Photography road trip tips

An epic road trip through a remote landscape brings you close to a constantly changing panorama ready to be caught by your camera. The tips in this post are designed to keep you shooting: you need to be physically ready to get in the position you need for the shot, but you also need to be mentally ready to make decisions about settings and creative composition. I’ve also included a description of my on-the-road workflow, to minimise backup disasters. 

This post is one of the chapters in my new book, Beginner’s Landscape Photography. It is with the designers at the moment. If you want to hear when it’s ready to buy, sign up at the end of the post.

Mindset

You don’t just need to be on the lookout for a shot, paying attention to the changing weather and the changing backdrop, you also need to care about the next shot. From the comfort of your front room, with a hot coffee and the anticipation of a trip to come, this might sound like the least of your worries. But when you’ve been on the road for four days, you’re driving through a drizzle, with a string of disappointing shots and a few uncomfortable nights behind you, it takes a lot of willpower to get yourself into a creative frame of mind. 

Above all, you mustn’t forget you’re a landscape photographer, not a tourist driving through on your way to somewhere else. The journey really is your destination. Enjoy the moment you are in, give it your full attention, and be aware of how your mental energy ebbs and flows through the day.  

1. Drive with the window open to reduce the feeling that you’re in a bubble. Smell the landscape. Feel the weather on your skin.

2. Be open to serendipity. You will have your skeleton route plan, with some viewpoints and stops pencilled in, but be ready to go where the light is.

3. Have a technique to get yourself out of the warm car and into the cold weather (or out of the air conditioning into the stifling heat). I have a rule: I can only eat chocolate outside. So that gets me over the initial pain of leaving the comfortable car.

4. Have a day off. I can keep shooting for six days maximum on a road trip. On the seventh day I don’t care where I am and there’s no way I’m taking my camera out.

5. You will have the most mental energy on your first couple of days. Plan the pre-dawn shots for these days if you can. 

6. Don’t be afraid to turn the music off and leave the podcasts quiet for a while. Driving with no auditory input allows your creative brain to percolate ideas, in the absence of distractions.

7. When you are shooting, allow yourself the luxury of no time pressure. Even with another stop planned, if the light is right where you are, stay there and immerse yourself in the moment.

8. If it does all come together for you for one epic shot – the view, the light, the weather – be ready for the reaction afterwards: from the high of getting the shot, to the low of leaving it behind. But just keep going. Get out and take photos with your phone. Dial your expectations down a little for a couple of hours. Think Instagram instead of Landscape Photographer of the Year. You’ll get back into it.

9. Don’t expect fabulous shots around every corner. If I get one usable shot per day, I’m happy.

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Keeping yourself comfortable

1. If you’re driving yourself, make sure you have your sat. nav. destinations ready before you leave, so you aren’t tempted to start using your phone while you’re driving. 

2. Stop regularly. No one (unless they have narcolepsy) ever falls asleep at the wheel out of the blue – everyone feels tired beforehand. If you need to stop, stop.

3. It’s easy to forget to drink enough on a road trip. Fill up a bottle and make sure you keep sipping from it throughout the day.

4. It’s also easy to eat snack food all day and not actually eat a fruit or vegetable all week. A carbohydrate-based diet makes your brain sluggish. Keep a varied diet to make sure you stay creative.

5. Having said that, have plenty of snacks packed in your camera bag so that if you’re away from the car you can keep your blood sugar levels up and stay out for the good light. I need constant refuelling when I am on a road trip otherwise I get irritable and just can’t keep shooting. 

6. My luxury items are a car kettle and a supply of dehydrated camping food, so I can have a hot lunch. (Yes, I mostly shoot landscapes in winter.) The kettle plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter socket, and means you can boil water away from mains electricity. (I’ve also been known to settle for a dehydrated dinner back at my bed & breakfast, if I arrive back late and too tired to find somewhere to eat.) My favourite is Firepot’s Posh Pork and Beans.

7. Be considerate and park carefully. 

8. Always take everything with you for the shoot when you leave the car – you’ll never want to pop back  for something you’ve forgotten or didn’t think you’d need. Every time I’m tired and leave a long lens in the car rather than adding it to my bag, I always end up wishing I had it.

9. Be ready. The light changes in an instant. Have your camera to hand on neutral settings and ready to shoot (for me, that’s on auto focus, ISO200, aperture priority mode, f5.6, auto white balance, lens cap off, clean lens, exposure compensation back to zero, exposure bracketing back to none, battery full and space on the memory card. )

10. Stretch at the end of every day. 

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Portable workflow

At the end of every day, no matter how tired you are, get your kit ready for the next day:

- Download and backup your shots.

- Charge your batteries.

- Clean your lenses and filters.

- Check your sensor for dust.

- Put all your settings back to neutral.

- Make a note of every single location you visited (you will forget).

- Make sure you’ve still got change for parking.

- Check the weather for the next day, and set your alarm if it will be an early start.

Even on the road you should aim to have two copies of every shot, ideally in different places. I don’t like to fill up my laptop with images, so I bring a portable external hard drive. If you have wifi, you can upload images to the cloud. I don’t format my memory cards until I’m home – they are my backup backup.


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TravelEmma Davies