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I’m ready for my closeup: 6 methods for perfectly focused self-portraits

Self-portrait shooters usually rely on the trial-and-error method of focusing. Shoot, shoot, and shoot again until the perfect combination of pose, exposure, and focus are achieved. But there is a better way (several, in fact)! All of these methods are quick and easy and will give you accurate focusing without a lot of frustrating trial and error.

Before you begin, you’ll just need to acquaint yourself with how to put your camera into manual focus mode. You won’t actually use manual focus for focusing—you’ll just use it to keep the focus once you’ve got it set just the way you want. For each of the methods below (except the last one), you’ll auto-focus first and then set the camera to manual focus so that it won’t attempt to re-focus when you take the shot. You’ll also find that having a remote shutter release helps immensely.

Method 1: Avoiding the problem
If you let the camera auto-focus on your face while using a wide aperture, you’ll probably find that your nose is in focus but your eyes are not. The solution is to avoid the problem entirely by using a smaller aperture. The smaller the aperture, the wider the depth of field, and accurate focusing becomes less critical. Use as small an aperture as you can get away with.

Method 2: Hitting your mark
Probably the most straightforward method, simply place an object (a stuffed animal, a pillow, a lamp) where you will be posing. Focus on that. Then pose where your stand-in is at.

Method 3: Reverse focusing
This is similar to the previous method except that you’ll use your tripod itself as the stand-in. Since focusing is only concerned with distances, it doesn’t matter if you are focusing on the actual spot your are going to shoot. All that matters is the distance between the camera and the subject. With that knowledge, take the camera to where you will be posing and focus on your tripod head. Mark that spot. This is where you’ll stand for your portrait. Then put the camera in manual focus mode and put it back on the tripod.

Method 4: The string method
If you need super-precise focus with a narrow depth of field, tie a string to the tripod head and focus as above. Pull the string taut and mark it where it crosses the film plane (near the back of the camera where the sensor/film is). Anything at that distance from the tripod will be in perfect focus. Put the camera back on the tripod (again, set it for manual focus), find your mark on the string, drop the string, take the photo. Bonus: this method lets you shoot in any direction away from the tripod as long as you are at the focused distance mark on your string.

Method 5: Use a flashlight
Most modern cameras have a “closest-subject” focus mode. This mode will focus on the closest object it can “see.” You can take advantage of that to auto-focus your self-portrait on exactly what you want. Using auto-focus, darken the room and shine a light on whatever you want focused, usually one of your eyes (but I’m not making any judgements—you shoot what you like). The camera will focus only on the illuminated object. Because the room will be dark, you’ll need to use a flash.

Method 6: Measure
Measure the distance from the camera to where you will be standing and use the distance markings on the lens to manually set the focus. Not all lenses have distance markings so if you ain’t got ’em you’ll just have to find another way.

Other self-portrait tips:

  • Put a mirror behind the camera so you can see the display without having to get up between shots.
  • Use a cable release or remote. Even better if your camera can delay the shutter a couple of seconds so you can hide the remote.
  • Be extremely awesome.

Photo credit: Zara

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you're interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.
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  • Ice

    “Be extremely awesome.”
    Best advice ever.

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  • Chris P.

    One other trick which some digital cameras support is to use a video out cable. Higher end digital cameras and certainly pro-sumer cameras have this capacity, and if you’re shooting near a TV which has video inputs (esp on the front), your TV can be a large, easy to see display.

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  • M.Green

    “Pull the string taught and…”
    should be
    “Pull the string taut and…”

  • John Watson

    Oops! Thanks, M.

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  • http://http// Santhosh

    I have been trying to get that one perfect self portrait of mine for a long time. And till date I could get it correct only once. I believe the above tips will certainly help me.

  • pablo montoya

    What about using the “snap focus” technique? It works if the camera has a setting to not take a photo unless it is in focus. So you set it up on manual focus with wide aperture and a blurred frame and when you walk into the focal plane it senses that and releases the shutter.

    Recalling the technique from a Photo Techniques Magazine cover article about a decade ago…I don’t know if your average DSLR is capable of this.

    • Luis

      mine isn’t :(, shame coz’ it looks like a great technique

  • John Watson

    Do you mean trap focus? I don’t know if all SLRs support it but it basically works like this: you rig your camera so it doesn’t shoot unless it senses something in focus. On the D70 you can do this by setting your camera to AF-S, set the AE-L button to AF-ON (menu item 15), manually focus, and then hold the shutter down. When something walks into the focal plane, the camera will sense it and trigger the shutter. On the D70, you have to hold the shutter button down so it’s not much use for self portraits (if you use the remote it will trigger the autofocus anyway) but very handy for hand-held macros.

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  • pumpkin

    Just say you don’t have a self portrait and save the money!

  • Micah – Digital Camera

    Good set of tips John. Found the link through a Photoaxe post.

  • Aziel Azhar

    Gosh… I found this article just at the right time. Greaatt!!!

  • me

    be extremely awesome…


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  • http://flickr Cheryl

    Wow, these are great tips. I joined a group on Flickr that requires you to take a self portrait a day for a year…it has stretched me and I’m learning a ton…I’m on day 46 of my venture and kept trying to figure out how to get the focus right. I’m excited to try these techniques. Thank you!

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  • Chaz

    What if you’re too ugly for a self portrait?
    #3 is probably the most useful as I never thought of that.

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  • Paul Johnston-Knight

    Great tips – thanks for those.

    I’ve rarely taken self-portraits in the past – due to technical difficulties and just because I enjoy being behind the camera body not in front of the lens!

    Anyway I’ve set myself a challenge of coming up with some unusual and innovative self-portraits, so this was an invaluable set of tips, thanks.

    And here’s the first result of my efforts:

  • fj1200

    Some great tips here. I’ve not done much in this area myself but when I have, when using my EOS 450D I use the supplied Canon software on a laptop using the remote viewing window, have that just under the camera in front of the tripod and that allows me to see what the camera sees. I now also use my new remote shutter switch instead of the camera self-timer.

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  • Anja Amsel

    Thank you a lot!
    I can’t wait to try this :D

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  • Michela Romano

    “be easy”. Be ready to wait and be full of patience

  • jo

    Yes I have been doing my own headshots and it is hit and miss with focus and blur. These tricks should help.

  • xxbluejay21

    I don’t get the string thing, can someone explain it to me?

  • Dustin Small

    That tip for focusing on the tripod head was great! Saved me a lot of running back and forth.