Five Surprising Uses for your Camera's Self-Timer :: Digital Photo Secrets

Five Surprising Uses for your Camera's Self-Timer

by David Peterson 0 comments

Most modern cameras have a self-timer feature. You might know this feature best as that setting that allows you to actually be in the photo as well as your subjects. This is particularly great for photogra-moms and/or photogra-dads. You know, the person in your family who is always behind the camera and never in the photo. The person who, as a result, is so absent from the family album that viewers wonder if she or he actually comes along on any of those family outings.

Self timers are great for those family photographers because they allow the person behind the camera to get in front of the camera. But did you know self-timers have other uses too?

First some technical info

Your camera's self timer is really just a simple feature that prevents the shutter from releasing when you press the button. Instead, when the timer is set, there will be a delay between the moment when you press the button and the moment the photo is actually taken. On most cameras, you can set this delay time to 10 or 12 seconds or to just a couple of seconds, depending on your needs. Obviously, the longer delay allows you to get into the shot, but what's that shorter delay for?

At some point after the invention of this little feature, photographers started realizing that they could use that self-timer for other things, so manufacturers started adding the shorter delay to the self-timer feature. That little delay is actually useful for a lot of different things, from the creative to the practical. Here's a shortlist of all the things you can do with your camera's self-timer, whether it's a short delay or a long one.

  • Pentax K-5
  • 400
  • f/32.0
  • 0.125 sec (1/8)
  • 105 mm

For Mothers Day by Flickr user SFB579 :)

Macro Photography

If you're the sort of photographer who keeps her gear in her car or on her person at all times, you've probably never been caught out without your cable or remote release. If you prefer to travel light, a cable release is probably something you only bring along when you know you're going to need it - when shooting in a low-light situation, for example. But what happens when you're out and about and you spot a beautiful flower or some unusual bug and you'd really like to get a picture of it?

Camera shake is amplified the closer you get to your subject, so while you may be able to get sharp images at standard distances, once you get close to that bug or flower you need to make sure your camera is stable and steady. Even without a tripod you can probably find a surface to place your camera, but without that cable release you're still in danger of sabotaging your macro-shot with that dreaded camera shake. The solution? Use the two second delay on your camera's self-timer. That short delay will give you enough time for your camera to stabilize after you press the button, without forcing you to wait for a 12-second eternity for the shutter to finally get around to releasing.

The Last Glimpse of Sunlight by Flickr user Harshad Sharma

Low light photography

Just as your self-timer can help you with macro photography, it can also help in low light situations. Instead of using a cable or remote release with longer exposures, try using that two-second timer setting instead. This will eliminate camera shake as well as the need to carry an extra piece of equipment. Note that the usefulness of using your timer in this way depends on the length of your exposure - with very long shutter speeds it is less important to use your timer because the longer the exposure, the less obvious that small moment of camera shake will become.

  • Canon EOS 20D
  • 100
  • f/18.0
  • 0.013 sec (1/80)
  • 10 mm

like a record... by Flickr user shoothead

Hands-free photography

Sometimes you wish you had three hands. I do, anyway. Having three hands would allow me to manipulate my subject with one or both hands while not having to be a contortionist when it comes to pushing that shutter release button. When is this a problem? While shooting David-Cam photos of course. Or, photographer's eye candid shots that can make for really fun compositions. Here's an example: have you ever seen one of those great "spinning kid" images? In these photos, the photographer hangs his camera around his neck, sets the self timer and then grabs a child by both hands and spins. The result is a panned photo of a happy (or terrified) face with a motion-blurred background.

  • Nikon D60
  • 400
  • f/5.3
  • 0.025 sec (1/40)
  • 35 mm

Achieving balance by Flickr user James Jordan

Another example of hands-free photography you've probably seen: food bloggers. A person who takes a lot of how-to images in the kitchen can benefit tremendously from the self-timer because he's often taking photos of her hands doing something - mixing ingredients, for example, or peeling an apple. This is tricky when you want one hand in the shot, but when you need to use both hands your camera's timer becomes an invaluable tool.

  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 320
  • f/3.5
  • 0.01 sec (1/100)
  • 50 mm

flour by Flickr user gioiadeantoniis

Self Portraits

The self portrait has been an important tool for artistic expression since before the dawn of photography. Artists frequently painted themselves, often as a test of skill or because their own reflection in a mirror was an easy and inexpensive alternative to a model. Today the self portrait is a tool for self expression, a way for an artist to transfer his or her own personality into a painting or photograph. And for photographers, self-portraits are easier than ever because of - you guessed it - the self timer. Now you can set up an elaborate shot, press the shutter, settle into the scene and presto! Self portrait.

(Note I'm not talking about selfies here. You usually take a selfie while holding the camera, and either extend your arm so your head is in focus, or photograph yourself in a mirror. Neither of those need the self timer)

  • Pentax K-5
  • 400
  • f/2.8
  • 1/5000 sec
  • 30 mm

JUMP 121118-2 by Flickr user Froschmann : かえるおとこ

Group Shots

And that brings us back to the original intended purpose of the self-timer: group shots. Just because you're the one carrying the camera around shouldn't mean that you get left out of that family reunion photo or that group shot with Snow White at Disneyland. With the help of a tripod or just a stable surface such as a wall, you can set up your shot, jump in for the photo and return to your camera, hopefully before one of those professional Disneyland pick-pockets makes off with it.


It pays to know your camera, and this is one of those features that is more than what meets the eye. Your self-timer can help you get great shots in otherwise difficult conditions, so keep this handy little feature in mind whenever you're out and about and that cable release is safely at home with all that other stuff you forgot to bring along.

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