Shortly after finishing a cross country trip to relocate to a new part of the country, I reflected on some practical photographic lessons I learned. We had to get across the country quickly by car and it is hard to photograph under those circumstance. I compiled some tips for others who may be faced with a similar trip and who want to take pictures along the way. The following are helpful tips for the cross country traveling photographer.
Packing a Bag: Bring What You Know, Pack Light
I logged a lot of internet hours trying to decide what was best to include in my camera bag before departing. What I ultimately decided on was to pack simple and not include any new systems that may trip me up when trying to act fast. I was very interested in shooting with a mirrorless camera. However, on the test run I decided against it because I was just not familiar enough with it. I knew it was better for me to be able to quickly navigate my settings than to sacrifice for weight and size. Had I gotten comfortable with a more compact system and felt confident that I would be able to act fast with it, I would have certainly opted for a small form factor!
Instead I chose a Nikon D7100 for its relatively lightweight body, familiar DSLR controls, and 24MP count with an option to shoot video. The crop sensor was a conscious decision as I am still very excited about using the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC zoom lens and wanted to put it to the the ulitmate test while on the road (it performed fantastically)!
The magnification increase of the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 when paired with a crop sensor body allowed me an effectively longer focal length than if I was using a full frame sensor. I also wanted a fast aperture lens. Lastly, the Vibration Reduction technology was crucial to my success.
To round out my kit selection I went with the Nikon 10-24 DX wide angle lens for shooting vistas and general landscape. Since I chose a DX lens that was made specifically to fit the crop sensor of the D7100, I was able to take full advantage of the wide angle-of-view.
I also brought a small reflector, extra batteries and memory cards, a lens cleaning cloth, laptop, and a mini hard drive. Like I said, simple. One thing I wished I brought was a circular polarizing filter. I suggest these on a daily basis to customers calling in for recommendations on what to bring on their next big trip regardless of where they are going. I wish I hadn’t second guessed myself and followed my own advice!
Set and Forget: The Benefits of Semi-Auto Modes
It took me about a day to nail down the settings I found myself consistently shooting out the window with (again, I was trying to get to point A to B as quickly as possible which meant stops were mostly limited to fuel and bathroom breaks). From my experience I found it best to shoot with Shutter Priority Mode (Tv Mode in Canon) for semi-auto exposure. I shot at a super high shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second to freeze motion and would adjust the exposure compensation for fine tuning.
If you are having problems shooting at such a high shutter, try bumping your ISO (grain is back!) or physically track your subject as you move past it. I also set the Nikon 70-200’s VR setting to action mode to offset motion blur caused by handholding.
Since I was shooting out of the window, I chose continuous focus mode (AF-C for Nikon and AI Servo AF for Canon). It was useful for keeping moving objects sharp within the viewfinder as I quickly drove past. In continuous focusing mode, the camera detects movements and refocuses accordingly to keep the subject sharp. This mode uses a lot of battery because it is continuously focusing, hence the need for extra batteries.
Lastly, something I did not do but that you may want to consider is continuous shooting mode. Since I was on a 5 day/10 hours-a-day road trip I opted out of this shooting mode for fear of ending up with way too many images to cull afterwards. On the other hand, this mode would have been good for the the very unexpected spray-and-pray moments that cannot be anticipated, such as the heard of sheep surrounded by coyotes on the side of the road that is on my list of missed shooting opportunities. Again, a pitfall of this setting is battery life. To alleviate this concern invest in power inverter for your car.
Sweating the Details: Self Stabilization, Clean Windows, and More
Everybody knows that it is much more ideal to roll down the window before shooting out of it for clarity’s sake. There are times when this is simply not possible despite your best efforts. Keep your windows as clean as possible and give them a good wipe down each time you stop at a gas station. Rain-X is a good solution, especially if you are experiencing a lot of inclement weather on your trip. You can also get some interesting shots of beaded water droplets.
Shoot more than what you are seeing out the window and consider what is happening in and around the car, a la Lee Friedlander. A road trip is just as much about the experience as it is the destination. Try capturing the essence of memories created and storytelling portions of your trip.
I found it hugely beneficial to have a bean bag pillow to rest my camera on when I wasn’t shooting and was partial to the ZippaRoll for its compactness. I was also able to use it to absorb the shock from the road when shooting out the window. Also available is the SkimmerSack Bean Bag that drapes over your window to rest long heavy lenses on.
My last piece of advice that isn’t photography related at all, but rather environment-related. Bring your own travel coffee mug! It was my experience that the only disposable option for coffee or tea (or hot chocolate for that matter) were styrofoam cups. Not only is styrofoam the worst form of waste but they charge more for the beverage – since using your own mug is charged as a refill in many places. Save the environment plus save your money equals win! Plus the coffee may help you stay alert for those rare coyote-and-sheep moments.
Missed Part 1? Check it out here.Last modified: May 22, 2020