I am the master of the stealth selfie.
This mastery is a result of several factors: I have been traveling alone for over a year now, I am shy and don’t like to draw attention to myself, and I am also vain and like having nice pictures of myself from my travels. (Also people in general complain about selfies being vain a lot, and yet that’s far and away what gets the most likes on my Insta. I don’t know what you all want.)
And that’s one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked about my travels (other than “why?”), by both people I’ve just met and good friends. How do I get those pictures? Am I making friends everywhere and just a wild social butterfly now?
Lol no. Solo travel has made me braver but I’m also the same old me. And a secret I’ve found?
Other people are mostly terrible at taking pictures of you.
It’s true! They’ll cut off your feet or your head, spend ages fiddling around and then it turns out they’ve spent all that time taking exactly one shot and your eyes are closed, or they just wait until every single person nearly is in the frame and snap. It’s nice of them to offer, really, but so many of them turn out terribly.
So how to get great pictures of yourself when you’re traveling alone? I don’t have a fancy camera (just an iPhone) or big equipment to do serious shoots, but I have gotten good results that my amateur non-influencer self is pleased with by using the following selfie tips and tricks.
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1. Work that timer
Wondering how to take good pictures of yourself for Instagram, for your family Christmas card, or for… whatever the youths are using these days? (VSCO? TikTok? I’m too old to know.)
Your own camera timer is the easiest way you can do it with no prep. Hell, you can do it right now while reading this article. Give it a try!
Your iPhone/Android/actual camera has a built-in timer function. First, find a safe place to prop your phone. Big tourist attractions like Angkor Wat and the Rialto Bridge in Venice can be big hotspots for petty thieves, so when in doubt don’t leave your phone too far out of reach.
Then once your phone is set on the bench/wall/windowsill, set the timer and let it snap away. It will count down the seconds for you so you can ensure your eyes are open, and even go for a jumping shot if you’re feeling ambitious, though this has never looked non-ridiculous for me.
2. Having just a little equipment makes a big difference
I don’t carry a tripod around, though a lot of travel bloggers I like use a small one (like Where Goes Rose, she recommends a Gorillapod). Someday I’ll get serious and upgrade.
I do love my selfie stick, though I need to get a new one since the Balinese airport security took mine away. Still sad about that.
Yes, a selfie stick can make you look like an idiot American but if you’re careful about wielding it and not wildly waving it about, you’ll be fine. It’s really helpful for getting good angled shots that aren’t just a super close up of your face.
I also love my little Bluetooth shutter – it allows me to take further-away photos without fussing with continually setting the timer. I use it by finding a place to prop my phone up – a wall, a bench, a window, a beach chair, anything with enough height and stability – and click away. It makes solo female travel look easier and even glamorous, sometimes.
3. Know your angles
Want to make those selfies look a little bit better? Get to know some basic tenets of photography – the rule of threes, lighting basics, and most important for those flattering pictures, your angles.
Shooting a selfie with the camera below your face looking up at you? Recipe for a double chin. Shooting holding your phone with the camera way above you? MySpace flashbacks galore. So start experimenting with what looks best – I like a face-height shot from farther off. I even have a side of my face I like better, because of where my hair parts.
The more you practice, the more you’ll get to know about what looks best for you. You’ll be able to find the light anywhere, you’ll become a little obsessed with the golden hour, and you’ll take the most amazing solo travel pictures.
4. Get a little shameless and a little sneaky
Sure, taking selfies in front of a bunch of strangers feels really, really weird at first. You’re wondering if they think you’re vain or shallow or friendless. (Or you’re not thinking any of that, go you! You are a confident one and I salute you.)
But think how you’ll feel at the end of a trip you’ve spent months or years planning, living a dream you’ve held on to and being a fearless solo traveler, and without a single picture of yourself to look back on.
Yes, landscapes are fine but who really needs one more shitty picture of the Eiffel Tower? You’ll want to look back and see at least a few photos that captures you on your trip – your thrilled smile after surviving that glass elevator up the Eiffel Tower, wearing that new scarf you just bought on the Champs-Elysee, your face glowing in the soft light of the pink Parisian sunset.
And you’ll never see any of these people again! So who cares if they think you’re a little strange or vain? I am vain and strange, so it’s not a misconception. Feel silly and take it anyways. You won’t regret it.
I do get just a little sneaky though so my selfie-ing is less conspicuous – for the picture above, I hung around casually on the stairs here until a break in the crowds, propped my iPhone up on the stair rail, and snapped away with my Bluetooth shutter until the stairs filled up again. That way I didn’t have to face maximum scrutiny from the crowds.
And everyone who’s traveled in the past few years has experienced being held up on a staircase/sidewalk/museum gallery/cute Parisian cafe by some wannabe influencer taking endless duckface photos. Don’t be that person: be conscious of the traffic flow and the people around you. Other than that, you’ll be fine!
5. Find a pro to take a picture for you
So I know I said all of those mean things above about people who take your picture being really terrible most of the time at actually taking a decent picture. And it’s true! But sometimes you just can’t leave your phone out alone, or there’s nowhere to put it, or your selfie stick was confiscated shamefully in the Bali airport.
Then you need help.
How to get a decent picture from a stranger? First, look around for someone with a fancy camera. This is partly because if they have a fancy camera, they are not likely to make off with your old iPhone. It also means they’re likely to know at least the basics of decent photography.
Set up the shot for them – gently tell them where you want them to stand, and have your position all set up so you’ll get at least a little close to the angle you want. And if it turns out terribly? Just smile and thank them – they were kind, after all! – and try again once they’re gone. I’ve had some lovely chats with people who took terrible pictures of me, so it’s always worth the ask.
The photo below was taken by a lovely stranger on my first international solo trip (the first of many lovely strangers I’ve met traveling alone), and I’ll always treasure it!
6. How to edit your photos
Now that you’ve gotten a great picture (and we’re not using film here so always take a whole bunch, that way you can choose the best one) there’s still an important step to take before you share it on Instagram, print it for your wall, or just treasure it on your phone forever.
Editing! You can use so many different apps for this – I love Snapseed as it’s easy and has a lot of both beginner and advanced functions, as well as tutorials. Make sure you crop it if needed (sometimes when I prop my phone on a wall to take a picture, I get a little too much wall in the picture), adjust the exposure, and do whatever little tweaks you think will make it look great.
I always at a minimum make sure my photo is in a straight line – those walls or tables can be crooked sometimes – and also has good levels of brightness – not too light, not too dark. Extra filters, etc are optional but use them if you like.
I don’t go in for the Facetune app and its ilk – your face should look like your face. We all have that friend who edits the hell out of their Insta pictures until they look nothing like themselves. And if we’re all editing ourselves to look like perfect little sex dolls, then our actual bodies and faces will make us feel worse and worse until we all turn into the Kardashians. We don’t need more Kardashians.
Take great photos for Instagram, then go live your life
Once you’ve gotten a perfect photo or two, time to put the phone away and actually look at where you are! It’s easy to get caught up in just the picture (happens to me all the time) but that’s not why you went on this trip.
Take in the sounds, the smells, the chatter of the locals around you, the screeches of the little monkeys, and the taste of that iced coffee you’re sipping.
This is what you came for. There will be plenty of time to linger over your pictures once you’re back home.
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