How to Take Dynamic Self-portraits at Home, Using an iPhone
A comprehensive guide to natural-light selfie photography.
As a (strange but explicable) hobby, I’ve been taking selfies over the past few weeks. This hobby began in September, when I encountered a spot of interesting lighting in the hallway bathroom at my parents’ house. It was late afternoon, and the sun was shining through a small window and bouncing off the bathroom door, illuminating the bathroom with both direct and diffused lighting. I was at the sink, washing my hands, when I leaned forward and noticed in the mirror the direct sunlight acting as a spotlight on the left side of my face, and the reflection of the sunlight off the door acting as a bounce light on the right side of my face. So I grabbed my iPhone, opened the camera, set the camera mode to Portrait, and snapped this dramatic selfie:
I was fascinated by this image — not because it’s an image of myself (silly goose), but because it’s a good, dynamic, interesting image that I took on a whim, in natural lighting, in my parents’ hallway bathroom, using the front-facing camera on my phone — meaning, I was able to capture this image in seconds, using common tools and in an environment that was already available to me. And this excited me, and it got me thinking, What else can I do with this camera?
So I took more selfies over the next few weeks, staying true to the original principles of using only my iPhone and shooting exclusively in natural light. Here are a few of my favorites:
I’m not saying that these pictures are great; I’ll let you decide this. I’m also not saying that I look great in these pictures; this is not the point. I am saying, though, that I think these pictures are good. And I think they’re good because I’ve adhered to principles that have enabled them to be so, as well as developed reliable techniques for achieving certain effects with editing, all of which I’d like to share with you in this article.
Maybe you need to update your profile picture; maybe you want to document changes to your face over time; maybe you need to shoot a book cover or an album cover, but your budget won’t cover studio photography; maybe you’ve been asked to speak at an event and you need to supply the event planners with a portrait of yourself to use for marketing, and they want the portrait by tomorrow; or maybe you just want to improve your selfie game — whatever the reason, taking good pictures of yourself is a useful skill to develop. And, as I’ve learned over the past few weeks, you can develop this skill at home, with tools that are already available to you.
⏩ What you put into your camera will be qualitatively proportional to what you get out of it, so employ principles to reliably capture great images. The purpose of a selfie is to show yourself to other people, so relax, capture moments that display your personality, and direct the viewer’s attention to your face.
Although it is possible to improve any photo with editing, it is impossible to improve any photo to such a degree that a bad photo becomes good or a good photo becomes great (unless you’re really good at editing and have tons of time); the ultimate quality of a photo is determined primarily by the light that passes through the aperture of the lens and hits the camera’s sensor at the time of taking the photo. In other words, the ultimate quality of your selfies will be determined when you take them, not afterward; indeed, what you put into your camera will be qualitatively proportional to what you get out of it.
And the reasons for this are simple if not obvious: first, because a house with a faulty foundation will invariably crumble; and second, because the point of editing images after taking them is, not to alter the images, but to enhance them — to minimize their weaknesses and maximize their strengths. Thus, if the initial ratio of strengths to weaknesses favors weaknesses, then your selfies will be net weak no matter how much you bring out their strengths.
And this is where the term dynamic becomes relevant. Dynamic refers both to contrast and variation as well as to application. A dynamic selfie is one that leverages principles of photography to create a compelling image, as well as one that can be used in — or manipulated so as to be used in — multiple contexts. Thus, the following principles will enable you to take dynamic selfies — and to do so reliably, such that you get good, usable images every time you shoot.
Start with Why
The purpose of a photograph is, fundamentally, to communicate, or to transmit information. Thus, the subject of a photograph is always that which the photographer wishes to communicate to viewers. A meal, a product, a person, a situation, a landscape — all of these are captured by the photographer with the intention, not merely of printing, posting, or publishing, but of showing other people. “Look!” the photographer says with every frame.
For selfies, then, the subject is always yourself, and the intention is always to show yourself to other people. (If you’re like me, you may be more interested in lighting and colors and composition, but consider that I nevertheless just showed you a bunch of pictures of myself.) Thus, your goal as a selfie photographer should be twofold: first, to present yourself in a way that accurately (or, at least, adequately) conveys your personality; and second, to direct all attention to your face.
Convey Your Personality
The best photographs tend to be those of moments, or spontaneity; in such photographs, subjects are relaxed and honest. Thus, the best photographers tend to be those who capture moments. This is why many studio photographers play music during photoshoots, or why many models request it; the music enables both the photographers and the models to be loose — to move — which looseness enables them to produce and capture moments.
