Regardless of where the selfie originated, its cultural home is undoubtedly Asia. The reason for this was illustrated by something a Taiwanese guy once said to my dad: that if you take a picture of a great scene or attraction and you are not in the photo yourself, it does not count as proof that you were there. And thus: selfie culture was born.
Normally, this means that you need someone there to take your photo, which is why I used to always see two parallel lines of Asian tourists around the major attractions of my home town in England – one line of people posing in front of a line of people with cameras. With the development of cameraphones and GoPros, the second line has now largely disappeared, replaced by a rank of wobbling selfie poles and a selfie culture trend that is going strong.
In spite of the popularity of selfie culture in Asia – and in Thailand especially – it astonishes me how often I see people doing it all wrong. A few basic rules of composition can immeasurably improve your selfies, though not as much as taking a photography course in Bangkok.
Selfie Culture – It’s Not All About You
A number of articles have been published, in recent years, linking selfie culture to extreme narcissism, which I find to be all too believable in many cases. The most obvious example of this is the bathroom mirror selfie. I just cannot understand the reasoning behind that one. There is absolutely nothing inspiring about a background of toilet stalls!
Carl Heaton: Shooting into the sun means that your face is silhouetted. Also, consider your backdrop – this looks like it was taken in a toilet! Finally, make sure you’re looking down the lens, otherwise the picture isn’t engaging for the viewer.
It is essential to consider your backdrop, and it should be something that is actually worth photographing. This boils down to the same sort of techniques you would use in creating a good landscape photo, except that you are the foreground interest. The rule of thirds also plays its part, and you should ideally be placed one-third into the frame, with your face or eyes one-third down from the top. Lead-in lines will help to create depth and dynamism in your background.
Christian Lukey: This is great – genuine smiles, a nice backdrop. Just maybe turn your head a little so that it is not directly square to the camera. Follow the dog’s lead!
Jessica Bradley: Pretty good selfie. The eye line is pretty near the right place, the body posture is ok and the background isn’t bad, but could be better. Also, beer.
As a personal note about the selfie culture, please do actually think carefully about your backdrop and about the situation you are in when you take the picture. The number of people who have died taking selfies at dumb times and places (often including dangerous wild animals) is rising rapidly. Also, I took a domestic flight in Thailand recently and people were so overjoyed at the idea of riding in a turboprop plane that they were holding up boarding while they all took selfies next to it, then by the door, then nearly clobbering the flight attendant with the selfie pole once they were aboard. Please don’t be that guy. Selfie culture shouldn’t impede on other people.
Selfie Culture – Posing
At some point, there must have been an article or a guide or something which told people that portrait shots taken from above are more flattering. It’s perfectly correct because the elevated perspective makes your head and upper body appear bigger and your butt look smaller. The problem comes when you apply this technique every time, regardless of the situation.
Alexander Ericsson: You’ve got way too much space over your head for no obvious reason. It would have been better to frame it with your eyes one-third down from the top of the image. Other than that, the background is interesting, you’re about the right distance in from the left and the lighting is good.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people taking selfies on a stunning beach at sunset, but with the camera up really high. Sure, it creates a lovely and very flattering picture of the photographer, but you get a backdrop of a small patch of sand! As the Taiwanese guy told my dad, that proves nothing. You could be sat on a building site, for all the viewer knows!
Ceyda Celik: As a self-portrait (which is, ultimately, what a selfie really is), this is a good picture. However, it has no context. There’s sand in the background, so you could be on the beach or you could be on a building site – it’s impossible to tell because there’s so little background to go off.
There are other ways to create that flattering effect while still keeping the nice sunset in the background. Standing square to the camera makes you look fatter, so make sure you are stood at about 45 degrees off. Shoulders should never (or, at least, very rarely) form a horizontal line in a portrait shot, so standing at an angle will automatically help with that. You could also lower the shoulder closest to the camera and lean in slightly, which creates the flattering perspective trick without killing the backdrop.
Jeremy BobaFett: That is a fine cigar! Great body angle, head angle and framing, but you’ve got a strong light source right behind your head, so your eyes are in deep shadow. Also, the background looks uninspiring.
Turning your face directly to the camera has a similar fattening effect, so consider turning it slightly to the side that your body is facing. Not too far, however. If the tip of your nose sticks out beyond the line of your cheek, it will make it appear huge. Tilt your head up slightly to make your chin and neck look slimmer, but not so far that it makes you look imperious and stuck-up.
Gemma Purnell: You body is turned, which is good, but it is turned the wrong direction. You should be facing into the shot. Also, look down the lens and smile!
On a purely personal note, pursing your lips to create the so-called ‘duck face’ looks horrible and is one of the worst products of selfie culture. A natural smile is much better. An actress once told a friend of mine that they use the word “penis” to create a natural-looking smile. Even if you don’t get a giggle out of it, the “-nis” part of the word automatically pulls your mouth into the right shape.
Ben Reeves: This is why I prefer to be behind the camera instead of in front of it! Also, duck face doesn’t suit you…err…me.
Selfie Culture – Flashing
Another common mistake I’ve seen people doing is taking selfies into the sun. Naturally, there are some circumstances where you want the sun behind you – the aforementioned beach sunset shot is a perfect example. The problem is that most basic cameraphones will take a light meter reading across the whole frame, the majority of which is very brightly lit by the sun. This means that you will usually appear as nothing more than a silhouette. If it does meter for your face, the problem is inverted and your face will be clear, but the background will be overexposed and washed out.
