Step Away From The Vehicle For Better Images

Seek out unique compositions by exploring off the beaten path

The other night I removed myself from working on RAW files and relaxed in front of the TV. Scrolling through the Guide button, a cop show on network TV caught my eye as I used to be NYPD Blue’s biggest fan. All the usual cop and bad guy stuff went down when all of a sudden, a car chase began. It culminated in an arrest that occurred in a parking lot. Simultaneously, both arresting officers belted out in unison, “Step away from the vehicle and no one will get hurt.” OMG—I can use that line for an upcoming Tip of the Week! At this point in time, you probably think I’ve lost it. To prove my cognitive skills are still together, below is my analogy.

For decades, my love of nature photography continues to escalate. The fresh air, beautiful scenery and sounds of the wild, glorious light at sunrise and sunset all keep my juices flowing and motivate me to never stop making pictures. Over the years, I’ve accumulated my fair share of images made along the roadside. There are numerous pullouts that allow the public to take in iconic scenes and make beautiful photos. I’ve made a plethora myself. Although I love a number of the images, the big problem is they look like everyone else’s. Unless the light does something totally out of the ordinary, images made from these locations are a dime a dozen.

There’s satisfaction knowing I have them in my files and I’ve even illustrated previous tips using them, but that doesn’t change the fact they are simple to capture. For me, satisfaction comes from getting images others don’t have. These can only be made if you “step away from the vehicle.” The “nobody gets hurt” part is analogous in that the opposite occurs—as a matter of fact, you’ll be rewarded when you do step away from the vehicle.

When you get away from your vehicle, it ensures you’ll get pictures that are different from those made at each pullout. Wander a short distance to find a better angle or put your own twist on the subject in your viewfinder. You’ll be amazed by how the landscape changes. Wander greater distances to further reduce the chance a carbon copy of your photo will ever appear. For instance, rather than shoot toward a fall colored stand of aspens from the road, get inside it with a wide-angle lens and shoot up toward a blue sky. Emphasize the grandeur of the trunks and leaves. Stop the lens down to ƒ/22 and create a sunstar as the sun filters through backlit leaves. Find a roadside stream and walk up or down it. Look for mini rapids, wildlife or a unique plant that may not grow at the pullout.

A great tool to have if you wander far is GPS. If there are no trails and you need to find your way back to your vehicle in the dark, you’ll be thankful you set a vehicle waypoint. When I lead my photo tour to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, its use is indispensable. There are no trails and it’s very easy to get lost as everything is a field of white. Certain mountain peaks can be used as a reference point, but even with this strategy, it’s easy to make a wrong turn.

Before we go out on a sunset shoot, I mark the car as a waypoint. We wander around the dunes to look for great ripples, classic yuccas and sexy lines. Once the sun sets behind the mountains, it’s essential we get back to the car with as much efficiency as possible in that the gates close at dusk. My photo participants wouldn’t appreciate getting locked in. I perform a GO TO on the GPS and a direct path back to the car is created. This provides the group as much time as possible to shoot and still get to the vehicle in time to exit the monument.

The next time you tune into a cop show, hopefully one of the officers will use the line in paragraph one. When they do, think about this tip and all the photos you made that hang on your wall after you heeded the words and followed my suggestions—maybe I’ll even see you wandering the wilderness. If so, say hi!

To learn more about this subject, join me on a photo safari to Tanzania. Visit to get more information.

Photography is what motivates me to move through life in a positive way. Photography is All About The Light and it’s the first thing I seek out before I press the shutter. Optimally, I pursue great subjects in great light, but if there’s an ordinary subject in great light, I still press the shutter. I love to share the photographic knowledge I’ve accumulated and I hope my enthusiasm is contagious so I can motivate others to feel the same way I do about my photography.