I love looking through my grandmother’s travel photos, imagining how it was back then. The other day as I flipped through, I wanted so badly to find a photo of her, but she is rarely in any of them. Like me, she preferred to stand behind the lens, and I suspect she probably felt vain or strange asking people to take photos of her. I feel the same way sometimes, or at least I used to.
I finally realized, anyone could have been there, anyone could have taken that.
Over the past three years, I’ve put a concerted effort into being in my photos and putting other people in my photos more. Now when I look back on them, I find they’re much more interesting than landscape photos without a person to show scale or inspire intrigue.
Not to mention, it greatly expanded my personal brand, helped me to win more projects with tourism boards and hotels who fell in love with my photography style, and since putting myself in my photos, my Instagram grew from a few thousand followers to well over one hundred thousand.
I don’t mean to say “I’m wonderful and everyone just loves looking at me,” but rather, humans can make a photo more interesting.
So how do I manage to be in my photos if I travel solo 99% of the time? I get questioned on this a lot on my Instagram account, so here is the full answer, and how you can do the same on your travels:
Stop Worrying About Others Judging You for Taking Selfies
I used to feel awkward and like everyone was staring at me when I took selfies. But the downside of leaving a place with no photos of myself in it is greater than the temporary shame I might feel from the stares of a few perfect strangers.
So I decided not to care if people look at me and judge because I’m posing or running to get in place for a timer selfie. The less I care, the better the photos turn out, and the less I even notice if anyone’s around because I’m busy thinking about how to frame the shot.
I’m probably never going to see any of those random people again, anyways.
Show up early
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The best way to get photos with nobody in them is to show up early! If nobody is around to make you feel weird or judge you, then you can snap away to your heart’s delight as well. It’s a double win!
Even ultra popular tourist spots, like the waterfall in the Philippines pictured above, can be empty if you show up at sunrise, or right when it opens if it’s closed at sunrise. Most people like to sleep in, and will mobilize around midday. If you go early then you get the better lighting, and the possibility of having it to yourself.
Use Your Phone as a Remote, or Use the Timer
Part of getting over feeling weird in photos for me was just to take my own photos until I got comfortable with being in front of the camera. If someone else is taking my photo I immediately look less natural. This is why, even if others are around, I still prefer a selfie.
I used to just balance the camera on something and then set the timer and get — sometimes by running — into the position.
However, now I have a camera that has WiFi capabilities, and I can make my camera and my phone talk to each other. This way, my phone shows me what I’m taking a photo of, and acts as a remote as well. It makes it so easy! Lots of cameras these days can do this.
Pro tip: If you don’t want your phone in your hand for the photo, set it to a 10-second timer and put the phone down or in your pocket while the seconds are counting down.
If your camera doesn’t have the WiFi capabilities, get a cheap remote (they’re easy to set up), and take photos with that. Plus, they’re easy to hide in the photo thanks to their small size.
Set Up the Shot Yourself then Ask Someone Else to Take it
Is it too crowded or wet to set up a tripod? Ask someone around to help you out! There are a few ways to ensure that whoever takes your photo, it’s likely to come out looking good:
- Ask someone with a camera around their neck to take your photo. If they paid for an expensive camera, chances are better that they know how to use it. This person is also unlikely to run off with your camera if they already have one. Best practice is to offer to take a photo for that person before asking. Maybe she’ll even offer back without you needing to ask!
- Ask them to hold it in that exact position and take it for you. Compose the shot before you even ask, and tell them exactly what you plan to do in it so that all of the artistic direction is already dictated by you and not by them.
- Ask someone else if the first time isn’t to your liking. Politely wait for that person to walk away, then try again. It takes an extra five minutes but might result in the perfect photo. That’s exactly what happened in the photo below:
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Get a Little Tripod
I resisted a tripod for three years before finally buying one. I figured that they would compromise my ability to travel carry-on only and that it would also be heavy and maybe even expensive. It turns out that Amazon makes one for under $24 plus it’s super light. Besides, it’s really the only way to get awesome night time and long exposure shots.
In these situations, the camera needs to be still, so hand-holding isn’t possible. I used to balance my camera on anything nearby. However that was a full-bodied DSLR Nikon camera and it could handle being balanced (and the occasional drop). My new camera is much lighter and I love that thing more than a logical person should love an inanimate object so now I use a light and easy tripod.
Learn How to Pose
When a photo looks candid, it’s easier to fall in love with, to feel enchanted by it, and to picture ourselves there. That said, it’s obviously not candid if it’s a selfie.
However if we can take photos of ourselves without it being obvious that it’s a selfie, then we can make them look candid, too! It’s all about posing in a way that works for the shot, whether by using a prop, being a tiny human in the frame, or dancing or laughing in the photo.
I know it seems weird, but it actually helps with relaxing in front of the camera. My friend Kelsey in Namibia said to me, “You know I never liked being in photos before, but when we frolic or dance it’s interesting and I like those photos of myself.”
Want some help kickstarting it? Sign up for the totally free 5-days to better selfies challenge that I put together with daily tips as well as a new pose to try each day. Post it with the challenge hashtag and see what else is there too to get inspired by your fellow solo travelers! You can sign up here:
Now you have all my secrets! I hope you’ll embrace the selfie, see that it’s not a vain way to take photos, and maybe give a few of these ideas a try yourself. If you do, please share them with me in the comments or on social media!
If you have any tips to add, please share them in the comments. I’m always open to learning new tricks of the trade.