Shooting Creative, Conceptual, Surreal or Fine Art Self Portraits: A How To Guide

I remember when I first discovered self-portraiture and realised I could use myself as a model in the images I wanted to create. I can honestly say it changed my entire approach to photography and opened so many doors that I previously thought were out of my reach. Initially, I used self-portraits as a solution to being too shy and anxious to ask anyone to pose for me and not being able to afford to pay a professional model. Over time it has become an integral part of my work, allowing me to express my ideas both as the photographer and as the subject and allowing a much deeper connection to my art.

Whatever your reasons for wanting to shoot self-portraits, once you have made the decision to explore this idea the question turns to the how? How do you manage being both behind the camera and in front of it at the same time?

While we live in the age of selfies and almost everyone has a few tips and techniques up their sleeves for including themselves in photos on holidays or with friends, shooting a creative or conceptual self-portrait is a little trickier. Over the years that I have been shooting self-portraits, I have tried many different techniques (some more successful than others) and by sharing them I hope to help other creatives who want to explore self-portraiture but don’t know where or how to start.

Essential Equipment

  • A camera – I use a Canon 5D Mark III but anything with the capability to take a photo works. I don’t shoot fine art images with my phone because I want them to be the highest quality possible for printing but if you are wanting to shoot creative self-portraits for purely online use like Instagram then a phone is definitely an option.
  • A tripod – when I say tripod I literally mean something to stand your camera on so you don’t have to be holding it. I have a tripod which I use most of the time but have also shot a number of images with my camera on the ground or a chair or whatever is handy. The important points are to make sure your camera is steady and reasonably secure.
  • A remote – not 100% essential but very useful. When I started out I didn’t have one and exclusively used the 10 second timer on my camera which involves a lot of running back and forth and missed timing. The remotes I use come from eBay, are $2-$3 and last for years, even when being thrown around (more on that later!). I also like the remote because it’s smaller and easier to conceal in the photo but if your camera has wifi or you are shooting with your phone there are also apps that allow you to use a phone or watch as a remote trigger.

Optional Extras

  • A laptop and cable for tethered shooting – this is a little more work and equipment but has made such a difference in being able to frame and compose my images.
  • Tethering software – I use a Canon program called EOS Utility. It comes with the camera but can also be downloaded free, just search for ‘download EOS Utility’. There is also free tethering software for Nikon and Sony cameras – I can’t speak from experience on these ones but they all generally have the same features.

Setting Up Your Camera

To use a remote or timer on your camera, you’ll need to change the drive mode. Depending on your camera, the drive mode is usually in the main on-screen settings (with your white balance etc.) and for normal shooting is usually set to Single Shot. Change it to a remote control option. On my camera, there are 2 remote options for a 10 second or 2 second delay, though these timings only apply when pressing the shutter on your camera. When using a remote the timing is determined by the remote itself – mine has a 2 second delay or instant shutter. Don’t worry if that seems too short a time, if you are using a remote you can be almost entirely in your pose before you trigger the shutter so 2 seconds is actually plenty of time.

Drive Mode Selection
Drive Mode Selection
Remote/10 Second Timer
Remote/10 Second Timer

Framing Your Shot

The biggest question I have been asked is how to frame yourself in the shot from in front of the camera.  There are a few options for this.

Camera Flip Screen

Some camera models have a screen that flips out to different angles, including right around so it can be seen from in front of the camera. The screens are generally small so you won’t see all the detail but you can use it to visually position yourself in the frame.

Remote Shooting Apps

I haven’t used these myself as my camera doesn’t have built-in wifi but I have seen them used and they are quite effective. An app allows you to mirror the screen on your camera on your phone or watch. You can also trigger your shutter from the app.

Tethered Shooting

This technique is slightly more involved and not always practical when shooting on location but it still remains my go-to method. I connect my camera to my laptop using a cable. The cable that comes with your camera for transferring shots works fine but can be a bit short so if you find it too limiting you may want to invest in a longer one. Professional tethering cables come in very long lengths and can be a bit pricey, but the connection type is actually pretty standard and lots of devices use them so see what you have around. I use the cable that came with my Wacom tablet which is just a bit longer, sit the computer on the ground near the tripod and works perfectly.

