Through-the-Windshield Photography

There are a lot of 65 mph photo-ops -- if you're ready
A fun way to document road trips, and keep yourself busy, is to shoot photos of the countryside as you speed through it. Occasionally, you need to stop, soak up the view, and shoot away, but many of the best things you see don't accommodate stopping to frame the shot.

Personally, I like shooting barns, cows, and weird signs along the road. It's also fun to take photos of people reading the paper, talking on their phones, shaving, or applying lipstick while they drive. I suppose I should mention that when shooting the countryside at 65 mph, I'm not the one who's doing the driving. I'm the passenger. Not only does this give me a rest from driving, it also gives my wife's immaginary brake pedal foot a rest.

In addition to cows, barns, billboards, and bookworms, there are lot's of other things to shoot if you've got a camera handy. Of course, taking the pictures is only half the fun; actually looking at them is fun too, so you need to hedge your bets on getting quality photos.

Wash the windows at every stop

Shooting through the windshield is my second choice, I prefer to roll down the passenger's window and shoot sideways. If you look through the viewfinder, you can track a good shot from front to back (this works well with cows and barns, not so well with weird signs). When tracking shots like this, it's a very good idea to have the strap around your neck (or your wrist, depending on your strap). But many great shots are through the windshield, complete with a potential layer of dead bugs and grime. This grime layer will either apear as a fuzzy haze in the foreground or it will fool your autofocus causing you to lose your shot. Either way, it'll degrade the quality of your photo (if you get one at all).

Make sure to wash the windshield and side windows and top off the winshield wiper fluid at every gas fill-up (this is a great job for kids). Relying on the wipers to do your dirty work is fine between fillups, but you have to work to avoid the peripheral fuzz outside the wipers' reach. Don't forget to wash the side windows too, it's not always acceptable to backseat adventurers to blast them with air. And slightly tinted side windows can give you a free polarizing lens filter.

Stick to fast shutter speeds
High shutter speeds can eliminate blurs from your photos two ways: by isolating the movement, and by increasing the depth of field. How does the shutter speed boost depth of field? It doesn't, but if you're shooting on an automatic setting favoring a high shutter speed, the camera will compensate for the lower light availability by opening the aperture wider (lowering the f-stop) which boosts the depth of field.

On an SLR camera (Single lens reflex cameras allow you to change lenses), this setting is often labeled TV (time value). On point and shoot models the setting is usually represented by a sports figure. I shoot with an SLR and try different speeds to see how they're working, but on a sunny day, I can shoot at 1/500 of a second and get crisp forgrounds with the focal point in focus. Of course, you may want the foreground to be blurry showing that you're rocketing along the interstate, it depends on what you're trying to say with the photo. I'm typically trying NOT to say "I was too lazy to stop the car, get out, and set up this photo". If I get a great shot at 65 mph that I can publish in a magazine, I'm a pretty happy camper.

A fast shutter speed also minimizes the bumps in the road and any other camera movement caused by the car or the photographer's ability to hold the camera steady, such as whith heavy zoom lenses. As a rule of thumb (normally I'm against rules of thumb, but this one works) you can set a minimum shutter speed as the inverse of the lense size. For a 200 mm zoom, use no slower than 1/200 sec for hand held shots.

Different road types call for different lenses

This is more for SLRs than point and shoot cameras, but if using a point and shoot, you can set it and forget it, so you won't have to zoom or pan while trying to frame the shot. Shooting at 65 mph doesn't always allow you the time to fiddle with the composition, you need to point and shoot. Even when you're ready you miss some good ones, but you'll miss fewer if you're ready.

Federal interstates typically have a big buffer zone between the road and the barn (or cows, or 'See Rock City' sign), so you've got a naturally wide window of vision. Zooms work well for these roads. I like a variable 25-105 lens, which gives me the flexibility to re-frame the shot, but occasionally a 200 mm zoom is a great choice. Of course, if you're shooting with a professional SLR, a variable zoom to goes up to 105 may be all you need because an 8 megapixel camera on 'Fine' or RAW setting* will allow you to blow up the image substantially and then crop to your taste.

National and State highways, typically 2 or 4 lane, tend to have a smaller buffer zone so zooms will put you too close to your subject. Here a wide angle works best, again variable if possible, I use a 16mm-35mm, but I've got a 14 mm in the bag just in case the road is really tight. Again, with a high resolution photo, you should be able to blow it up substantially and crop to your taste.

Great lighting makes you look like a Pro
The best light is at dawn and dusk. On a road trip, dusk is much more likely to be a time when you'll have the luxury of goofing around with a camera. On a clear day a couple of hours before dusk, the light will be golden, and enrich your subject matter tremendously. Also the sun is lower on the horizon which casts real nice long shadows. At high noon, the shadows are short and uninteresting; they also look strange on people's faces because they go from top to bottom, they darken people's faces in very unflattering ways. Sideways light is more dramatic.

I'll go into a deeper discussion of using light in photography in a later post, but here's a quick tip: bright sun means strong contrast, so use a flash to soften the shadows. But you need to adjust the flash to be dimmer than the sun. With expensive speedlite flashes this is easy to do. On many SLRs the built-in flash can be adjusted as well, but on point and shoot models, you get what you get, so you need to outsmart the camera. Do this with a layer or two of napkin and some scotch tape. The napkin will diffuse the light, giving it a softer quality and the scotch tape will hold the napkin to the camera. Try out different napkin settings (1 layer, 2 layers, 3 layers) to see how your particular camera reacts. This scotch tape soft box is a pretty good idea for all flash photography because onboard flashes are usually pretty harsh.

*A note about camera settings: shoot on the highest quality you've got available to you. This will decrease the number of photos you can fit on your card, but if that's a problem, get a bigger card. Huge images allow you loads of flexibility in printing.

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