Take The Scenic Route

Make the most of photo opportunities on your next road trip
Road Trip
When the road beckons. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

As photographers, road trips are often a core part of our existence. Twisting s-curves beckon our imaginations, wide-open plains challenge our visions and distant mountains rise upon arrival just as our excitement does. Whether the road trip is just a means to reach the next scouted location, or the drive is the actual adventure, hitting the road is a pivotal part of the photographic experience.

For many landscape and nature shooters, one sacrilegious move is shooting from the side of the road. Whether it’s a mountain pass turnout, a national park parking lot, or the side of an interstate, the fear of being marooned on the edge of the road with no compositional options is real. Many of us spend days, weeks, even months preparing shoots that involve traversing canyons, navigating dirt roads, and generally avoiding any obvious viewpoints. We spend all day tracking clouds and predicting light hoping to get wall-hanging shots that mask any possibility of other photographers recognizing where we stood.

So what happens when all of that critical planning falls flat, we run out of time or the light instantly turns magical? Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and pull over to make the shot happen.

Sometimes the scenic overlook really is the best option. Snake River Overlook, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
Sometimes the scenic overlook really is the best option. Snake River Overlook, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Like many shooters, road trips are a very integral component to my work. In the last two years, however, my time on the road has often been a byproduct of finding treasures all over the country for my girlfriend’s Eldorado General Store. Days spent in the Southwest are a mix of chasing monsoon clouds while she tracks down the finest vintage turquoise jewelry. Rainy winter days in Portland are divided between hunting for the softest wool sweaters and finding new angles of Columbia Gorge waterfalls.

Combining our livelihoods and lifestyles has allowed me to log ample miles in the driver's seat as we now average several cross-country adventures per year. Since I usually serve as lead cruise captain and handle the bulk of the driving, I began to run into issues regarding logging enough photos. When days run long or we need to make our miles, exploring and scouting locations isn't always possible.

After some stressful missed opportunities, I had to modify my strategy, both physically and mentally. Having built my career while my camera was mounted on a tripod, I had to reluctantly accept hand-holding it. More importantly, I had to acknowledge that often the best location is the one to which you can immediately pull over. While modifying my approach, I knew preparation would be the X factor, so I started having a camera next to me in the center console at all times.

I actually committed to this idea so thoroughly that I purchased a second camera body strictly for hand-held shooting. While I’m never an advocate for excess gear acquisition, I've found that having a body dedicated to tripod use and one for hand-held use has not only been convenient, but it's improved all sectors of my work. If you do embrace the idea of a dedicated hand-held body, things to look for are definitely weight, form factor, ISO capability and image stabilization. I’d be lying if I said my roadside work hasn’t heavily benefited from the Nikon D750’s amazing high-ISO performance.

When seeking compositions in a hurry, I always look down first for a foreground anchor. This boulder on the side of Highway 1 did just the trick. Big Sur, California.
When seeking compositions in a hurry, I always look down first for a foreground anchor. This boulder on the side of Highway 1 did just the trick. Big Sur, California.

Perhaps the biggest thing that will help you succeed in snagging that fleeting moment while leaning out of your car window is having your dials preset. Before you drive a single mile, make a checklist:

  • Polarizer attached
  • White balance dialed in
  • Auto focus mode pre-selected
  • Aperture set to a speed and sharpness you’re comfortable with. I usually hang out around f/5 to f/7
  • Shutter speed adjusted as low as you can hold steady. I usually preset at 1/100 sec. and try to avoid going lower than 1/50 sec.
  • Set your ISO to Auto

These aren’t fail-safe for every situation, but the idea is that you’re leaning on the ISO to get the exposure while assuming you’ve adjusted other settings for sharpness and lack of motion blur. I’m usually OK with stressing the sensor way into the ISO 4000-5000 range if I know I can get a solid and sharp image via my other settings. Lightroom’s noise reduction algorithms have become quite impressive too, so I’m also leaning on those.

Road Trip Valley of the Gods
Split-second decisions combined with a preset hand-held camera were the keys to not missing this fleeting light display. Using two (hand-held) grad filters, I balanced the intense sky, but I was forced to push the ISO to 3200. Thanks to today’s sensors and software, the noise in the image was a breeze to remove. Valley of the Gods, Utah.

