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11 Essential Tips for your Road Trip Photography
Being full-time road trippers and photographers, we’ve spent a lot of time perfecting how we prep and capture the best road trip photos we can.
It isn’t about having the most expensive equipment, access to exclusive locations or having loads of photography experience.
Opportunity knocks for us all, and we just need to be ready to capture it.
Below, I share 11 practical road trip photography tips that will put you on the path to success as well as highlighting some of the best travel photography gear to have in your camera bag.
11 Essential Photography Tips for any Road Trip
1. Plan Your Road Trip Photography Route
A photography road trip offers not only opportunities for taking fantastic photos but making new memories.
Choosing the location is all important and will be driven by what you like to photograph. It could be landscapes, architecture, wildlife, or if you’re like me, all three. You don’t need to limit yourself.
Once you have a Photography location in mind, it’s time to research the driving route.
I generally opt for the off-the-beaten-path type of route. Why?
The road less travelled means fewer tourists and often better photo opportunities. You have an increased chance of having a spot all to yourself and if you’re a wildlife photographer, you’ll want to be as far away from humanity as you can be.
When choosing specific points of interest along a route, you’ll need to account for the type of terrain and obstacles you might encounter. Using Google Maps allows you to change the overlay from Satellite to Terrain which will display important topography information. Also, it might spark a photography idea or two.
Google Maps is pretty clever. It offers different route options with travel times and you choose the departure time that suits you best. It’s really hard to predict ahead of time, how much time you should spend at a spot.
Keep a flexible schedule and if you find a great spot, why not hang out there?
By the way, Google Maps allows any number of additional points of interest to be added to a route. And, the map can be downloaded and used offline when there is no available network signal, which is super handy!
Below, I’ve added some extra yellow markers to one of my Google Maps road trip photography routes in west Scotland. This means I shouldn’t drive past something I want to see. Google Maps also offers helpful scenic locations by default — note the blue markers with a camera icon.
2. Road Trip Photo Ideas – Get Some Inspiration
Now that you have a good idea of your route and possible photography locations, how do know what the location looks like if you’ve never been there before? Well, there is a way.
Get some inspiration from others who have. Sites such as Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr or 500px are full of images to whet your appetite. You can see the different photography angles at different times of the day. If an image grabs your attention, keep it in mind.
I had some inspiration from one of our daytime shots of Rattray Head Lighthouse in Scotland which spiked an idea of a long exposure nighttime shot. I wanted to see the lighthouse beacon at high tide.
I was awake at 3 am to drive the one hour from Aberdeen, to capture the lighthouse in the eastern sky. The idea was to avoid any morning light.
Inspiration can also come from other places.
Forums, discussing other people’s ideas and thoughts gives some interesting perspectives.
Another, and a favourite of mine, is perusing good old hard-copy books. Although we’re in the digital age, just flicking through a book of fantastic photos from renowned photographers can really fire up the imagination.
I find the colours in the hard copy photos to be a true representation of how the shooter visualised the scene. The same image will be viewed differently on different digital devices due to the device’s resolution, pixels and your own perceptions. Yes, photography is very subjective.
Below are some photography books and e-books by renowned photographers that can either be bought in hard copy or downloaded from Amazon.
- A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum as she critiques hundreds of photojournalism, portraiture, advertising and documentation images from celebrated and unknown artists.
- The Moment it Clicks by Joe McNally explores the all-important approach to capturing great images and why they look great.
- National Geographic Stunning Photographs by Annie Griffiths. Any National Geographic edition is a guarantee of a professional portfolio of images.
3. What Makes a Good Travel Photo?
Photography is a subjective subject. What I like, someone else might not. A good travel photo is one that you are happy with. One that is visually pleasing to your eye. In this way, you also get to learn your own style of photography. You don’t have to please the masses, just yourself.
As mentioned in the inspiration section, there are helpful websites that can kick-start creative juices. But sometimes these online images all seem to look the same. A bit bland to your eye.
So, faced with the location, how do you go about changing things up a bit?
Why not try and shoot the scene differently? Get innovative.
Let me share an example.
We visited a falconry centre in Scotland, Dunrobin Castle, where birds of prey were tethered to their perches with their water bowls nearby. I had seen the same in the online photos but this imagery seemed a bit ‘same-same’ to me. I wanted a different shot.