So relax, move, and seek to capture moments, as this will ensure that the light that reaches the sensor inside your phone’s camera contains, as it were, your DNA, and that the image that the light produces is representative, not of your poses, but of your personality. If the goal of selfie photography is to communicate yourself to other people (and not simply to look good in their messages or on their feeds), then be yourself, and simply capture moments of yourself being yourself.
Direct Attention to Your Face
Effective photographs are those of a single, clear subject. In writing, what matters most is the main idea; in music, what matters most is the lead vocal; and in photography, what matters most is the subject. All other elements of composition serve to support, elevate, and enhance the main element, which element, in the case of self-portraiture, is yourself.
So your task as a selfie photographer is to direct the viewer’s attention to yourself. And you can do this, above all, by making yourself the largest object in the frame. This will draw attention to you as the subject, as it will place you “closest” to the viewer.
But the part of yourself that is most important in a selfie is your face. So in addition to directing the viewer’s attention to yourself, your task is to direct the viewer’s attention to your face. And although there are many ways to do this, I’ve distilled these ways into three, the combining of which is most effective: with composition, with contrast, and with clarity.
- Composition refers to the organization of elements within a frame. This includes placement and relative sizes of objects.
- Contrast refers to the dynamic range of attributes such as light and color (and texture). This includes the amount of light as well as hue, saturation, and brightness.
- Clarity refers to depth and detail. This includes sharpness, definition, and focal length (depth of field).
We (humans) perceive the world subjectively (duh), and we receive cues from our environments that enable us to distinguish between objects, thus enabling us to orient ourselves both in space generally and in relation to other objects specifically. Objects in the world are larger, brighter, sharper, more saturated, more contrasted, and more detailed the closer they are to us, and, for obvious reasons, we tend to pay attention to things that are closer to us than we do to things that are further away from us. Thus, if you place yourself close to your camera — close to your viewer — you will likely be the thing in your photo that is largest, brightest, sharpest, most saturated, most contrasted, and most detailed, and will consequently receive the most attention from your viewer.
But this is not always the case for your face. As an example (sort of), let’s look at the following image of a canyon in the Rocky Mountains.
The objects closer to the camera (the trees and rocks in the foreground) are larger, brighter, sharper, more saturated, more contrasted, and more detailed than the objects that are further away. And this is because of perspective as well as particles in the atmosphere that are interacting and interfering with light as it bounces around the canyon, thus muting objects as they move into the distance. However, these closer objects do not receive the most attention from the viewer — at least, not from me. And this is likely because of their size relative to the frame: they take up only about a fourth of the image, thus reducing their precedence.
So where does my eye (and my attention) go instead? Probably the same place as yours: first to that orange sky, then to the peak beneath it, and then, finally, to the lakes — those two specks of orange — in the middle of the image. But why the lakes, if these are further away from us, lack detail, and are desaturated?
Three reasons: first, because the composition of the image is such that the lakes are in the middle of the image (which is also the largest section of the image), and they are surrounded by hills, the slopes of which create lines that guide the eye to them; second, because the contrast between the bright orange color of the lakes and the muted blues, purples, and grays of the terrain is strong and interesting, as is the contrast between the texture of the lakes (smooth and shiny) and the texture of the terrain (rough and matte); and third, because the lakes are sharp and clear.
You can use these same principles, or techniques, to guide the attention of the viewer to your face in your selfies. Let’s look at one of my own selfies as an example, side-by-side with a marked-up version to show you what’s happening.
There’s a lot going on in this image that makes it compelling: I am relaxed; I am the only object within the frame; my face is placed optimally (more on this later), and it is the largest, brightest, sharpest, most detailed, most saturated, and most contrasted part of the image; the lines of the light, my neck, the seam of the wall and the ceiling, and my shoulder all lead, from opposite angles, to my face; and I’m wearing simple clothing, which contrasts well with the complexity of my hair and face.
However, note that none of these factors were added in post (although they were all enhanced); all of these factors were present when I took the photo. And I didn’t even crop the image; what you see is exactly what my camera saw, albeit stylized. And the result is that you simply cannot look away from my nostrils. ;)
⏩ Find (or create) cool lighting, set your camera mode to Portrait, place your face in an optimal position in the frame, adjust your camera’s exposure, and then take a bunch of pictures.