If you’re really looking to be totally prepared while in the cockpit, keep graduated neutral density filters right next to the camera. You aren’t going to have time to tripod up and bracket yourself to dynamic range bliss; you’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. In my experience, holding both a 0.6 and a 0.9 grad filter (vertically staggered) right up to the lens will be the difference in either getting the shot or deleting it off the camera before you turn back onto the highway.

Something to consider: When jumping into the grad filter situation (hand-held), you may have to sacrifice some sharpness and open the aperture while also slowing the shutter down a touch. For this scenario, it wouldn’t be uncommon to be wide open with a shutter speed of 1/50 sec. and a hefty ISO of 5000. While it may not be the same pixel-perfect result as being locked on a tripod at f/13 with the shutter open for 10 seconds, this is about timing, reacting and utilizing what view you have in front of you.

Like any shooting scenario, there’s the technical side and the creative side. After you’ve wrangled the little tricks to aid your spontaneous roadside snaps, the hard part comes. Sitting on the side of I-40 watching big rigs whiz by can be less than inspiring, but if the sun is setting and it’s your only option, you have to learn how to embrace what’s in front of you. For example, if the expanse is vast and the topography is limited, consider emphasizing the sky. Look for particular clouds or nuances in the light to make your subject.

Road Trip June Lake
When driving through the June Lake Loop early one morning, I saw the impending colors and parked immediately. Conveniently, I parked right next to a glassy lake complete with early morning fog. June Lake, California.

Often, nothing is more powerful than singling out a tiny detail in a huge scene and making that your focus. Think tiny trees on the horizon, a magically lit cloud, or the slightest topographical variance. These are the things that hours on the road can start to reveal to you. If you’re keen to it, eight hours of driving through the Great Plains will train your eye to notice the slightest hint of intrigue.

If you’re lucky enough to be marooned on a mountain road turnout or a coastal scenic overlook, don’t hesitate to seek out interesting foreground elements immediately after exiting your car.

Using distinct foreground elements almost always helps to create strong compositions, but when trying to create a sense of scale from an overlook, it can become the linchpin to a good shot. An image I made in Big Sur is a quintessential example. When I took my first road trip to Big Sur years ago, I knew there were plenty of striking overlooks, but arriving late in the day meant I had no chance to scout them fully. With the sun fading, I was forced into picking a turnout at random. Knowing I had to shrink the vantage point and visually ground the scene, I found the only foreground element worth highlighting. Armed with an extra wide lens, I stuffed the camera as close to the boulder as my depth of field would allow. What began as a “Hail Mary” pullover ended as a solid first image from the trip.

An astrophotography session while deep on a road trip can also be challenging. When it’s pitch black and you're still 100 miles away from your destination, you can’t be shy about pulling the trigger on a location.

When passing through Monument Valley this summer, I knew the moonrise was fast approaching and I did my best to find a pullover that seemed to offer a good-looking silhouetted composition.

Road Trip Monument Valley
A quarter moon provides just the right amount of illumination to give the dark monoliths some extra life. Monument Valley, Utah.

As the quarter moon climbed, my instincts had been just right to witness the famed monuments light up from the faint moonglow. I would have loved to have time to explore the dirt roads in the area and pick a more unique perspective, but sometimes you just have to make do.

So, when you hit the road for the next adventure, keep your locations fluid, your mind open and your camera close. That extra-long day of driving may just land you in the most epic of parking lots as you bag the best road trip image of your life.

3 Comments

    There is another alternative, a Monopod. I rarely shoot hand held. Almost anything years ago I would have shot hand held, I would shoot today and for the past few years on a Monopod. Mine is light and sturdy, easy to carry or cram into the Tripod loops on my day pack. I’ve climbed mountains, hiked the Yosemite back country, patrolled the harbors of Nova Scotia with it. The last couple months been wandering the streets of Boston and NYC with it. Won’t go anywhere without it.

    The past three years my wife and I have have covered about 15,000 miles and she is finally learning about photography, when on the interstate she keeps the needle right at 75 to 80mph. but she is learning to slow down so if we see something worth shooting we can pull over for a minute and get some shots. As I plan our trips I see spots on the map that I need a microscope to read and then I`ll google them to see what it is. Next month we will be the the road again for our annual vacation. Leaving the Dallas area heading west through New Mexico, Arizona, north to Utah and finish in Colorado arriving home after 7 weeks on highways, country roads, dirt roads and no roads. Google Bisti Badlandsin NM., Blue Canyon in Co. and Pariah Canyon in Utah. They are strange, weird, beautiful, unbelievable and not of this world.

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