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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Overlooking Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and Berg Lake, Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada. Self-timed HDR image.

Many photographers use devices such as the PocketWizard and the RadioPopper system to trigger wireless flash, but many of these also can be used to fire a camera. All you need is a pre-trigger cord. I bought mine from Paramount Cords (paramountcords.com). These triggers not only let you shoot at a greater distance, but with the camera on auto-bracket and a continuous motordrive setting, you even can do self-timed HDR sequences.

Sometimes, even radio triggers don’t provide enough reach. On a magazine assignment in 2010, I tried to photograph myself in a pack raft from across a lake. I didn’t know I was out of range until I had spent an hour paddling and returned to the tripod to find that not a single frame had fired. For those situations, a device recently developed by San Diego photographer Robert Benson has an even longer range—up to 20 miles. It works with either Canon or Nikon cameras, and requires a pair of walkie-talkies. It consists of a naked circuit board (protected inside a supplied cell phone case) and three wires—one to a 9V battery, one to a walkie-talkie’s mini-phone jack and the third to the camera’s remote terminal. Press the Talk button on the second walkie-talkie, and the camera fires as long as the button is pushed. It’s available from www.robertbenson.com.

Trigger Examples: RadioPopper, PocketWizard Power ST4

FCC rules state that you can only use ordinary walkie-talkies for voice communication, so to be in strict compliance, get a pair of slightly more expensive MURS radios, which allow unlicensed data transmission. Make sure they come with a mini-phone jack. Ordinary walkie-talkies do work, however.

For sea-kayaking self-portraits, I attach a C-clamp, ballhead and camera with a superwide-angle lens to one end of the paddle, just before the drip ring.
Using the self-timer, I can photograph myself seeming to paddle from either the front or the rear. The horizon is never straight, but it works as an action shot.

To line up a self-timed photo at long distances, I put the camera on the tripod, frame the shot and decide where I want to be in the photo.
I draw an invisible line from the tripod to my future position to a distant feature beyond, such as a mountain or tall tree. Then I make sure I’m in line with the tripod and the distant feature before triggering the camera.

Once, in the Arctic, I saw a landscape so wild and lonely that it cried out for a human element. All I had with me was a tripod. So I walked several hundred yards to the scene and dressed the tripod in spare clothing until it looked like a person (using ski poles for the arms and a cooking pot for the head). Then I went back and shot the landscape with this makeshift scarecrow. No one ever realizes that the person in red isn’t a person at all. With a little ingenuity, you don’t always need technology to get a distant figure in the photo when you’re alone.

Jerry Kobalenko
‘s latest book is Arctic Eden. You can see more of his photography at kobalenko.com.

Galen Rowell
A Master Of Landscape Self-Portraits

Many of the late Galen Rowell’s most inspiring and dramatic photographs contain the image of a person somewhere in the frame. Rowell, who was famous for trekking alone in the hours at the edges of the day, became adept at using self-timers and remotes so he could be in the photograph himself. There simply wasn’t anyone else there. His legendary athleticism made it difficult for anyone else to keep up. This was a man who once famously ran up the mountain to Machu Picchu to catch the first light of dawn.

Frequently appearing in silhouette in his photographs, Rowell made the human element into an abstract form that didn’t distract from the overall scene. It also gave him the freedom not to worry about his wardrobe, which was particularly helpful when he was on expeditions where base camp was a long way from the nearest laundromat.

Nature photographers who shy away from showing any kind of human intervention on a landscape could learn a lot from Rowell’s approach. He ventured to the far reaches of the planet and saw vistas that few people ever would. His thoughtful approach to the landscape drove him to show a personal connection between man and earth.