How to Take Pictures of Yourself When Traveling Solo

Traveling solo is tough enough.  Not having someone to lean on, having to eat alone, dealing with loneliness, etc. the list goes on.  Adding to that is a problem of taking a decent photo of your location with you in it. Do you ask someone to take your photo?  What if you’re the only there? What if the person taking the photo can’t figure out how to take a photo with your camera? Do you use selfie stick and risk looking like the stereotypical traveler?  

So how do you take photos of yourself when traveling solo?  By setting the camera on a tripod and using the phone as a remote, it’s possible to take some decent photos with yourself in the picture.

  • Tripod
  • Timer
  • Phone app/remote
  • Video still
  • Ask someone
  • Selfie stick

Tripod 

A tripod is helpful because it’ll allow you to set up your shot and eliminate blur or movement in camera that can happen from hand shake or even wind when the camera is placed on a wobbly surface.  By setting up the shot before you get into frame, it basically gives you an extra set of eyes. Since the background is already set, you only need to figure out where to position yourself and take the shot.  

So which tripod do you use? This is going to really be up to you on how large of a tripod you want to use.  Actually, the largest factor will be how much extra weight you want to carry. As every solo traveler knows, space is limited and weight is key.  If you’re willing to lug a full telescoping tripod around, the easier it’ll be to set up your photos. But, you’ll have to deal with the weight and bulkiness.  Also, tripods can get expensive. The key is to find the perfect balance (for you) for weight, size, and usefulness.  

I use the Manfroto table top tripod because it’s small, sturdy, and light.  It also helps that it’s incredibly cheap compared to a full size tripod.  Now this isn’t perfect and you’ll definitely have to get creative in terms of camera placement and the shot you want to take.  If you and the tripod are both on the ground, you’ll have to stand pretty far away from the camera to get fully into frame. But if you can position the camera in interesting areas, it’ll allow you to take some pretty cool photos while on a sturdy surface.  

Timer

The next thing you’ll want to use is your camera’s timer function.  Remember those days when your dad would take the family photo and he’d set the timer and run around into the frame before the picture was taken?  That’s in essence what you’re doing but you’ll be able to set the timer.  

After setting up your shot on your tripod, set the timer to however much time you think you’ll need to get into position (tip: give yourself more time to get into position than you realize since you’ll want a few extra seconds to fix your hair, shirt, glasses, whatever).  As the shot is about to go off, you should hear some beeps to let you know it’s about to take the photo. 

The timer is great but it isn’t foolproof.  The biggest drawback I’ve run into is that sometimes you just can’t get into position fast enough before the photo is taken. I’ve had so many photos where I’m blurry and barely in the photo because it I just didn’t get there fast enough (I’m not a spring chicken anymore).  But, if you can position the camera in the right place, a timer is a great way to take the photo and be in it.  

Phone as a remote

With smartphones and apps, using  your phone as a remote is the perfect way to take travel photos of yourself.  By having your phone synced with your camera, you have a great deal of control over the shot.  You can zoom in or out, focus the camera, and even fix exposure levels and other camera settings.  Your phone is a great tool and to get some great photos, almost a necessity.  

I’ll be honest, I used to travel without a phone.  I didn’t even own a smartphone until 2017…yes, that’s right…2017.  When I finally made the switch, I did so mainly because I wanted to be able to use Google Maps on the spot vs. having to rely on my memory or use paper maps.  I didn’t mind using actual maps because I could just throw them away after and I could just get another one if I lost it. However, having finally gotten a smartphone, I use it almost exclusively for Google Maps and a camera remote.  

Using all 3 together

So the best way I’ve found to take travel photos is by using the above three items together.  Here’s my workflow. 

First, I find a photo I want to take.  Now I have to choose my location well because you have to think about what’s around you.  For example, if it’s a busy area, you don’t want someone just taking your camera while you’re standing fairly far from it.  Also, you don’t want it knocked over or accidentally kicked or damaged by unsuspecting people. This means you may have to walk around and find a secluded area to take your shot with a different angle or just arrive at a time when no one is there.  However you choose your location, just make sure it has the background you want as well as being in a low traffic area so people don’t walk in and out of your shot.  

Once you have an idea of the shot you want to take, whip out your tripod and set it up in a spot that’s sturdy as well as a good angle.  If you have a large tripod, you’ll be able to set it up to exactly the height and angle you want so it’ll be fairly simple. However, if you’re carrying a small table top tripod like me, you’ll have to find some place to set it up.  There are other tripods that you can get that will allow you to wrap it around railings and branches so if you decide to get one of those, you’ll have more options as well. I don’t worry too much about the camera being perfectly level here because I can crop the photo later to fix that.  Sometimes, you just won’t be able to set the camera up so it’s perfectly level.  

Next, sync your phone to your camera.  This will allow you to use your phone as if you are looking at the LCD screen on the back of your camera.  Now as you move into place, you’ll have to make sure you stay within relative proximity of the camera so that the signal reaches.  If you’re too far, the signal will disconnect and it’ll be useless. But since you’ll be able to see yourself in relation to your background, you’ll be able to get a good idea of how you want to pose and look.  

When you take the shot, I’d recommend you take photos in continuous shooting mode so that you can move around and take some candid photos and not look so robotic.  This will also give you a wide range of photos so you can choose the right one to send to your friends. If you’re more meticulous, you can just take the photos one by one but it’ll probably take longer.  