I visualised the birds drinking from the water bowl and thought about capturing their reflection. I had the idea, now it was a matter of playing the patience game. I eventually got my chance and took the shot. It turned out just how I had visualised it.
4. Planning Your Road Trip Photography Shot
As you can see, the previous points have highlighted that your initial planning is important. It increases your chances of getting the shots you want.
The following are some of the many elements you will need to take into account when planning your road trip travel shot.
🔘 It’s All About the Light
Have you heard the phrase, “it’s all about the light’“? It’s a photographer’s mantra. I’m sure you’ve seen that early morning and late afternoon offer a beautiful softer light. It’s full of warm diffused colours that make for those magnificent sunrises and sunsets.
You can use this light to your advantage by placing the sun in different directions in relation to the camera. Each gives a different look. Shooting in the direction of the sun, at right angles to the sun, to accentuate shadows, or having the scene backlit by the sun.
To know where the sun will be at certain times at various locations you need to find the sun’s azimuth.
How to find the sun’s azimuth or angle from due North (0 Degrees)?
Most smartphones will include the sunrise/sunset times with a weather forecast. However, if you’re looking for a really comprehensive planning tool then check out these two photography apps, which I personally use: Photopills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris.
🔘 Photographing on Foot
When on foot, there are definitely some factors that should be considered:
- The terrain over which you walk may prove challenging depending on your physical ability.
- Timing the crossing of waterways/causeways at low tide and then re-crossing before the rise. I had to homework the local tide tables to ensure we crossed and returned from the Brough of Birsay, Orkney Islands, at low tide. Forward planning ensured I didn’t arrive outside of low tide and blow my chances of reaching the island.
- Avoiding or minimising crowds at popular places. Crowds generally don’t play into a photographer’s hands. Arriving early, however, or being the last to leave from a location, helps this situation.
- Changing weather. Mother Nature can’t be controlled, however to a certain degree, it can be predicted. Preparing in advance by checking forecasts is the trick. In particular, the rain can make for challenging photography conditions — Cue a camera /lens protective hood.
This plastic covering helps keep your photography equipment dry. I have a few and they’ve worked fantastically well for me.
If the rain is relentless then all is not lost. Why not consider some fun road trip games to keep the smiles on the dial?
- Distance between the photography location and the vehicle. This is good to know, as it will be a deciding factor in how much and what particular camera equipment you carry with you (more on this later in the article)
- Your clothing. Being wet or cold or both can be a recipe for trip foreclosure. Yes, enough emphasis can’t be placed on this one. Failure to prep for the weather is just a no-go. Here are some great items we’ve invested in:
🔘 Taking Photographs from a Vehicle
You may be in a situation where you can’t take to foot to take the shots you want, so shooting from the vehicle is the only option. During our wildlife safari through Kruger National Park in South Africa, we had to capture our shots from the vehicle—park rules.
Even though we were in the vehicle, we captured some fantastic images.
Shooting images from a vehicle brought its own challenges but we had some great solutions:
- Engine causing vibrations to the camera/lens. As often as possible, when capturing photos and video, we stopped our Overlanding Toyota Hilux 4×4. (If you want to know more about vehicle preparation for road-tripping then jump over to our comprehensive article.)
- Stabilising the camera whilst using a long lens. I invested in a small bean bag that I placed on the window sill to sit the lens on. This worked really well, especially when there is more than one person in the car moving about which induces vehicle vibration.
5. Composing Your Photographs on a Road Trip
Whether you choose to use a camera or a mobile phone, there are some compositional guidelines to be mindful of when shooting a scene. Just remember, these are just good to know, you don’t have to religiously follow any of these.
Cameras and later-model mobile phones are able to overlay a horizon line on the preview image. This helps in making sure that the orientation of the image is as close as possible to real life.
Lining up the horizon line at the time of taking the photo avoids losing some of the original scene in post-processing. This is because straightening the image has the effect of rotating it with the possibility of some of the scene falling outside the frame.
Rule of Thirds
These are 2 parallel horizontal and 2 parallel vertical lines that overlay the preview image. The subject can be placed at any of the four intersection points. This type of composition is quite powerful.
Why? It causes an imbalance in the symmetry and forces the eye to look not only at the subject but other parts of the image.
