Want to Take Really Creative Portraits? Start by Putting Yourself in the Picture.


No matter what you think these photographs are about, they’re about much more. 

Initially they were about Gilmar Smith having to be her own portrait subject so she could practice and likely modify what she was learning about portrait photography. We say “modify” because the first thing you should know about Gilmar (pronounced hil-marr) is that she likes to do things her own way. The second is that she’s fearless about expressing her ideas and emotions. 

“I had so many ideas when I was learning portrait photography,” she says. “I bought lights, and I built a home studio, but at some point, my family got tired of me asking them to model, so the only person available to me was me.” 

The early ideas that sparked self-portraits were the relatively easy part of the process. Gilmar had access to a prop house where she could borrow what she liked, and what she liked most were vintage props that suggested situations and stories. When those props initiated ideas, thrift-shop clothing often completed them. 

She experimented with lighting, backgrounds, colors and hair styles. Sometimes a haze machine provided texture more subtle than smoke or fog to make an image look cinematic. “I call self-portraits my personal laboratory for skill development,” Gilmar says. She might add “business development,” as the images are about that, too. Because they reflect her sensibilities, they’ve brought her the clients she most wanted to attract, clients who value the idiosyncratic, the imaginative, the personal, even the edgy. Anything but the ordinary.  

What she does, she says, is “sit with my clients the same way I sit with my ideas,” which essentially means listening to what they need and applying her vision to what she sees and recognizes. Her advantage is that the clients come to her. They see her work online and they know it’s for them, and it's not unusual for people to mention a particular photo they saw and say, “I want that!”  

Creating the “self” in her self-portraits involves expression, body language and gesture, and those crucial elements are more than partly calculated. “It’s about getting into character,” Gilmar says. “It’s a performance, and I tell this to my clients when I’m using props, and when I give them something to hold. I say, ‘Just pretend you’re this and that,’ and when you say ‘pretend,’ they step out of themselves. It’s fun to step out of yourself and pretend to be somebody else.”

In that sense, the self-portraits were steps toward marketing success as well as personal satisfaction. There’s no denying their power to attract the clients she wants to work with. 

Self-portraits allow me to hone my skills and grow as an artist. They allow me to express myself.

The Uncomfortable Chair

“Being my own subject gives me the creative freedom to do whatever I want,” Gilmar says, “and to take all the time I need to get the concept the way it is in my head. When you’re photographing your kids, or a friend, or even a model, if you are experimenting you can lose the magic, the connection with the other person because you have to keep trying until you get it right. Self-portraits allow me to hone my skills and grow as an artist. They allow me to express myself.”

The process is not easy. First, there’s the mechanical problem of triggering the camera, which she solved by setting the camera’s interval timer to shoot 30 photos in two- or three-second intervals, giving her time to change pose and/or expression—and giving her strobes time to recycle.

Then there’s the emotional issue. “People say, ‘Oh, you love to be in front of the camera.’ No! I love being behind the camera, taking pictures—that’s my job. To get in front of the camera in that uncomfortable chair, to manage all the processes of being a photographer and a model, I don’t love that.”

But she found that even the discomfort could work for her. “Being in front of the camera allowed me to feel the way my subjects, those who are not models, feel. I had to find a way to calm myself, to pose and relax, and that taught me a skill I can use with my clients.” 

The Challenge Now

“The beauty of experimenting with self-portraiture is that I’m still learning, still using my ideas, skills and equipment, seeing how they work together and the effects I can get,” Gilmar says.

She realizes the beauty comes with the challenge of keeping up with her own creativity. “I stay on top of it by asking myself when was the last time I did something new with my photography, something different I haven’t experimented with before. Then I go and experiment. I look for a way to get a different style or technique and then incorporate it into my photography. 

The beauty of all of it is that I am photographing what I love photographing in the style I love to work. People hire me for exactly that, and for a photographer, to be hired to do what you love most, that’s a dream.”

Conceptual, portrait and personal-brand photography is featured at Gilmar’s website, If you’re thinking of turning your ideas into photos, be sure to visit the Blog section of the site.

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