#265. How To Take a Great Travel Selfie

By pascaljappy | How-To

Aug 07

What? Really? Can a Travel Selfie be a worthy travel photography endeavour?

2013 Word of The Year for the Oxford University Press, the Selfie has become a worldwide phenomenon that had led many to think it was a recent fad and many others to debate the value of sefies as photographs.

The fact that I think the image below is one of the best selfies ever created hints at my point of view on this earth-shaking topic, doesn’t it? (interestingly, this shot is so famous it is creating copyright issues that may shape future laws).



Word’s best selfie ? (c) David Slater – click image for full story


But no, I will not ridicule the selfie and the ongoing debate about artistic merit is actually entertaining and has made me rethink my position about the deliberate insertion of people’s mugs in what would otherwise be perfectly fine photo subjects.


Are selfies art? Who cares, selfies matter!

Can of worms alert! What is art? Is photography art? Can average joe make interesting art? Let’s not get into the type of sterile debate that has plagued the photographic community ever since cameras became mainstream.

Interesting articles have been written debating whether selfies could be considered art or not. Esquire argued against in SORRY, YOUR SELFIE ISN’T ART:

There are some very beautiful selfies, but they aren’t properly art. […] The selfie is the masturbation of self-image, and I mean that entirely as a compliment. It gives control. It gives release. When you feel the urge to become an image, you can, with little effort and almost no consequences.

while The Atlantic took the opposite stand in Selfies Are Art (powerful headlines, right ? 😉 ) :

 … all selfies share an essential selfie-ness […] The selfie is a deliberate, aesthetic expression—it’s a self-portrait, which is an artistic genre with an extremely long pedigree. There can be bad self-portraits and good self-portraits, but the self-portrait isn’t bad or good in itself. Like any art, it depends on what you do with it.

Both make valid points. But I care not about the traffic bait philosophical debate. What matters most is that selfies are drawing attention to themselves for a reason. Selfies matter, because – as Mike Rugnetta eloquently explains in the video below – Sefies document our lives, selfies document our reality. In fact, selfies document our lives in our reality.


Highly recommended viewing.


This, in my mind, is what makes them more than “simple” self portraits. It is what separates Rembrandt’s self-protraits from Jan van Eyck’s ‘Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife’ (if we do accept that it is the painter being reflected, with a witness, in the small central mirror) …




… or Velasquez’s Las Meninas.




In good taste or bad , selfies can convey meaning and or a reaction to a location. And their very number make them peep holes into the whole world, sometimes revealing the unexpected, such as the fact that Steve Jobs is – without the shadow of a doubt – alive somewhere in South America (probably playing poker with Michael Jackson every week-end), and stirring quite a debate.


(c) TheHorseSizedDuck

(c) TheHorseSizedDuck


How to create the perfect Travel Selfie ?

So, let’s disregard the celeb selfie. James Franco has a philosophy about the genre but most others just do it because it’s the thing to do to be hip.

And let’s no restrict ourselves to the strict definition of “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” to encompass all photographs deliberately including one’s self into a scene. Not necessarily with de rigueur duckface and angled head but expressing a real feeling or carefully inserting face or figure in the frame, Vivian Maier style (you can also view Artsy’s Vivian Maier page).


Headless Selfie in Cambridge

Headless Selfie in Cambridge


In that context, there are no strict rules to adhere to, but your choices must be dictated by a specific goal.

In the example above, made a few days ago while preparing the upcoming Cambridge InSight Guide, my intention was to capture the 3 layers of the environment (the sunlit King’s Parade), gallery (whose window I was using as reflection and painting as texture) and myself. This is basically how I feel in that street, what my memory recalls (that and the fudge !!). I occupy a large portion of the frame but remain invisible because the light is not on me.

Whereas in the Canary Wharf Porsche window (for volume 2 of the InSight: London Guide 🙂 ), I stepped back to “fit into the car” and waited for a passer-by to align with me and the statue for a dynamic diagonal.


A self portrait using the reflection on a Porsche shop window in Canary Wharf, London

Reflecting on a Cayman – Canary Wharf


Standard rules of composition, lighting and processing apply. Just as you would photograph a wild animal in his environment, you are photographing yourself in context. Whether you decide to frame your face at arm’s length, use reflecting media or any other means of appearing in the shot (your shadow, for instance) depends entirely on what looks best to you and what you are trying to say.

Is it: “Look at me in this awesome / awful place expressing my amazement / disgust with a mimic”, or “Look how tiny the windows make me look in this incredibly tall building” ?

To me, the only point of importance is to be clear about how you relate to your surroundings. That, and having fun experimenting.

Oh, and, with so many people making selfies, you can also use them as a subject. As in the case of this teenage girl picturing herself at the middle of the royal couple. Aww, sweet 😉



Royal selfie in the making


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  • Wolfgang Lonien says:

    It doesn’t have to be environmental self-portraiture even. Lately we made a family picture, very old school traditional portraiture-style, using a storm grey backdrop, a studio strobe with a beauty dish, and a compact strobe with a small softbox. If you look at the photo, it’s exactly like a pro would have taken that family picture, but in fact for me it’s a “selfie with family”. And I guess that millions of people are doing the same every day, not with their phones or tablets, but just to stop a certain moment in time to send it to their relatives.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Wolfgang. Very true. I’m interested in the travel aspect of selfies that (often inadvertantly) reveal bitsof the world and/or the viewer’s reaction, but selfies do not have to be environental to be effective.

      Your lighting setup sounds impressive! Are you a lighting expert?

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