Getting Creative with Self-Photography

by Gray Cargill on June 12, 2012

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Do you love solo travel, but grow tired of not getting any photos of yourself from your trips? No problem! Tracy Antonioli offers some creative ideas on how you can be in your perfect vacation shot:

Traveling solo presents many unique challenges, but I’ve always found that these challenges are less roadblocks and more great opportunities for personal growth, learning, and most importantly, creative thinking.

Take the strange but important world of solo travel photography, for example.

It’s a solo travel Catch-22. As a solo traveler, you have more time to slow down, appreciate the beauty around you, and point your camera at things. In fact, that’s possibly my favorite thing about solo travel. But there’s no one to point the camera at you. So, sadly, many solo travelers return from a trip with many gorgeous photos of cities, towns, and nature but few (if any) photos of themselves.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many things you can do to feature yourself in your photographs–you just have to get a bit creative.

The Traditional Approach: Talk to Strangers

In Mexico, a kind stranger snaps my photo on the cliffs of Tulum.

This most common approach has one very serious positive and one very serious negative. On the upside, asking someone else to take your photo does what travel should do–it makes you talk to strangers. I’ve had long conversations with people who have volunteered to take my photo–typically after I’ve offered to take a group or couple photo for them. Plus, if you take the ‘I’ll take your shot if you take mine’ approach, you’re also doing a good deed for someone else. Everyone wins!

But the negative is pretty serious too–you are quite likely to end up with less-than-ideal photos. Your feet will be cut off, the background will be cropped in odd ways, random people’s elbows may be in the frame. I’ve found the best way to deal with this is to find someone who is already carrying around a big camera–you’ll find these people almost anywhere touristy–and ask them to do you the favor. While ‘big camera’ doesn’t always mean ‘knows what they are doing’, it works most of the time. If you’re really lucky, you may just strike up a conversation with someone who can teach you a thing or two about your own camera. Now that’s a win-win situation.

The Self-Timer Function: A Solo Traveler’s Best Friend

A self-timer shot in Yosemite Valley, complete with awkward pose.

Most cameras have self-timer options, and I promise they are super easy to use. Even on my DSLR, it’s a few quick clicks to turn on a ten second shutter delay. But that’s not really the hard part. The hard part is finding somewhere to place your camera, figuring out where to stand, and posing in a way that makes you not look insane. Personally, I’ve always managed the first two–it’s that last one that I still struggle with. But maybe I’m just naturally insane.

I am always on the lookout for things upon which to balance my camera for a self-timer shot. I’ve used driftwood, bridge railings, rocks, tree limbs, and way more than my fair share of garbage cans. And because my camera doesn’t have live view–meaning I can’t use the screen to view what I’m about to shoot–I always do a test shot first to see how the photo will be framed and to figure out where I should stand. And then all I have left to do is run into the scene, strike an awkward pose, and smile my three-chinned smile!

Bonus tip–the self-timer is also great for those times when you are not traveling solo. Use it to take photos of you and your friends on a girl’s getaway, or of you and your significant other when there’s no one else around to snap your photo. I took this photo balancing my camera on an abandoned lifeguard stand on a beach in Prince Edward Island–it is one of the best shots I’ve ever taken–and I didn’t even technically take it!

Even when you are not solo, the self-timer can be your best friend.

Turn the Screen Around: iPhone and Smart Phone Photos

Smart Phones with reversible cameras are great in a pinch. If I’m somewhere especially beautiful or epic, I always snap at least one low-quality photo with my iPhone. I can see exactly what I’m doing and thus the photos typically come out a bit better. But of course, no amount of editing can improve the quality to the degree I’d prefer, which brings me to my next point…

DSLR Self-Photography: Look Deep Into My Lens

I manage to capture both my smiling face and one of the most beautiful spaces in San Francisco simply by stretching my arms out and looking at my reflection in the lens.

After a year’s worth of solo trips with a DSLR camera, I’ve become much better at taking my own photo simply by holding the camera out in front of me, as in the photo above. The key to doing this easily and quickly is realizing that even though you don’t necessarily have a front-facing screen, you still can see what is in the shot by looking at the reflection in the lens. It’s not a perfect art, but try it a few times and you’ll improve, I promise. And you’ll end up with some great future-Facebook-profile portrait shots.

Mirror Mirror: Reflection Photos

I was trying to take a photo of the camera-friendly scarf-tying technique I'd invented.

I love reflection photos. In fact, on my recent trip to Yosemite, I photographed nearly every lake, stream, and river in an attempt to capture the sky and trees reflected in the crystal clear water. But mirrors work even better, particularly for self portraits. Look around the next time you are traveling–notice the mirrors around you, and see how you can use them to put yourself in a scene. I’ve taken mirror shots of myself in Walt Disney World, at cute cafes, and even in my super-funky hotel room in San Francisco.

Of course, there’s a trick to this as well–don’t look through the camera’s viewfinder or at the live view screen, or the camera will hide your face. This may be ok for some shots, but occasionally you’re going to want a photo of more than just your camera, ears, and chin.

