I’ve always been drawn to documenting the simple moments and everyday routines. So, as part of my day-in-the-life project, I thought it would be fun to give my family a peek into what goes on inside our home while they are out all day. I decided to create a series of self-portraits that would illustrate my daily life at home. But, because I didn’t want these simple moments to feel mundane or repetitive, I needed a fresh angle. I decided to take selfies from above. And, I don’t mean just positioning the camera on an angle or holding my phone above me. I wanted to create true bird’s-eye view self-portraits that would show my environment and how I interact within it.
Bird’s-eye view photos are compelling to a viewer because it feels very much like you are outside looking in on a scene as it unfolds. For me, this is the perfect way to tell my story. But, logistically, creating these selfies from above is a bit of a challenge. I don’t have a drone to use inside my house and a tripod wasn’t going to create the look I was after. So, I came up with a solution: Tape my smartphone to the ceiling. Here’s how—
1. Build a cardboard shelf to hold your smartphone.
The way I take selfies from above and create that unique bird’s-eye view is to basically tape my phone to the ceiling. But, because I still need to be able to adjust my camera settings and timer, I use a cardboard shelf to hold the phone. This way, I can slide the phone in and out as needed without having to remove a bunch of tape. Here’s how to create the shelf:
- Start with a sturdy piece of cardboard large enough to hold your smartphone. Mine is approximately 6 x 12 inches.
- Fold a two-inch flap on each short side and then fold again to create a pocket, as shown in the photo.
- Use painters tape to attach the cardboard shelf to the ceiling.
- Smartphone with camera
- Painter’s tape
- Step ladder
- Timer app
2. Find the perfect spot for your bird’s-eye view photos.
Now that you have your shelf ready, you need to decide what you want to photograph and where. I love to photograph myself doing everyday activities in my home. When I’m choosing an activity and location, I’m always mindful of lines, colors and textures. These compositional elements are especially obvious and important in bird’s-eye view photos.
I will often get up on a ladder and take a test photo of my scene before I set up the shelf and insert myself into the photos. This gives me a good idea of what the image will look like and any adjustments I need to make. Moving the camera even a few inches can change the look of the scene and alter what is or isn’t included in your frame.
When I find the perfect spot, I tape my cardboard shelf to the ceiling. I always make sure I’m parallel to a wall to help keep my lines perfectly straight. This is important to do in-camera as straightening in post processing can mean losing a lot of the environment I’m trying to capture. I’m also mindful of light sources, as my iPhone 7 camera tends to blow highlights.
My favorite scenes for selfies from above:
- A cozy bed
- The morning routine
- Folding laundry
- Household chores
- Working or doing homework
- Cooking and baking
- Sitting in the car
- Relaxing on the couch
- Bath time
- Wrapping presents
- Movie night
- Family game night
3. Set up the camera and timer on your phone.
Download a photo timer app
If you don’t have one already, make sure to download a self-timer app. I use Photo Timer+ (free), as I find it to have the best options for shooting 10 frames at three-second intervals. It also features a voice cue when the next shot is being taken, which is very convenient for when I want to set up for my next pose. The voice cues are also helpful to let me recognize when the 10 frames have been completed.
Set the timer
Next, I set the timer to give me enough time to place my phone on the shelf, step down off the ladder, move the ladder out of the frame, and get into the scene. I find that 15 seconds works best for me. My timer can be set from a three-second delay all the way up to three minutes. Choose the delay that works best for you.
Place your phone on the ceiling
Once I’m ready to take the photo, I climb the ladder, and within the Photo Timer+ app, I press the icon that says “Take Photo.” Next, I press the camera icon to begin the countdown. Then, I place the phone on the shelf, being careful that the phone is perfectly straight within the shelf, and slip into the scene.
The first few images will often be less-than-stellar as the camera is being set up and you’re getting into place, so I usually delete the first couple frames from the series.
4. Review your photos and make adjustments as needed.
I will often continue to shoot until I create an image that shows my vision. To do this, I review the images I’ve taken after each set of ten. This allows me to make tweaks, like straightening or moving the cardboard shelf or editing my environment.
Composition for bird’s-eye view selfies
Lines and shapes
When shooting from a bird’s-eye view, lines and shapes are extremely important. Pay attention to what each element communicates in the image and how they interact to tell your story. Look for shapes and lines to frame your subject and help direct the viewer’s eye. Seek out lines that will lead the viewer into and across the fame.
Be extra mindful of strong lines, like walls, baseboards, countertops and tables. You’ll need to be careful with these strong lines and the way they cut across a photo, like a horizon in an outdoor photo. With these types of strong lines, it’s even more important to make sure your camera is parallel to a wall so that everything is nice and straight.
I often try to center myself in the frame for my selfies from above. Whether I’m in the top, middle or bottom, the center of the image is where the eyes will tend to go by default. Being centered gives the best balance and symmetry in my experience. Feel free to experiment and find what feels best to you.
Color and texture
Look for texture and color in your scenes. Add pops of bright colors and layers of fabric for texture. You want each item in your photo to help you tell the story, but also to add visual interest. Use light and shadows to add dimension and layers to your photos.
Exporting and editing my iPhone pictures
Once I’m finished taking photos, I go through my phone and favorite the images I want to use. I send them to my Mac using Dropbox and then use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to make my adjustments and edits. It is a phone photo, so it will have certain limitations, but in general I edit the images as I would any photo.
All photos by Dana Walton
More self portrait inspo and advice:
Hands-free selfies from above using your smartphone? Yep, that’s pretty clever! But we’ve got some great advice for taking self-portraits with your big camera, too. Here are a few articles to get you in the frame: