The Great American Camping Trip

Whenever I think about "travel photography," I think of images of sunsets on a tropical island, unusual yet enticing foods placed on platters over vibrant textiles, cobblestone streets flanked by ancient architecture and, of course, the compelling candid shots of the local people. The whole "idea" of travel and the photography that comes with it often conjures up foreign and exotic experiences far from home.

While travel abroad is exciting and oh-so photo-worthy—I’m swooning just thinking about it—the truth is, many of us do much, if not most, of our traveling within the borders of our own country and often even within our own state. And why shouldn’t we? We have more beauty and wonder in our own backyards than we could ever explore in a life-time. Plus, traveling closer to home can be a lot more accessible and affordable.

My husband and I have always considered ourselves as "camping people." Thoroughly enjoying the exhilaration of long road trips and roughing it, we camped regularly until our eagerly anticipated adventures started becoming a little more work than wonderful. By the time we had our second child, our camping trips dwindled as quickly as a late-night campfire. Of course, that’s not to say you can’t camp with kids. On the contrary, camping is a fantastic thing to do as a family. In fact, I can think of nothing better. From a bounty of fresh air and free, majestic beauty to the lack of power outlets and usual daily distractions, spending time amidst the great outdoors is an awesome way to travel. It’s just that when the kids are really young, the effort that goes into camping trips like this can be so exhausting, it can keep you from doing it. At least that’s what happened to us.

But fast-forward to today, and my husband, myself and our daughters—now a teen and a tween—have rekindled the flame of our beloved camping days. It’s amazing what a difference a few years can make. This kind of traveling can open up an abundance of enriching experiences and plenty of picture-perfect opportunities, two things that can capture almost any photographer’s photo-fancy.

The journey begins the minute we back out of the driveway, and with that simple act, it’s as if the whole world is instantly reframed. Traffic? Big deal. Hours of driving? No complaints. The views? Inspiring and hypnotizing (all depending on which leg of the journey you’re on). All of a sudden, everything is an adventure! And, for me, everything becomes that much more inspiring and photo-worthy. So begins certainly one of my favorite parts of the experience: capturing it all through my lens. I’ve always loved shooting from the passenger seat, the windshield creating the perfect viewfinder to explore the world at large. Shooting through the windshield or side window often yields unpredictable, mysterious reflections that add layers and can complement an expansive sky or a vast sweeping landscape. The rearview mirror or the side mirror can be incorporated to help creatively frame small, curious reflections and offers a totally unique and unexpected view of the surrounding landscape. In other words, the road trip, in and of itself, is full of opportunities for amazing images.

When we finally arrive at our destination (we try to arrive when we still have plenty of daylight), it’s time to set up camp. Although in "work mode," the process of creating a home away from home can be a fun one to capture. Unpacking, setting up the tent or the kitchen, loading the bear box and unfurling the sleeping bags are all important parts of the process and can also round out the photographic story of the trip. Taking the first stroll around the grounds immediately follows unpacking and is an important part of stretching the legs and settling in after many hours in the car.

Getting familiar with the sights and sounds of the campground, as well as identifying the necessary utilities (bathroom, campground host site and ranger station, if they have one), I keep my camera in tow because this first stroll usually coincides with the glow of late-afternoon light. If there’s anytime when you want your camera when enjoying the great outdoors especially, it’s exactly that time of day. There’s no telling what may be discovered down the dirt road and around the next bend. A meadow, a mountain, a lake or the ocean at very first glance often can be so impressive, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t have your camera with you. With camping (much like with many other experiences), by the time you run back to get your camera, the moment is gone. I speak from experience.

Once we get familiar with our surroundings, we start thinking about the evening meal, of course. All that fresh air and setting up camp can make anyone hungry! As my husband and I start the process (and, like with everything camping related, it’s certainly a process), our girls play in the tent or start on a game. I did mention our girls are now teen and tween age, yes, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about camping with them, it’s that somehow the clock magically slows down, in more ways than one. In the case of our kids, it actually turns back the clock. Playing, exploring, discovering, swimming, splashing, running, climbing, laughing and dancing are how they spend camping days, which makes my mama-heart happy, not to mention the photo ops it affords! It’s like the best possible scenario for the family documentarian, like myself.

The beauty of camping is that it far removes us from our usual distractions, and that alone can help coax out the kid in anyone. I find myself more open and even eager to participate in games like Uno® or Scrabble® while sitting around the picnic table. And the nightly campfires are a given. Nothing brings out your inner child like roasting marshmallows. All of these quintessential camping experiences can be seen and captured through our lens.