Beyond the Mirror: Super Creative Self-Portrait Strategies

When I travel solo, I take lots of photos of my feet. Sometimes this is the only way to get myself in a shot, and sometimes it really does help express a mood. Tired after a long hike and resting by a mountain lake? What better way to capture that feeling than a nice ankles-crossed shot of your calves and hiking boots. Enjoying some time with your feet in the pink sand and bright blue waters of the Caribbean? Aim your camera at your toes.

Photos of your own feet often convey a feeling of relaxation.

I’ve also recently started taking shadow shots. This works best if there’s something unique about your shadow–say, if you are wearing Mickey ears…

It's easy to tell where I am given the fact that I'm wearing mouse ears.

…or if there are interesting shadows around you as well–like palm tree shadows in the sand, for example. Sometimes, depending upon the angle of the sun, you can get a shadow shot that includes your surroundings as well. Learn to pay attention to the little things–like your own shadow–and you’ll be surprised what you come up with.

But truly, my favorite self-taken photos are blurry half-shots of me taken using non-mirror reflective surfaces. What do I mean by that? Take this photo, for example–

An accidental self-taken shot on Alcatraz Island.

That’s me, crouching down to take a close-up of a shiny chrome hub cap on the wheel of a vintage truck parked on the grounds of Alcatraz. I didn’t originally take this photo thinking that it would be a self-portrait, but that’s how it turned out.

And honestly, that’s how many of the best self-taken photos occur. By accident. Like my absolute favorite self-taken shot of all time, which I took while quickly walking down Royal Street in New Orleans.

Blurry, reflected me in New Orleans. I love this shot.

I meant only to snap a photo of the sign for the bar I’d just visited, but I ended up with a beautifully framed shot featuring a vague outline of me with my camera just slightly right of center. I’m not sure why I love this photo so much, but I think it has something to do with the fact that it was one of those accidental shots that turned out super-well.

Or how about this one, which is my new Facebook header shot. I was honestly just trying to take a photo of the mountains, having pulled over in Yosemite. But when I saw that my rear view mirror gave me an opportunity to include myself in the scene, I snapped a few more. One turned out well.

Solo in the high Sierras? No problem!

As you can see, there are many, many ways to include yourself in your own solo travel photos. Personally, I’ll take the quirky, blurry, creative shots over my awkward self-timer poses any day!

Do you have any tips or techniques for getting great shots of your own solo travels? If so, please share them in the comments section below!

Tracy Antonioli is not vain–she just needs lots of photos of her solo travels for her blog, The Suitcase Scholar. When Tracy is not traveling she enjoys thinking about travel, planning future trips, and writing about her travels. Did she mention that she likes to travel? Because she really, really does.

SuzieD June 12, 2013 at 7:15 am

I think the important thing for a solo traveller is not where u go, but what options are available.

I *really* recommend going on a trip with Exodus or Explore or one of those adventure companies. However, I have also gone *full-solo*, so to speak. If u decide to do that, my main fotos tips would be to bring a disposable camera. They are very robust and actualyl take great fotos.

My other tips are…
1. Stay in hostels, they are THE BEST place to meet other travelers. THey can then take your fotos for you 🙂
2. If there are no hostels, go on 1 or 2 day activity outings, e.g. diving, climbing, canyoning, etc. They are another great way to meet people.
3. Carry your smartphone with you and join websites like Wandermates or AirBnB to help meet other people (like me) None of them are perfect, but they are useful.
4. Go on a backpacker-type bus tour. They are brilliant also and a great way to hook w people 🙂

Gray Cargill June 12, 2013 at 8:20 am

Great tips, SuzieD! It does make it a bit easier if you can find other people to take your photo for you–but you really have to make sure they know what they’re doing with a camera. I’ve come home with many a blurry photo because the person I asked had no camera skills whatsoever.

Hannah August 1, 2012 at 4:51 pm

This is a great post – thanks for all the ideas! I have a slightly different way of going about getting ‘myself’ in the photo. I have my very own mascot, Margo the mouse, that I take everywhere. I have her pose in the photos instead of me 🙂

Gray August 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm

I’ve seen people do that sort of thing before, Hannah. It looks like a lot of fun to me. Kind of like the Travelocity Gnome. You can make up all sorts of stories about the swingin’ time Margo had. 🙂

Hannah August 1, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Margo already tells her own tales – http://hannahandtheworld.com/category/margo/ 🙂

I’ve had a few funny looks in the past but it also starts conversation with some people which is always a bonus!

Gray August 1, 2012 at 8:41 pm

That’s cute, Hannah. Creative.

Krisabele Ricamonte July 25, 2012 at 6:52 am

I really appreciate the tips. I’m gonna try these tips next time. Thanks!

Marsha June 30, 2012 at 12:12 am

Love these tips, Tracy! I think I’ve used almost every one of these on my latest trips. My favorite photos of myself are the goofy, arm-extended shots I’m usually laughing so hard in because I feel silly, lol!

My Travel Affairs June 23, 2012 at 5:01 pm

I love your ideas, I always go for mirror and beyond mirror options, sometimes I ask strangers but hardly ever Im happy with the pictures so I gave up on this one, even on people with big cameras 🙂
And shadow pictures are amazing, shooting other people shadows is a challenge but rewarding!

