From bad selfies to pretty self-portraits

The circuit breaker gave me time to finally improve on my photography.

Marielle Descalsota
Marielle Descalsota

Published: 22 May 2020, 11:32 PM

Like many of us, I love to travel and take photos.

Whether I am in Arizona, Bangkok or Kyoto, the one thing I always have with me is my camera.

But look through my SD card and you’ll find gloriously terrible pictures of my trips abroad. From awkward selfies to badly cropped photos, I’ve done every faux pas possible.


A quintessential mirror selfie — hazy and out of focus. PHOTO CREDIT: MARIELLE DESCALSOTA


All the photos from my 21st birthday celebration turned out blur because I didn’t know how to adjust the settings for low light. PHOTO CREDIT: MARIELLE DESCALSOTA


I have to admit that I’m a bad photographer. Even when I did take decent pictures, it would be on Auto Mode, and later doctored on Photoshop.

Whenever I see my overexposed photos, I would wish I had the time to learn photography.


Backlit selfie with lens glare. ‘Excellent’ photography indeed. PHOTO CREDIT: MARIELLE DESCALSOTA


But as an undergrad juggling two majors in the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), I was swamped with assignments, internships and even summer jobs. It didn’t help that I lived in Pasir Ris, and the daily commute would cost me four hours of my day.

With no spare time, I gave up on improving my photography.


Roaming around St. Kilda’s beach alone meant that I had to rely on the camera timer, resulting in badly cropped headless photos. PHOTO CREDIT: MARIELLE DESCALSOTA


I had planned to travel to Los Angeles (LA) for summer school this June and was excited to hit the streets to snap some pictures. However, the COVID-19 pandemic affected air travel worldwide, and in early April, the circuit breaker was announced.

I was disappointed that my trip to LA was cancelled and felt dejected being at home all the time (I haven’t left the house since Apr 4), unable to see my boyfriend or my friends.

But I felt inspired and even excited when I saw Mario Testino’s photobook of the late Princess Diana. His photo of the Princess smiling in the green Catherine Walker dress made me fall in love with portraiture.

I had an epiphany: the circuit breaker could be the time for me to finally learn the art of photography, starting with self-portraits.

I began my journey with a free online photography course, but unfortunately I didn’t find it helpful and stopped at the second session. However, blogs and guides like (a film photography site covering the basics really well) simplified the important stuff like aperture and lenses, which eased me with shooting on manual.


I initially found it really difficult to even get one good shot — for every shot that was in focus, I would get 10 that were blurry. PHOTO CREDIT: MARIELLE DESCALSOTA


Planning photo shoots within the confines of my humble home required a bit of creativity. I had to shoot in the balcony, bedroom and kitchen, transforming them into little ‘studios’.

Experimenting with different compositions also took up a lot of trial and error — on my first shoot, I took over an hour to get a sharp focus. Nevertheless, I didn’t let the awkward poses and my sweaty clothes stop me from having fun and taking photos.

Eventually I asked my sister to act as a stand-in for me as I try out different settings. This saved me a lot of time and effort as I no longer needed to keep adjusting the focus of the camera whenever I’m changing poses.




Experimenting with low light and mirrors. I was literally holding a giant flashlight above my head. PHOTO CREDIT: MARIELLE DESCALSOTA


Learning a skill I never really had is something I didn’t expect to do while on circuit breaker.

I finally learned how to make use of my inexpensive gear (Canon Rebel T6 with kit and 50mm f1.8 lens) to photograph better.  I also did not realise how difficult a selfie could be until I started shooting self-portraits.

I’m surprised at how much I’ve learnt in just a few weeks. Taking the time to pick up the technical skills has been worth it, as I’m able to be more creative with my shots.

While I miss street photography, portraiture is unexpectedly satisfying. In the long run, I’d like to curate a collection of portraits of people I love, like friends and family.


Shooting at the balcony and kitchen required a bit of creativity. PHOTO CREDIT: MARIELLE DESCALSOTA


Although my muse of faraway lands will continue to be out of reach, I discovered that I don’t have to whip out my camera only when I’m on holiday.

Because within the humble walls of my HDB apartment I learned to be inspired by the simplest things.

You may like these