Have you ever been stuck in a car or a bus and seen all this great photographic potential passing you by? Fantastic landscapes, funny signs, unusual animals, and stunning compositions seem to always appear when I’m stuck in the passenger seat of a car. It’s frustrating, especially if the car can’t stop to let you capture the view.
For someone who actually doesn’t like the idea of just driving through an area and taking photos of it through the window (maybe because it feels so impersonal), I’ve done a surprising amount of it. Often because it’s a now-or-never situation; the view won’t be there later, or I won’t be returning in the near future.
Sometimes I’m on a highway and can’t stop, or there are so many photos I’d like to take that I feel bad asking the driver to stop over and over again. Also, taking photos from a car or bus can be great for people who have a hard time walking.
In a car, bus, or train, there are many contexts in which it’s inappropriate, difficult or impossible to take a photo. Fortunately, there are also many situations in which you don’t have to leave completely empty-handed. It is possible to take photos from a moving vehicle, but it takes a bit of knowledge and planning.
It’s a suboptimal situation but sometimes you just have to find a way to make the best of it. Most likely it’s better than not trying at all! In this article, I hope to give some tips to help make your trips more enjoyable and creative. Let’s begin!
When to try and when not to shoot
Safety is paramount
Even though trying is almost always better than not, there definitely are situations where you shouldn’t be taking photos from a moving vehicle. Remember that you’re sitting in a metal box moving through space at high speeds!
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be doing any photography if you’re the driver. But as a passenger, you also need to be aware of how your photography may pose a danger to you or others. In short: think about safety.
Make sure you don’t block the driver’s line of sight or disturb them in some other way. Communicate with the driver and the other passengers. If you’re on a tour bus, don’t block other the passengers’ view through the window.
If you’re in a car and planning to open a window, make sure nothing can fly out and be aware that there might be branches or objects by the side of the road that can hit you or your camera. Also be aware of oncoming traffic, and don’t lean out! Only slow down if it won’t disrupt the flow of traffic and if you convince the driver to stop the car for a photo break, make sure it’s in a safe place.
Is it worth it?
Even if everything’s okay in terms of safety, there are a few other things to consider before you start photographing.
Can the car stop for a little while instead of you attempting to take pictures through the window? If not, can the window be opened? Is there enough light for photography? Will doing so mean that you’ll miss out on seeing and enjoying the view?
There may also be places where I wouldn’t recommend photographing through a window. Driving through a city or village pointing a telephoto lens at people could be considered a bit creepy.
This is how you do it
Enough of the don’ts and the warnings. It’s time to learn how to take great photos in this challenging situation.
Not surprisingly, the most challenging part of this kind of photography is dealing with movement. In a moving car, your subject matter might swoop by at very high speeds.
In practical terms, this means using a shutter speed that can freeze that movement, finding an aperture that allows for enough depth of field, and choosing the ISO that makes all of that possible.
The desired exposure depends a lot on what kind of a photograph you want. To get a sharp landscape photo from a moving vehicle, it’s important to have a fast enough shutter speed.
How fast depends on how fast you’re moving, but faster is generally better. I would suggest using at least 1/400th, but preferably faster. Be aware that the foreground is more likely to reveal signs of movement, whereas photographing something that’s further from the road is more likely to be successful.
If we continue with the example of a landscape photo, it’s also important to have a large enough depth of field to get a sharp capture of the whole view. This means you’ll need to use a small aperture, preferably around f/8.0, also depending on the sweet spot of your lens.
If you have the chance, try different settings, but if you can only take one or two photos, aim for a small aperture. Again, this depends a lot on what kind of photograph you’re aiming for and light levels.
The last element of exposure, ISO, doesn’t make as much of a difference to this kind of photography as shutter speed and aperture do. ISO has the effect it always has, so the lower it is, the better.
Still, with modern DSLRs, using a higher ISO might be the key to allowing you to use the shutter speed and aperture you need while not adding a lot of noise.
It might seem difficult to plan in these situations, but there are usually some things that can help you create as good a photograph as possible. Even before you take your photo you can observe the light levels outside, which can help you with exposure.
You may also be able to get a good composition by observing the landscape outside and imagine what it might look like behind that curve or beyond that next hill. You can also see when there will be power lines appearing in your photo. I find that one of the most annoying parts of this kind of photography is power lines. They always get in the way!
Also, remember that this is one of those situations where taking a lot of photos is not a bad thing.
To get as good a photo as possible, you should open the window to avoid unfortunate reflections or dirt in your photo. A closed window will also limit your movement and your options when it comes to composing.
There are many situations in which opening the window isn’t really a great idea, though. Remember that the most important thing is safety. If you can’t open the window, use the viewfinder and possibly a polarizing filter to try to avoid getting reflections and dirt in your photo.
Have you taken photos out of a car, bus, or train? I find the hardest part to be composing the photo.
What do you think? What benefits and challenges have you noticed? Do you have any tips for better photography on the road?