How to Take Better Selfies - Lighting

Want to take better selfies? It's actually pretty easy. You just need to remember four things: Lighting, Angle, Distance, and Pose. I'll walk you through all of them with some good, bad, and even ugly photos starring (obviously) me. (No one else wanted their unflattering photos on the internet.)

All of these photos were taken on my iPhone with the screen side camera. This makes your photos lower resolution, but it lets you see what you look like while you compose the shot.

Today, we'll cover the basics of lighting. To start out, here are two photos taken in exactly the same spot only seconds apart.

The photo on the left is pretty unflattering due to terrible overhead lighting, while the photo on the right looks pretty cute.

I chose to start with these photos because they typify the kind of bad lighting you see in most selfies. The light source is orange colored and directly overhead--just like most bars and restaurants. This makes bright highlights on foreheads, noses, and cheeks and deep shadows under the eyebrows.

Since most selfies are taken on the spur of the moment in whatever light you have, it's important to adjust the angle of the camera and your face so it looks good even in overhead light.

The photo on the left is taken straight on from slightly below chin level.  This really emphasizes the unflattering highlights and shadows. For the photo on the right, I simply raised my iPhone and tilted my face up until the light evened out over my whole face. I then tipped my head slightly to the side for a more dramatic profile in the shadow of my cheek. Voila! A better selfie.

If you aren't trapped in one place (like a booth at a restaurant), you can look for better light sources in another room. The best light is usually near big windows or other softly glowing sources. One of my favorite places to take selfies in our house is the bathroom. I have three "soft white" incandescent bulbs located about two feet above my head on the wall. This creates very soft shadows and contours on my face. I take all my "new haircut!" photos here.

See how gentle and even the light looks on my skin? You probably have a window or a light fixture in your house or office that will do the same thing.

Another type of lighting that can make selfies tricky is backlighting. Sometimes it looks cool, but most of the time it just looks bad:

Both of these photos are taken with my back to a window. This presents a really challenging exposure for my iPhone. Since iPhones have auto-exposure, they are trying to balance the bright window light behind me with my shadowed face. The end result is a blank white blur for the window and a cloudy, shadowy blur for my face. This is typical when the source is a large light directly behind you.

In these situations, you can try turning slightly so that the light shines on only one side of your face or just on your hair. This creates some cool contours on your skin or cool streaks of light across the image.

On the other hand, taking a photo directly facing a bright light can be too harsh, not to mention painful if you have sensitive eyes.  In the photos below, you can see how much my eyes are hurting when I face the sun. I've got a pained expression and harsh shadows. Plus you can see the shadow of my iPhone on my shirt and face.

When you have a really bright light that makes you squint (like the sun) you actually want to backlight your photo by turning away from the light. Depending on the time of day, you can usually get your iPhone to focus on and expose for your face instead of the sun. In the photos below, I show two different camera angles and the different lighting effects they product. The photo on the left is taken from above my eye height, cutting out the sun the the glare from it. The photo on the right is taken from just below eye height, and the sun's glare is allowed to come across the image in streaks. By including or not including the light source, I can achieve two different effects in the same location.

I'm still squinting a little bit in the above photos because my eyes are so light-sensitive, but I have a nice shine on my hair instead of really washed-out skin.

On to our final example: window lighting. Here are two examples:

In the photo on the left, my eyes are a little squinty and my skin is a bit washed out. I'm sitting about two feet from a large window in almost direct light. In the photo on the right, my skin looks soft and my eyes are relaxed. In that photo, I'm about six feet from a window in diffused sunlight. I much prefer the way my face looks in the photo on the right.

To Summarize

As I state on my FAQ Page, Lighting is the most importantand potentially difficult part of photography. There are tons of things for professional photographers to keep in mind, but if you want a more flattering selfie, these five tips will make a huge difference:

1. The best lights for beauty are softly glowing sources like windows or white incandescent bulbs just above eye height.

2. If you have to take a photo in overhead light, raise your phone and tilt your face up until the shadows disappear .

3. Avoid backlighting from large sources directly behind you as this will wash out your image.

4. If you get squinty eyes or harsh shadows in sunlight, turn away from the sun and experiment with raising or lowering your phone to see what the glare looks like.

5. When using window light, stand in the area where the light is soft and diffused.

Go ahead, practice, and let me know the best spot in your house for selfies. And be sure to check out the next post for tips on finding your best angle!

Want to know how to evaluate a professional photographers work? Check out this post