Master the art of self-portrait photography

A black-and-white image shot with a fisheye lens of Canon Ambassador Wanda Martin looking down at the camera, her long hair falling around her shoulders.
Portrait and fashion photographer Wanda Martin took this self-portrait while in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic. "The circular shape is a reference to self-isolation," she explains. "Romantic literature characters inspired my images, as did John Everett Millais' famous painting of Ophelia from Shakespeare's Hamlet." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 8mm, 1/640 sec, f/10 and ISO800. © Wanda Martin

Self-portrait photography offers an excellent opportunity for self-reflection. Something you can do wherever and whenever the mood takes you, self-portraiture not only extends the opportunity to get creative with lighting, backdrops and settings, it also allows photographers to gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to convey expression and personality.

Hungarian portrait and fashion photographer Wanda Martin honed her photography skills by shooting self-portraits inspired by her favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Today she shoots for a range of international magazines, including Vogue and Glamour, as well as brands such as Marc Jacobs, Dior and Burberry.

"Looking at those pictures now, I would probably do them quite differently, but self-portrait photography taught me a lot about composition, lighting, posing, set design, styling and post-production," she says. "When I started working professionally as a photographer I had less time for personal projects, so I stopped taking self-portraits. Now I'm going back to my origins."

Marina Karpiy is a wedding and portrait photographer who splits her time between Ukraine and Georgia. She used her time in lockdown to fill her Instagram feed with reams of creative selfies. Here, the two pros share their self-portrait tips.

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1. Light with care

"Reflected light cools the skin," Marina explains. "If you have white walls, use them to reflect the light, or create a 'reflector', using an A4 sheet of paper or anything with a shiny surface, to bounce the light off. This will reduce shadows and add a beautiful sparkle to the eyes."

Wanda is also a big fan of experimenting with whatever light sources you have to hand. "Matches, candles, desk lamps, Christmas tree lights… you can get really creative with light using things you have lying around the house," she says. "For example, if you want a spotlight, just grab a torch and wrap a plastic bag over the top to soften the effect.

"The most flattering light for your face, however, is soft, frontal lighting coming through a window, as it illuminates the face evenly, without any shadows. When the light is coming from the side, or from above or below, or if we use harder light, it can create a more dramatic effect, but it can be less flattering. Ultimately, the lighting you use depends on the mood and the message you want to convey."

Wanda Martin reclines on a low sofa, a sheet of material clipped to a rail behind her.
"My self-portraits reflect how women have been represented throughout the history of art," explains Wanda. "There's an element of liberation as a female photographer taking pictures of myself recreating the same poses." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/60 sec, f/6.3 and ISO3200. © Wanda Martin
A self-portrait of Marina Karpiy with her eyes closed, her hair falling over her face.
"The most important thing for me is light and colour, because I love everything neutral," says Marina Karpiy. "For me, white and beige is the perfect palette." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/1.4 and ISO100. © Marina Karpiy
A nighttime portrait of a model, city lights beautifully blurred in a bokeh effect behind her.

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4. Choose the right kit

When asked what she thinks is the best lens for self-portraiture, Marina opts for the 50mm. "I'm working with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens right now and the result I get with my Canon EOS R is amazing," she says. "The Canon EOS R has Eye AF so I don't need to worry about focus – I just look into the lens, and the camera does everything for me. The Canon EOS R also has built-in Wi-Fi and pairs with my smartphone via Bluetooth, so it's quick and easy to edit and share."

Wanda, who typically shoots on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, says she prefers to harness the flexibility of a zoom. "I usually use the same zoom for everything – a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, because it provides me with enormous versatility," she says. "You can create classic close-ups with a shallow depth of field, and you can also create more distorted wide-angle shots that give your images a certain character.

"I've been experimenting with self-portraits using a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. The distortion expresses how I feel about our weird reality [during lockdown] and the 'closed' circular images shot at 8mm somehow reflect that sense of isolation."

A black-and-white image shot with a fisheye lens of Wanda Martin recreating Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith in her garden.
Wanda's homage to Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith. "My flatmate is sunbathing in the background as a reference to our lockdown days. I used a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens and made it black and white in a nod to Dante's Inferno (1967), Ken Russell's BBC film about Rossetti," says Wanda Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at 8mm, 1/800 sec, f/6.3 and ISO800. © Wanda Martin
A black-and-white shot of Marina Karpiy holding her daughter.
"One of the most important things to capture in a self-portrait is the sparkle in the eyes," explains Marina. "That is what brings the portrait to life." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/2 and ISO100. © Marina Karpiy

5. Avoid camera shake

By its very definition, self-portraiture puts you in control. But, as Marina explains, there are ways to simplify the process. "A tripod is a must, or, at the very least, a flat, stable surface such as a table, a pile of books or a chair.

"If you're including children in the shot, continuous shooting mode is very useful, and the Canon EOS R can shoot up to 8fps [in One Shot AF mode], plus its vari-angle touchscreen is a boon for checking focus before I shoot. Also, because the Canon EOS R connects to my smartphone I don't need a self-timer – I use the Canon Camera Connect app and then hide the phone so it can't be seen in the photo."

6. Consider your aperture

Just as with lenses, the two photographers prefer different methods when it comes to capturing their self portraits: Wanda prefers manual shooting, whereas Marina chooses to shoot in Aperture priority (Av) mode.

"I like to be in complete control," says Wanda. "I always use a 10-second self-timer and set the focus manually. I wouldn't use a very wide aperture for self-portraits – the shallow depth of field means you could easily be out of focus, so I'd aim for between f/5.6 and f/8."

Wanda Martin recreating Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring in her living room.
"A modern take on Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, including some anachronistic elements, all shot within the confines of my living room," says Wanda. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/80 sec, f/8 and ISO2500. © Wanda Martin
Marina Karpiy drinking a coffee while sat cross-legged on a chair in her garden.
"Usually when shooting a self-portrait, I'm not looking at the camera," says Marina. "Because the Canon EOS R connects with my phone, it's convenient to look at the screen and fire off the shot using the Canon Camera Connect app." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 35mm F1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm F1.4L II USM) at 1/3 sec, f/1.4 and ISO200. © Marina Karpiy

Wanda Martin's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

The contents of Wanda Martin’s kitbag on a sheet, including a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III.



Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM

A L-series fisheye zoom lens offering a choice of full frame or circular image and a wide angle of view. "I've been experimenting with self-portraits using a fisheye lens," says Wanda. "The distortion expresses how I feel about our weird reality [during lockdown] and the 'closed' circular images shot at 8mm somehow reflect that sense of isolation."

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