Gray June 20, 2012 at 5:21 am

LOL, yeah, that part does suck, Christine. I’m with you on leaving your camera unattended. I think you need to make very sure there’s no around who can run off with your camera if you walk away from it, even a few feet.

Christine | Grrrl Traveler June 20, 2012 at 12:24 am

lol. I loved all the tips but at the end it gets down to having just really creative self-portraits in which you will never quite be as glamorous or lovely as the person who’s photo you shoot. I hate that. =(

I’ve been meaning to experiment with the self-timer on my DSLR, but given my surroundings, I don’t always trust putting my camera down by itself. =)

Aurora June 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm

browsing through I think I have most of these shots, and sometimes even in the very same location!
funny 🙂

Jeff B @ GoTravelzing June 16, 2012 at 12:17 pm

@Tracy – I did some research on the magnate one and found out it was not a good idea. It can cause damage to the camera.

Tracy Antonioli June 16, 2012 at 11:48 am

@Lee–crowds are the worst! I have the same issue.

@Jeff–if that would work with my dSLR, I’d be all over it! Though I’d prefer a non-magnetized one; I don’t know how often I’d use that feature and the whole ‘possibility of demagentizing my room key’ makes me a bit concerned. But just having the stability of the thing itself–and the ability to tilt it. I usually end up balancing my camera on its strap–probably not the safest option!

@9to5–hope the tips work out for you! Happy travels!

@Sere–glad to hear i’m not the only one who takes feet photos!!!

Sere June 15, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Thanks for the great tips! I also will take self portraits while I am on vacation with others to get the shots that I want. I have a gorilla tri-pod that I have used. It is pretty lightweight tho and I can’t use it with my DSLR only my point and shoot. I will definately have to try some of these tips on my next trip. Whenever I am on a beach I take feet pictures and send them to friends back home haha.

9to5refugee June 15, 2012 at 7:27 am

Great tips! I’m looking forward to trying out a few of them when I head off travelling in a few weeks…

Jeff B @ GoTravelzing June 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm

@Lee It is kind of difficult to use in crowds because you will have to use the timer and will not be able to see exactly what you are shooting. Depending on how heavy your camera is it can be hard to hold steady to.

I have been thinking about getting one of these http://gomite.com . I am not sure if it is any better than the other mini tripods but at least you do not have to attach it every time you want to take a picture.

lee laurino June 13, 2012 at 5:03 pm

@Jeff
thanks for the tip on a Quick Pod, now i have two brands to check out.

thinking it will help me (a short person) photo anything in a crowd…

Jeff B @ GoTravelzing June 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Great tips Tracy. I have been taking a lot of the mirror type pictures, including the one in my profile.

@Lee I have one of the pole tripods called a Quick Pod. I only used it a few times when traveling so now I just leave it at home.

Tracy Antonioli June 12, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Glad to hear you all like the tips! I guess I didn’t realize it, but I’d been accumulating them over the past few months (years?)

lee laurino June 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Gray, good suggestion.

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures June 12, 2012 at 6:24 pm

What great tips, I love them and your pics!

Gray June 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Try a camera shop, Lee. I know you can get rental camera lenses, so I would assume you could rent a tripod, too, and who knows? Maybe an Xshot.

lee laurino June 12, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Gray,
i have not tried a real tripod because of the size but i do use the mini ones when i want to do a video that is longer than 30 secs. just now i am shopping for a computer that weighs less than my purse!
you know they have tool rental companies, wonder if a travel accessory rental company exists??? rent an x for my next trip, return it and get the deposit back?

Heathers Harmony June 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Seriously awesome post with great ideas! I’m going to have to feature this one on my site for sure!

Gray June 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I’m with Tracy, Lee. I keep putting off getting an Xshot, because I don’t even use my tripod–and it’s a compact tripod that can’t weigh more than a couple of pounds. I just find that every little extra thing that goes in my bag feels like another 10 pounds. Let me know, though, if you find it is useful for getting photos above the heads of a crowd.

lee laurino June 12, 2012 at 11:10 am

thank you for the info and suggestion. yes light is important, after 30 days traveling with computer and ‘equipment’ a back spasm almost made me return home! if you cant lift your luggage or purse, what do you do in a foreign country! the show and tell story at the pharmacy was priceless.

shall look for both products locally to see how heavy they are…….

Tracy Antonioli June 12, 2012 at 11:06 am

are you speaking of the xshot extender? i had one for my iPhone–it came with a special case that allowed it to click on to the phone itself. and by ‘had one’ i mean ‘have one but never use it’–to me, it just seems like too much work. but i like to travel super light, so that’s probably a personal preference thing. if you are still looking for one, try searching ‘monopod’. you’ll likely find something. happy travels!

lee laurino June 12, 2012 at 10:29 am

lovely! can anyone tell me about the light weight ‘extension pole’ photographers use to take their own photos? i suppose you could also use it to shoot a shot (photo) over the heads of a crowd….

shall continue looking on amazon for this… grazie

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