Beyond the Standard Selfie

Light-Painted-Self-PortraitFirst off, I am NOT an expert on taking selfies. In fact, I’ve probably taken less than a dozen selfies in my life. I can think of only one occasion when I took a standard selfie. The remainder have been reflections, shadows and light paintings.

Thinking about it, I realize that I’ve disliked being photographed since grade 3, when I started wearing glasses (irrational, I know). My aversion to being in front of a camera lens seems to apply even when I’m the one holding the camera! I guess that’s why, on the rare occasion I decide to photograph myself, I try to think of something beyond the standard selfie.

Earlier this year (right around the time Beakerhead was running a self-portrait contest for members of the 2015 photo crew), a tweet from Light Painting Photography blog pointed me to this post about the work of Susan Sims-Hillbrand. The interviewer asked what advice she would give anyone wanting to try light painting photography: “Experiment and see what happens.” So that’s what I did!

It took a bit of trial and error before I had some results that I liked. Here’s what worked for me.


  • A dark place. Our TV room, with its black out window coverings, was the best option for me. I made sure not to stand in front of the projection screen, which would have been too reflective.
  • Dark clothing. I opted to wear black socks, pants, shirt, gloves and even a balaclava because I wanted my images to be coloured light in darkness, not coloured light illuminating me.
  • Something for light painting. Nothing flammable! A small flashlight would probably work just fine. I played around with four different coloured, battery-powered glow sticks that I picked up a couple of years ago at a hardware store for about five bucks apiece. I also used the Solarbotics Firefly I made at a soldering workshop last year. And finally, I had a toy one of my kids got a few years ago – a rubbery thing on a stretchy leash that has a blinking light inside that starts up when you bump it against a hard surface.
  • Tripod mounted camera. I used my (then brand new) Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Two of its features were essential for what I had in mind. First, it has a Live Time mode which means the first time you press the button the shutter opens and the second time you press it the shutter closes. Second, the LCD display swings open and swivels, so from my position in front of the camera I could watch the light painting as it progressed. Other cameras have similar features and/or the ability to display what’s being captured on a wired or wireless-connected screen such as a tablet or laptop.


  • Adjust camera settings. Manual mode for this project. I used ISO 400 and f7.1. Shutter speed varied.
  • With the lights on, I conscripted my son to stand on my “spot”, used auto focus to get the focal length right and then switched to manual focus because, as you probably know, auto focus doesn’t work so well in the dark! If you’re more adept at using manual focus than I am, you can probably do this part without help from a family member, pet or friend.
  • With a small flashlight in hand, turned off the room light, switched on the flashlight and walked to the camera sitting on the tripod. I positioned my finger on the shutter, shielded the flashlight in my hand so there was just a tiny bit of light leak and then pressed the shutter to start an exposure using Live Time mode.
  • I walked to my marked spot, guided by the tiny bit of light leaking from my flashlight and then switched off the flashlight and tucked it into my pocket.
  • Next, it was time to pull my light painting light source from my other pocket. BEFORE switching it on, I held the light right up against the side of my waist and then switched in on using my other had.
  • Then it was the hard part…slowly tracing my outline with my light painting source while being careful not to move around too much so that the resulting light line drawing would be recognizable. This took some TRIAL AND ERROR. Eventually I discovered that moving my hand holding the light source slow and steady while keeping an eye on the LCD camera display that I’d flipped to be facing the same direction as the camera lens was the best approach for me.
  • When I finished the outline, I turned off the light painting device and hustled back to the camera to press the shutter again to turn Live Time mode off. My elapsed time for each image ran about 2 and a half minutes, so I had noise reduction turned on to help counteract the effect of heat on the sensor.

I tried several variations, including my Solorbotics Firefly flashing blue / green, flashing just blue, and flashing just green. I also tried using the battery-powered glow sticks to colour inside the lines, rather than tracing my outline. Another variation was using more than one colour of battery-powered glow stick, to differentiate my pants and shirt. I even made a pair of striped pants using the flash mode on one of the battery-powered glow sticks. Finally, I tried adding a sort of light frame to my figure, by first light painting me and then using a glow stick to light paint an oval frame around myself. I had a hard time getting a fairly even margin here, so maybe more practice is required.

In addition to the photo at the top of the page, here are some of the better results:

If a light painted selfie isn’t your thing, here are three sites I’ve used in the past for images other than selfies. In the interest of rounding out this post, I used them just now to process the same selfie.

    1. Google’s Dreamscope app – Morphs your photo based on whichever of 75+ effects you choose. You can save low-res without creating an account and higher-res if you create an account.
    2. FotoFlexer – Also morphs your photo according to effects you choose.

– Turns any image into a plan for a Lego mosaic. You can save the low-res preview. There are other similar tools out there, but this is the only one I’ve used.

Finally, I wanted to share a link to a portfolio I really enjoy browsing. Paul Zizka is a Canadian nature photographer based out of Banff, Alberta and he creates the most amazing self portraits.

What’s your standard selfie practice? SOOC (straight out of camera)? No selfies? Some other technique or app that I should know about? Other photographers who light paint portraits and a website I can visit? Tell me!

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