Finally, before you take the shot, set the timer on your phone so that you have about a 2 second delay.  This will give you time to hide the phone in your pocket, behind your back, on the floor, etc and not be in the shot.  

The delay was needed so I could to the phone down and look up since it wouldn’t make any sense for me to be looking down in the photo.

By using your tripod, timer, and phone, you can pretty much get any photo you want.  It’ll pretty much cover you for almost any type of photo and situation.  

Of course, this all depends on the type of camera and resources you have.  But there are other ways to take a photo as well.  

Time lapse mode

This comes in handy if you need to set up your camera far away from where you are.  An example would be if you’re hiking in the mountains and want to take a photo with the full mountain range in the shot with you in it.  There would be no way to get the full mountain range in the photo, have you in the photo, and be close enough to control the camera with your phone.  So, what do you do? Set the camera to time lapse mode. 

A time lapse is different from a video because the camera is taking individual photos and then those photos are stitched together to create a video.  The greater the time between shots, the more jerky the video will look in the end (since you’re missing the action that occurs between the shots). So footage like a busy road with cars is going to show the movement of the cars (almost like you took a video and hit the fast forward button).  

If you camera has a time lapse mode built in, you can set it to take a photo for a set amount of time and interval.  So, if you needed to be a good hundred feet away from your camera to get into position and you knew it’ll take you about thirty seconds to get into position, you could set your camera to take a photo every two seconds for three minutes.  That’ll give you enough time to get start the camera, get into position, and move around with some different poses and looks.  

Too far for the camera to get a signal

Now remember that these are individual photos and NOT a video.  So after you’re done, you can basically go through them and just delete the photos where you’re not in the frame, you look awful, or something jumps in to frame you don’t want.  For a three minute time lapse set every two seconds, you’ll have 90 photos in the end. So you’ll have a few photos to dig through but most of them will just be deleted and this will allow you to just pick the good ones. 

If your camera doesn’t have a time lapse option built in camera, you’ll have to get an intervalometer.  It’s a simple device that’ll hook up to your camera via micro USB and you just set the time and the interval.  They’re cheap and easy to carry so it’s definitely worth having in your spare bag where you keep your other small camera gear (like extra batteries, SD cards, etc).  

Take a video 

If your camera doesn’t have a time lapse function and you’re too far for the phone to work as a remote, you can take a video and then take a screenshot of the video you want.  When you’re in a pinch, this is a really fast and easy way to go.  

The downside to this is that your photos won’t be as crisp and clear as it would be if it were a photo.  Since video is taken at a much lower resolution than photos, the screenshot from a video isn’t going to look as clean.  Also, you’ll be able to edit actual photos since there’s more information stored making your photos more colorful and with more pop on top of the added clarity.  

Below is an example of three photos. The first is a screenshot taken from a video clip while the second is a regular photo. Neither photo has been editing and is straight out of the camera. You can see the second photo has more color contrast and you can even see the brush strokes more clearly especially in the sky. Obviously the differences are subtle but if you wanted to edit the photo, you could end up with the bottom picture because there is more info stored on the photo vs. the screenshot.

The difference comes when trying to edit the photo. Because more info is saved as a photo vs. a video, you can make changes to improve the colors, clarity, contrast, etc. which is seen in the third edited photo.

Screenshot taken from video with no post editing.
Regular photo taken with no post editing.
Photo after some editing.

But, if this is all you have, it certainly beats not taking a photo at all.  

Ask someone

Of course, you can always ask someone to take the photo for you.  This obviously is contingent on two things. First, that there is someone around to take the photo for you and second, they know how to use your camera.  If you’re going to ask someone to take your photo for you, your best bet is to give them your phone since they’ll more than likely be able to figure out a phone vs. a complicated camera.  

Many of the places I travel to are fairly deserted especially since I go during the early hours.  Since I specifically go when there are little to no tourists, obviously there isn’t going to be anyone to take a photo for me.  Obviously this will change depending on where you are and the time of day.  

When I was in Berlin, I had a simple point and shoot camera with me.  Nothing special, just a regular digital camera that I figured everyone knew how to use.  I asked an older gentleman to take my photo and he agreed. I thought it was weird that I didn’t hear a beep when he took the photo but he assured me the photo was taken.  When I tried to see the photo, it turned out the man didn’t push the button to take the photo. My only guess is that he didn’t know how to use the camera.  

Selfie Stick

Look I get it.  They’re annoying, the obvious sign of a tourist, and the person using it is usually oblivious to everyone and thing around them.  Although I don’t own one, I have to admit, there have been times I wished I had one. I honestly think this is a great way to take photos, especially since so many people only have their phones with them to take photos.  If the only camera gear you’re carrying is your cell phone, a selfie stick is a pretty handy tool to have.  

Final thoughts

As a solo traveler, I know it’s difficult to do a lot of things alone.  Part of the appeal (to me) of traveling solo is the independence I have and not being reliant on others to get things done.  At first, I really didn’t care if I were in the photos or not since I was only taking them to share with a few family and friends back home.  However, it wasn’t until my mom complained that I wasn’t in any of the photos that I realized that being in the photo was important to some. So, over the years, I’ve tried to figure out some way of taking photos as a solo traveler.  It isn’t always easy but it’s certainly doable.  

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