Step 1: Find Cool Lighting
The critical factor for determining whether a portrait is good or bad is, not the camera used to take the portrait, nor the photographer who takes it, nor the subject’s ability to make a decent face (although all of these are important); the critical factor is lighting. The difference between a stale image and a dynamic image is always the way light interacts with the subject. So if you think about your pictures less in terms of camera or subject or pose or expression and more in terms of light, you’ll take better pictures. And this is for two main reasons: first, because light creates contrast, and contrast creates shapes, which shapes are recognizable to viewers as features, thus making the general content of an image discernible and the specific content (such as the subject) distinguishable; and second, because light directs attention. An image that is uniformly lit prefers no object in its frame; each object has the same weight and value as the others. However, if part of an image is brighter than another, then this part will take precedence in the mind (and to the eye) of the viewer.
So find a place in your home that has strong, interesting lighting — maybe one that receives direct sunlight in the morning or afternoon — and use this light both to define the contours of and to draw attention to your face. Windows tend to work well at any time of day. Or turn on a strong lamp. In general, though, avoid using overhead lights, as these typically provide uniform lighting to a space, which lighting is useful but uninteresting. Also, it may help you to think about light as a tool — as an element that you can control to achieve certain effects. For example, if one side of your face is too bright, then diffuse the light with something opaque, like a pillowcase or a bedsheet, or simply step away from it. If one side of your face is too dark, then bounce light onto it by moving closer to a reflective wall, or hold up a piece of paper in the light and angle it at the dark side of your face. If your head is floating or your hair is disappearing into the background, then add a lamp behind you.
You can control light by turning lights on and off, placing lights in various locations, using different-temperature bulbs, bouncing light off of walls or boards or paper or mirrors (or even just your hand), and diffusing light with lampshades or bedsheets.
💡 Generally, if shooting against a light background, wear dark clothing; and if shooting against a dark background, wear light clothing. This will create contrast that will separate you, the subject, from the rest of the elements in the image. Further, consider wearing simple clothing, as this will contrast well with the complexity of your hair and face, thus drawing attention to your face.
Step 2: Switch to Portrait Mode
Use the front-facing camera on your phone (so you can see what you’re doing), and switch the camera mode to Portrait, as this will simulate depth of field by blurring the background of your image, thus separating you from everything else within the frame.
💬 If your phone does not support Portrait Mode on the front-facing camera, then either ask someone to shoot for you, or shoot blind using the back-facing camera, checking periodically to ensure that you’re capturing what you mean to capture. I know this is not ideal, but for your selfies to be dynamic and compelling, you’ll need the separation of yourself from the background that comes with depth and focus. Alternatively, and if you have the equipment, mount your phone to a tripod and then use the camera’s timer to take timed photos.
Step 3: Position Yourself within the Frame
Composing an image is a process of creating contrast to balance the frame and direct the viewer’s attention to your subject. For selfies, this means using light, shapes, colors, motion, textures, symmetry (or asymmetry), etc. to guide the viewer through the image to your face. The distance and angle of your camera; the size, angle, and placement of your face within the frame; the ratio of your face to your body and your body to everything else — these factors and more provide cues for the viewer that indicate what is important in your composition, and thus where they should focus their attention.
When composing my own selfies, I’m usually adhering to the rule of thirds, placing my face at intersections within the grid, and I also tend to create diagonal lines (examples below). You’ll notice that in most of my selfies, my body fills the space opposite my head, as this balances the composition. I also tend to divide areas of light and areas of darkness along the diagonal lines, as well as areas of complexity/simplicity and sharpness/blurriness. Note, however, that most of this happens naturally; I simply look at the image on my iPhone screen and do what feels right and looks good to me.
Composition is an abstract, elusive aspect of photography that seems to work when it works and not work when it doesn’t. So when in doubt, rely on the following principle: if it looks good, it is good.
💡 To help you position yourself optimally within the frame, toggle on Grid in your camera’s settings. (Go to Settings > Camera > Grid.)
Step 4: Set Focus and Exposure
Next to lighting, exposure is the most important factor in determining the quality of your images. Exposure refers to the amount of light that passes through the camera’s lens to the camera’s sensor. This amount is determined by the size of the lens’s aperture, or the opening through which light enters the camera through the lens (think pupil). Higher exposure levels indicate a wider aperture, thus allowing more light to pass through the lens to the camera’s sensor; and lower exposure levels indicate the opposite. By default, iPhones set exposure automatically, which is useful for general picture-taking but not for dynamic photography. So always manually set the exposure levels to ensure that you’re capturing light, not as your iPhone wants you to see it, but as it really is (or as you want your iPhone to see it).
