When I was in 7th grade, I went to Washington D.C. on a school trip. During said trip, my classmates and I made some regrettable choices. No, we didn’t sneak into restricted zones at museums or try to touch the ceilings in federal buildings (I remember people in official positions making a big deal about this rule, but now I’m trying to think why on earth we would have been in any buildings with ceilings low enough for this to even be an issue for the average 7th grader, or the average adult for that matter). Ceiling-touching urges aside, our regrettable decisions came from being away from our parents and not having their wisdom influence our daily decisions regarding what is and isn’t worthy of our money and what is and isn’t worthy of a picture.
As a 12-year-old, the part of my brain that makes me the expert shopper I am today was not yet fully developed, and like so many other middle-schoolers before me, I fell victim to the tourist traps of our nation’s capitol. I bought an absurd number of postcards that I planned to, I don’t know, keep as souvenirs for the rest of my life, I got suckered into those buy-a-million-crappy-T-shirts-for-$10 deals (they all fell apart after one wash) and I took terrible photos of stupid stuff. Keep in mind, these were the days when one had to shell out cash for film and shell out more cash for developing.
My parents told me, “Make sure you get pictures of you and your friends!” But did I heed their advice? Not a chance. I went through museums using copious amounts of film on random exhibits that I didn’t really care about even while standing directly in front of them. I wandered around monuments snapping my shutter like a wild-woman. But really, who needs 27 shots of the Washington Monument? Especially when I’d already bought 17 postcards of the exact same thing.
After the trip, when I sat down with my family to peruse the hot-off-the-press pictures, I discovered rolls and rolls of buildings, streets and monuments but only a handful of actual people I knew and not a single one with me in it. After swapping pictures with classmates, the above photo surfaced as did a few others, but I knew from then on that if I wanted to capture the moment with myself (and my questionable mid-90s outfits) included, I would have to try harder.
Luckily, like a good wine, photo skills improve with age. Someday I’ll write a post detailing how to take good photos but this one isn’t that. This one is for the traveler who is tired of coming home only to discover they have a whole memory card full of their friends, kids or old buildings (low-ceiling federal buildings or otherwise). This one is a how-to for making the most of the self-timer feature on your camera or cell phone.
Shutterbugs often find themselves in precious few photos and I used to sing that tune myself until I started getting smart about my self-timer. Call me self-centered or vain, but dammit, I wanna be in the picture too! Here is what I’ve learned after a few years of practice:
- Don’t get your camera stolen.
Self-timed photos are best done in secluded environments instead of crowded plazas. If there are people around, it’s best to set up a close shot. Andy has a rule of thumb about these things. He takes stock of the passersby and asks himself, “If someone here were to snatch my camera, could I catch them?” This strategy also works if you’re asking someone to take a photo for your. In this case, it’s best to ask the old or out of shape.
- Don’t shoot for perfection.
Crooked horizons and odd cropping can all be dealt with later when you edit your photos. Check out the before and after of the shot of our rental car in Ireland below. There was no where to set the camera so I set the map down on uneven grass. The makeshift stand led to an odd picture but I knew it could be saved in editing.
- Keep it short and sweet.
No one is going to want to waste a bunch of time while you try to get the perfect shot. I like to prep while my travel mates are checking out whatever there is to see, then once it’s set, I press the button and rush everyone into the shot. Not only does no one get sick of the process this way, but the added spontaneity reduces the risk of stale smiles. If it doesn’t work the first time, kill the shot, unless you think it could be The One, then try again.
- Get creative.
If you don’t see an easy place to set the camera, look harder. The shot below of my dad and I in Greece was taken by placing my camera on the ground propped up against some gravel and guesstimating an angle. Voilà! A great shot!
- Timing is everything.
Photos like the one below are inevitable, that’s why if possible, make sure to follow my next tip.
- Use the burst setting.
Not every camera has this, but if yours does, always use this setting for taking self-timed photos. This way, your camera fires off five or six consecutive shots increasing your chances that at least one will be a keeper.
My trip to D.C. was long before the days of smart phones, laptops and digital cameras for every man, woman and child. I didn’t “check-in” at the White House or tweet an update about the size of the Hope Diamond. It’s very possible that the camera my parents allowed me to take across the country wasn’t even the finest in our household let alone finest of those times. My camera probably didn’t have a self-timer function so this advice to my former self would have been a moot point. However, with these tips, I hope all you frequent shutterbugs get to be in a few more shots and all you frequent photo posers let whoever is taking your pic in on these tips so they can be in a few frames too. Happy shooting!