Having the subject in the middle of a photo offers a sense of balance to a scene. It can project calmness. Depending on the scene, it may work very well. Personally, I try to avoid symmetrical compositions as much as possible to add a sense of drama to the image.
This technique draws the viewer’s eye into the actual image by following the lines or boundaries of an object that leads to the main subject.
The idea is that leading lines take the viewer on a journey through the image and not just focus on the subject. These lines could be natural eg. a shoreline or man-made such as a road or railway tracks.
Depth of Field
The depth of field in an image is the distance between two points that appear to be in focus or acceptably sharp. Increasing the focal length setting on a camera (f2.8 to f11) will increase this in-focus distance. And vice-versa, decreasing the focal length will shorten the physical distance, creating more separation of a subject from the background.
The below image is shot intentionally with the foreground out of focus. The image tells a story with the slightly out-of-focus photographer and the in-focus seals as the subject.
Framing the Shot
Framing simply means including the elements in a scene that you want to tell the story. Leave out any features that distract from the scene or draw your attention away from what it should.
Using Water to Your Advantage
Reflections can be a great way to capture a different perspective on a subject. Don’t have any water nearby to see a reflection? It’s time to get creative by pouring water from your water bottle.
Selecting a longer focal length (> f11) on a camera can give a lovely star effect from a light source by shooting at the sun or at night from a distant light source. Light is diffracted when passing through the aperture giving this star effect. The greater the focal length, the more pronounced the star effects.
Just remember not to look directly at the sun through the viewfinder. It’s not safe for our eyes or the delicate internals of the lens and camera sensor.
6. Choosing Your Road Trip Photography Gear
Best Camera For a Road Trip
Well, it’s no secret, I shoot with Sony a9s. This versatile all-purpose full-frame mirrorless camera does it all. It boasts amazing auto-focus capability for action sequences and is equally capable across the board in all other genres of photography. I am a massive fan.
Although the a9 is no longer manufactured by Sony, the Sony a9II is very close to the same specifications. I’ll leave it to you to check the long list of jaw-dropping specs.
⭐️ Check it out here ⭐️
Of course, this is not the only camera you can use for road trip photography.
There is plenty of choice on the market. If you’re worried or can’t be bothered changing lenses then you could opt for either a bridge camera (Sony RX10IV, we owned one and was a fantastic starter for Shelley) or a pocket-size Sony compact camera such as the RX100 Cybershot.
Both are very capable Sony cameras for all types of road trip photography.
Mobile Phones vs Cameras for Road Trip Photos?
Here’s a question I’m asked a lot … Do I need a camera or is a mobile phone camera ok to take road trip photos?
Look, you don’t need a camera but generally, a camera offers more flexibility when choosing specific settings that give particular visual effects.
On the other hand, some of the newer mobile phones have built-in cameras with separate ultra-wide-angle and zoom lenses that have some punch and certainly fit the bill if you need to travel light.
Probably a good place to start when considering whether to buy a camera or to use a mobile phone would be to think about how often you would use the item. If it’s a one-off, can’t-be-missed occasion then you might decide to just go for it. It will depend on your future needs.
You don’t always need to buy brand new. You could consider the second-hand and rental markets. I’ve bought second-hand both through camera stores that offer warranty and via private sellers that obviously don’t. Be savvy, do your homework and do seller background checks.
Currently, I have two Sony a9 cameras with multiple lenses that I shoot both stills and video (my wife, Shelley, also has a couple of Sony a9s). I’ll also use an iPhone and GoPro to capture video when required. So you can see, I have plenty of combinations.
When it comes to using a particular lens for a particular genre, I generally use the strength of the lens for its designed purpose. Meaning, I use the landscape lens for landscapes, the macro lens for macro etc.
It isn’t this way all the time. Sometimes I won’t have a second lens with me, so you do the best you can. Experiment with a lens you wouldn’t normally use — it’s fun.
I sometimes give myself a challenge. I pick a lens and give myself 60 minutes to take the best shots I can. Change to a different lens and repeat. See if you like your results.
‘Nice to Have’ Photography Equipment
Below I’ve included some photography equipment that is helpful depending on the type of image you intend to take.
This equipment helps to stabilise the camera and lens to avoid any movement which blurs the image. The tripod is great for low light shots when the shutter speed is predictably slow; long exposure shots of water for those silky smooth images of flowing water or even the Northern Lights.
