Paint The Moon Blog

Photography and photo editing tips, inspiration and out of this world Photoshop Actions.


Self Portrait Tips – Are YOU In the Picture?

Family Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Let me preface this post by saying it wasn’t the easiest thing to put together an article that included nothing but images that feature my face. 😉 Self portraits can be rough. I’m so much more comfortable behind the camera. Getting out in front of the lens and being captured in the photos I’m taking isn’t my favorite thing to do. BUT I can say that every time I’ve pushed myself to do it … to get in there with my babies and my family and actually have a place in our recorded family memories, I’ve been so happy I did.

I remember at times feeling like I didn’t look good enough for photos or just felt uncomfortable being in them, but the only thing my family and children see when they look at the memories we’ve captured is the mommy and wife they know and love. And I know that in years to come the photos I took that included all of us together will be treasured by my kids and by my husband and me. Also, I want to note that this post isn’t only for those with a spouse and/or children … make sure to get in the photos with all your loved ones – parents, grandparents, siblings, family and friends.


Photos edited with the Photoshop (and Elements) actions from the Luminosity Collection and the Grace Collection.

Family Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions
Nail the settings first.
Decide where you want the image taken and set everything just as you would a normal shot … white balance, ISO, shutter speed, aperture (with the thought in mind that it will be easier to nail focus with a narrower aperture – see below), your focus point (using a stand in to set focus – see below), etc. Don’t forget to watch your light and decide (with the help of your stand in if needed) where the best location is to catch great lighting (see this post for tips on finding great light).

Self portraits tips by Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Get a little help.
Use a family member, or as an alternate stand in you can use a doll or pretty much any object that can be easily moved, etc, to set your focus point and to meter for correct exposure. It can be something that will be on the same focal plane as you once you join the frame, or something you’ll replace with you once you get in there. As usual, press your shutter halfway to set focus or your back button focus. And this is important … once you have the focus set, switch to manual focus so that your camera doesn’t try to re-focus in autofocus mode (the little switch is on the side of your lens). I often use my husband, kids or one of my girls’ baby dolls for setting my focus before entering the shot.

My little two year old assistant was too short to be my quickie stand in, so I had her hold a stuffed animal up so I could set my focus point and eyeball my exposure.

Self Portrait Tips - Use a Stand In for Focus and Settings

The resulting image is this maternity shot of me at 19 weeks pregnant with my third baby …

Maternity Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Here I had no little people about to help me out, so I used one of my daughter’s baby dolls. She even donned one of the necklaces I’d be wearing to help me out. 😉

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

And husbands work well for stand in’s too!

Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions  - Use a Stand In for Focus and Exposure

Stop down. Get everyone in focus.
Even though I love shooting wide open for a beautiful blurred background and bokeh, it is much easier to nail your focus if you stop down (increase your f-stop number). This is especially true if it’s more than just you in the frame or if you aren’t going to be certain of your exact position and focal plane (such as lifestyle shots that are more candid in nature). Try an f-stop of around f4 or even f5.6 and higher. If you’re finding you are not hitting your focus point, try stopping down again … increasing that f-stop number will make finding great light even more important though, so keep that in mind!

This is me and my clan looking all out goofy for my daughter’s sixth birthday party – rock star themed, of course. 🙂 Talk about looking silly for the sake of memories! But I’m SO happy I did! You can see more of the party and some more self portraits I did for that day here. And I’ll be blogging this year’s party (a pirate themed party that was amazingly fun), very soon too!

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

For this Christmas image of all of us in front of the tree before having breakfast and then opening presents, I shot at f1.4 and was able to get a group of four all in focus because I used my 24mm lens. The shorter focal length gives me added depth of field, and also we tried to stay on roughly the same focal plane as much as possible. To be safe though, in general I’d recommend shooting with at least an f-stop that equals your number of subjects (so, an f4 for this image would have been a bit easier to nail focus, especially if shooting with longer focal lengths).

