Take a look around your home. What is the oldest item you own? Maybe your grandmother’s china collection, an heirloom piece of jewelry passed down through generations or a beautiful handcrafted piece of furniture. For me, it’s photographs. It’s little snippets of times that I wasn’t present, but can still be a part of because of those images. I love that family members and memories can live on for generations through photographs.
One day, while looking through photo albums, I realized that I was nearly nonexistent in the photos. So, for the sake of my children and my future grandkids, I decided to start doing self-portraits. I want to be able to pass down moments of my life for future generations.
I think a lot of mothers begin their journey into photography because they want to freeze time and remember their everyday moments, these fleeting times when our kids are little. But always being behind the lens instead of in front of it means we’re left out of the memories. We’re such a huge part of our children’s lives and yet, where are we in the photographs? I decided to change things for myself and my own kids. I encourage you to do the same. Because you, photographer mama, were there too!
1. Set the scene for portraits or lifestyle moments.
I am a sucker for lifestyle shots of genuine moments, but there is also beauty in a posed portrait of a mother and her children. It’s easy to set the scene for posed portraits. Just be mindful of your light and position your camera like you would during a normal portrait session. Catching those everyday, genuine moments is when things get tricky.
I have an ongoing list of moments I want to document with my children: giving baths, reading bedtime stories, baking Christmas cookies. These are moments of their childhood I so desperately want to hold on to. When I know we will be doing one of those activities, I set up my tripod and camera beforehand. Preparing in advance allows me to be authentic with the kids. It also saves me from having to pause the moment or try to reenact a scene after the moment has passed.
Remember to give yourself grace. Not every photo is going to have spectacular light, or look like your home belongs in a magazine. As long as your love for your children is showing, your emotions speak for themselves.
Pro tip: Keeping my tripod easily accessible so I can grab it and set it up anytime has been a huge help in creating self-portraits.
2. Set up your camera, focus and click the shutter.
My camera setup is pretty straightforward. I use a tripod that I was gifted seven years ago, nothing fancy. My camera settings are the same as they would be for any other session. I typically shoot between f/2.5 to f/3.2 for photos with myself and my two children. Shutter speed and ISO depend on my lighting situation.
Focus is obviously the hardest aspect of self-portraits. I could always close down my aperture to help guarantee focus, but I like to keep my work consistent in style. I focus on one of my children or a stationary object. They stand where I anticipate us being for the photo and I use autofocus to lock focus. Then I switch my lens over to manual focus to assure that my lens won’t try to hunt for focus on its own.
There are several shutter-release options for self-portraits: a remote shutter release, a cell phone app that acts as a remote, or an interval timer in your camera. I like to use my camera’s interval timer. It allows me to be hands-free and it’s one less thing I have to worry about. The interval timer allows me to set the number of shots, the interval and the total amount of time. I determine my exact timing by the activity I am shooting, but as an example I may set the timer to take five shots, every five seconds, five times. This allows me to add some variety to my photos and gives my children and me time to be in the moment.
Don’t get discouraged if you miss focus. Re-evaluate where you want your focus to land and try again. All it takes is that one shot to make your momma heart swell.
3. Stay true to your style with wardrobe and props.
I am a pretty laid-back dresser in my everyday life. Being a mom, functionality wins over fashion. I like to keep our outfits fairly neutral, but I still let my kids have their own unique style. It’s easy to create a cohesive look for self-portraits when I already buy our clothing in my preferred style and colors.
I am drawn to deeper tones like maroons, grays and dark greens. I tend to stay away from logos and character clothing because I feel that it takes away from the overall vibe I am trying to convey. To me, solid or simply patterned clothing is timeless. I dress us all up a few times a year, but for the most part our self-portraits are done in our everyday clothing.
I will also use small props if I want to capture a phase the kids are going through. For example, I will photograph us with books they love, a toy they can’t stop playing with, or a blanket they sleep with. That way I am allowing their voice to be heard, but still staying consistent with my style.
4. Create a self-portrait workflow.
When I am setting up my self-portrait scene, I typically have an exact idea of the shot I want to achieve. If I only want one specific shot, I only do one run through of my interval timer, which gives me about 20 shots to look through. If I intend to do several different poses I may have upwards of 200 shots. This is similar to a 20-minute mini session that I would do for a client.
If I take 200 shots, I’ll cull them down to 10-15 keepers. I edit primarily in Lightroom first and then do any heavy editing in Photoshop. If needed, I will do face swaps, remove objects from the background, etc. I treat my own self-portraits like I would a client’s photos. I don’t put my self-portraits on the back burner because these shots are just as important as my client work.
5. Convince yourself that you’re worth remembering.
I’ve heard a slew of reasons why other mothers don’t take self-portraits, but the most common one is that moms just don’t like their bodies. Motherhood, and life in general, can do a number on our our self-confidence. Don’t let that stop you. Even if you only share these photographs with yourself (you are not required to share on social media), they are still important.
In 20 years your children will not look at your photos and be disappointed that you had 15 extra pounds you couldn’t get rid of. They will appreciate that you took the time to make and document moments that may have been otherwise forgotten.
Taking self-portraits does not make you conceited or vain. It means you love yourself and that you love your children enough to want to remember these short seasons of life. Once you do self-portraits a few times, I promise you will start to see yourself differently. You will begin to see yourself through the eyes of your children, and that is an unimaginable feeling.
Anytime I start feeling silly for taking self-portraits, I remind myself that I am doing these photos for my children. I want my daughter to open an album in 20 years and have these photographs take her breath away when she remembers our beautiful moments together. I want my son to share these photographs with his new family and be reminded how happy of a childhood he had.
These moments with our children are short and I do not want to take one second for granted. We have this beautiful talent of being able to see love and raw emotions and translate that in to a photograph. Time and time again I deliver galleries to mothers who are brought to tears by the way they see themselves with their children for the first time. Why wouldn’t I want to share that gift with myself?
Alaina’s self-portrait gear:
Camera: Nikon D750
Lenses: Nikon 35mm f/1.4, Nikon 50mm f/1.8, Nikon 85mm f/1.8, Sigma 15mm f/2.8
Tripod: generic model from Costco
Photos and words by Alaina Carr
Editors note: At Click, we’re well aware that many photographers would rather be behind the lens than in front of it. We get it. You’re passionate about photography and making art. You express yourself through your work and want to capture your everyday as you see it. But sometimes, it’s really important to capture your world as your children see it. And that word includes you, mama.
This month, our print edition of Click Magazine will focus on self-fulfillment, self-acceptance and self-love. Because one of the challenges we’ve seen in our fellow photographers, and ourselves, is losing all focus on our own needs as we throw ourselves into caring for our business, our clients and our family. It’s easy to forget how important it is to prioritize ourselves and to be present. So if you like this article, we hope you’ll check out our print edition, where we go further into self-portraiture and explore what it means to see yourself as others see you.