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If You Really Must Take a Selfie: 11 Ways to Make It Look Decent

Dude, you are doing it SO wrong.
Dude, you are doing it SO wrong.
Photo by Derrek Barlow

For years, photographers work to perfect their craft. And any photographer who has spent any time shooting human subject understands that it is not easy to get a great shot of a person who is trying to pose for you. Even experienced models can look awkward, uncomfortable, goofy, unhappy and any other characteristic you might imagine. In front of the lens, virtually everyone feels a little weird.

So, it is no wonder that with the proliferation of self portraits or "selfies" (God help us all) thanks to the magic of the cell phone camera, there are so many dud photos on Facebook and Instagram.

In addition to all the typical issues that face a person trying to make themselves look good in a snapshot, there are the technical problems that plague everyone who has ever held a camera. Fortunately, you've got me. I've been shooting pictures since my dad let me hold my first Kodak Instamatic and I've seen all the mistakes you make with your selfies. I'm here to help. Next time you fluff your hair and put on your best pouty face, keep these tips in mind and maybe you'll luck out and not just get a good picture of yourself but take a quality photograph in the process.

Bonus points for creativity.
Bonus points for creativity.

11. Try it with a real camera.

This might surprise you, but the better the camera, the more likely the quality of your image will improve. I'm not suggesting you drop a couple grand on a professional camera body and lenses, but if you have access to a decent digital SLR, maybe give that a try the next time.

10. Shadows are rarely your friend.

Beware of shadows. In an episode of Seinfeld they turned Jerry's girlfriend into a two-face. One moment, you're all bright, shining porcelain skin and the next you are an 80-year-old recently turned into a zombie. If you see shadows on your face, move to a place where they are minimized or just change the angle so they are gone completely. The hardest thing to master in photography is the proper use of light. Keep that in mind.

9. Be creative.

You don't have to only take a shot of your face on a perfectly balanced line centered in the frame. Try shooting with the camera turned on its side -- yes, I know all images on Instagram are square, but not on Facebook or, you know, in real life -- or shoot yourself on an angle. Put yourself to one side of the frame or the other, off center for a change. Next to figuring out what to do with light, composition is key to great photos. Anyone can take a headshot suitable for an accountant. You're better than that.

8. Don't go overboard with filters.

So, while you are busy getting creative, consider doing it before and during the shot rather than after. Post processing -- as it is commonly referred -- can be a wonderful additive, but it can go dreadfully wrong. Just because you can make your picture look like it was shot with a Polaroid in the '70s doesn't mean you should.  

Rare acceptable use of mirror.
Rare acceptable use of mirror.

7. Don't use a mirror.

The only decent reason for using a mirror is if you are someone who must post an entire outfit, but even then it should be done sparingly (unless you are like a model or fashion designer or something). Mirrors often have odd glares and warp your image in a way you don't want. Avoid them.

6. Your flash turns off (and on).

Nothing is more humorous (or infuriating) to a pro than to see someone at a concert, 100 yards away from the stage, taking a photo with a flash. You think that tiny pin light is going to reach anywhere beyond the back of the head of the dude in front of you? Same goes for selfies with flash so intense, you look like you are standing in black light. The flash can come in very handy, but natural light is ALWAYS a better option.

5. If you have trouble smiling, laugh.

Whenever I have to take a photo of someone who has trouble smiling -- this seems to be a particular affliction among teens -- I tell them to laugh. When you are laughing, your smile is at its most natural and easy. You never look better. Trust me.

4. Pay attention to your surroundings.

There are things you might want in the selfie with you -- landmarks, friends, message tees -- and things you don't -- toilets, your filthy room, a leftover burrito. Keep this in mind when shooting. Check out what is behind you before saving an image. Make sure you aren't cutting off half of your friend's face or that the very thing you wanted in the photo like that freaky clown doll that you found at a junk store. Slow down and be considerate of what or who is nearby.  

There you go!
There you go!

3. Backlit photos only work if you have something to light your face.

Nothing causes novice photographers more trouble than when their subject is backlit. When the sun is behind you, your face is in shadows. You can fix this by either turning around and using the sun (or whatever light source you have) to help light the photo instead of destroying it or by turning your flash on, which will help to light your face and preserve that background sunset. Another clever trick is to stand in front of a reflective surface -- white or metallic -- and not only will your backlight remain intact, but it will reflect off the surface to light your face. Just beware the shadow created by your hand holding the camera.

2. Hold the camera up above you.

One of the oldest tricks to helping slim down your face and make your eyes look bigger is to shoot your shot from above. Holding the camera above your head forces you to look up elongating your neck and minimizing double chins. Even the thinnest among us can look like they weigh a lot more if the shot is taken from the wrong angle. To make your eyes look bigger -- like an anime character or creepy doll -- tilt your head down slightly, but look up at the camera. Oh, and ladies, beware of excess cleavage in this pose...unless that's what you're going for.

1. Stop making stupid faces.

Seriously, stop. You don't need to go Blue Steel or duck face to look good in a photo. You wouldn't line up next to your granny to snap a family photo and suddenly go super model -- or would you? -- so don't do it in your selfie. The more natural you behave, the better you will look.


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