8 tips for stunning self-portraits

Photographer Amaal Said shares her expert techniques for transforming an ordinary selfie into a creative self-portrait.
A portrait of photographer and poet Amaal Said with her eyes closed, a flowing red headscarf pulled wide over her shoulders.

Selfies have become an instinctive and creative way to record our lives, whether that's a precious moment worth celebrating or as a form of self expression. But how can you elevate a standard selfie into a professional-quality self-portrait?

London-based self-portrait photographer and poet Amaal Said has attracted more than 23k social media followers and says her artistic selfies have been a great way to chronicle her journey – both personal and photographic. "Self-portraits have always been a portal to my past self," she says. "I can see how I was feeling at a particular time in my life – and I love that, over the years, I've become better at photographing myself."

Here, Amaal shares her expert techniques on how to create self-portraits you'll want to share, print and keep forever. She also demonstrates how easy it can be to capture your own special moments by handing the camera to her sister, and guiding her and her husband through setting up an informal self-portrait shoot in a park.

1. Start on Auto and work up

Photographer and poet Amaal Said wearing a red patterned headscarf. A vase of red flowers is partly obscuring her face.

Most entry-level cameras feature a Portrait mode – the results will depend on the camera, but images are usually less sharp overall to keep skin texture nice and soft. Taken on a Canon EOS M6 Mark II with a Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM lens at 1/60 sec, f/1.4 and ISO200. © Amaal Said

Auto mode is a great place to begin, advises Amaal. "If you're a complete beginner don't be ashamed of using the automatic settings on your camera," she says.

Useful camera settings such as Self Portrait and Portrait mode, which both feature on the Canon EOS M6 Mark II and other entry-level models such as the Canon EOS 250D, help to blur backgrounds, bring out skin tones and soften hair.

For more control over depth-of-field, try shooting in Aperture Priority (Av) mode. This semi-automatic mode allows you to choose the aperture – the size of the opening in a lens through which light passes – with lower apertures letting more light in. For an out-of-focus background, opt for a wide aperture, such as f/1.4.

Choosing a wide-aperture lens designed for portraits will also help you to achieve a distinct look. Amaal particularly loved working with the Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM lens. "I love a blurred background and you can achieve that with a wide aperture. Letting in more light helps to isolate the subject from the background," she explains.

She also often uses a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM) because she prefers self-portraits that focus on her face. "It just feels closer," she says. You can attach any lens from Canon's huge range of EF and EF-S lenses to the Canon EOS M6 Mark II using the small, light Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS M.

2. Location, location, location

Two hands adjusting the settings on the back of a Canon EOS M6 Mark II camera attached to a tripod.

Amaal guided her sister through using the Canon EOS M6 Mark II for an informal portrait shoot in a local park. © Amaal Said

A portrait of a man standing in a park framed by autumn leaves.

Whether you're outside in a leafy park or working in a makeshift studio setup, your background can enhance the mood of your final images. Taken on a Canon EOS M6 Mark II with a Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.6 and ISO100. © Amaal Said

"It's important to know what kind of background you want, and finding the right location is key for setting the mood," says Amaal. "I love shooting portraits in parks to capture a range of pictures in different settings. It's important to find somewhere quieter so you're not interrupted by other people while taking your shot."

An environment can transform the mood of a self-portrait, but sometimes a blank canvas can help, she says. "I have a white wall in my bedroom, so I usually use that as my background and wear something colourful to stand out. But you might have a corner in your garden, or somewhere in the house you can set up a tripod. It's important that your background isn't too busy or messy."

3. Play with light and composition

A close-up portrait of a woman in a red headscarf holding a plant up against her face.

Amaal often likes to shoot her self-portraits against a plain white background so that there are no distractions in the frame, and to position herself slightly off-centre. She also recommends allowing enough space around your face so that you can play around with the crop. Taken on a Canon EOS M6 Mark II with a Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.4 and ISO200. © Amaal Said

"I really love the warm tones of the golden hour," says Amaal, which is around sunrise or sunset. "A softer sun is always good. You might want to avoid shooting in harsh sunlight because it creates a lot of shadow. I've also shot on overcast days and you can still make that work – just ensure you adjust your settings to suit the light."

When it comes to composition, Amaal recommends removing any distractions in the frame. "Adjust as you go along and experiment with positioning yourself at different angles," she says. "The photograph completely changes when you're a little off centre, so you can play around with that."

Leaving space around your image also offers extra options when cropping for Instagram. "I usually shoot my self-portraits in landscape mode because I like having the extra space on both sides to play with," she adds.

4. Visualise in colour

A layered portrait image showing Amaal Said in a pink headscarf, looking in two directions.

Experimenting with colour and fabrics is a great way to make striking portraits – Amaal has opted for a palette of soft pinks and purples for this multiple exposure self-portrait. Taken on a Canon EOS M6 Mark II with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS M and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens at f/1.8, 1/30 sec and ISO600. © Amaal Said

Experimenting with colour palettes can help you to express your personality. "I always start with how I feel and then go from there," Amaal explains. "Sometimes I want something moody and I'll dress accordingly, or I might be excited about a new lipstick that I want to wear for a self-portrait.

