy legs. Wrap the legs around something sturdy and they should hold just fine. I do suggest avoiding heavy lens though.

Wireless Shutter Remote

Once you get your camera and lights set up, as long as you stay in roughly one spot (because of the selective focus, remember?), there’s no need for you to trot back and forth to check the preview. A wireless remote gives you this freedom. $10-$20. Definitely worth it.

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Don’t kid yourself; you need to get a flash if you’ve any interest in portraits. Even if you intend to be natural light photographer, it’s always good to have the fundamentals under your belt. Do you want to say no to a request for a paid indoor shoot because you didn’t know how to use a flash?

There’s countless ways you can use the flash – night photography, fill lighting, indoor photography, studio photography, etc, etc. You do not need a high-end flash with the bells and whistles. A basic one will work just fine.

Off-Camera Flash receiver/transmitter

Remember my diatribe about how on-camera flash is evil and must be avoided at all cost? No? Take my word for it (or go read it). And then get this: Cowboy receiver/transmitter.

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You don’t need a fancy studio reflector. A simple white poster board, white wall, even white sheet will do. It helps even out and soften the harsh flash.


It takes some practice to get the hang of doing self portraits!



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