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How To: Photograph a Road Trip

by November 2010 - last edited January 2013 by Moderator

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive", and for many travellers, the journey is more important than the actual destination.

Photographing a journey can be tough: often all you’ll get is a few random images and a couple of blurred shots snatched out of the window of a moving vehicle. Yet if you put in a bit of effort, and think of the journey as a whole, you can often produce an intriguing record.

In essence, you’re aiming to shoot a photo-story about the journey: a connected series of shots that will work together to give a sense of place about the where you’re travelling through. This is going to be pretty tough if you’re using public transport, as you can’t stop when you want, but if you have your own vehicle you’ll open up more options.

 

Motorbikes on a desert road in Utah. By Steve Davey

Motorbikes on a desert road, Utah, USA. Find a good view and wait for interesting vehicles to pass.

 

One of the most important things to photograph is a shot that sums up the whole notion of the journey, or road-trip. Find a spot where the road passes through some stunning scenery. Position yourself and then get one of the people you’re travelling with to drive your vehicle through the scene, or wait for an interesting vehicle to happen past.

Don't forget to photograph the road itself. In many places you can get atmospheric shots of an empty, or almost empty, road stretching off into the distance.

 

The side of the road

As you drive along, keep a look out for interesting signs or characteristic objects. These can really give a flavour of the place you are travelling in. Some of these will just be funny on their own, but most objects and signs will need to be shot in some sort of context to really be effective. Don't just shoot them face on, try a side angle that also shows the road.

 

 

Route 191, Arizona. By Steve Davey

Route 191, Arizona. Photograph characteristic signs along the road to give a sense of place with your landscapes.

 

If you photograph something that is incongruous, then try to include the reason why in the same image. What you are aiming for is a picture that speaks for itself, and doesn't need an explanation or another picture to give it a context.

 

Remember the people

Portraits can be a great way to show the culture of the place that you’re travelling in or through. Try to include people who are a part of the journey: waitresses in a diner, truck drivers or other travellers. As with most things you photograph, your pictures will be more effective if you give them some sort of environmental context.

 

 

Traditional roadside diner, Utah. By Steve Davey

Traditional roadside diner, Utah, USA. Keep a look out for traditional bars, diners and shops to show more about the places you pass through.

 

 

Shooting from a moving vehicle

Sometimes you won't have the time or opportunity to stop, and will have to shoot a picture from a moving vehicle. This is more tricky than you might imagine: I usually end up throwing away most shots that I take in this way.

 

 

Barren landscape, Utah, USA Look for interesting landscapes as you pass by, but consider photographing them with the road.

Barren landscape, Utah. By Steve Davey

 

One of the main problems is the relative speed of objects that are closer to the vehicle. This can lead to motion blur even if you use a fast shutter speed. To minimise this, try to shoot objects that are further away, like hills or mountains. Ironically, using a telephoto lens to isolate a part of the scene can actually cut out motion blur, and help to crop out nearby objects such as telegraph poles that will almost always render as blurred. Use as fast a speed as you can - even if you have to increase the ISO sensitivity considerably.

One very effective way to photograph from a moving vehicle is to actually include the vehicle in the picture. For instance, show the windscreen and even the driver. Another popular technique is to take a picture that shows the reflection in the wing mirrors.

 

Rusted car with bullet holes, Utah. By Steve Davey

Rusted car with bullet holes, Utah. Avoid motorways and get onto older slower roads to see the most interesting sights.

 

All Photos by Steve Davey. Header image "Lotto, Gun, Ammo, Beer." Utah, USA.

Join Steve Davey for the ultimate road trip, along the high altitude Leh Manali Highway – the second highest motorable road in the world – and learn more about travel photography than you ever thought possible. More information on http://www.bettertravelphotography.com/phototours/ladakh If you're thinking of hitting the highways sometime soon, check out our post, Five Great American Road Trips.


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AmandaCasey November 2010
Great post. Love the top photo, you see alot of scenes just like this on any trip across America.
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FindingIndia June 2012
How To: Photograph a Road Trip Some nice and useful tips on road trip photography.
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About the author: steve

Steve Davey