Mastering Taking Photos of Yourself: Four Techniques and Tools for Self-Portraits

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A sunset self portrait at
Point Lobos State Reserve.
"A good snapshot stops a moment from running away," according to American short story author Eudora Welty. We take photos to capture feelings, flashes of time, and people and images we want to remember. If you want to be in one of those photos, it's usually easy to find someone to take a photo for you. But what if you're out on a backpacking trip and don't plan on seeing anyone but your trip partners? What if you're traveling alone and actually want to be a part of the scenery? 

As vain as it might seem on the surface, taking pictures of yourself is one way to memorialize pieces of your adventures. Read on for four techniques and tools you can use to get yourself in your photos when there's no one there to take them for you.

The Classic Long-Arm Shot

A perfect long-arm shot, taken
in Edinburgh, Scotland. (M. Pierwola)
Milo of EXP Adventures is a master of the long-arm self portrait. He's traveled all over the world, frequently alone. But even when he's with others, he takes these long-arm shots because photos are one way he remembers where he's been and the experiences he's had. When it comes to technique, Milo has a few tips to help you ensure you actually get yourself in the photo.

"The trick comes from practice and accepting that sometimes you will barely get yourself and sometimes you will barely capture the subject, but willingness to experiment and make mistakes is critical to mastery. The best practice I have discovered is taking photos in groups of people. By browsing the photos immediately after you take them (digital cameras are a bonus), you learn where the borders of your image are. Imagine a fictional pyramid that extends from the lens outwards to help you aim correctly." 

So, take Milo's advice, be careful to position the camera so your arm isn't the star of the photos, and you're good to go.

Using a PixPal (Selfie Stick)

Tiffany demonstrating how to hold the PixPal
on top of the Space Needle in Seattle, WA.
The PixPal is a great little invention. When positioned correctly, photos taken with the PixPal can look like they were taken by someone else, eliminating any possible assumption of your vanity by photo viewers. Just attach your camera to the PixPal's universal mounting screw, set your camera's timer, extend the arm, and you're good to go. The camera can be turned and tilted to achieve the right angle.

I received it as a gift from Tiffany before heading out to the Pacific Northwest to climb Mount Rainier. Tiffany knew I'd built a few days of solo travel into my trip and she wanted to be sure I could put myself in a few of the photos I took. We had great fun experimenting with it and the PixPal was the star of a number of the photos before we figured out exactly how to hold it. We also got a number of strange looks, but it comes with the territory. When you get it right, you've got a way to get yourself and more of the setting around you into the photo. 

Positioning Your Camera on an Inanimate Object

A self-portrait taken using my rental car as a flat surface.
This is one of my favorite methods, but can illicit some pretty weird looks from passersby. (You might just want to ask them to take the photo for you, unless you're in the wilderness and haven't seen another human being in days.) Find a tree stump, a flat rock, or a flat anything, really. Set the camera down, aim it, push the button and run over to your chosen spot. Most cameras have a flash that will blink slowly at first, then faster to let you know how much time you have to get yourself in place.

Of course, flat surfaces aren't always available, and you're limited to whatever backdrop you're able to get in the shot based on how the surface is positioned. You might have to sit, squat, jump, etc. if the surface is in a particularly high or low spot. Be sure to position the camera so it stays steady; you don't want it falling off the rock and into a creek, on to another rock, etc. As challenging as it can be to get the camera set, it is possible to take some rockin' photos this way.

Using a Tripod

Big James Fitness setting up his tripod to film
one of our WODs at Crossfit Love.
If you're too fancy to rely on rocks to be your flat surface, there's always a good old tripod. Even when we're doing our best to stay still while holding a camera, our hearts still beat, our hands still shake a little, and all of that affects the quality of a photo. A tripod is a great way to get a clearer photo, and if you set the timer on your camera, a clearer photo with you in it. Just set it up, aim the camera, push the button and you're good to go. A tripod can also help you take photos at night with adjusted shutter speeds and beautiful waterfall shots.

When you're choosing a tripod, think about what you'll be using it for. If you're taking it backpacking, for example, remember that many serious tripods are cumbersome and heavy. Make sure you're willing to carry it around with you. If you know you'll be on a trail with few flat surfaces to set the tripod up on, or want more flexibility, a Gorillapod might be what you need. Joby makes a regular version, an SLR version with a ball head, an regular SLR version and a magnetic version.

Are you a self-portrait master? Have you used these or other techniques? Leave a comment!

8 comments :

Jeff Moser said...

I'm almost always disappointed with the results when a random person offers to take my photo, and much prefer the self portrait method.  They think they're doing me a favor, but I like the challenge and artistic value of the self portrait.  Long arm shots work great most of the time, but I also use the Gorillapod.  Easy to get level on an uneven surface, but also easy to attach to a tree branch or something too.  I've experimented with action shots using the 20 second timer, but in the chaos to get into the moment and look natural, I lose count or miss being in the frame altogether!  A remote would be great for these type of shots.

I like to experiment with other perspectives too; for example, holding the camera down by your pedals while you're riding your bike creates great action shots.

k8tlevy said...

Jeff, I can definitely relate. In fact, we had one of the nicest guys I've ever met take a picture at the end of the Pinchot Trail trip, a shot I really knew I wanted, and it came out blurry. Of course, you never know if the person who offers is a pro photog; I've had that happen too!

Glad you've had success with the gorillapod and agree a remote would be an awesome idea. And I'm going to skip the shots of my bike pedals; I'll save myself a face plant or two :)

Charles Miske said...

My wife is a total expert, and takes her own pic everwhere we go. I hike and climb a lot, so have taken some pretty cool pics emulating her techniques.

Nice article - I should get one of those ski-pole tripod thingies too now.

k8tlevy said...

thanks, Charles! does your wife use any other techniques that aren't mentioned here, or have any tips? I love hearing from experts! 

Peter West Carey said...

I second the Joby Gorillapods. Small and handy for point and shoot cameras especially.

Charles Miske said...

Thanks!

1) consider a straight line from the center of the lens to whatever background you want, and which side of the line puts you in the best position
2) never stare at the sun, and think about the angles of the shadows on your face
3) practice pushing the button with your thumb and different fingers for the best angle of your arm to keep it in or out of the shot
4) know your face, your good angles, which side of your smile looks better, etc.

My own thoughts

1) think about the vertical plane, looking up or down (my fb timeline cover is a great example - http://www.facebook.com/charles.miske - taken somewhat subtly with my right arm, showing the rocks and snow below)
2) take a bunch if you're in a once-in-a-lifetime location

k8tlevy said...

Peter, knowing you're an expert, any other tips for folks to use?

k8tlevy said...

These are great! I love the first #1, it's so important to frame photos in general, why should self-portraits be any different? I definitely agree with taking a bunch; you never know which ones will look best when you get them off the camera.