Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

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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.

A landscape photographed from a car on a highway. - Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

A fantastically colorful landscape by the highway in the Atlas mountains of Morocco.

The Challenge

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.

A landscape seen through a bus window in Iceland. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

I couldn’t resist this view seen through a bus window in Iceland.

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!

A house seen from a car in the Rif mountains of Morocco. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

The amazing houses and views in the mountains of northern Morocco were difficult to resist, even though it was a bit tricky to compose well.

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.

A woman on a donkey in rural Morocco. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

A very old photo I took through a car window. There are clearly some issues in terms of sharpness and composition, but it’s still a lovely memory.

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.

A mountain landscape seen from a highway in Morocco. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

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.

Expose right

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.

A view of rural Morocco. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

Here, the car was moving quite slowly so I got quite a sharp photo with a relatively wide angle. The dark and rainy weather made exposure a bit challenging, but it also made the sky much more dramatic.

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.

Between the mountains and the desert in Morocco. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

A photo with a lot of depth, taken from a moving car.

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.

Geological features photographed from a highway in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

I was aiming for a sharp photo of these beautiful geological features rushing past the car in the Moroccan Atlas mountains.

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.

An urban landscape near Casablanca, Morocco. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

It was cloudy and rainy, but by aiming for silhouettes and a dark atmosphere, this industrial view turned out sharp enough.

Plan well

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.

Signs and advertisements after a storm. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

Really annoying power lines! Still, I decided that I wanted to document the aftermath of a pretty bad storm outside Rabat, Morocco.

Optimise

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.

A mountain landscape in Morocco. Tips for Taking Better Pictures from a Moving Vehicle

I didn’t have time to open the window so I photographed this view of houses seemingly pressed between mountains and clouds through the window.

Conclusion

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?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Hannele Luhtasela-el Showk photographs weddings professionally and nature passionately. Based in Finland and Morocco, they love going on adventures, learning, teaching, reading, science, and finding new perspectives. Hannele's photos can be found on their wedding website, blog and Facebook page.

  • Maria Salomonsen

    Really useful tips – I hadn’t thought about the shutter speed being so important.
    I went on a trip through South Africa with a lot of driving without photo-stops. Half way through the first day I was already regretting that I had chosen not to take photos of the landscape because I would have to take them through the window. The rest of the trip I just clicked away, and was really happy with at least having documented the landscape for memories, even though there were reflections in most of the photos 🙂

  • Glad you found the article useful. I agree with you: sometimes it’s hard to remember that at times, what you need is not to make a beautiful piece of art but to capture a memory.

    Thanks a lot for your comment! 🙂

  • rwhunt99

    I’ve done a lot of bus tours, and trying to take a good photo out the bus window, as most don’t allow to open the window, is a frustrating thing. Luckily there are many stops allowing us to get out and compose a better shot, but there are so many that are passed by. I get a lot of reflections of the window also.

  • Geoff

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/56db4fd921e872f15e069b916a175f3a1206590c6935f3bbeca52660f297517d.jpg One of the qualities I try to achieve when shooting from a moving vehicle is not passivity but action, Hannele. Surely that’s intrinsic in what you’re doing: you’re moving and see something interesting. Panning can give interesting results and the contrasting sharpness adds to the effect of motion. Here a photo taken from a bus in Warsaw.

  • Liisa Fial

    I have an album I call “Through The Windshield”. On my trip from CA to TX and back, these are three of photos that were taken through the windshield of my car at 75 mph. Husband was driving 😉

    It was really fun to see how the photos would turn out using different shutter speeds.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/28477aaac674a67e3d6f3ed92914fa2cf6eef5bae3fa74acf1f8b8ef07dbe048.jpg

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/060d30f34bfe544d71f5717480d86cef68474f6295d7fbdba1877af8e5499d02.jpg

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f39d574aceafecc7dcee3961263faff8da8788adc28a6af47001c202c331e4c8.jpg

  • Bipin Gupta

    Some very very important point have been missed. Shoot in Continuous Hi Speed mode – NOT one shot at a time. This way at least one shot in a sequence will be super sharp.
    Maybe shooting in Continuous Auto Focus mode help in keeping your photo sharp – not certain on this one.
    Then many cars & busses have tinted windows. May not matter if shooting RAW, but it may be a good idea to adjust your White Balance.
    Lastly adjustments will be required in post production like dehaze, clarity, saturation, sharpening and some color pop to the photo – the HSL panel comes in handy here, like say accentuating foliage in a landscape or the blue sky. There are some other techniques too and hardware that enhances your shooting experience from a moving vehicle like if you are on a Safari.
    Regards Folks and have a good time.