I have two different-sized tripods: a small Manfrotto Pixie mini-tripod that I use for macro photography and a full-size Three-Legged Thing Travis tripod for anything else. These are certainly not top-of-the-range, expensive models but they do the job well and that’s what is important.
Extending the Three-Legged Thing Travis tripod legs to their maximum height can make the tripod more prone to movement and vibrations (applicable to any tall tripod). Be wary of strong and gusting winds.
I have swapped out the original rubber footings on the tripod legs for 3-inch long steel spikes ensuring that they bury themselves well into the ground to keep the tripod secure.
🔲 ND Filter
An ND or Neutral Density filter sits in front of the lens and basically acts as a pair of sunglasses for the camera by reducing the amount of light hitting the camera sensor. This allows for longer shutter speeds meaning longer exposure shots.
There are different strengths of ND filters. I have both the 3-stop Hoya (ND 8) and 8-stop Hoya (ND 64) filters from Hoya which are a trusted manufacturer of filters. Remember that filters come in different sizes to suit the diameter of the lens.
🔲 Camera Bag
If you have a camera, then it probably won’t be too long after that you will look for some sort of camera bag to carry all your ND filters, extra batteries, protective covers, cleaning products etc.
I have two camera bags of different volumes to suit the amount of photography gear I will carry. It provides me with versatility.
My long Sony 200-600 only fits in my Vanguard Alta Rise 48 backpack, whereas any combination of my other lenses will fit into the Caden messenger camera bag. Here are some important aspects of a camera bag I needed. Both are: waterproof, have adequate storage capacity, and have the ability to secure a tripod to the camera bag.
The Caden messenger bag can hold my 2 x Sony a9s with attached lenses. It has adjustable velcro inserts with inside and external zippered pockets.
Below you can see that I’ve packed out my Vanguard Alta Rise 48 with 2 x Sony a9s with the attached lenses: Sony 200-600 f5.6/6.3 with hood in place and the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8.
The bag is also holding my Tamron 70-180 f/2.8, Sony 1.4x teleconverter, 2 x Peak Design carrying straps, and a bag of cleaning items and spare batteries. Yep, it packs all my important gear.
I use a GoPro mounted on the car dash to capture the drive and recently have bought a selfie stick to mount the GoPro and hold out the window to capture the African wildlife when it’s just too dangerous to get out of the vehicle.
7. Brush up on Your Photography Skills Before your Trip
Learning how to use your camera equipment or mobile phone before your road trip is important. Commit the time and familiarise yourself with at least the basic settings.
Mobile phones should pose little problem with the whole familiarisation process and with most cameras, there is an Auto mode setting that lets the camera decide the best settings for a shot.
When I embarked on my photography journey, I had plenty of newbie questions. On the hunt for a reputable photography site, I came across Photography Life. It’s been a game-changer for me.
The website has a wealth of detailed information and photography equipment reviews. I mentioned in Section 3 of this article about developing your own style of photography. Well, whatever your style, you’ll find fantastic free tutorials on that site to suit.
Note: I am not in any way affiliated with Photography Life.
8. Accessories for your Photography Road trip
We’ve road tripped by car, by campervan and by 4×4 with a tent on top, so we know a thing or two about planning for all scenarios and what’s required for short or extended photography road trips.
Below are the accessories we use all the time and just couldn’t be without.
1. Camera Battery Charger for Road Trip Photography Equipment
An electronic device’s battery will require charging. In a vehicle, it is unlikely you will have access to 220V/240V unless you are using an inverter in the 12V socket.
Luckily, many camera battery chargers are now able to charge off the car’s 12V. This includes our phones, camera batteries and GoPro chargers. Phew …
A portable charging option is to carry a power bank. We do. There are various models with different charge capacities. TechRadar has a really good review of portable power banks so you can make an informed decision to suit your needs.
2. Storage for Your Photography Images
It’s a very good habit to back up your images once a day. This backup may be via the cloud which of course requires a network signal or hard drives. We use two portable hard drives, so we have a backup of a backup.
You want to make sure you keep your precious memories safe.
