Self-Portrait Photography: One Pro Photographer’s Educational Approach

May 17, 2021

By Roberto Valenzuela

Passion is that burning sensation you feel when you have an inexplicable hunger to learn something so much that it feels as if embers are slowly burning inside of you. Croatian photographer Lana Polic has a passion for self-portrait photography that translates into educational tools—her self portraits help her hone various photographic skills that she then turns around and teaches to other photographers on her Instagram.

Photographer Lana Polic in a self-portrait.
Photos © Lana Polic

One day during the COVID lockdown last year, I came across a genuinely remarkable submission that stood out immediately: a self-portrait of Lana. It included so many well-executed variables that it just seemed too difficult to achieve without anybody behind the camera. From the styling to the makeup, lighting and gels used to create mood and atmosphere, this photo had it all, including my undivided attention. Even when she’s learning new skills, she seems to know just how to make a portrait really pop.

[Read: Fine-Art School Portraits: The Beauty of Volume Photography]

I immediately scrolled through Lana’s Instagram feed and discovered even more captivating portraits of her—each one showcasing a superb handling of artistic vision with technical skill. And all she uses to execute them, it turns out, are two strobes—a Godox AD 400 Pro and a Godox AD 600 Pro—and a Canon 5D Mark III, a couple of medium-sized softboxes, a beauty dish and some basic seamless papers. 

“Most of my self-portraits come out of a desire to improve my photography skills,” she explains. “Unfortunately, it is often tricky to find people patient enough to pose for hours while trying out different lighting experiments. The easiest solution is to photograph myself. The one challenge with self-portraiture, though, is that it is hard to pay attention to all the details while being both in front of and behind the camera. The knowledge I’ve gained by experimenting with my self-portraits has helped me tremendously in photographing clients. That, and witnessing my comfort level increase as I implement more advanced photographic techniques has done wonders to motivate me to create even more experiments, further pushing my current skillset boundaries.”

[Read: The Creative Photographer’s Guide to Self-Portraits With Kids]

This past April, I traveled with my friend Andre Plummer from Los Angeles to the small city of Rijeka in Croatia to personally meet Lana and her partner, Robert. We spent two full days working on fine-tuning her posing and lighting skillset via her self-portrait photography. We also worked on a full-on fashion editorial shoot with two fashion models: a quick photoshoot of Lana by me so she could experience what it’s like to be photographed, lit and posed by another photographer, and, most excitingly, a self-portrait session where I could witness Lana’s process in action. 

How to Get Started in Self-Portrait Photography: Lana Polic’s Process

  • Seek out the light where you plan to shoot
  • Decide on the poses you want to incorporate
  • Sketch the setup in a notebook
  • Include the direction of light, types of modifiers in sketches
  • Connects your camera to a remote trigger and to your laptop with Utility software. (Note: The Canon Utility software Polic uses is with a split screen.)
  • Music choice is vital to remove inhibitions and provide the energy to achieve the vibe you seek

To prepare for a self-portrait photography session, Lana first seeks out the lighting or posing technique she strives to understand or experiment with. This is followed by her sketching out the setup on her notebook. “My sketches include the direction of light relative to where I will be standing, the type of light modifiers I will use, and the poses I plan on using,” she says. Seeing her sketches progressively come alive in the back of the camera with every shot coming closer and closer to her drawn vision was incredible.

Lana Polic's self-portrait photography

“My self-portraits contain everything I love about photography, from playing with lighting to using gels and including movement with exciting poses. I sometimes will incorporate a dragged shutter effect to give a stunning painterly impact that elevates an image into something more.” —Lana Polic

Next, she connects her Canon 5D Mark III to a remote trigger and to her laptop with Canon Utility software running. The Canon Utility software is used with a split screen. On the left screen, she can see herself in a live feed.  The right screen displays the last photo taken. “With this setup, I can better gauge focus and where I am within the frame,” says Polic. “Once this is all set up, the shoot begins, along with all the adjustments necessary to achieve the lighting or posing technique I want to learn.”

The photographer holds a trigger remote on her hands to fire the shutter as she poses, getting her closer and closer to her desired goal. In addition, all of this is done with carefully curated music to set the mood and keep her moving. “My music choice is vital to remove inhibitions and provide the energy to achieve the vibe I had in mind,” says Polic. “Everything else is the movement of the body to the music and the feeling that carries you.”

Roberto Valenzuela and Lana Polic making DIY backgrounds.

One evening, I sat on her studio floor while Lana showed me her self-made backgrounds; she assembled basic materials to achieve her various self-portrait creations. Most of her backgrounds were little more than a simple
3 x 4-foot piece of cardboard wrapped in gold, silver or aluminum foil to create the effect. 

Self-portrait photography example of Lana Polic with gold lipstick and face paint.

One of my favorite self-portraits of Lana’s is one where she painted her face and used gold lipstick to accent her lips and eyebrows, and applied gold glitter near her eyes. The background was just ordinary thin cardboard wrapped in gold foil but it was her clever use of shutter drag in combinations with well-targeted lighting that makes the image quite impactful for me.

At first sight, photography as a learnable skill appears relatively straightforward. However, when you really get into it, it can be quite involved and requires nearly the same level of practice and dedication as learning a musical instrument. That’s why it is very refreshing for me to see a photographer like Lana Polic paving the way for other photographers through her self-portrait photography. She is truly making a significant impact so that other photographers just starting out can flourish in this wonderful industry of ours. 

Roberto Valenzuela is a photographer and Canon Explorer of Light based in Beverly Hills, California. He packs the room as a speaker at WPPI every year, and participates as a judge in WPPI The Annual. He has a deep passion for creative photo lighting, as well as for discovering new photographic talent. During the summer of 2020, Canon USA selected a tiny group of their Explorers of Light (EOL) to participate in a voluntary mentorship program, which led Valenzuela to discovering the self-portrait photography of Lana Polic.