Moving Pictures – Shots From Your Car

I was travelling back from a friend’s cabin after an enjoyable cross-country ski trip in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Unfortunately, someone had a solo accident on Interstate 80 in the foothills northeast of Sacramento, and backed up traffic into the mountains. Everyone was at a standstill, so I took the opportunity to shoot views I’d otherwise never have a chance to photograph.

The road to Taos near Pilar, New Mexico

The road to Taos near Pilar, New Mexico

When I’m travelling, I may not have time to stop at every scenic overlook. Or I may want the the mid-highway viewpoint. Either way, I’m going to shoot from a moving vehicle, sometimes through glass windshields. There are a few things I do to get something besides artistic blur shots.

I Know What Conventional Wisdom Says…
I was always taught to shoot from a stationary position for the sharpest-possible pictures, and never through glass. Any extra glass between your lens and subject is a chance for lower contrast from dirt, and possible image distortion from bent light rays. Yes, you should try to shoot stationary and out in the open for all your shots, especially if you’re enlarging beyond 5×7 prints or small screen sizes. But sometimes you can’t – you need a view from the road to tell your story.

Highway view, US 285 in central Colorado

Winter driving on US 285 in central Colorado

Full Frontal Photography on the Road
The view from a vehicle is the first thing I see when I travel, even after flying to a destination. The drive from the airport could be part of the story, but more recently, I’ve been travelling by small RV. Highway views are definitely part of that story.

My wife Pat is usually the truck driver, so I’m able to give undivided attention (and safety) to photography. We weren’t going to stop on the narrow shoulder bordering US 285 during a Colorado trip for a snowy February birthday party, but mountain landscapes were too pretty to pass up. So I put a 35mm lens on a crop sensor camera for a 52.5mm point of view, narrow enough to eliminate windshield pillars and let me shoot through only the cleanest parts of the windshield. I also aim a little high to avoid the hood of the car and too much road directly in front. It’s usually cleanest lower down, inside the wipers’ sweep, but I’ll shoot through whichever spot is cleanest. The best possible conditions happen after a rainstorm, but you may not have one (usually not in winter anyway). So I’ve become a windshield cleanliness freak. It gets squeegeed at every fuel stop.

I set the camera for a high-enough ISO to give me a shutter speed over 1/3000 sec at an f/4 aperture. I chose f/4 for some depth of field with the 35mm lens, but narrow enough to keep windshield dirt out of focus. Everything I want sharp is near or at infinity focus, so depth of field isn’t an issue.

I leaned far forward to get close to the windshield, blurring dirt even more and going for the smallest possible area to shoot through (fewer dirt spots to worry about). Finally, I composed and took the shot.

Desert landscape on US 550 near Cabezon Peak, New Mexico

Desert landscape on US 550 near Cabezon Peak, New Mexico

Use Physics for the Side View
Sometimes I want a view of what I’m passing. For that, I ignore my usual instincts to include near foreground details and aim a bit higher. Details farther away are more likely to appear sharp, since their speed relative to the moving vehicle is slower. Objects in a side view may have faster relative motion – they’re usually closer – compared to distant objects in front of you or at an angle to your travel diection. I adjust ISO and lens aperture for maximum 1/4000 sec shutter speed to reduce blur as much as possible.

Desert landscape on US 550 near Cabezon Peak, New Mexico

Grand Mesa country from I70, Colorado

Even if it’s cold, I roll down the window to shoot side views. I’ve shot both completely freehand and leaning on the door sill, and gotten sharp-enough shots both ways. Leaning on the sill transmits suspension-softened road vibrations up your arms to the camera. Freehanding it leaves you at the mercy of your own swaying reactions to vehicle motion. It’s usually best to keep yourself and the camera inside the vehicle as much as possible to avoid being buffeted by the wind.

Colorado ranchland, US 149 east of Spring Creek Pass

Colorado ranchland, US 149 east of Spring Creek Pass
Two-fisted grip, camera held outside the window

Forward-Shooting Alternatives
Sometimes the windshield is too dirty, or I want less road in the picture. That’s when I’ll put on a lens with a 50mm or 75mm field of view, set up for the fastest-possible shutter speed, open the window all the way, and get a firm two-handed grip on the camera. I sometimes try to aim at an angle away from the side of the road, especially if there are nearby (fast-moving) details there. But the firm grip is most important if you want sharp shots.

St. Louis Torrent after Mississippi River crossing

St. Louis Torrent after Mississippi River crossing

Shooting through the windshield doesn’t always have to be at speed. As we drove across the Mississippi to St. Louis in mid-May, the rain suddenly got so heavy we couldn’t see out the windshield. So we pulled over to wait it out. The under-water windshield was definitely part of the story, so I did what I always do – I took a picture through it. I used a 35mm field of view at f/11, giving me enough depth of field for a recognizable city street through the less-distinct water. A friend asked if we’d taken a submarine across the river when he saw the picture.

Train near Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming

Train near Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming

Oblique angles can work too. We were driving above a Wyoming valley when Pat glanced around me and said, “There’s a train over there!” (I don’t see everything – she’s spotted several shots before I did.) I rolled down the window and shot with the 75mm at 1/4000. I took a couple of ’em to give me choices later.

Train near Fossil Butte Natioonal Monument, Wyoming

Fall color below Slumgullion Pass, Colorado

If the shot demands it, turn the camera. Vertical opportunities present themselves less often on the road, but they can break up the horizontal monotony.

Shot Notes
I’ve used mirrorless Fuji X-E2 and Leica M10 cameras for shots on the road. dSLRs with autofocus lenses are pretty heavy, and may be hard to handhold out the window. They can also hunt for focus as the moving scene changes in front of them, and that’s the last thing you want for sharp shots. If that’s what you have, just turn off AF and manually focus to infinity with a short focal length.

My 75mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH lens has a tendency to squirrel its way off infinity focus. I’ve had to train myself to always twist the focusing ring back to infinity before shooting. This can happen with any lens, especially AF lenses with easy-to-move manual focusing rings. Canon AF lenses seem especially prone to this.

DISCLAIMER: The following information is for amusement purposes only – use it at your own risk. I am not responsible for any damage to property or injury you may incur through any use of this information. There, now the legal stuff is out of the way.

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