Chomphoonuj Oranriksuphak: You’ve got the perfect head angle, but the framing is off (too much space above your head) and there’s too much light behind you. Also, you need to consider the situation when taking a selfie – it’s not really safe to take one when you’re driving!
Most cameraphones now have an HDR setting. HDR, in case you didn’t know, stands for High Dynamic Range, which means that the extremes of light and dark will be taken into account when creating the shot. This often solves the problem, but not always as the technology behind it is still prone to getting it wrong.
A more reliable method is to use a fill-in flash. This will make sure that your face is well-lit without ruining the background. It has a second bonus, which is to bring your eyes to life. You should always use a flash in portraiture because the glint of reflected light in the eye makes vastly better shots.
As I said in previous posts, most of the top photographers I know are actually camera-shy so, if you are doing a photography course in Bangkok, most of this information may seem kind of redundant. However, even if you prefer to be behind the camera instead of in front of it, you can use these pointers to help you take better pictures of your friends. A DLSR will always take far better portraits than a little cameraphone.
I would not recommend trying to do a selfie with your DSLR, though. Not unless you have strong wrists!
More examples of selfies with some useful tips
Eric Barker: The slight cropping of your head is kind of cool, but it would be much cooler if the background was more interesting. The light conditions at BTS stations are very tricky, but you’re on the right lines (no pun intended).
Steve Harrison: Gah! Scary biscuits! The light source right behind your head means the camera has to compensate to make your face visible and not just a shadow, which is why it looks so grainy. Also, looking down at the camera, with your face straight on to the lens, is not very flattering. Nor is the face mask, I suppose!
Marko Rescue: Great use of filler flash and a good background, but it does kind of look like you were included in the shot as an after-thought. You could have taken up more of the frame and still had the great background if you did a landscape shot instead of portrait.
Kevin Richard: Gah! As a portrait, this is actually a really good shot. It is striking, despite breaking all the rules. A filler flash would have brought the eyes to life more, though.
I prefer to be behind the camera instead of in front of it! Also, duck face doesn’t suit you…err…me.
Matthew Noble: A filler flash would make the eyes look less blank and might have helped with the graininess which the high ISO forced. Also, the framing is a bit off – tilt the camera down a little so there’s not so much blank space above your head.
Benita Chana: Pretty good framing, but a fill-in flash would have helped, as would turning your head (or the camera) slightly so that you were not square to the lens.
Tanwawan Meenak: Haha! It’s fun and the background looks okay (pity about the concrete pillar just over your shoulder). Your body is at a good angle and the expression excuses the head being square on. There’s enough light around you that your eyes look alive without needing the flash. This is so close to perfect, but you’re framed a little too far to the left which, with a square crop, makes it look accidental.
Izaac Peeters: The low light conditions (and the black shirt and curtains) make it look very grainy because the camera has automatically raised the ISO to compensate. The background isn’t very interesting and, being the same colour as your shirt, it means that you don’t stand out from the picture. The framing isn’t bad, though.
Belkis Mengana: The background is at least more interesting than most, but it is also way too light. You’ve allowed it to dominate the picture, so it looks like you’re barely in it. Your eyes should be a third from the top of the frame, not from the bottom. Also, smile! Try saying “penis” – though it might get you some funny looks in the office!
Tom William Barrett: Gah! Cool Halloween costume, but the shoulders and face being square to the camera makes it look like a police mugshot. To some extent, you could get away with that as artistic effect. However, the background ruins it and the lack of a fill-in flash makes it difficult to even see your eyes – they’re the most important part of a portrait!
Mark Fenn: The bad lighting means the shutter speed has dropped so far that you look a bit blurry. It, and the lack of a flash, are also what makes your eyes look black and dead. Finally, lifting your chin a little would be more flattering, as would turning your head so that it’s not square to the camera.
トゥックス ホワイト(Touks White): Oh, it’s so close to perfect! Head angle is great, the background is great, the lighting is okay (almost, but it’s clear that the sun is above and slightly behind you because your face is in shadow). Just the framing is wrong – you’ve got too much blank space above your head.
Dan Schwartz: Poor lighting has made it look really blurry. The angle of your shoulders is ideal and you’ve got a happy, natural smile, but the blank background makes it look like you’re posing for your passport photo.
Pin Phayubut: Not sure that counts as a selfie, but it’s a great photo!
Cristel Mol-Delleport: Well, that’s hardly fair. I can’t criticise that! Actually, that’s a lie – I absolutely can. Light source behind you and no filler flash makes dark, dull eyes and shadowed face. Also, the framing is a bit left heavy, with wasted space on the right.
Mark Wolf: Cute – very cute. Getting started with the selfie culture trend early on. Pity the framing is a bit off. There’s too much space above the head, with the eyes around the middle of the frame instead of being about one-third down.
Scott Dali: You can actually take a lot of inspiration for portrait photography by looking at what portrait painters were doing hundreds of years ago. And pizza makes everything better.
Sam Kelly: Huge amount of wasted space at the top of the frame, but the background is ok and the shoulder and head position is good. Maybe if you crop this shot, it would be near perfect.
Jonathan Raho (using the second shot): A lively shot with a very natural smile, but the background is so plain that it looks like a passport photo. Also, the perspective makes it look like your hand is the same size as your head. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does look a bit odd in this case.
Steve Bennalick: The shutter speed was too low, so you’ve got a bit of camera wobble creating blurs. That’s in spite of using a flash, so it must have been really dark conditions. Cropping the edge of the sombrero makes it look a bit odd because it’s harder to identify what exactly you’ve got on your head!