For those interested, this was shot on a tripod with my D4 and my Nikon 24mm lens at ISO 500, f1.4, 1/160 second … natural light from a large window, and the tripod/camera is low to the ground (love my tripod for it’s flexibility) and sitting about four feet from us. A really quick edit with Luminosity Photoshop actions Verve (low opacity), Petal Soft (painted on background) and Vintage Vanilla.

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Use a tripod.
I hate tripods … I never use them in my sessions in day to day work. However, I will almost always use a tripod when shooting self portraits and family images with me in them. A great tripod that’s compact and designed for travel but high quality (and comes in pretty colors!) is the MeFoto.

I use and absolutely adore the The Manfrotto 222 Joystick Head on the Manfrotto 058B Aluminum Studio Pro Tripod … it’s very intuitive and superbly made, but I find that it’s a bit overkill if you’re just using it for self portraits here and there (it does happen to be amazing outdoors and in difficult terrain, and is ninja fast to re-adjust on the fly).

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

The only exception to using a tripod for self portraits is when I borrow my husband as sort of a human tripod – getting all my settings just right, standing in exactly the spot I need to frame the shot and then giving him strict instructions not to move or fiddle with anything. The pitfall is sometimes he does move a bit and my composition is ruined, however, the plus side is that he knows how to check focus one more time and help me by making sure that focal point is still where it needs to be once I jump in the frame. A few of my maternity photos were taken this way by my lovely husband. The one below was one I kept struggling with by myself because getting the focus to stay on my face and get myself positioned just right behind the flowers was tough … human tripod (his own name for himself, btw) to the rescue! 😉 To his credit, I’ve been teaching him the ropes for a couple years now and he’s getting quite adept at handling the camera in manual mode.

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Get a remote.
I’m guilty of forgetting the remote more than a few times, but when you have one it sure does make things easier and more relaxed. Whether I’m using the remote or not I always use the self timer and do a sequence of 10 shots in a row with a couple seconds in between each shutter release. With a remote you can set everything this way, get into position, fire the remote and then have time to stash the remote somewhere out of sight (my remote has been known to go flying across the room a time or two when I didn’t have a handy place to hide it in the frame). Having the self timer on AND using the remote will give you time to get comfortable and relaxed, interact with each other, tickle the kiddos, hide the remote, etc. Having it set to shoot off multiple exposures will allow you to capture more than just one stiff shot … everyone can act more natural and also end up with a series of different “poses” at the end.

This is the Nikon wireless remote I use remote for Nikon. There are also wireless remotes with timers built in … here is one Nikon version. Here is a Canon version, and the Canon version that is a Wireless Remote With Timer here.

With my remote and timer on with a burst of about ten images set, I was able to actually read to the girls to get more natural shots and not have to hurry and fake it. 🙂

Self portraits tips by Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Be spontaneous and natural.
Let the kids act like themselves, take shots of everyone interacting with each other, be silly to loosen everyone up and don’t think that a good shot has to have everyone politely sitting and smiling at the camera! If it helps you to feel more comfortable in front of the camera, by all means do your hair and make-up and/or tidy up (this also will depend on whether you are shooting some candids of you and the kids playing or a more formal portrait of you with the family). For more information on taking lifestyle photography, with plenty of tips and tricks, see the This Is Our Life post. And if you’re looking to do a more styled session and want tips on what to wear for the whole family see What to Wear for Photo Sessions. 🙂

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Document important changes, transformations and journeys for yourself.
Boost your confidence and discover new things about yourself.

While at the end of my third and final pregnancy, I made sure to take more maternity photos than I’d ever dreamed I’d be taking. It was rough because I’m so uncomfortable in front of the camera – add to that being very pregnant and in various states of undress, and also in charge of the entire session from taking the photos to the creative styling and being the model, and I was a wreck. For some reason, feeling vulnerable in front of the camera when you are the one in charge was even tougher. There was nobody to reassure me I’m looking okay or give me hints about how I could pose a bit differently to have them turn out more flattering … it took A LOT of mistakes to get the good ones for those sessions. But it was SO worth it! You can see the entire session here.

