Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that Instagram is the place to be – especially if you want to build your personal brand and increase your social clout. But with such a visually focused platform, not everyone can budget having a personal photographer walking around with them to capture Instagram-worthy images. Fortunately thanks to smartphones, we are each carrying some of the best cameras on the market right in our back pocket. Below, I’ll break down what it actually takes to create the perfect self-portrait by examining the anatomy of a selfie so that you can take Instagram-worthy content wherever you go!
The Anatomy of a Selfie
As a photographer who mainly shoot self-portraits, I get asked all the time: how can I take better selfies for my Instagram when I don’t have fancy equipment?! If this is how you feel, you’re in the right place! I’ve spent an entire year taking a self-portrait every single day and posting it on my Instagram Story in a series titled, “Mug Selfies.” I had been feeling a bit lackluster with my Instagram content and I wanted to create a bit more consistency both in my business and in my personal life. So as a part of my morning ritual, I decided to incorporate self-portraits as a way to make sure I was taking a least ONE photo a day and creating content that made me feel good at the same time.
Since this undertaking, I’ve figured out the five main components of what it takes to nail a selfie in hopes of being able to empower non-photographers to shoot better content for their social media that will help elevate their personal brand from average to influencer in no time flat.
If you’re someone who cares about how they’re perceived in a photo, then you most likely already know your angles. You probably already know which side of your face you prefer to showcase. However, in this article, I want to encourage you to start visualizing the camera as an internal extension of your actual eye, not just an external device that produces images.
When I refer to angle here, I mean the angle in which the camera is held or positioned unrelated to your “good” or “bad” side. This is about using the camera to convey an emotion or a story from the perspective you want to tell.
So when you’re shooting a selfie, you’ll probably be tempted to shoot it “straight on,” (aka facing the camera directly) but I encourage you to really give yourself permission to do different things and create a unique story with your selfie by shooting it from a different angle than you normally would. For inspiration, take a look at portrait photography on Pinterest! Start a board and pin all the images taken from interesting angles (i.e, from below, from high above, through the hole of a fence, through the crack of a door, etc). You can also use these as references you can pull up during your shoot to help you achieve greater results.
Pro tip: Taking a fabulous selfie starts with investing in yourself. A tripod and a Bluetooth remote shutter will get rid of any limitations for shooting your selfies. Plus, it will look like you had someone else take it (ex: people actually thought my husband took all my mug selfies and were stunned to find out what the magic of a tripod and remote shutter could do).
This component can make or break your selfie. It’s the difference between an average image and a breathtaking portrait. Framing is all about WHERE you are within the actual photo (not your physical location outside of it). When most people take a selfie, they place themselves right in the center of the frame. However, again, I want to empower you to try exploring different framing placements (i.e., close + off-centre, right side + further away from the camera, etc).
One of the biggest inspirations for my photography, in general, is film and television. I come from an acting background and studied film in college, so my brain is pretty much hardwired to see images not as solo components, but as part of an overarching story or scene. When it comes to framing, in particular, I look no further than the director of one of my favorite shows: Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail. He isn’t afraid to take chances, such as placing the camera on the ceiling near columns (off-center), with a character just peeking out from between the columns, where we get a glimpse of an emotional moment meant only for the audience's’ eyes. This show is visually unique and definitely inspires me to push out of my comfort zone.
Pro tip: Give yourself permission to be different. I know the default on social media is to present a clean-cut image, but what that ends up doing is killing our creativity and pigeonholing folks into creating content that lacks a unique perspective. It’s your profile, isn’t it? Why let the pressures of a patriarchal society dictate what you post on your own profile? Isn’t that why we became entrepreneurs in the first place? To become our own bosses, the freedom and joy knowing that we answer to no one but ourselves?
It’s a limiting belief that you need to be a model or have the perfect body in order to “nail” certain poses. You can pull off any pose you want simply because you desire to do so. The type of pose you use depends entirely on what type of story you’re trying to convey through your image. Remember, self-portraits don’t just have to be about showing off your outfit or makeup. They can be about showcasing how you feel or what you’re thinking in that moment as well. Again, don’t be afraid to push yourself (and get a little weird).
The most important thing overall is making sure you’re comfortable, of course—but that doesn’t necessarily mean physically. To be perfectly honest, posing can actually be painful, especially when you’ve got to continuously hold it for a few moments in order to take the photo. But remember, you get to decide what works and doesn’t work for you.
Pro tip: If you find yourself feeling a bit sore, this is the perfect “excuse” to partake in some self-care. Draw yourself a warm bath (throw in some epsom salt or aromatherapy essential oil), grab a CBD pen, and melt away.
4. Lighting + Location
I decided to group these two factors together because I believe they are Ying and Yang. Location is the second most important “subject,” beside yourself, and without proper attention to lighting, your selfie will automatically look unprofessional. I always encourage people to use what they’ve got and start where they are (natural light + in their house/ neighbourhood). With an open mind, think about your surrounding areas and decide when and where you could shoot your selfie. It could be in your yard, by a window in your bedroom, in your bathroom, or down the street—the only limitation is your own mind!
Another way to look at these two factors is to consider the television show, Game of Thrones. It features sweeping landscapes, and the lighting heavily influences the mood of each scene. But imagine, for a moment, if Games of Thrones was filmed in New York City. It would certainly give a particularly different and inappropriate vibe, since the entire story hinges upon foreign lands and uncharted territories.
Pro Tip: When scouting for a location, you can keep the following in mind: Your branding (colors, textures, attributes, etc), foot traffic (are there going to be lots of people around? are you going to feel comfortable posing by yourself? etc), and safety (let’s not die over a selfie, it’s not worth it). Remember: Start where you are! As an entrepreneur, your number one superpower is seeing solutions where others see limitations!
This is, by far, my favorite component of a selfie: the mood (aka aesthetics). This can be achieved in various sorts of ways when it comes to photography, but for the sake of this article, this is accomplished through the editing process.
After you take a selfie, your job as a storyteller isn’t done. The editing process allows you to influence the mood of the image. When you’re editing, ask yourself this: what EMOTION do I want to evoke (within myself and/or others)?
Pro-tip: A great way to figure out what type of mood aesthetic to choose for your Instagram is to clarify who you are (remember, this is about conveying your personal brand in an authentic way). Once you have clarity around who you are, head on to our favorite Pinterest and type in “filter recipes.” You’ll see a plethora of editing combinations to help you figure out the mood of your brand’s personality that you’ll be able to use in most editing apps easily (VSCO being the most popular). Play around with a bunch until you find one that conveys exactly what you’re looking for.
All in all, a truly memorable selfie takes a lot of consideration. It goes beyond just a “pretty picture.” Building a personal brand that separates you from others, especially on social media, means putting more effort, intention, and consideration into the visual content you put out into the world.
Shamia Casiano is an Afro-Latina entrepreneurial photographer, designer, gamer, and vampire slayer. She has an extensive background in acting, film, theatre, and improv. Shamia's been featured in Ebony, Cosmopolitan, Grind Pretty magazine, and Marie Forleo's MarieTV. She's married to her handsome nerdy college sweetheart and they have a 6 year-old pup named Lucky, who doubles as her home office assistant.