Fashion & style blogs are all the rave right now, and I imagine along with that are a lot of frustrated people trying to take flattering photos of themselves and products in limited circumstances and tight budget. Of course anytime you can have a friend help you take photos or share ideas that is always preferred. With that in mind this post is heavily oriented towards taking photos of yourself and help ease photographic frustrations with tips for lighting, camera equipment, and posing.
(For more advanced technical recommendations for cameras and general use, scroll down)
This is probably one of the more difficult decisions for a lot of bloggers because it involves a hefty sum to purchase good camera equipment. However, most of the bloggers I know already have a passion for photography as an art or hobby as well so lets talk about making photography and blogs sympatico.
The Canon Digital Rebel is probably the most popular starter digital SLR for most all photo enthusiasts and bloggers. Its a great camera for this, its affordable and offers a lot of future flexibility to cater towards specialized needs. The Canon RC1 or RC6 wireless remotes are great tools combined with any of the Canon cameras because they’re small enough that you can photograph yourself with it and easily hide the remote from being in the photo. Put the camera in timer mode and go to town. My cameras allow me to set a delay (2 sec, 5 sec, or 10 sec) the 2 second delay works great for self portraits because you can trigger the camera with the remote, and you have a couple seconds to repose and hide your remote.
If you are on a budget and don’t think you can afford an SLR… don’t fret! You don’t need the very latest model, checkout Craigslist or talk to a photographer friend that might have resources to share. I enjoy helping friends save money and find camera gear that helps them. You can easily find a used Rebel for under $400, if you’d like some help send me a message or comment. However, an SLR is not necessary in order to achieve great photos and simply shooting with one will not guarantee great shots either.
When in doubt do what the professionals do… spend time in front of the mirror. Look at your favorite magazines and how the models pose with different kinds of products and find what fits with your style. Try and think less literal poses and just what comes natural to you and however you are comfortable. 80% of the impact in a photo comes from the facial expression and particularly the eyes. Most people tend to get so wrapped up in trying to pose their body that their face just looks stressed and distracted.
Lets talk about lighting…
Regardless of whatever sort of camera you are using, lighting has a very big impact on image quality and mood. Lets go over the basics of portrait lighting… you’ve got your main light source whether its sunlight outdoors, or light coming in from a window, a flash, or indoor lighting from a lamp or ceiling fixture, etc. Usually there are multiple mixed light sources that combined makeup all of the ambient light in your space. Some of these sources can be modified to get the affect you want. Turning lights on or off, opening and closing window curtains, picking different spots outside… this is really about trial and error and finding what works with what you have to work with. You can also use other tools to help bounce light and fill shadows – more on that later.
Choosing the right light source for the mood you are after is key. In general, window lighting works awesome, the larger the window the better. If you have a sheer neutral color curtain to help diffuse the light, that’s even better. Window lighting is a great source for soft flattering light, but it depends how much sunlight is coming through so some times of the day might be better.
When picking a spot outdoors, you want to be where you are most comfortable. Avoid bright direct sunlight or dark areas in complete shadow. A lot of this comes with picking the right time of day… early mornings and late evenings before sunset are typically best because the sunlight is the least direct. If shooting outdoors during the middle of the day looking for softer light, possibly a patio or canopy.
Reflectors are an awesome way to modify light and they are pretty cheap and user friendly. You dont have to buy anything fancy – a large piece of white foam core works really well, the reflective folding windshield shades for cars also work well. If you are trying to macguiver things on the cheap think about using your surroundings to hold your foam core or reflectors or if you have an easil or anything that can be used as a stand. If you have a white or silver umbrella…this can also be a good reflector.
Or you can buy a 5-in-1 reflector kit in various sizes usually under $80. Here are some links to my favorites:
These reflectors can be used to bounce light to help fill shadows or when used with the translucent fabric (no gold/silver cover) can be used as a scrim to soften a light source (shine light through it). The gold side helps warm the light which can really help add a natural warm glow to skin tones. Practicing with a mirror will help you to see the affects all of this has…. again just trial and error so you see how it works. Think of it like bouncing light – so if your main light source is coming in from your right side, place the reflector on the left. The smaller 22″ reflectors are best for close headshots and 3/4 length, the larger 42″ and bigger ones are better for full length.
