The Non-Guru’s Guide to a DIY Photo Shoot

diy cam shot w text

Welcome to the most superficial post I’ve ever written. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So. You’re rolling out a new blog. It’s been many months in the making. You want things to look lovely and artful and professional. 

You need a profile photo that’s polished and presentable. 

Preferably not one that you crop really tiny out of your most recent family photo. Otherwise your husband’s shoulder will be visible behind your head and your son’s head will block your other shoulder. You will simply be a head flanked by other peoples’ appendages and that will surely scare readers away. 

But good photos usually require real photographers and real photographers deserve to be paid with actual money. This is a problem because you don’t have a “head shot” line item in your current budget. But more than that, you loathe having your picture taken. It probably stems from the childhood trauma of disastrous school photos year after year. Some of us had and awkward stage that started in about the third grade and ended right before college. The thought of a real photographer making you pose and tilt your chin makes you feel self-conscious and itchy and 12 years old {pre-contact-lenses and pre-braces.} 

Finding yourself in this dilemma, you may be tempted to employ those who live in your home to take a few photos for you. You might drag them out at dusk even though they are hungry. Perhaps you become a bit obsessed about harnessing that perfect light and you get a tad bossy because you might miss The Light  “so please hurry.” You might force them to traipse through the unpretty brownish-yellow backyard sprouting bright green onion grass.

You might end up with a whole lot of this.

forehead Collage

With lots of cropping and iPhoto hacking, you may get a few decent shots. Shots that are actually good. 

runner up collage

And you are shocked that in all of those pics of bark and forehead, you ended up with some usable photos. {And yes, the said usable photos do actually show your face, unlike the samples above.} But the backyard photos are just…not quite what you had in mind. It feels contrived. Who drags a kitchen chair into the middle of their backyard? With a basket draped over the chair? While posing at dusk for a photo? And staring off dreamily into the neighbor’s yard?

Also, that weird grass bothers you.

It’s simply not the photo you were hoping for even if you can’t articulate why it’s not “the one” and your husband so does not get you on this but he’s trying to be supportive because he knows you are nothing if not fickle and complicated. And you know he is nothing if not patient and supportive.

You might be tempted to fret a little bit on the inside. You might be tempted to feel guilty because you are fretting over a dumb profile photo for your new blog and what mature grown-up even does that? You might fall into a pit of guilt over the inexcusable fretting and wonder if you are sliding down the slippery slope toward full-blown narcissism. You might even consider not wearing make-up for the rest of your life just to prove to yourself that you’re not overly vain. 

Thankfully, you snap out of the fretfulness and come to your senses!

You remember that you are nothing if not resourceful!

You make like Rosie the Riveter with her digital SLR and say to yourself, We Can Do It!

Armed with caffeine, a fully-charged camera, and lip gloss from your new Clinique bonus, you devote a Friday morning to hacking your way through a DIY photo shoot.

You thank the Lord that the best natural light in the house is right beside your writing nook, a perfect backdrop. What are the odds? Why didn’t you think of this before?

You clear all the junk off your desk and throw it on your unmade bed.

You move the nightstand’s pretty lamp to the desk and steal a splatter art canvas off your daughter’s wall.

You replace the stack of bills with a stack of books. 

You take blurry photos of yourself with no make-up and an ugly sweatshirt to make sure the lighting and height are workable. It’s hit or miss, emphasis on the miss.

bad sweatshirt

You make like a 15-year-old and change outfits 10 times. You are still without a stitch of makeup. It would not have killed you to apply some tinted lip gloss for these practice photos. You wonder why your lips are the same color as your sallow skin and vow to never wear chartreuse without a generous application of blush and lip color.

clothing change

You consider why you have folded prayer hands in every. single. picture. You tell yourself that it’s because you’re so holy and the prayer-hands posture just comes naturally. Also? What are you doing to your pretend coffee? How embarrassing. You are violating the dignity of that innocent coffee mug. If this photo goes viral you will surely be sentenced to hand management class.

You prop the front of your camera up on a cardboard toilet paper roll and take roughly 124 photos with the camera’s timer using the toilet paper roll and your nightstand as a makeshift tripod. Between each round of shots, you see how the photos are turning out and adjust things accordingly. 

You make pencil marks on your nightstand to remember where the camera is supposed to go. Surely this is exactly how the professionals do it.

Armed with a few good pictures and iPhoto, you crop and fade the colors. You make some of them black and white just for fun. It’s not Photoshop fancy but it’s good enough.

Yes, it’s still contrived. You don’t pose for photos every day at your desk. But this is the actual place where you ponder and make notes and do the real work of writing and therefore it feels legit. Even if you are wearing a rhinestone necklace and more blush than usual on a Friday morning at your writing desk even though you normally are wearing the ugly sweatshirt and looking rather haggard. {You may be Marian Vischer: Writing the Real but even “Real” has its limits. Marian Vischer: Writing the Real But Faking Her Face? Marian Vischer: Writing the Real But Crying Out for Concealer?}

Moving on. You sit back and realize that you’re no longer fretting. In fact, you are rather pleased that you did this all by your big amateur self. Best of all, you’re finally convinced that you are not a narcissist after all because you posted photos of yourself without make-up on the internet for the whole world to see. You are so very thankful the whole world doesn’t read your blog right now. You fold those pretty little prayer hands of yours and thank the Lord for your small-ish readership. 

Most of all, you remember that every limitation actually holds an adventurous challenge, an invitation to carve possibility out of imperfection…
Even for something as superficial and ridiculous as a photo of yourself.