Once my camera is connected and switched on, I open EOS Utility and select the Live Shoot option. This opens a full screen window showing the view through your camera so you can get a good view of where you are in the frame and how your pose looks. I usually set this window to take up half my screen, then have the image I have just shot pop up in the other half. My process is then to use the live view to frame the shot and the image window to review the shot. Using this method has allowed much more control over the composition of my images and far fewer instances where I review the shots later and find that they were just slightly off.

Focusing the Shot

How do you focus the shot without the subject in frame to focus on?

Most remotes I’ve used will allow the camera to focus first once you trigger the remote. The only trick with this is to make sure your camera is set to focus where your body or face will be, you don’t want to focus on the arm you have stretched out pointing the remote at the camera and then have the shot be out of focus when you have moved that arm back. It can take a bit of practice to get used to but generally works quite well.

The second option is to use a stand-in. Place something in the frame where you will be and take a shot focused on that. Switch your lens to manual focus mode to lock this focus in place, then as long as you are in the same spot you will be in focus. You can also use a combination of the two methods by standing in place and letting your camera autofocus on you, then switching to manual.

What do I do with the remote?

You’ve framed your shot, got yourself into position and started to shoot but you obviously don’t want the remote in frame with you and you have 2 seconds to trigger the shot, get rid of it and get into your final pose. Here is where we get creative!

Throw it

It may not seem like the greatest idea to be throwing around camera equipment but these remotes are pretty hardy. I have thrown mine on all sorts of surfaces and never broken one. If you are worried you can always put a piece of clothing or blanket down out of your frame and toss your remote onto that for a softer landing.

Tuck it in somewhere

I have dropped mine into my lap or a pocket, dropped it down my top, concealed it in a hand that is not visible to the camera and clamped it between my teeth in shots that don’t show my face. Choose somewhere you can get it out of sight quickly and return to your pose.

Edit it out later

A remote is small and pretty easy to get rid of in post. Toss it on the ground and edit it out. Another method is to shoot a separate image with the remote in your other hand and edit the empty hand from the second shot into your final image.

Use the 10 second timer

Sometimes the only option is to not have a remote. If your framing allows you to be close enough to hit the shutter button on your camera, run back to your position and pose within 10 seconds then you won’t have to worry about hiding a remote. If you think 10 seconds isn’t long enough, try holding a very uncomfortable pose for that long – you’ll appreciate how much time it actually gives you!

Putting All the Elements Together

By now we have a number of elements to coordinate into one shot. Framing and holding a pose, while triggering a remote, getting it out of frame, returning to the pose and making sure you are in focus sounds like a lot to juggle and sometimes it can be. Self-portraits can be a bit of trial and error initially to find the process that works for you and I’ve found that everyone who shoots them regularly has a slightly different method based on their own experience and preferences. Keep trying and adjusting until you find what works for you. The beauty of self-portraits, especially with digital photography is that you can take as many shots as you need and no one else has to see the ones that don’t work out.

When you really can’t do it all yourself

What if you just can’t get all the elements to work?

Shoot in parts and edit them together

This can be as simple as switching out a hand without a remote in it to shooting several different shots to get all aspects of your pose the way you want them. This is also a good solution if you have limited space to shoot in or you want to create some surreal elements that you couldn’t physically do in one shot (levitation images are a great example of this).

Ask for help

You may not be comfortable inviting someone else into your creative space and that’s fine. I create almost everything on my own for this reason. On occasion though, I will ask my husband to press the shutter for me or hold something in the frame. He has seen enough of my work and the way I shoot to be completely supportive and non-judgemental, can follow the directions I give so the vision remains mine and can help me work out any technicalities that are just not working. In the image above, for example, the branch I was holding was heavy and unbalanced and there was no way I could hold it with one hand, trigger the remote and have the ‘tree’ standing up straight, by having my husband direct me on how to adjust the branch so it was straight and press the shutter I was able to get the image the way I wanted it. If you have someone you can work with in these situations it can be very helpful.

Everyone I’ve come across who creates self-portraits has a slightly different method of shooting and it’s all about putting together a workflow that works for you. Hopefully, these tips have been useful or have given you some new ideas on how to put your self-portrait shoots together.

What are your biggest technical challenges when shooting self-portraits?

What is the best tip or technique you have tried?