I recently heard a story about a beach in the south of France that is trying to ban selfies from being taken there by tourists. Selfies get kind of a bad rep these days, and I think I know what the problem is: people don’t take them right. Even if you don’t consider yourself a photographer, or insist that you’re simply being spontaneous, it really takes almost nothing to turn that snapshot into something that, well, doesn’t look like a selfie. Here’s some quick tips about selfies:
1. Look at the lens.
This is easily the most important step. It’s a mistake I see way too often and it drives me nuts. Don’t look at your reflection if you’re using a mirror. Don’t look at the preview image on your phone. Look into the lens of your camera. That’s where you look when someone else takes your picture, it’s the same here. Check your framing, put your finger over the shutter button, look at the lens, and then take the shot.
2. Light and shadow make great dance partners.
Pretend your nose is north. Keep your light source (be it sun or bulbs) either northeast or northwest to keep your features from washing out. Far east or west will create strong shadows across your face. If you’re outside and it’s a bright, sunny day, try to stand near something light in color and use the bounced light to create softer shadows on your face. Overcast weather is best. If it’s snowy and overcast, you’ve got the greatest portrait studio mother nature can provide.
If, somehow, your only option for lighting is true north, expect to look like you don’t have a nose. The best solution to this: get those eyes nice and wide. They’ll catch the light and lure people’s attention away from those two little holes above your lips. Windows work both ways: stare at them with your soul.
3. Angles, angles, angles.
Cinematography 101: if you want something/one to look imposing, angle up. If the desired effect is the opposite, angle down. You don’t have to keep it perfectly level. In fact, angling up or down a little is fine, it can even enhance the finished product, give it a little character. It also can serve as a subtle visual cue. If you’re fairly short, angle down, and up a bit if you’re tall. It’s likely how most people see you anyway, and you want this portrait to represent yourself.
4. Two quickest fixes.
If your image quality isn’t very good, the two quickest ways to make it look better are either to shrink it and/or convert it to monochrome. The former hides compression artifacts and the latter will take out color noise. It’s also a quick fix to uneven skin tones, blotches, and some tan-lines. In fact, filters in general can liven things up. Sure, that vintage setting won’t fool a seasoned Lomographer, but that’s not the point, is it?
5. Lose your scalp, save your neck.
There’s an almost instinctive visual grammar to framing close-ups and portraits that most of us aren’t even aware of. If you can’t quite fit yourself in the frame (say, because you have enough sense to hide your arm), don’t worry about cutting off the top of your head. This doesn’t look nearly as silly or unnatural as having the portrait start at the tip of your chin.
6. VOGUE, VOGUE, VOGUE!
Apart from not looking into the lens, my biggest pet peeve about selfies is stupid mimetic crap like duck-lips. However, to be fair, at least it’s doing something. It’s your portrait, it’s not merely a document of your face; even the DMV can manage that for you. This is a document of the person that you are. Ham it up a little. Don’t like smiling? How about a smirk? Maybe tilt your head down or to the side and give a little squint. Got a good side? Show the goods. Glasses? Pull them down your nose a bit and look over the tops. Take them off and put the stem in your mouth like you’re chewing it. Raise an eyebrow or two. Do something with your free hand, even if it’s something nutty covering up one of your eyes or cute like putting a finger to your lips or tapping the tip of your nose. Salute. Stifle a laugh. Point. You’re more than just a pretty face.
Spontaneous does not have to mean rushed. Candid does not have to mean unrefined. These are all little tricks that add maybe seconds at best to what, on some levels, is the essence of portraiture: taking action to capture a moment. Make it count.