To adjust your camera’s focus and exposure, tap anywhere on the screen; iPhone will automatically focus and expose wherever you tap. And to adjust the exposure after tapping, simply swipe up or down.
When adjusting exposure, the goal should be to reveal detail. Too much light will remove detail from the highlights, and not enough light will remove detail from the shadows. So if the bright areas of your image are blown out (meaning, white with no detail), then decrease the exposure until the detail in the bright areas appears and the image looks normal to you. And if the dark areas of the image are crushed (meaning, black with no detail), then increase the exposure until the detail in the dark areas appears and the image looks normal to you. Sometimes, you have to exchange detail in one area for detail in another (as we’ll see later). In these cases, simply adjust the exposure until the image looks optimally good to you.
💡 To prevent your iPhone from automatically adjusting focus and exposure between shots, lock auto-focus/auto-exposure: tap the area of the image that you want to be in focus and exposed, hold your finger there until you see the yellow “AE/AF LOCK” badge at the top of the interface, and then drag your finger up or down to set the exposure. Alternatively, for exposure, and if you’re using an iPhone 11 or later, tap the ﹀ icon at the top of the interface and then tap the ± icon to reveal the manual-exposure slider.
Step 4: Take Lots of Pictures
Relax, move, and capture moments. Most of the photos you take will be garbage, so just know this going in (it’s normal), and compensate by taking lots of photos. All you need is one good photo, so just keeping snapping and moving and capturing moments until you get it.
💡 You will be tempted to look at the screen instead of the lens while shooting. Look at the lens. Also, try to hold positions for at least one second, to give your iPhone enough time to process the current image and prepare to take the next. There’s a lot of processing that happens when iPhone takes pictures in Portrait Mode, and sometimes, if you’re moving quickly, the phone falls behind, and you end up as I do, with pictures that are blurry because you moved too soon or in which your eyes are half closed because you blinked too soon. So take your time.
⏩ The purpose of editing is either to enhance or to conform or both. To edit a selfie, first identify the merits of the selfie and then apply adjustments to enhance these merits — crop if necessary, and adjust contrast, color, and clarity so that the image reflects your personality and draws attention to your face.
There are infinite ways to edit photos, and all of them depend, fundamentally, on your intentions for the photo. If your intention is to use the photo as a profile picture, then simply enhance the photo where and how you think necessary to best portray your personality and your face. If your intention is to add the photo to a collection — say, a collage or a gallery or a feed — then, in addition to enhancing the photo, conform the photo so that it matches the other photos in the collection. Thus, the purpose of editing is twofold: first, to enhance; and second, to conform.
To demonstrate, we will edit one of my own selfies, using the Photos app. And for the sake of simplicity, we will do so according to my own process and style. (You’re welcome to download the selfie and follow along, of course; just save the image below). I prefer a low-contrast, desaturated, filmic look, so this is what we will create. And to show you that it is possible to get good, dynamic images anywhere by adhering to the principles in the first section of this article, we will edit the following moody photo, which I took yesterday afternoon, without any preparation, in my normal, non-moody living room.
The primary light in this image is coming from a sliding glass door to my left, and the secondary light (the light hitting my hair) is coming from that small window behind me. And although the image is dark (which we’ll fix), it works, and it works for many reasons: there are two light sources of contrasting temperatures and intensities (cool and soft from the door, warm and hard from the window); the light from the window is bright, creating an outline of my silhouette and separating me from the background; I’m wearing simple clothing; I untucked the hair behind my right ear to frame my face, providing contrast both in brightness and in color between the shadow on my face and the dark background; and I twisted my body and tilted my head to create a curve that leads through the composition to my face.
Step 1: Adjust Composition
This image is well composed, and there are aspects of it that I notice and like immediately. The first is the angle (dramatic, skewed, and low), the second is the contrast (warm on one side, cool on the other; light on one side of my face, shadow on the other; head in one corner, body in the other; etc.), and the third is the geometry (there are diagonal lines everywhere). Here’s what I mean:
However, there is one aspect of this image’s composition that I notice and dislike immediately: given the angle of the camera in relation to my head, my head looks small and my face looks squashed; it’s subtle, but it’s there. So, let’s improve this by adjusting the composition.
- At the bottom of the editing interface, tap the crop-rotate icon to open the composition parameters.
- To compensate for the low angle of the camera, and to pull my head forward (thus un-squashing it), let’s decrease the Vertical Tilt to −3.
