Self Time

May 05, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

I'm just back from a superb week in Menorca mountain biking around the island, mostly following the Cami de Cavalls. I'll be writing this up for Cycle magazine so can't spill all the beans here, but there are a few photography-related thoughts which I can share.

One of these concerns the use of the self-timer for action shots. I was riding with my partner Bernie so most of the time we were photographing each other, but we did want to try and get a shot of us both riding together. My first thought was to use the Nikon ML-L3 remote control which I had with me but it wouldn't play ball and I didn't have a spare battery (can't think of everything!). Fortunately, however, my Nikon D7000 has some extra options up its sleeve when it comes to using the self-timer.

First, you can set the delay to 2, 5, 10 or 20 secs. I often use the 2sec delay as a way of minimising vibration when shooting on a tripod. All Nikon SLRs have these options and I guess most other makers' cameras do too. But the D7000 has some extra options which models lower down the range* don't share. You can set the camera up to take multiple shots after the delay (any number from 1–9), and also set the interval between shots (options are 0.5, 1, 2 or 3 secs). All this through Custom Setting c3 if you're also a D7000 user.

In the sequence below, the camera was set up on a dry-stone wall (there are lots of those in Menorca!); the delay was 20 secs and the interval between shots 1 sec. The three shots shown are the best out of nine, and clearly the middle one of the three is the best. Of course if I’d been able to control the timing exactly, I might have liked to shoot, say, a third of a second later, but for a memento of the trip it’s more than acceptable.


Not being able to control the timing exactly is always going to be a limitation of shooting with the self-timer. I’d always rather be behind the camera so I can see what’s in frame and pick my moment to shoot, but when that’s not possible, the self-timer can be a lot better than nothing.

I used it several times during my trip to New Zealand last year (for more on this see the latest edition of Privateer magazine, due in shops on the 18th of May). For instance, this shot was taken at Wairakei MTB Park near Taupo. I had a couple of hours riding time between shooting the Contact Huka mountain bike challenge event and meeting up with NZ MTB gurus, the Kennett Brothers. After a pretty solid climb I emerged at the top of the hill to this superb view over Lake Taupo to a snowy Mt Ruapehu. I waited a while hoping some other riders would show up but ran out of time. The shot was too good to miss entirely, so I looked for somewhere to set the camera. The only real option was on top of a trail sign. Because I was able to roll straight from there onto the descending trail I set the delay to 5 secs and the interval between shots to 0.5 secs. Number of shots was 9. The shot you see here is about the best from three sequences I attempted. Interestingly, in the following sequence, I got another shot where I’m in almost exactly the same position.

A couple of days later, following a long day out in Pureora Forest with Jonathan and Simon Kennett and Hoz Barclay, I had another couple of hours to ride the fine trails at Whakarewarewa, just outside Rotorua. It was fairly early on a Tuesday morning so it’s hardly surprising there were’t too many riders around, though I got a few shots of other people on one of the easier trails. 

For the shot you see here I had nowhere to put the camera except propping it on top of my backpack at the side of the trail (by the way I’ll post a review of said backpack soon). Because I had to push up and get on the bike before rolling down, I set the delay to the full 20 secs. Again, interval was 0.5 and no of shots was 9. It took a couple of goes to get my timing even vaguely right and in the end I took four runs. 

Lessons learned are that it’s important to think about the delay – anything from 2 to 20 secs can work according to circumstances – and that it nearly always takes more than one attempt to get the timing right. Even then it’s never going to be a substitute for shooting normally, but it’s a good fall-back and I’m very glad the camera gives me these options.

Incidentally, an alternative which may work for many is to shoot a movie instead, and then extract a still frame afterwards. Obviously the quality won’t be as high (the HD movie image is only 2 megapixels, after all) but it would be fine for many purposes. However, the ideal shutter speed for shooting stills of biking and other fast action is much higher than the ideal for shooting a movie – if the main priority is move quality then set a slower shutter speed and accept that still frames will look a bit blurry; if the main priority is to get a good still frame then set a speed of 1/500 or faster (assuming you have the option in your camera’s movie settings).


*(The D5100 does allow multiple shots but only at fixed 3 sec intervals; the new D3200 has a 4 sec interval. I'm not sure what the logic of such long intervals is.) 


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