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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Once More Into The Shot

How to use self-timers and triggers to add a person to your photos when you’re the only one available

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Having people in your landscape photographs adds a human connection to the scene. Often, however, nature photography is a solitary endeavor, but you can make use of Jerry Kobalenko's tips and techniques to become your own model. Above: Sledding on sea ice past an iceberg cave, Baffin Bay near Cape Norton Shaw, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada.

Scarecrow figure, Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut, Canada.
Like most photographers, I'm happiest when I'm behind the lens, not in front of it. But I've reluctantly come to accept the need for self-portraiture, especially on assignments for magazines. Sometimes, I travel alone, and putting a person in the picture adds a vital perspective to landscapes, especially in the treeless Far North where I typically travel. Some Arctic landscapes could be macro shots without a figure in them for a sense of scale. Month-long expeditions with one partner also force me to step into the picture, since seeing the same single person in image after image gets stale after a while.

Over the years, I've slowly developed solutions for quality self-timed images, from self-timers to infrared to radios to my current walkie-talkies. Elaborate self-timed setups take a long time for sometimes modest results. But they make it possible to return home with lots of variety, even with just a single photographer-model who would rather not be posing.

Kayakers on Nachvak Fiord, Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador, Newfoundland, Canada. Self-timed shot.
At first, I used a film camera's 10-second self-timer and sprinted madly into position. Easy in summer, not so easy in the Arctic winter—try running a big semicircle in 10 seconds in boots the size of kayaks to avoid footprints in the snow. Later cameras had 30-second self-timers; easier, but still limited. For years, I also carried an infrared receiver/transmitter that let me trip the shutter from up to 60 feet away. Infrared transmitters remain popular, but they don't have much range outdoors. I had to set my camera to Self-Timer, aim the transmitter at the receiver as if firing a gun, then hurriedly tuck the device away and pose when the blinking camera light indicated the self-timer countdown had started.

My radio trigger system worked up to a quarter of a mile. Now I use an even more sophisticated setup with a range of several miles, and I've developed techniques to help turn those self-timed predicaments into decent imagery.

To frame close self-portraits, I bring at least one camera with a swivel LCD screen. That's the main reason I bought the Canon PowerShot G12 over some other point-and-shoot models. Manufacturers have realized that DSLRs can have the same swivel LCD screens that video cameras have used for years. The Canon EOS 60D and Nikon D5100 have fully articulating LCDs, and Olympus and Sony also have several models with swivel screens. Sony recently came out with the CLM-V55, which gives any DSLR with a sync-cord socket a clip-on swivel screen.

Several DSLRs like this Nikon D5100 have fully articulating LCDs, making it easy to compose a self-portrait landscape.
To shoot arm's-length adventure self-portraits using cameras without swivel screens (like my Nikon D300S and D700), I carry a superwide-angle lens. I use a 17mm (full-frame sensor) or 12mm (APS-C sensor) lens. I practice beforehand where to hold the camera (Full-arm's length? Crooked elbow? What angle? How high?) in order to nail the image. Sunglasses sometimes reflect the camera and my arm in the lens, so I remove the glasses first.

Carry a solid tripod that won't tip over in a breeze when you leave it to get into position.
Or hang a mesh bag full of rocks from the center column's hook to weigh it down. There's nothing worse than the exquisite misery of watching your tripod and camera begin to topple over when you're too far away to do anything about it.


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