Creating a single image to tell a story is a whole lot of fun.
You go on a walk, you have an idea, you write it in your phone, you come home, you rummage through your dress-up box for the right outfit, set up the image, and make it happen.
Done! (Admittedly with a slight under-exaggeration of the time spent on the work.)
I adore the process. Being an impatient person generally, the ability to make a single photographic story come to life in a relatively short time suited me very well.
“Suited” in past tense, because, as an artist, I welcome the natural occurrence of development in my practice, and I had come to a point where I was ready for something different.
To me, creating a cohesive series of self-portrait photographs feels like a natural step in my artistic growth. Multiple images telling one fuller story is a challenge I welcome with open arms.
Perhaps you’re interested in expanding too. Let’s dive in together and see what makes self portrait series photography successful.
The first step in any creative journey, whether it’s for a single visual story or told through multiple images, is finding inspiration.
This is a very common question I get asked: Where do you get your inspiration from?
In 11 Tips for Capturing Authenticity in Self-Portrait Photography, you can read about where to dig for the deep ideas. But where else can you find that initial spark?
- locations (a walk in the woods, through fields, an urban jungle…)
- fairy tales
- props & costuming
- the library
- dreams (write a dream journal)
- personality tests
- free writing/free sketching
- retell a classic tale, or give one a twist of your own
- find a random page in a book and point at a random paragraph
- video games
The main thing to look out for is what makes you buzz. What is it that makes you think to yourself, “This feels like me”? It might be something weird, but in my book, that just makes the idea that much cooler.
Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing here, either. You’re on your own path and not in a competitive boxing ring. Focus on you and don’t limit your potential by wanting to be like someone else.
However, choose your self portrait dress wisely as it’s also one of the crucial part of effective expression.
- Read more about building your own visual culture in my post, Exploring Self-Portraiture: History & Where To Find Inspiration.
Single Image VS. a Series
Once you have the drive to tell a particular story and have fleshed out some concepts towards it, you have the option to then decide if you are realising your idea through one or multiple images.
The difference between a single image and a series lies in the depth and complexity of your narrative.
With a single image, you can capture a particular emotion and a very short story within one frame. I don’t like to say “I capture a moment”, because I don’t. Conceptual images always have more to them than “just” a moment snapped.
A series allows for a more comprehensive exploration of your theme or concept.
By presenting multiple images built on the same theme, you can evoke a sense of progression and further depth in your storytelling (see these pictures that tell a story.)
With any artwork, you’ll naturally want to connect with your audience. The difference when it comes to a series is you’re inviting your viewer to go on a longer journey to understand your message.
You have choices here too.
Chronological narrative: tell your story through a sequence of images following a typical story arc with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Here, each photograph will represent a specific time or event, and when viewed together, they form a coherent storyline.
Example: your character starting their journey in desolate despair, fighting their way through obstacles before finding hope.
Multiple perspectives: You can also “argue” your story from different viewpoints.
Use different compositions or angles to provide alternative interpretations or insights into your story.
Example: use your self-portraits to address social issues or make statements about a particular topic, but have your character play out both sides of the story, perhaps through wearing different masks or costumes.
Diptychs or triptychs: Arrange your images in two or three panels to show the connection or contrast between your photographs.
Each panel can represent a different aspect of your story, and the arrangement itself contributes to the overall narrative.
Example (diptych): explore the duality of chaos and order in a diptych, using contrasting compositions, props or settings to convey the tension between the two states of being.
Example (triptych): the theme of understanding isolation, the pursuit of connection and the sense of eventual belonging could be an idea here.
Single idea without a timeline: Let each image in your series play on the overarching theme you want to convey.
Instead of following a chronological timeline, each image will emphasise and build up your main message.
Example: photograph yourself reflecting the expectations or judgements of others, exploring how external influences shape our sense of self and identity.
For props, you could use labels to tag yourself with words, strings to transform into puppets or broken mirrors to symbolize the reflection of others’ opinions of you.
- Read more: 41 Conceptual Photography Ideas & Examples
To achieve coherence in a series, consistency is vital.
You might like to approach self portrait photography without worrying about your visual uniformity but instead connecting the images to one another by expressing the same message within each of the frames.
Another way to do it is to pay just as much attention to thematic consistency, but this time give equal concentration to visual cohesion too.
Plan your visual style while conceptualising.
What aesthetic are you going for?
Lighting and colour can greatly contribute to the overall coherence of your series. Will you use natural lighting throughout, or studio lighting? Decide on your setup before starting to shoot.
Similarly, establish a colour palette that will contribute to and enhance the mood of the series.
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of free YouTube tutorials on colour theory and I would definitely recommend you watch a couple at least to familiarise yourself with what you can achieve with colour and tonal range.
You can also check out this guide to colour theory in photography.
This video by Joanna Kustra is brilliant on colour theory, finding your own style, colour grading and applying it all in practice.
Playing your story out as a single idea without a timeline will seem more strung together if the time period is the same.
Or perhaps you’re going for a traditional beginning-middle-end story arc, in which case you may want to consider the time periods appropriately.
Pay attention to your setting or background. You could perhaps select a specific location that will be present in your self-portraits to help stitch your images together.
If your character is exploring their own identity internally, having them wear the same outfit throughout their journey would also provide cohesion.
While maintaining consistency within your frames, don’t be afraid to explore variations within the theme.
Experiment with different facial expressions, poses, or gestures to make sure your images are visually still varied and interesting.
Finally, edit and process your images in post with consistency. Apply a particular editing style throughout your self-portraits.
Concentrate on brightness, contrast, saturation and colour grading.
Your editing choices will help tie the images together.
Have you tried applying texture to your images in post-processing? Doing so can give your images not only a sense of coherence, but it also helps with providing a timeless feel and a painterly quality (my personal favourites!).
I went around my home town and gathered a great bundle of textures you can download and use for free. Click here to access.
Series work in self-portrait photography is very similar to producing single images in a way.
In both, you have to think long and hard about all the important choices that transform a “pretty” image into one with layers, depth and meaning.
In both, you play the main character to tell your story.
In both, you have to consider the emotions you want to evoke in your audience and work towards that appropriately.
Intention is key, regardless of the number of images.
What differs is how, within a series, you magnify each of the above and project it over several images, while identifying ways in which you can stitch several images together to tell one story.
Remember, it’s important to find a balance between consistency and variation within your series.
Each self-portrait should have its own unique character but also contribute to the overarching theme and visual language you’ve worked hard to establish.
If you stand your grandma in the middle of a room with your series around her on the wall, will she understand it’s a series? Will she have a sense of a complete story? If so, congratulations, you’re winning!
As always, experiment, be creative and allow yourself to evolve as you create your cohesive series of self-portraits.
Check out my post Behind the Scenes of Conceptual Self-Portrait Photography for a peek inside my process and how I go from the spark of an idea to a finished image.
Veronika Lavey is a multi-cultural artist specialising in conceptual self-portraiture. She is recognised for her dark, thought-provoking fine art photography.
When Veronika doesn’t have a camera or a paint brush in her hands, she’s most likely walking her giant fluffy dog, Sonic in the woods, or hanging out with her family.