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Capture yourself playing with your kids and family. My daughter loves it when I get silly and spin and dance with her, and I’m so glad I set things up and captured some of these moments to remember.

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Let go of your fears and self-doubt.
We have all been in the position where we just don’t feel like having our photo taken. Maybe we think, “When I can get into shape, or when I have time to do my hair or put on make-up, or I don’t want to look silly …” But it seems like those days we opt out of family moments in photos and stay hidden behind the camera just pile up and pretty soon we’re looking back at albums of photos where mommy (or daddy) seems to be missing from all of the family memories.

No make-up, unbrushed hair, reading stories on the sofa … just the way girls see their mommy most days and will remember me …

Self Portrait Tips - Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions

Personal share alert …

I often think about my children looking back at all the photos of their childhood. They won’t care if my hair was styled or not (heck, who am I kidding … they won’t care about it even being washed or not, LOL), or if I was wearing yoga pants and a spit-up covered shirt, etc, etc. They’ll be searching their childhood photos for the mommy they remember and love. They’ll yearn to see their mother right next to them in the photos … holding them, laughing with them, making precious memories with them. They will treasure those photos. A few years ago I made a pledge to start being in more photos with my family and am proud to say that I’ve stuck to it. This is a little (okay, a big) excerpt from what I wrote back in 2011 (this was way before my baby boy was born):

“I’m really trying to make every moment count with these precious girls. I’ve felt almost panicked lately when the days end and I look at their beautiful, sleeping faces. I regret every second that I wasn’t totally present with them … I want a “re-do” for the minutes I was doing something like cleaning or some other task that could have waited while I soak up all these wonderful moments of their childhood. The precious, fleeting baby-ness of Miss Eliza and Adeline’s constant learning and looking more and more like a young lady every day. Really, why can’t these years slow down … why can’t us mommies enjoy these moments longer than the time we are allowed before our babies get big?

As Scott talks to me about needing to invest in our retirement plan and other plans for the future I always tell him *these* are the best years of our lives right NOW. I’m so aware of how fast they are growing and it’s so bitter sweet that I almost feel like I am not able to shake a feeling of sadness because I just want to stop time every day. Is that weird??

I have noticed looking over the year’s past images that they are all beautiful, are all full of wonderful moments captured and are all missing one important part of our family … ME. 😉 Miss Addie even asked me the other day why I’m not in any of our family photos. So, whether it be by crappy web camera shot of us together in bed in the morning or an iPhone at the grocery store or actually jumping into our family session photos and dragging the tripod along with me (and, yes, that means possibly having to put make-up on), I’m going to make sure that these sweet girls have photo albums full of precious family memories that include their mommy. I happen to adore looking back at my childhood snapshots … and I don’t give a hoot how “perfect” anyone looked, in fact the goofier my family looked the more memories that flood back.

When my baby brother died a few years ago I desperately sought out every image that he was in, copied and cataloged them and was bitterly disappointed to find that we had so few. When the police showed up at my doorstep that horrible morning, I crumpled to the floor and then immediately ran to grab the first photo I could find of my baby brother, Brett. I needed that connection, to see his smiling face again. For two years I carried around a dogeared travel album that contained the very few precious photos I had of him and I together. I know each one by heart and would sit staring at them with tears streaming down my face, talking to Brett.

Then after being diagnosed with a chronic illness several years ago I went through the same panic and heartbreak. I was being faced with the possibility that I would never again be the kind of mommy Addie had always loved and known … the one who jumps on the bed with her every night, plays chase and throws her in the air at the park, the one who takes care of her no matter what. My illness landed me in bed and unable to do anything for an entire summer. I had to sit by and watch Addie cry that mommy couldn’t play at the park or go for family walks. I could barely stand up and was forced to crawl to the restroom since my heart soared to 180 bpm simply from standing up and I was passing out constantly. I remember so clearly lying there and gathering my photos of me and Addie together. I still have that collection in Lightroom as a reminder … and it was such a tiny number of photos it broke my heart to pieces. I had thousands upon thousands of Adeline by herself or with Scott but only a small handful where I was in the photo as well.”

