As I looked through my grandmother’s travel photos, I couldn’t help but notice that she was never 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.
Little by little, I came to feel sad that year after year I was hardly in any of my photos. I was always content to be behind the lens and finally realized, anyone could have been there, anyone could have taken that.
Over the past year, 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.
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.
Consider the example below. If my friend had not gone swimming at that exact moment, (and had I not grabbed my camera to sneak candid photos of her like some kind of paparazzo), this would just be another sunset beach, but she adds an emotional element to it:
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:
Get Equipment that is high quality and easy to use
I wish I had used a nice camera rather than my phone for photos during the earlier days of my travels. My photos would have been so much better! Cell phone photos are better these days than they were even four years ago, but they really can’t compare with what a high-quality camera can capture.
- GoPro: especially if you want an affordable and resilient camera that takes great photos in all kinds of lighting situations without you needing to know how to mess with the settings.
- My Camera is awesome for whatever level you’re at: It can communicate with my phone (which I can use to see what it’s taking a photo of, great for selfies!) and has a bunch of programs that make it super easy to use. It’s also lightweight and takes super sharp photos.
Stop Caring if Others See You Taking Selfies
I feel awkward and like everyone’s staring at me when I take 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.
Do something in the photo
In order to feel more comfortable in my photos, I do something silly. One day I hope I’m comfortable enough in front of a camera to smize at it, but for now, I like to dance, do yoga, frolic, or jump in my photos.
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.”
Embrace the frolic:
Set it up yourself then ask someone else to take it
I often get the complaint that when others ask someone to take a photo of them, it comes out badly. 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 his/her neck to take your photo. If he/she paid for an expensive camera, chances are better that he/she learned how to use it properly. This person is also unlikely to run off with your camera if she already has one herself. 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.
Timer settings and remotes
Part of getting over feeling weird in photos for me was just to take them of myself 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.
In the example below, I ran up and down stone steps no fewer than six times to get that shot:
Get a 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 new baby gets a tripod. (If you’d like to read all about my camera gear and photo-taking techniques, check out this post)
Selfie sticks are okay (really)
These are all taken with a GoPro:
I was a bit self-conscious the first few times I used a selfie stick. It felt really dorky and feared it made me appear excessively preoccupied with myself. Then I realized that the photos can be pretty cool using one of those, and if no one else is around or you’re in a place where you can’t use a tripod, what else are you supposed to do, really?
I know some people who see me posing with it might be silently judging me for taking selfies with a selfie stick, but I also don’t care. I don’t know them, I won’t see them again. I will have that picture of myself in that beautiful place forever, though. There are some situations where that selfie-stick is necessary:
I used it creatively here by swinging it over my shoulder.
Get a remote
My cameras have the capability to let me use my phone as a remote control which I often use when taking selfies and/or long exposure shots. I love this capability because then I can see exactly what the camera sees before pressing the button and taking the photo. That’s a big advantage when I’m not standing behind the viewfinder because I want to be in the photo. I use this with my GoPro as well, which is how I got this photo:
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 phone capability, 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 the small size.
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.
Further Reading: My photography equipment and top items in my bag
Besides discussing many of the practical tips of preparing and planning your trip, the book addresses the fears, safety, and emotional concerns we women have about traveling alone, featuring my advice and over 20 interviews with other solo female travel writers and wanderers. It also has money-saving advice from the experts, info on working on the road, and everything you need to make planning your trip of a lifetime a quick and painless process!