And with all of this begins the refreshing routine of the act of camping. For us, it’s early mornings (is it just us, or does everyone tend to wake with the sun while camping?), long, lazy days filled with nothing more than enjoying the wonders of nature, campfires and, of course, photography. It’s amazing how a simple change of scenery can bring so much inspiration on so many levels. No wonder we’re compelled to pack up and take it on the open road to anywhere the wind might take us, cameras in hand.


Once you’ve settled at your destination, there are some creative ways you can record your experience.

Linger With The Light. Nature’s light is at its best in the early mornings and late afternoons. Use those times to your photographic advantage by planning to spend some time either wandering with your camera or focusing on what you’re most interested in shooting (a particular landscape, for example).

Reflect On Nature. Use reflective surfaces to bring visual interest to your images. From bodies of water to sunglass lens
es, capturing your surroundings by incorporating these reflections can be both fun and rewarding.

Make Monochromatic Magic. We often look at colorful landscapes and process them accordingly, but desaturation can bring an entirely unique and inspiring beauty to almost any landscape shot. Channel and challenge your inner Ansel Adams.

Delight In The Details. When taking in vast vistas, we sometimes miss the small stuff. Don’t miss out on the amazing intricacies Mother Nature has created—seed pods, leaves, seashells, acorns, etc. Beauty can be found in the tiniest of natural elements.

Document Like A Documentarian. Candid moments of daily life when you’re camping can yield interesting and narrative stories of the trip. Sometimes we’re so captivated by our surroundings, we forget that the life of our family is unfolding right in front of our lenses.

Freeze Fleeting Moments. When traveling with kids, in particular, it’s a wonderful practice to capture the many moments that can help to tell their camping story. Observing your kids throughout your trip and snapping small snippets of their experience means you’ll have those pictures to savor each time you revisit your camping photo album(s). It’s also a wonderful way to compare shots from year to year as your kids grow up. Time flies, and childhood seems to go even faster, as your photos will attest.

Embrace Nostalgia. Although it may err on the side of being a little too "snapshot," those traditional family shots in front of the state park sign, for example, are still classics! We likely all have at least one of those shots of us tucked away in the archives of our family photos. Many of those signs, in particular, are the same ones from our own childhood pictures, which amps the nostalgia factor way up. What’s not to love?

Seek Out Symbols. Depending on where you’re camping, the "quintessential elements" of your trip may vary. Seek out and shoot the kinds of iconic symbols that will visually translate not only the fact that you’re camping, but where you’re camping. Whether it’s a fishing pole, a giant sequoia or a meandering dirt road, be sure to capture some of them either on their own or with your fellow campers included. These kinds of shots help give your travel photography visual interest and context.

Embrace The Evolution. When you’re camping, weather can change on a dime. Blue skies can become ominous with heavy clouds as quickly as you can release your shutter, and the ever-changing environment can offer a vast range of photo ops. You may be looking at the same mountain skyline for days, but depending on the time of day and the weather of the moment, the view will constantly evolve (take note of how quickly clouds travel). No two shots will ever be the same. Use this as inspiration as you shoot your surrounding landscape.

Photo Tips For Road Trip

1 | Use reflective surfaces (like windows, mirrors and even sunglasses) to your creative advantage. The reflections may be difficult to predict, but that’s what makes it fun and can bring added visual interest to your end shot.

2 | Dirty windshields provide interesting texture to some shots, similar to the grain of high-speed film.

3 | Including parts of the car in the frame of the shot offers the context that can help tell the story of your travels.

4 | For a different approach, excluding or cropping out any evidence of the car (rolling down your window to avoid unwanted reflections, for example) can make it seem like you’re not in the car at all.

5 | Shoot from a stoplight or stop sign if you don’t want any chance of movement in your shot.

6 | Slow down your shutter when shooting from the passenger seat to achieve a blurred effect. This makes for a great visual and gives the shot a true feel of moving along the open road.

7 | Roll down your windows and shoot selfies or portraits of your cotravelers. There’s nothing more free-feeling and photographically fun than wind in your hair.

8 | Capture street signs and other miscellaneous signage to document the landmarks along the way.

Tracey Clark is the founder of Shutter Sisters, a collaborative photo blog and thriving community of female photo enthusiasts. Learn more about Tracey and her work at

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