Selfies (or self-portraits) have a long and illustrious history. Renowned artists such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Carvaggio frequently painted themselves—sometimes hundreds of times—and Robert Cornelius gave the format new life in 1839, when he shot the first photographic selfie in history. Our fascination with our own reflection is clearly nothing new—it’s just that our ability to depict it has never been more democratic.
And while being able to capture our own image as we’d like to be seen is a great thing, it sometimes makes a person’s lack of photographic know-how way more evident. Everyone wants to look their best, but not everyone has the skills to make themselves look their best. Don’t worry—we can fix that.
The classic modern selfie is most commonly shot with the front-facing camera of a smartphone, so let’s start there. The two things you need to nail are the lighting and the pose. The camera will do the rest.
Use good light
The kind of light you use will determine how you look in your photos. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional model with a perfect runway pose—you just won’t look your best in the wrong light.
Good light flatters people by highlighting their good features and smoothing over any spots or blemishes, while bad light emphasizes weird things. You can see it clearly in the photos above.
The good light (on the right) highlights my eyes and emphasizes my rock-solid jawline, while the bad light (on the left) casts a heavy shadow over my face and gives me a double chin (thankfully, mostly hidden by my luscious beard). Good light also smooths over the small blemishes and random pimples on my near-flawless skin, while bad light draws attention to them. On the right, my eyes and lips are the focus of the photo, while on the left, the bad lighting draws attention to my strong nose and shapely forehead.
The low-wattage bulb directly overhead in the photo on the left is a dire source of portrait light, while a big window, like the one I used for the photo on the right, is a great one. Unfortunately, even while we’re talking about good and bad light here, it’s not really a binary. You’ll find a wide range of more- and less-flattering kinds of lighting that fall between these two sources—you won’t always have perfect light, but you can always use the best light available.
For selfies, these are some places that have great lighting:
- In the shade of a tree, alley, or building on a sunny day
- In a doorway or under a bridge
- In the open on an overcast day
- In the golden hour—the moments just before and after sunrise and sunset.
- Facing a big window when you’re indoors
On the other hand, here are some locations you should avoid when trying to find good light:
- In the open on a bright, sunny day
- Around midday on an overcast day
- Under overhead, indoor lighting
- In a dark bar or club
Ace that pose
Even the best light won’t make you look good if you’re glaring and over-pouting at the camera. It might seem obvious, but a good pose is essential to a good selfie. So before you hit the shutter button, keep in mind there are some simple things you can do to emphasize your good points.
First, check out our guide on how to pose for photos. Every tip in it applies doubly to selfies. By “squinching” and squaring your jaw you’ll draw more attention to where you actually want it—your face.
Next, you’ll need to position your smartphone. Ideally, you’ll want the camera just above your eye-line, angled slightly down. Too high, and you’ll look like a mid-2000s teenager posing for MySpace; too low, and you’ll just look weird.
How far away you hold your phone matters, too. Because of the laws of optics, the wide-angle camera on the front of your smartphone distorts your face a little, so the closer it is to you, the wider your face will look. This is the optical effect behind the “the camera adds 10 pounds” idea. On the other hand, you don’t want to look like you’re reaching. For most people, bending your arm to about 90 degrees will work best—but play around with it.
Once your phone is in position, remember the screen is not the camera. Use the screen to line up your shot, but when you’re ready to go, don’t just stare at yourself and make eye-contact with the camera instead.
Finally, while I’m fairly agnostic on the issue of filters and the like, you can always give your photo a finishing touch by trying an effect you like. Most smartphones or image platforms such as Instagram provide predetermined filters, so you can choose one there, or work on your own with image-editing apps such as Photoshop Express (available for Android and iOS) or Snapseed (available for Android and iOS).
But remember that filters cannot work magic, so no matter how many you use, they won’t fix a bad photo. Make sure you use good lighting and posing, so that when you’re done, you won’t even feel the need to browse for a filter.
Take some time to get creative
The best thing about selfies—and the reason so many artists have worked with this format over the years—is that you can take your time and get really creative. You don’t have to worry about paying models or photographers, making mistakes, or offending anyone. You can do whatever you like and see what works.
And since you’re already carrying a decent camera around most of the time, there’s really no need to upgrade your gear either. Sure, some of the more out-there options—like my levitation selfie above—are easier to do with a DSLR camera, a remote shutter release, and a tripod. But you can get the same results by propping your smartphone up and using the timer. The world is your oyster, and everything can be a prop or a tool.
Dig through your wardrobe, look on Instagram for inspiration, do something weird with your makeup, and have fun. It’s the best way to get photos of you being you.