Hit the Books: How to Take Photographs on the Road

I have a long and interesting set of memories when it comes to the road trip, with both family and friends. There was the agonizing trip to the Football Hall of Fame when I was just a boy. All five of the Milnor family jammed in a miniature RV fit for two. My brother with his tape deck recording the family as we slowly unraveled on our way across Ohio. Then there was the South Texas surf trip with college roommates. We somehow managed to fill the car with water, not gas, and our trip ended with a long tow truck ride and zero waves. Memorable road trips are all about the unknown, the unexpected, and the great unplanned, which is why being ready to photograph each and every moment is essential. But how do you make sure to cover your photographic bases? Let me help.

How do I prepare my gear?

I’ll just say this, be ready. Remember, most of the time you will be driving, so have your gear ready and waiting. When you see something you have to slow down, get out, and shoot, so having to unload, unpack, or assemble means you are going to miss critical moments. I keep one camera and lens outside of whatever bag or case I’m using, but I also keep it covered and in the shade. I try to keep it as low in the vehicle as possible. Heat rises, so why risk baking your favorite lens? Those reflective windshield covers work perfectly to hide gear and keep it cool.

Do you have any specific road trip gear?

I sure do. A road trip is different to a long-term documentary project, where I would be focusing on something specific for an extended period of time. Road trips are about the unexpected. My favorite road trip gear combination is a Polaroid camera, and/or any other instant film camera, and a journal. Instant film is, well, instant, and with a glue stick in hand, you can glue those babies into your journal, and create a real-time book of your adventures. You can then scan or photograph those pages and create a Blurb version of the same book. I’ve done this many times, and find the journal to be one of the most personal aspects of any good road trip.

Road trips are about the unexpected.

How do you turn your photos into a cohesive book of photography?

Think about a theme, or several themes. This could be something straightforward like “sunrise” or “landscapes,” but I would choose something slightly different like “red objects” or “the ugliest truck stop t-shirt.” Strange is good. You can also choose a single word and play off of that—something like “reflective,” ”transition,” or “geologic.” I typically have at least two themes going at all times, in addition to the main theme of “Hey, I’m on a road trip so I’m photographing everything.” Combining all these themes can help you tell the entire story of your journey.

What about portraits?

If I never see another selfie, it will be too soon. Forget the selfie. Real photographers aim their cameras at other people. I’ve always found the portrait to be the difference between people who claim to be photographers and those who truly are. Portraits are an essential part of any good road trip. The cop who pulls you over. The park ranger. The gas station attendant. The truck stop massage therapist. Whoever. It doesn’t matter.

Break the ice early in the trip by photographing your road trip travel companions. Photography is like any athletic endeavor; the more you practice the better you will be.

Watch our webinar about portrait photography.

How do I photograph people I don’t know?

Embrace the stranger. Talk to people. Do it right and they will take you off the road, into their lives, and beyond.

One of the tricky things about photography today is that every single person has a phone in their hand and is incessantly shooting every single aspect of their day. For someone who might live along a popular road trip route, this could get very tiring. So, you have to talk to people and explain who you are, what you are doing, and that photography is not just a hobby, but something you take very seriously. How you carry yourself, how you explain yourself, how you pose people, speak to them, and explain your process is critical to portrait success. Once people realize they are part of your process, and not just a quick victory, there is often more of a willingness to let you engage. This willingness can also lead to the wonderful “If you think I’M interesting, you should go photograph my brother!”

I feel like I see so much road trip photography, so how do I avoid the clichés?

Great question. Does the world need another image of someone in a VW van posing in lotus alongside a famous Southwest artery? Short answer? No. Even though the idea of a road trip might seem like it should cover the cliché mainstays of roadside attractions and heavenly landscapes, what makes a road trip interesting is you, and the more personal you are the better off you are going to be.

It seems that many photographers today are shooting for the idea of who they are supposed to be, not who they truly are, which is why so much of the photography we see today is so sterile, predictable, and homogenized. I want to see the imperfect, the personal, and the mysterious. It doesn’t matter if it’s slightly out of focus, or the exposure is off by 1/3 of a stop. I don’t want to see retouching or perfectly crafted images. I want to see soul. Question yourself and dig deep into the “why” you are doing what you do. I want to see your fingerprints on those maps and those images.

I have such limited time, so how can I make something interesting?

I hear this a lot. “I want to go on a road trip, but I only have two days.” Well, two-days is totally fine. Do yourself a favor and slow down. Literally.

Why not take a one mile stretch of road and just focus on what happens in that one, small space? Spend the entire 48 hours shooting. You would be surprised what happens on the right stretch of road. And this is the total opposite of most road trips, where people are covering huge sections of the country at high speed. Once, I did an entire project on the intersection of two roads. I visited the same exact intersection repeatedly until I had a body of images. I chose an intersection in a city, but you could easily do this at a rural location. You could even set up a backdrop and make portraits of passing drivers. Just a thought.

Should I edit and share as I go?

In my personal opinion, no. My philosophy on this matter is definitely in the minority, but I believe you can’t do two things at once and expect to do both of them to the best of your ability. This comes back to the personal aspect of the road trip, and how important it is. If you are shooting and sharing as you go, you are shooting for the audience and not for yourself. To do truly great photography you must be connected at a deep level, beyond the obvious, beyond the cliché, beyond the popular. I think personal photography needs to be marinated. Slow cooked if you will.

Just slow down, think and connect. Share when you have something cohesive to say, something personal.

What about turning your road trip photography into a travel book?

This entire post was always about the book at the end of your trip! I’ll give you a personal example.

The last real road trip I undertook was a 4,000-kilometer trek through the wilds of Western Australia. Ten days. Two friends from Perth and myself in a Hyundai diesel SUV. I had two gear-based themes going. One was mobile phone photography in color, the other was black and white photography with a 6×6 Hasselblad.

I knew I wanted a book that encompassed the flavor of the entire trip, but I also knew this would be a semi-difficult book to make because we saw so much, and covered so much ground, that the edit alone would take some time. So, to take the pressure off, I first created a book titled “No Reception” about the mobile phone photography. I gave myself thirty minutes to make the book, total. Yep, that’s it. I made myself NOT take it too seriously, and this landed a book on my doorstep less than ten days later.

This meant that I felt more relaxed about making the overall book, which I titled “Meat and Candy” after the two things my friends seemed to eat every single day. I found this funny and fascinating and knew it was the kind of personal detail that would make the book very much mine. I chose a format (7×7) that fit the aspect ratio of my negatives and was also inexpensive, but looked great. And to make the book feel serious, I used the Proline Uncoated paper. This book was never meant for public consumption, but I love it because it brings me right back to those moments in one of my all-time favorite places.

Are there any great road trip books out there?

Yes, for sure. One of the most famous photobooks of all time, “The Americans” by Robert Frank, was about a trip across the United States. One of my personal favorites is “Voyages” by Raymond Depardón. Lee Friedlander also has some great road trip imagery. And don’t forget to watch things like Smokey and the Bandit or Cannonball Run, to get really fired up beforehand. Good luck, be safe.



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