Substitute the word “driving” for “walking” and you’ll see why road trips are a great way to see, experience, enjoy—and of course—photograph roadside America (or whatever country in which you are driving). Road trips offer photographers the advantages of being self-contained and allowing them to travel on their own schedules. Simply put, road trips offer freedom—freedom to come and go as you please, and the freedom to shoot what you like, for as long as you like.
My wife Susan and I once made a trip to the “Mother Road,” Route 66, or more accurately, parts of Historic Route 66. The parts of Route 66 that we visited and photographed were between Albuquerque and Las Vegas and they were awesome. Sure, we made some cool pictures, but we also met some wonderful characters that added to the Route 66 experience.
Because it’s a great example of how a little planning and preparation makes for a great collection of photographs, I’ll share with you some of my favorite images from that trip, along with some tips gained during numerous road tips over the years.
1. Plan Ahead
Planning is the key to success with any photo shoot, and that’s especially true for road trips. In planning your trip, consider that you’re basically chasing the light. You want to be in cool locations in optimum lighting conditions, when shadows and highlights come together for awesome images.
Smartphone apps can help you to be in the right place at the right time. Two apps I recommend are Sun Compass and Sun Seeker. These show the position of the sun at different times of day, so you can predict when you’ll be shooting into the sun, away from the sun and so on. These apps also help you to plan your shots: if HDR (High Dynamic Range) is needed, if a tripod is necessary for low light shots, if the front of a building will be illuminated, or in the shadows, etc.
During your road trip, your smartphone’s map app can help you determine drive times between destinations, but before you leave home, I recommend preplanning a basic day-by-day, hour-by-hour schedule.
There are also apps for specific locations, such as National Parks, major cities, popular beaches, Route 66 (we used the Historic Route 66 and Road Trip 66 apps) and the like, that offer good photo and destination information. These apps are great onsite—if you have service on your mobile device. Of course, printed books work even where there’s no service. On our Route 66 road trip, we had a good book that we referred to daily, Route 66: Traveler’s Guide and Roadside Companion. So, I recommend traveling with both apps and books.
Need some photo ideas? Check out www.stuckonearth.com. This is a cool website that features pictures uploaded by photographers, amateur and pro. You’ll see some amazing photographs of your destination—almost any destination.
2. Pack The Right Gear
After you plan your destinations, make a checklist of the gear you’ll need to get great shots. I’m a big believer in not overpacking, and that goes for camera gear and clothes. Travel light is my motto.
Having the right lenses is essential for capturing your vision. Sometimes, as was the case on our Route 66 trip, only wide-angle lenses are needed. Most of my pictures in this article were taken with my 17-40mm lens and Canon 24-105mm lens. For special effects, you may need a fish-eye, such as a 15mm or 14mm lens. For far-off-the-road shots, you’ll need a telephoto zoom, perhaps a 70-200mm or 100-400mm lens.
Having the right clothes is very important, too. If you’re not comfortable, you’ll probably not do your best work. Before you leave home, check the daily high and low temps, as well as weather conditions.
3. Rent The Right Car
Different road trips require different vehicles. On our Route 66 road trip, we rented a cool Dodge Challenger that added to the feeling of the awesome road trip. The car was perfect for us, but it would be totally the wrong choice for a road trip to the American Southwest that requires a lot of off-road driving. In that case, a four-wheel drive vehicle would be a good choice. When renting, consider mileage, and how gas costs will affect your travel budget. Also consider that some of the major credit cards, such as American Express, will provide car rental insurance automatically if the rental is booked with the card. Because of the expense of damage insurance on rental cars, this can end up as a huge savings.
4. Watch The Weather
Weather plays a very important part in the success of your road trip photographs. Watch and track the weather very carefully on your mobile device or on your computer when you are in your hotel room. As a photographer, I have several weather apps on my phone, as individual forecasts can sometimes be inaccurate. A weather app like WeatherBug will give you local radar (often more useful than a simple forecast) and the hyper-local forecasts from Dark Sky are great, the app can even send notifications right before a storm.
5. Tell The Whole Story
When traveling, try to “tell the whole story” of your trip. That includes taking wide-angle shots, close-ups and people pictures. I like to photograph the interesting people I meet on road trips, as these pictures can make a story come alive with a face and personality. In the photo of Angel Delgadillo, we can see the great spirit of the “guardian angel of Route 66.” He was given that title because he was one of the movers behind the creation of Historic Route 66.
6. Review Daily
I suggest reviewing your images daily, and selecting your favorite images for each day. Use labels and flags to pick out your best images so you’ll be all caught up when you return home. Reviewing shots daily also lets you see things you might have missed on the small LCD screen of your camera—a poorly composed image or something you might want to go back and reshoot. Store your pictures in at least two places. On the road, I save files on my laptop and on a portable hard drive, as well as back up the selects to the cloud.
7. Be Flexible
“If you are not having fun, you are doing something wrong.”
That’s one of my favorite quotes, because it’s so true. On your road trip, focus on having a ton of fun. The more fun you have, the more you’ll enjoy your photo experience, which will result in a high percentage of “keepers.”
In order to have fun, you need to be flexible, because as much as you plan, things can happen—with the weather, traffic, construction and so on. When things don’t go just right, take a deep breath and don’t freak out. “Smile, be happy,” as the Bobby McFerrin song goes. Be happy that you are on the road doing what you like to do: Make pictures.
Our friend Rick Sammon is a regular contributor to this magazine. For more of his work, check out his website at www.ricksammon.com.
Updated August 8, 2016
Published July 11, 2013