- Since adjusting the vertical tilt alters the spacing at the top of the frame, let’s crop the image by zooming in, to restore balance.
💡 To ensure that your photo is balanced when cropping, flip the image by pressing the left-and-right-triangles button in the top-left corner of the interface. If the image looks good from both orientations, you’ve got it right.
Step 2: Correct Depth
Since cropping the image simulates moving closer to our subject, let’s decrease the depth of the image by adjusting the simulated focal length of the camera lens. (Note that if you downloaded the image and are following along, you will not be able to perform this step, as the image you downloaded is a simple JPEG file and as such does not contain Portrait Mode data.)
- Switch to Portrait editing by tapping the Portrait icon (cube) at the bottom of the interface.
- Tap the Depth Control button (f) in the top-left corner of the interface.
- Drag the slider down to 3.5.
Step 3: Adjust Contrast — Light
To capture this image, I had to exchange detail in the shadows for detail in the highlights; increasing the exposure both reduced the contours of my face and blew out the window behind me, drawing too much attention to it (and thus away from my face), so I decreased the exposure until it was optimal for the shooting conditions. However, this made the image dark and difficult to discern, so we’ll need to fix this now. And to do so, and to achieve the low-contrast look that we’re going for, we’ll brighten the image and then compress the values of the image, thus decreasing their dynamic range — in other words, we’ll raise all of the values of the image and then lighten the dark values and darken the light values, bringing each closer to each other.
- To switch from the Crop-Rotate tab to the Adjust tab, tap the Adjust icon (dial) at the bottom of the interface.
- To raise the black level of the image, thus increasing the point at which the values in the image become “black,” let’s decrease the Black Point to −10.¹
- Since the image is dark and we’re losing detail in the shadows, let’s increase the Brightness to +54. Now, all of the edits we make will be relative to this brighter image.
- To compress the values of the image, thus evening them out by bringing them closer to each other, let’s decrease the Contrast to −29.²
- Although we’ve revealed detail in the shadows by increasing the brightness, we’re still losing energy here, so let’s increase the Shadows to +32.
- All of this work on the contrast and shadows has left the image a little flat, so let’s add some juice by increasing the Brilliance to +13. (💡 This is a magic parameter, so alter sparingly.)
- Since adjusting the brilliance made the overall image too bright, let’s compensate by decreasing the Exposure to −3. (We’ll decrease the exposure instead of the brilliance because I like what the brilliance is doing to the image, and decreasing the exposure decreases the values of the whole image equally, such that the whole image becomes darker but retains the brilliance edit.)
¹ If on a scale of 0–100 black = 0 and white = 100, then raising the black level to 20 would make the relative black value of the image 20 — meaning, all colors would range in value from 20 to 100, not from 0 to 100. Thus, the darkest possible color in the image would be 20, not 0, and any value below 20 would be raised to 20.
² To illustrate what’s happening here, at −100 the image is almost entirely a single shade of gray. This is because the halfway point between black and white is gray, and decreasing the contrast of the image pulls the values in the image toward the halfway point.
Step 4: Adjust Contrast — Color
To achieve the desaturated (faded) look that we’re going for, we will reduce and compress the saturation of the image, thus decreasing the dynamic range of the colors.
- To desaturate the colors, let’s decrease the Saturation to −6.
- To compress the contrast in saturation between the colors, thus evening out the overall saturation in the image, let’s decrease the Vibrance to −12.
- To bring back some of the color that we’ve just removed, and to enhance the warm tones of the orange light in the scene, let’s increase the Warmth to +18.
- Since the colors of images taken on iPhones tend to skew green (just a personal observation), let’s remove some of this green by shifting the hue of the image towards red, which we can do by increasing the Tint to +12.
💡 To compare your edits to your original image, simply tap the image.
Step 5: Adjust Clarity
The low-light shooting conditions made it difficult for my camera to focus on my face. So to compensate for this, let’s adjust the image’s clarity.
- Increase the Sharpness to +26. (💡 To avoid over-sharpening, increase the sharpness only until the relevant parts of your image come into focus, and then stop; any more than this is likely too much.)
- To add local contrast and bring back a touch of dynamic range in the values, let’s increase the Definition to +18.
- Finally, to darken the edges of the frame, thus directing greater attention to my face, let’s increase the Vignette to +4.
And here is the final image, side-by-side with the original:
And that’s it! I hope you’ve found this information useful, and that it has inspired you to take interesting, compelling, dynamic selfies, using the tools and environments already available to you. If you have questions, just send me emails.