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A self-timer primer (08/10/2005)
By Tom Hirsch
by Tom Hirsch

For most of us, the self-timer is one of the least used gadgets on our camera; but it can be the one that is the most practical, allows for the most creativity, and is the most fun to play around with. A few ideas follow, but first the basics.

The self-timer is so-named because it permits you to set the camera on a tripod or other convenient support so that, with its shutter-delay mechanism, you can get yourself in the picture. Most cameras will give you about ten seconds, but times vary so check the camera manual. Some cameras will give you a range of two or more intervals, such as two seconds and ten seconds, so you can select the length of time that's most appropriate for the job. Oh, and check the timing yourself because not all timers are accurate.

Speaking of supports, a beanbag is ideal for bracing a camera when using the self-timer. It can be placed on a table, a car hood, a fence, in the crotch or on the limb of a tree, or on any convenient object. By manipulating the bag, you can point the camera in just the right direction. This is difficult to do with the camera placed on a solid surface.

The self-timer is great for available light shots with a compact camera. Many modern compacts have shutter speeds down to thirty seconds, but hand-holding a camera is impractical at shutter speeds of 1/30 or slower. For long exposures under low light conditions, you can place the camera on a tripod (or beanbag on a solid surface), turn off the flash, and set the self-timer. Sharp pictures every time.

Whenever you use the self-timer to take a group shot with you in it, you would set up the shot, and the camera would focus on someone else in the group. But what if you're planning on taking a self-portrait? Well, there's a little problem. An autofocus camera focuses at the instant the shutter-release is pressed, not at the time the picture is taken. So if you were to line up the shot, set off the self-timing device, and then run to the intended spot to have your picture taken, you would be terribly unhappy with the results, unless you wanted a sharp background and fuzzy you.

To overcome this problem, first aim the camera's focusing eye at the ground where you'll be standing or the rock on which you'll sit, set off the self-timer, quickly compose the shot as you'll want it, then run like heck. It's easier to do this with the camera mounted on a tripod than with it placed on a beanbag or other object, but go with whatever is handy.

Oh, and when you're going for a self-portrait, take at least three shots, just in case, in your hurry, you didn't aim the camera exactly where you wanted to on the previous shots, or the self-time went off prematurely. With a digital camera, you can check your results for each shot with the playback feature.

Want an idea for a very informal small group reunion shot, or an interesting family Christmas card? Have the gang stand in a huddle with their heads close together and their arms behind the backs of the people next to them, but leave room for yourself. Set the lens on wide-angle, and see that the flash is up to full power. To make sure everyone will be in focus, place the camera on the floor directly in the center of the circle, then set off the self-timer. Quickly get in position yourself. You won't even have to tell anyone to smile - it will happen automatically. 


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