Most of us these days are pretty reliant on having access to the internet. On a photography road trip, you may need reliable internet for any number of reasons:
- Keeping in touch with loved ones to keep them informed of your whereabouts;
- Checking out the weather forecasts;
- Uploading images to social media;
- Getting updates on any road closures, and
- Using Google Maps.
This may require swapping SIM cards to ensure you have network coverage.
In Africa, we can’t always rely on network signals so we invested in a Garmin InReach Mini satellite phone. It’s our lifeline for help in case of emergencies. I got a really great deal through GPS Training which includes great free courses.
To stream the network signal for both of us at the same time, we use a pocket-sized Netlink 4G LTE WiFI M7350 12V chargeable wireless router. The router is smaller and lighter than the smallest iPhone so easily packed and carried.
At a stretch, if you need wifi then there’s always the McDonald’s free option.
9. How to Look after Your Photography Gear on the Road
Keeping Your Lens Clean
Water can cause smears on the glass part of the lens. Wind can blow small particles of dust across the lens. It’s all par for the course when behind the camera.
A micro-fibre cloth is great to wipe the moisture from the lens glass, camera viewfinder, and LCD screen. Couple that with a blower, brush, and lens cleaning solution and you’ve got all you need.
For removing dust particles, I suggest you first use a blower or a fine brush or in a pinch, point the camera with the lens facing down and with a lung full of air, blow air across the glass. This will hopefully dislodge the abrasive debris before wiping a cloth gently across the glass.
Waterproofing Your Equipment
Cameras and lenses have different levels of water resistance but regardless, you’ll want to keep the rain off your electronics. Mobile phones are easily popped into your pocket. However, a camera with lens isn’t as portable so here are a couple of waterproofing ideas:
- Place a plastic shopping bag over the camera and lens. This is the cheapest option you could go for. A hole is made in the plastic bag. Pass the lens through the hole and secure the bag around the lens hood with a rubber band.
- We use inexpensive plastic rain covers which mostly come with a drawstring toggle that tightens around the lens hood. Some rain covers offer a small rectangular opening in the plastic that the viewfinder can be passed through. The viewfinder hood now clicks back onto the viewfinder with the opening in between. This option is popular with road trip photographers.
10. Take Photos Throughout the Road Trip
A good way to tell the story through your road trip photography is by taking photos throughout the route. From start to finish and not only at the final destination.
It will give extra context to the whole experience when you look back on your images.
11. Slow Down, Enjoy the Moment
Don’t fall prey to packing in too much into a photography road trip schedule. I’ll put my hand up and say I’m guilty on this one. Ping-ponging from one location to the next, watching the clock and thinking I have to keep to the schedule.
Whoa, slow it down there speedy. So how did I learn?
Well, it’s no secret – we love our wildlife photography. During our Overlanding Africa 4×4 adventures many great opportunities to observe and photograph the wonderful African wildlife are constantly presented. You can’t schedule wildlife so you have to wait for the opportunities.
So, I learnt to be patient. And let me tell you, it paid off time and again — like when we heard a pangolin emerging from a bush.
Assimilating with the sights and sounds of nature is when the magic begins.
Ha, that also reminds me of a story when my wife encountered a leopard at a private bush camp in South Africa. But that’s a story for another time …
Essential Road Trip Photography Tips … That’s A Wrap
I hope that these road trip photography tips really help to make your next travel photography outing the best it can be. Looking back on some of our fantastic images proves that these tips really do work.
Hope to see you on the open road.
YOU MAY ALSO BE INTERESTED IN READING
- 25 Best Travel Photography Gear for Your Camera Bag
- How to Plan a Road Trip
- 15 Fantastic Road Trip Essentials for Couples
- Shooting the Moon with Sony Camera
PLANNING YOUR TRAVELS?
These are some of the travel resources we use when planning our trips.
- 🚘 Car Hire: We use DiscoverCars.com
- Motorhome/Campervan Rental: We highly recommend the Motorhome Republic
- 🛏 Book Accommodation: We use Booking.com to find accommodation that suits our budget
- 🆓 Free Accommodation: Check Out Trusted Housesitters here
- Activities and Experiences: Get Your Guide and Viator
- Travel Insurance: World Nomads
- 🥾 Travel Gear and Accessories: Check out our top picks here — Lifejourney4two page on Amazon
- 🛒 Wall Art: Shop our ETSY store
For a more thorough list visit our Travel Resources page here.