Self-portraits, or selfies, often get a bad wrap. But the art of self-portraiture is a journey every photographer should take, to understand what it’s like in front of the lens, not behind it. Here is a range of creative and abstract self-portrait ideas to pursue from home.
Words by Aaron Chapman
Did you know that you’re more likely to die from taking a selfie than from a shark attack? Revered documentary photographer, Martin Parr came across more horrifying statistics surrounding the number of deaths that occur while taking selfies when he was working on a photobook project aptly named Death by Selfie. During an interview about Death by Selfie with his agency, Magnum Photos, it was claimed that the number of selfie deaths were highest in India with 27 perishing in 2015, and 68 people in both 2016 and 2017.
What is it that compels us to turn the camera on ourselves and take a self-portrait or ‘selfie’? What compels us to risk death in order to post or share or tweet or snap our likeness into the digital ether?
Selfies are perceived as this relatively new phenomenon that accompanied the digital age but truth be told, the selfie is as old as photography itself. Despite the smartphone’s efforts to bring the art of self-portraiture into disrepute, the selfie game has been going strong for more than 100 years.
So, the answers to the above questions: self-portraiture is human nature.
The alleged first recorded selfie was taken by a photography enthusiast named Robert Cornelius in 1839. Self-portraits have been happening in various ways, shapes and forms ever since.
Much like Cornelius, any budding photographer should be practicing self-portraits. They don’t need to be tacky, and they don’t need to be shot with a top-of-the-range camera. A phone camera can do the trick so long as some basic considerations are made.
Get your gear together (tip: a tripod and self-timer or shutter cable release are pretty helpful!) and keep reading to gather some self-portrait ideas to practice at home.
Self-Portrait Ideas at Home
Coming up with self-portrait ideas at home can be challenging. But that’s precisely why you should be experimenting and practising with you as your own subject, in a location where inspiration may not always be found. And if you’re feeling anxious about stepping out from the comfort of being behind the lens, that should be all the motivation you need. Photographing in ways that are uncomfortable to you are all essential undertakings for improving your practice.
Before you begin, it’s best to familiarise yourself with your surroundings. Obviously, you’re at home, where you spend significant time… but familiarise yourself with your surroundings in a photographic sense. How does the light travel across the room? Where will you stage a self-portrait? What time of day will be best?
1. SILHOUETTE SELF-PORTRAITS
Silhouettes can give a moody air to any photograph. If you’re wanting to explore self-portrait ideas at home but aren’t entirely comfortable in front of the lens, then working with silhouettes is a great starting point and will encourage you to think more about your gesture and photo pose.
Underexpose your image so the outline of your figure is the predominant feature. Silhouettes work best with a harsher light source behind you as the subject, such as a window.
2. ACTION SELF-PORTRAITS
Giving yourself something to do in the self-portrait session always adds a dynamic quality. Instead of staring down the barrel of the lens, you might want to incorporate a prop or an action. This also helps to contextualise the self-portrait i.e. if you’re photographing yourself on the couch, why not be holding the television remote and be interacting with the television?
Urth ambassador, Tim Swallow divulges some essential advice for portraiture in Behind the Image: How Tim Swallow Shot This Effortlessly Fun Portrait, which is worth reading and applying the learnings through the lens of self-portraiture.
Creative Self-Portrait Ideas
3. DIPTYCHS OR TRIPTYCHS
Diptychs, or triptychs, are great ways of collecting a number of different looks or photo poses and presenting them as a unified self-portrait.
The limitation of photography is that a single image can struggle to tell an entire story. Multiple images paired together, on the other hand, can be incredibly effective in narrative making. Experiment with different self-portrait ideas and work different angles to uncover and combine complementary moments.
4. SHOOTING THROUGH MATERIALS
Urth ambassador, Dino Kuznik shares how he shoots through household materials like grease and broken glass in 6 Creative Portrait Ideas You Can Try at Home. See what transparent materials or objects you have lying around and see if you can use them to throw light and create a visually compelling creative self-portrait.
Abstract Self-Portrait Ideas
5. PHOTOGRAPHING DETAILS
Self-portraits don’t need to reveal entire faces. Much like silhouettes, photographing details can still depict a person’s likeness and provide a more intimate result. Try zeroing in on your features such as your eyes or smile and see how much character can be revealed through such a tight crop.
6. PARTIAL SELF-PORTRAITS
In the same vein, you can photograph individual features by partially covering the other parts of your face. Create a unique composition by including other elements in the frame and directing the viewer’s gaze to where you want it.
These abstract self-portrait ideas can be achieved by utilising generic household items like windows, curtains or even houseplants in the foreground of the image.
Self-Portrait Background Ideas
If you’ve tried all of the above, it’s time to experiment with some self-portrait background ideas. You can avoid having your dirty laundry on show by playing with makeshift backdrops such as sheets, curtains or just blank walls.
Got an interesting pattern, colour or texture you want to play with? Cut up the fabric (if needed), whether it’s a bed sheet or curtain and tape or hang it as a backdrop to give your self-portraits another layer of depth.
Sometimes less is more. All you need is a window and a blank wall to achieve outstanding results.
Selfies and self-portraiture are often perceived as selfish acts. Truth is, you need to be selfless to take creative and abstract self-portraits. We spend so much time exploring the world around us in photography that we underestimate the value of looking inward. Enjoy the reflective process!