How and When to Use Self-Timer in Photography

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 shutterbutton 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 shutterrelease 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 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.