The self-timer feature of your camera, DSLR or otherwise, is a neat one. Provided that you have a place to set your camera down, you can use this feature to shoot images in a large number of different situations, with absolutely stunning results and zero camera shake. Almost all cameras have it. Even your smartphone has a self-timer feature. It is very versatile and comes handy in a large number of situations. But what exactly is a self-timer feature and how can I use it effectively?
The self-timer feature is a delayed shutter response mechanism. It actually used to be a hardware mechanism back in film camera days, but all modern cameras have it built into the software. When you set a self -timer, you are essentially telling your camera to delay the shutter by a preset amount of time. Once you press a shutter release button in self-timer mode, the camera will only take the picture after that amount of time expires. Anything between 2 to 10 seconds is normal. Different cameras have different times and some even let you set your own. Depending on the camera there may be several modes of a self-timer. There can be a 2 second mode and a 10 second mode. The 2 second self-timer allows you to eliminate camera shake associated with touching the shutter button manually, while the 10 second mode allows you to take a self-portrait or be included in a group photo.
Self-Timer in macro mode
Macro photography is a great category for the use of a self-time feature of your camera. Macro photography is all about precise focusing and absolutely steady hands because at such close focusing distances, even the tiniest of movements are accentuated. This result in images that have a slight focus loss or even get completely out of focus at some instances. Most photographers would use a tripod to shoot macro photos; which is a must. But with that you also need a way to further reduce any probable shake. If you touch the camera to trigger the shutter release you run the risk of shaking the camera in the process. Some photographers use remote triggers in this scenario, but triggers can easily cost more than $100 and for some people it’s simply not feasible. This is where the self-timer feature comes in handy, especially since it’s already built into your camera and thus doesn’t cost anything extra. Personally, whenever I do food photography, I don’t even bother bringing a remote, I just set my camera to a 2 second self-timer mode and fire away. However, if you are not using a tripod or any other support for the camera, your best bet is to actually turn off self-timer and just press the shutter release button as you would normally do, and hope to get a good focus.
Using Self-Timer in a low light
Lowlight situations are particularly tricky, because when in auto exposure mode a camera will automatically lower the shutter speed to make up for the lack of ambient light. This poses a different type of challenge for the photographer – motion blur. One solution would be to use a higher ISO. But at higher ISO settings there is a risk of high noise levels, if you want to learn more about noise check out our Understanding Image Noise article. Most modern DSLRs come with excellent noise reduction features. But still, when you want to shoot clean images which don’t need much editing, there is nothing that can beat the results from a slow shutter speed exposure. You need two things to make that happen, a tripod (or another steady surface) and a self-timer mode. You may also want to flip the mirror out of the way by switching to live-view.
A word on live-view shooting
I have referred to using the live-view mode in quite a few occasions in this article. Please note that it serves two purposes. When you switch to live-view mode the mirror inside the DSLR flips up. During normal exposure, even when using a self-timer mode, due to the flipping action of the mirror, some amount of camera shake is unavoidable. Live-view mode eliminates that. The second advantage is that when you have set the camera on a tripod, live-view mode offers better view for composing your shot compared to the viewfinder, especially in low light conditions.
There is, however, one drawback to using the live-view. When you switch to live-view you lose phase-detection auto-focusing on most cameras. This means that if you wish to use phase-detection auto-focusing, you need to lock focus first, then switch to manual and then finally switch to live-view for making the exposure.
Using self-timer for hands-free situations
Hands-free is not an acronym for any remote control gear to trigger your camera. It simply refers to the old-fashioned concept of keeping your hands free from holding a camera. You can set your camera to a self-timer mode and then use your hands for any purpose whatsoever for getting the composition right. E.g., let’s imagine that you have to shoot a model. You have no assistants which means the entire setup has to be arranged by you. Let’s also imagine that you have to fine tweak the composition by holding a diffuser or a reflector close to the subject’s face to add some fill-light to remove the shadows (read more on using reflectors in our “Using Reflectors in Photography” article), and if you don’t have a stand that would hold that reflector/diffuser for you. A self-timer mode can give you ample time to set your camera on a 10-second delay, press the shutter release, grab a reflector and adjust it so that you can throw some light back on to the model’s face. Seems like too much to do in a short time? Count to ten seconds and see how long that really is and you will be surprised. Unfortunately all too often photographers have to build their portfolios on a very tight budget and a tricks like that can come in very handy and save some money as well.
Capturing Self-Portraits with a Self-Timer
2014 was the year of a selfie and when it comes to selfies most cameras can still produce better images than cellphones. If you wish to have a really professional looking image for your gravatar account or Facebook profile, use the self-timer feature on your camera. Simply set your camera on a tripod, adjust the exposure and turn on the self-timer before hitting the shutter release. Adjusting the exposure may be a tad difficult because you have to guess it without the model (that is you) in the frame. Also you are likely to struggle with the focusing. Mark a spot on the floor where you should stand and use a round object to lock focus before getting in the frame. You would likely have to shoot several shots to in order to nail it. Back in the day when I was into self-portraits (yes I’ve gone through that stage as well) I used a chair with high back to set the exposure and focus just right. This image to the right is my own self portrait done with two shots, one with face in hand and the other straight on. I didn’t have the luxury of models or assistants back then.
Using self-timer with group shots
Group shots are yet another reason to use the self-timer feature. Why exclude yourself from a family photo staying behind the camera when it can fire automatically? If you don’t have a tripod on you don’t sweat it. Find anything to set your camera down. A ledge, a window, a table or even your camera’s bag will do. One problem you may find is that the horizon is not level, especially when you set your camera on an uneven surface. Use a lens cap or something else small to level the camera, else shoot wide so that you can adjust it later on during post-processing.
Using Self-Timer Continuous mode
Speaking of family portraits, it’s almost impossible to get a large group of people to pose in front of the camera simultaneously. Someone is bound to be blinking or looking away. Fortunately some cameras offer a self-timer continuous mode. This mode offers you to choose the number of shoots the camera will burst after the timer finishes its countdown. For example, let’s say you are shooting a family of 7, you can set the timer to burst 7 shots. In the worst case scenario even if each person blinks one during the burst at least one image will have open eyes. You will be able to easily correct it with Photoshop working with 7 images even if no one image comes out perfect.
You can also use self-timer continuous mode to have all sorts of fun. Like having everybody being serious in one shot, everybody smiling in another and being silly in another. And best of all with the self-timer delay you will be present in every one of them.