A good general rule when trying to use a reflector, if you cant visually see the affects its probably not doing anything…your reflecting light at something else. This is very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kinda thing. For instance, if you are taking a headshot of yourself, if the reflector is positioned correctly it will seem pretty bright and should be obvious.
Reflectors work great for beauty photos because they really help make detail in lips and eyes and texture really pop.
For lighting products try using the translucent fabric part of the reflector directly above the product to help diffuse the light. This works best outdoors in daylight where there is a lot of light or indoors where there is lighting overhead.
Another option to consider is using your pop up flash on the camera. In dark poorly lit indoor settings this flash becomes your main light source versus using it for fill flash. The issue with these flashes is that they provide very direct harsh lighting which is unflattering, and it casts a nasty shadow when doing vertical/portrait photos. Unlike a hotshoe flash which gives you more control to bounce against reflectors and ceilings, walls, etc the pop-up flash is fixed. Well sorta… with the lightscoop pictured below it allows you to bounce the pop up flash a lot like you would a hot shoe flash. This yields softer more flattering lighting. You might seriously consider buying a hot shoe flash if your budget allows.
Advanced Camera Tips:
These tips are for users who have a pretty solid understanding of basic exposure principles and how to use their camera and from here we’ll talk about how to use those factors to get more creative results and where to expand in terms of purchasing lenses, flash, etc.
If you havent tried this yet, change your camera metering mode to center-weight. This will tell the camera to meter more for the center area of the frame versus evaluating for everything including the background. This is much more effective for portraits especially in mixed lighting where you might be indoors or something standing next to a bright window, the camera will more effectively meter for you instead of you+ all your surroundings.
Don’t be afraid of higher ISO settings… 800, 1000, 1500, etc. Newer cameras record less noise/grain than ever and the more ambient light you can use without relying on flash the better softer light you’ll have and also just a more balanced exposure.
If you arent already, start shooting in manual mode or try easing up to it with aperture or shutter priority. It will help train your eye for judging light and eventually it becomes like a 6th sense. You’ll walk into a room and be like, oh this looks like about 1/80th, F2 ISO 800.
If you are shooting with a kit lens (Canon or Nikon 18-55mm) I would suggest looking at prime lenses. They are sharper and provider wider aperture ranges which allows for more creative selection for depth of field and flexibility in lower light. I would suggest wider angle lenses like 24mm because it makes it easier to compose when taking photos of yourself but not so wide angle that it distorts things. Using wide apertures like F2 and carefully selecting the right focus point will help give a nice background blur which can really have an impact over what people pay attention to in your photos. These fast wide primes can usually be found for around $300.
If you are also photographing products and closeup features for makeup or food, you might also consider a macro lens. The Canon 50mm Compact Macro is a pretty affordable option.
The next step up in lighting would be to buy a hot-shoe flash. The Canon 430EX can be found used under $200 and this will open up the possibilities for off-camera flash, diffusing the flash beyond the lightscoop, bouncing into a reflector, more powerful light, etc.
If you already have an external hot-shoe flash try using it combined with the reflectors we discussed earlier. Try positioning the reflector a foot or so above the flash and angled towards the subject. Experiment with different combinations. Diffuser attachments like the Gary Fong lightsphere, Sto-fen Omnibounce, or Rogue Flash benders are all great at giving you more control of the light and different bounce and diffusion options. Also, use the controls on the flash to dial power up or down to control the amount of fill. For instance, if you are using window light as your main source, using a flash on auto mode will likely wash out the soft natural light and give you harsh lighting. Instead, use that window light as your main source and position the flash on the opposite side from the window and bounce it through a diffuser or reflector and dial the flash power down 2 stops so its less intense and more flattering.
For help with composing your shot…
Try tethered shooting! The Canon EOS utility allows you to plug your camera into your computer and see what your camera is seeing on the computer screen along with many other controls and possibilities. This of course works best with a laptop for portability. For tips on tethered shooting, read your camera-specific manual.
Also, some cameras have a fold out screen where you can switch the camera to “live view” mode and turn the screen around to face you while your taking a self-portrait.
Try not to get too tied up and frustrated with the technical aspects that you forget to have fun and enjoy yourself. If you enjoy what you do, it will show in photos more then any technical advice I could give. Make friends with other bloggers and photographers and work on doing some cross-promotion. Photographers like myself are always looking for new resources for links and sharing traffic and content and working with new talent. Its all in the purpose of capturing and sharing your creation and passion with others!