  • Geoff

    Funny that you should say that. I saw an advert for a reflection removing lens cap and thought; ‘But reflections are great!’ 🙂 Depending on what you want to shoot obviously.

  • BazzaBoy

    Reflectios from within the bus/train can be reduced by using a CPL. But then you have to open a couple of stops also. Don’t compromise on the shutter speed. Modern day busses have very good glass and you don’t get the rainbow pattern by using a CPL.

  • Its really tough to compose from moving vehicles. One needs to act fast. I have taken photos from my moving car when i was traveling in ladakh for doing bird photography

  • Yeah, it is pretty frustrating when that happens! Sometimes using a polarizing filter helps — I used that when I took photos out of a helicopter once. It’s still tricky, but it helps in certain situations.

    Thanks for your comment!

  • I agree; there’s definitely a lot of possibility in the nature of this kind of photography itself, and fighting it isn’t always the way to go. It’s nice to try out different things and decide on what to do — to actively seek out a certain perspective or story — and then make it happen. The circumstances always dictate what’s possible, but the possible, even in a limited situation like a bus or car, is quite a big world of different opportunities.

    Thanks for your comment!

  • Nice! In some, you can really see that the photo was taken at high speed; in others, it looks like you stood still right in front of the thing you photographed. I’m glad to hear that someone else was driving while you took these. 😀 Thanks for sharing!

  • Yeah, composing is really difficult when you can’t control your own position. Did your bird photos turn out well?

  • Yeah, it’s all a trade-off in these kinds of circumstances. Thanks for your comment!

  • The points haven’t necessarily been missed but I’ve focused on other aspects of this kind of photography. It’s good you added your tips here, though! I appreciate the comment. 🙂

  • walwit

    Good point using Continuos Hi Speed, Continuos Auto Focus not working for me better than fixed manual focus because I could anticipate the distance, also I took this photo using 1/4000 of a second because the speed of the automovil and the short distance to the subject: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ae73af66b4284b43f40206d966a9298c1aaa4be7da236121e74adc2a560010ba.jpg

  • Janis Shetley

    I travel by car a lot and always shoot out the window. When traveling through mountains and such there are frequently no pull offs anyway. I find the best photos are those where I am able to open the window and shoot. Shooting through the glass is a problem for reflections and color accuracy. Keeping a high shutter speed is a necessity. And shooting a little wide so you have room to straighten later is also important. I get a lot of good photos this way where I would ordinarily not even have a chance to shoot.

  • Thanks for sharing that! It’s a great opportunity for interesting shots, but as you say, you need to know what you’re doing. I appreciate the comment!

  • Bipin Gupta

    Shooting from a moving vehicle was a good article and a lot of helpful tips came along. So hats off to Hannele. Perhaps this can be enlarged into a little Handbook. A simple hardware called a Lenskirt is available to shoot glare free from aeroplane & vehicle windows, even glass showcases and fish tanks. You can even do a DIY project – see photo. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/aef749f050b7d8ae14afe98489de4dfecd5eca0cc93d6c594d0d6c5d91be6136.jpg
    Here is a photo I captured from a Tour Bus in Paris. Note the mirrors on the bus. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5d3d308e3dd0a043ae740086161a0a6956d2f9b79ad1b1983d0c441debd34626.jpg

  • Thanks, Bipin! The mirrors are actually quite an interesting addition to the photo. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Zubin

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5adbbe2909e4420c5a81bcddc6f6786ce047fbe6483377fa6c94e9fc8f069f35.jpg
    Shot from a car in Ladakh in North India. Was fortunate with the light

  • Very beautiful light! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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