And I’ve done a great job of including myself in our family portraits and lifestyle shots the past couple years since then … but I neglected to make a point of capturing beloved family members outside our home as well. Now, as my mama has been in the ICU in critical condition for many months and may not make it through, I am searching my photos trying to find the tiny handful of images I have of my kids with their nana over the past couple years. And I have even fewer of my babies with my daddy, who is suffering from late stage Parkinson’s disease. As photographers we should never forget how important photographs are!

I’m determined to make sure my children have not only a slew of memories to look through (and vow to actually have them all printed in albums as keepsakes instead of sitting on my hard drive), but I want to be sure that I’m in them as well. I don’t want them to end up searching through our photos (should something happen to me, knock on wood) desperately looking for the rare photo of the mommy they remember. And will they care if I feel like I’m out of shape or don’t have make-up on or what have you … absolutely not. I want to tell all of you mommies (and daddies and grandparents, etc) who read this to do the same thing – jump in there for your family photos and with your kiddos and be IN the memories captured!

Getting Kids to Smile in Photos With Real Authentic Expressions Photoshop Actions Elements PSE


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10 thoughts on “Self Portrait Tips – Are YOU In the Picture?

  1. Pingback: project 52 :: fourty one - a creative buzz

  2. I’m not sure what to say – I guess after reading your article I just wanted to say something. Your depth of personal sharing and the way I was able to relate about always having an excuse and hiding behind the camera really struck me somewhere in my heart.
    I guess there’s 2 things I want to say – 1. Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly about your personal life and just opening up the door of truth by everything you said. 2. You nailed it. You are exactly right about the whole makeup, hair clothes – using it as an excuse and how at the end of the day our children or families or friends won’t care a bit about those things. And we are missing out by not making a point of getting in there and becoming a part of our own history and memories.
    You have awaken my thinking and your words are about to make a big change in my life that I know one day my children and family will thank you for.
    So thank you for opening my eyes and thank you for sharing on such an incredible personal level!
    You have and continue to be an inspiration in my life!

    Kimberly Bricker
    Hidden Gem Productions

  3. I love this…wish I could “steal” every word in that last paragraph…it is exactly how I feel! Thank you so much for sharing.!

  4. Oh my goodness, I needed this post, and I didn’t realize it until I read it. I’m going to try to make a change and get in more of my family’s photos! Thank you for the wakeup call. Beautifully written, and I’m so sorry about your brother.

  5. Lovely! The tips you shared are awesome! Thanks for being open about techniques and sharing your wonderful gift to us. I can totally relate because as a mom all I want is to preserve my kids’ memories and capture it in the most angelic possible way. I love photography though I am not a professional photographer. But after reading this, I feel like I can still be like one and not be intimidated of owning a camera with big full frame lenses.

  6. Absolutely adore this blog post! 🙂

  7. Well, now I’m crying! I understand this post completely. I suffer from a chronic disease that will significantly shorten my lifespan and I’m so sad that I have such few photos with my children because I’m always the photographer.

    Such a great post and tips for getting in the photos!

  8. Your post was very helpful, and how personal you were in it really gave a strong voice throughout the post. Thank you for sharing some advice with us.
    I have one question. It may be a long shot, but I absolutely fell in love with your blouse in your 19 month pregnancy photo- the creamy, lacy top. Do you remember where you got it? I would love to be able to buy it or at least know what company makes such beautiful clothes. Thank you 🙂

    • Oops. I meant 19 weeks, haha. 19 months would be quite the journey..

    • Hi, Katie … thank you for the kind words. 🙂 I can’t recall where exactly the blouse was from for sure, but it was likely from either Anthropologie or Free People. Hope that helps!

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