The art of self-photography. 66 LEARNING CURVE
Self-photography – as opposed to taking a selfie – while you’re out on adventures, is a minor art, mastered only with patient trial and error.
I'M NOT A SELFIE KIND OF GUY. FAR from it: I cringe when seeing myself in pictures. Yet, since the early 1990s I've made a humble living as a cycling and adventure travel writer and (often, by necessity, self-) photographer. I learnt this fringe photographic genre by trial and error and little else, starting back in the era of film cameras, when I mostly used the built-in 10-second self-timer. This was often a tricky and expensive game. I could be on the road for weeks, even months without seeing what I had captured in those little plastic canisters. Thankfully, though I steadily figured out what did and didn't work. Today 90% of my work is shot on a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera system, which is just over half the weight and bulk of my full DSLR kit. Many photographers still baulk at the notion of mirrorless, but I can say that in my case the results speak for themselves. Combining a more portable system with self photography helps me to get where I want to be, when I want to be there and wearing whatever suits the shoot. The latter point is key and might require changes of clothing even, especially when the aim is to sell the resulting shots. In my case the aim is usually to be in action on my bike in an appropriate pose, in a ‘clean' composition free of telephone wires and lampposts for example, not simply rolling along or grinning for the camera. GEAR TO GO Camera and processing technology evolves at lightning speed, and it doesn't pay to become obsessed with gear. Most cameras can produce great images if used correctly. Your results ult i mately come down more to sk i l l and experience, plus large doses of artfulness and awareness so put your efforts into learning over spending. For travel and adventure photography, my advice would be to keep things light and robust, and invest in good lenses over camera bodies that can quickly get dated. Go for a zoom for versatility, and as with self-photography you can choose to shoot only in decent light, an f4
aperture is probably adequate, especially as you are not looking for a shallow depth-of-field. Likewise, you'll mostly choose to avoid rain so weather sealing is less important. I manage the taking of the shot with a really basic remote trigger such as Yongnuo. It may not be as touted or feature-heavy as others like the Pocket Wizard but it is small, fairly reliable and easy to find on the road. They're also easy to hide in your hand, though their range is limited, especially when windy. Although I occasionally still do use a Gorillapod – those knobbly mini-tripods with legs that bend every which way – I much prefer to have a ‘real' lightweight tripod with me, ideally one that packs down to less than 40cm long. Gorillapods and other mini-tripods do have their place but unfortunately that place is often either too close to the ground, or requires a tree or other fixing point. This often does not fit with the open scene I like to capture. Remember to watch for wind that can bowl your tripod over. Also, don't forget about the camera in your pocket: your smartphone. Many later models can produce images good enough even for magazine publication – a much higher bar than anything posted online. Phones are also exceptionally versatile and small – just add a mini tripod and a Bluetooth remote for self-exposures. Many newer cameras also have built-in wifi, so you can use your phone to control them, and to transfer images on the go. For mobile processing, the free Snapseed app is hard to beat, while an app such as Camera 645 or Lightroom Mobile will give you access to manual controls and allow for shooting in RAW – entirely un-processed – or DNG, Adobe's ‘standardised' version of RAW. Both of these formats result in much bigger files, allowing the images to be used much bigger.
GETTING THE SHOT Shooting yourself brings several limitations to what you can and cannot do: you cannot pan, move the camera, use continual focus or change focal lengths. You can at least load the dice in your favour somewhat though by setting the camera drive to continuous mode to grab several shots at a time. Setting the correct ISO and aperture is crucial. I usually go up 1-2 stops from where I would be shooting someone else, especially if I want to move fast, otherwise motion blur is likely. Today most cameras have such a wide range of ISO that this is often not a big problem. Aperture choice comes down to what you want to achieve but typically you'll want to be at f8 or f11 to give yourself some depth of field without bringing in too much distraction from the background. With self photography you will be away from the camera of course, so you have to decide on a spot to focus on – impossible if there is nothing there to set that focus on. You can judge this by trial and error, going back and forth but watch out if it's wet or humid that the viewfinder doesn't fog up from all your back-and-forth. Manual focus with the aid of focus peaking – which highlights the areas to be in focus – helps a lot if you have it. If not, autofocus on the exact spot you plan to be, then switch to manual focus. Once you have your shots, make a zoomed-in image check before moving the camera, in case you need to re-shoot. Working this way doesn't always give me the super-fast action shots I sometimes want, but it liberates me from always needing a buddy along and the assurance that I can do what I want to do and still get the shots I need.
TRIAL AND ERROR Catching just the right moment takes long and patient practice.
PREDICTING SUCCESS Self-photography means getting good at anticipating what gear you will need and how to get the best out of it.