"I love colour. I introduce it into my self-portraits mainly through my hijab and my lipstick, but you can utilise colour in so many ways. Experiment by attaching fabrics to a wall or draping them over something tall. You can bring in colour through flowers too.

"Planning colours out in advance is always a great way to make sure you get a strong self-portrait. Think about whether the colours you're wearing fit in with the background – or whether they don't set you apart from it enough. Colour is especially important in engagement or wedding self-portraits because you want you and your partner to be the main element in the image."

5. Learn to relax

A self-portrait of photographer and poet Amaal Said in a pink headscarf. Her face is reflected in a small, round mirror she is holding.

Holding a small mirror next to your face gives your hands something to do, and also enables you to experiment with some creative compositions. Taken on a Canon EOS M6 Mark II with a Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM lens at 1/80 sec, f/1.4 and ISO320. © Amaal Said

"The good thing about self-portraits is that there isn't someone else behind the camera closely watching your face," says Amaal, who adds that props, such as flowers and mirrors, can help people to feel at ease in front of the lens, and provide an opportunity for some creative experiments.

"Usually people say they don't know what to do with their hands and this is completely normal. That's why I recommend holding something to begin with." You might find it helpful to wear fancy earrings or a huge necklace because it gives your hands something to hold on to.

6. Use a tripod and a self-timer

A couple standing in the woods, captured on the touchscreen of a Canon EOS M6 Mark II attached to a tripod.

Amaal advised her sister to attach the Canon EOS M6 Mark II to a tripod and to use the tilting touchscreen to help compose her shots. © Amaal Said

A couple standing in a woodland scene, framed by a tree's autumn leaves.

She also recommended setting a timer so the couple had a few seconds to get into position and compose themselves. Taken on a Canon EOS M6 Mark II with a Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.6 and ISO100. © Amaal Said

Amaal used the compact, lightweight 32.5MP Canon EOS M6 Mark II with its 180° tilting touchscreen and built-in Wi-Fi to shoot her self-portraits, and recommends attaching it to a tripod and using the self-timer.

"The Canon EOS M6 Mark II is a wonderful camera to experiment with, and setting up the self-timer is super-easy," she explains. "You can choose a two or 10-second timer, but I opt for the 10-second timer because I like to have enough time to prepare myself," she adds.

Tilting the touchscreen to face you is also a really useful way to compose your shots while you're stood in front of the camera.

7. Shoot portraits remotely

A hand adjusting the flip-up touchscreen on a Canon EOS M6 Mark II fixed to a tripod.

The flip-up touchscreen on the Canon EOS M6 Mark II means you can compose your shots from any angle, or tilt the screen to face you while you're stood in front of the camera. © Amaal Said

A woman smiles for the camera with her eyes closed. The bunch of red flowers she is holding partially obscures her face.

If your camera doesn't have a flip-up touchscreen, you can try adjusting the focus while holding an object in front of the lens, and then moving into the same position. Taken on a Canon EOS M6 Mark II with a Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.4 and ISO250. © Amaal Said

The Canon Camera Connect app enables you to connect a Wi-Fi enabled Canon camera to an Apple or Android device for remote shooting. Being able to use your smartphone to view the image and fire the shutter makes it much easier to capture beautifully sharp portraits. "If you don't want to keep going back to your camera to check whether your shots are in focus, the Camera Connect app is a lifesaver," says Amaal. "It is also really useful if you're changing positions."

The flip-up touchscreen on the Canon EOS M6 Mark II is also handy for ensuring faces are in focus. "Being able to flip the screen over to see how you look is incredible – and saves so much time," says Amaal.

Amaal likes her images to be pin-sharp and awash with colour, so she uses a mixture of methods to ensure everything is sharply focused. "A method I've used in the past, when I didn't have a camera with a flip-up screen or remote shooting, was to hold an object in front of the camera – usually flowers – focus on it and then move into the same position," she explains. I also like to use face-tracking autofocus but that isn't always suitable if you have objects in the foreground."

8. Edit and print professional-looking self-portraits

Adjusting your settings to shoot in both RAW and JPEG will give you more options when it comes to editing your photos. You can use Canon's free Digital Photo Professional (DPP) editing software to enhance your RAW images, with tools to adjust white balance, saturation, exposure and more.

"You don't have to be a professional to edit your pictures," says Amaal. "The main thing for me is exposure, because sometimes the picture isn't as bright as I'd like it to be. I play around with contrast and shadow to achieve the look I want – and I also like to see what rotating the picture does when I'm editing. I'm a huge lover of black and white self-portraits too."

After you've finished editing, you could try printing your photos straight from your phone to the compact Canon SELPHY Square QX10. Perfect for scrapbooks, pinboards and albums, it offers a quick and fun way to preserve your favourite self-portraits. For professional quality prints, a Canon PIXMA G series printer will help to bring your images to life.

Written by Lorna Dockerill

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