Non-Guru “Instructions” for a DIY photo shoot:

1. Go outside or find a place in your house with good natural light. Morning or dusk natural light is best. 

See how lovely this photo is? No editing. No special manual settings. The mid-morning light through the window is the superstar in this photo. Natural light will be your best friend.

2. Grab a camera that has a timer. 
3. Make sure the flash is turned off. Remember, natural light is magic. Flash is only for pitch-black emergencies and professional photographers.
4. Stage your vignette by clearing away the mess and shopping the house for pretty props. Don’t be afraid to change things all around. You can just put it back when you’re done.
5. Do not become distracted by the ugly carnage surrounding your pretty vignette. Throw papers and lamps around with reckless abandon. You’ll clean it up later. Just focus on your one pretty corner. Laser focus, people. 
6. If you don’t have a tripod, no worries. Grab a toilet paper roll, a cardboard box, a wadded up sock–anything that can get your camera to the right height and angle.
7. Liberally apply mascara and concealer. And for the love, put some color on your lips. Especially if you are 40 and the natural pigmentation that used to reside in your lips has migrated north in order to add a pinkish hue to the circles under your eyes. Vow to never wear that beige sweatshirt again. It is the color of death.
8. Take lots of photos and remember, you only need one. We did a family DIY photo in January using a coffee maker box as the tripod and Nerf gun bullet to prop the lens angle just so. We ended up with a great picture. But we also got a whole lot of this. The outtakes always end up being my favorite. We should send Christmas cards with the family photo outtakes, don’t you think? 
9. Transfer photos to your computer and use whatever photo editing software you have. Play around and have fun. Enjoy the creative process. If you don’t have photo editing software that you like, I love using Picmonkey. It’s how I made all the photo collages in this post and it’s also what I use to layer text onto photos I use for the blog. {Like the header photo for this post.} It’s free and easy to use.
10. Apply an antique effect, fade the color, and then crank down the contrast for a soft muted look. The possibilities are endless.  Experiment with black and white and add a color boost to it so your black and whites have more depth. {My niece, Marlowe, always provides fabulous photography and fashion inspiration.}
11. You can use the retouch feature in iPhoto or in Picmonkey to blend away grays and smooth out fine lines. Hypothetically speaking of course. A little goes a long way here. Do not go overboard with the retouch or you will resemble Kim Novak at this year’s Oscars. {Bless her.}

So there you have it. The recipe for an amateur / hacker DIY photo shoot.

Now you can spend that cash you saved on a package of Oreos and a pint of Cherry Garcia. 
Or you can use it to hire someone to clean up the mess that now litters your house because you turned it upside down in a photo-shoot frenzy. 
Or you might choose to order pizza because hours spent on a DIY photo shoot means you didn’t make dinner. 
Or you can save up some cash toward a new camera. I received a digital SLR camera five years ago as a gift and it’s one of my most cherished possessions. I’m no expert on cameras but this one has been super easy to use. It’s a Canon EOS Rebel XSi. My favorite lens is a 50mm 1.8. I love it because it’s an affordable lens gives you that great “bokeh” {photographer speak for blurry background.}
This post linked up to Grace at Home, a lovely link-up at Imparting Grace–hosted by my lovely friend, Richella.
Things are under construction around here and we’re still deciding how we want to do comments. For now, scroll back up to the title of this post and click on comments if you’d like to leave one. Interested in receiving each post via e-mail? It’s easy. Just enter your address in that box below! If you previously subscribed to a la mode but aren’t getting the posts from the new blog delivered to your inbox, my sincerest apologies. We transferred our subscribers but there were a few glitches with some of them. If you don’t mind, enter your e-mail address into the subscribe box here and you’ll be good to go. Thanks for your patience as we iron out the wrinkles.
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  1. Renee says

    Love your humor. Way to show up on DIY picture day and bring your resourceful A game! A wise person said showing up some days isn’t half the battle, it is the battle :) …. thanks for showing up, I just love what you dish out here.

  2. says

    Some of my most favorite photos of my boys was an unprofessional photo shoot with a simple 35 mm camera and my neighbor’s tree! And I am so a picmonkey fanatic!!! Love your realness.

  3. MeMe says

    Lol! Love the real Marian! It makes me feel better to know that you are not naturally so glamorous and polished -makes you more approachable and lovable! 😉

  4. says

    This post was fun to read, of course–because you wrote it!–but it was also really helpful to me. I’ve never tried this before, and I’ve wondered if it was doable. (Doable is a word, isn’t it?) I guess I’ll have to read my camera’s manual to learn how to use the timer, huh? I have NO IDEA. I’m pitiful. :)

  5. Peggy says

    You are beautiful inspiration! Working on setting up my blog and your post is right on time! Grabbing my camera, tripod and heading to the orchard —— right after the rain stops. :)
    Thank you!

  6. says

    I love this post!!! I am new to the blog world and have been doing some research on how to better my little blog. This was an answer to prayer. I was reading your post and I was like, “This is me writing this!”
    Photos is such an ordeal and all I use is my iPhone 5 camera. I’m going to try all you have said and wait for the best “one” photo!

    Found you through Imparting Grace link party :)

  7. says

    I LOVED this post Marian! So cute and funny and sooo right up my alley…umm do you read minds?! LOL I STILL don’t have a good “selfie” on my blog after 3 years of blogging.. Ok..You’ve encouraged me to take time to do it :) Hopped over from Imparting Grace! Have a blessed week!

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