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Shooting Photos from a Vehicle

When travelling in a vehicle and taking photos out of the windows, I usually have my Nikon D300 set to Aperture Priority and choose the biggest aperture on my 18-200mm lens: f3.5. This is so that I can guarantee the maximum speed available, and so reduce blur of a moving image. The camera will then change the shutter speed to meet the current conditions. However, I frequently forget to reset the Mode when I leave the vehicle, so its quite common for me to shoot the next 2 or 3 photos in Aperture Priority, and have a tiny depth of field! One of these days I'll get it right!

Does your lens have VR (vibration reduction)? Vibration Reduction is a great addition to any lens, and especially to a lens that you are using to take photographs from a moving vehicle with. It will add the equivalent of two extra f-stops to your lens, and thus two extra stops of speed. This may make all the difference between a blurry photo and a sharp one. My Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm 1:3.5-5.6 G DX SWM VR ED IF has 2 settings for VR: Normal and Active. Make sure that the correct one is selected: in the case of vehicle photography you should choose 'Active'.

Don't rest your lens against the vehicle body whilst the engine is running, as the vibrations from the engine will be picked up by the sensor and show as blur in the image - just what you don't need! Use a bean bag, or a small piece of foam rubber or closed cell foam mat as a support. See my Travelling with a Tripod page for more details, but note that a beanbag can only be as steady as the support it rests on. If you are in a minivan with spring suspension, the whole vehicle will move when someone fidgets, and with it, your camera etc.

Don't shoot through a window of your vehicle if you can avoid it, as the tiniest reflections will be mirrored on the lens, usually occurring just where you don't want them! If you have no choice and the windows on your coach or railway carriage won't open, then try and get as close to the window as possible, always taking care not to rest the lens against the window glass itself, as that will transmit engine vibrations through to the sensor once more. A dark piece of material, such as a dark scarf, can be draped over the camera to reduce reflections from the window. The same scarf will also be useful in cutting down the light when you are trying to look at your camera's screen on a bright and sunny day. A professional photographer that I saw shooting models in the ancient adobe mud city of Chan Chan, Peru, employed someone who's job it was to hold a dark cloth over his head each time he wanted to check a shot. Hmmm, that would be nice, wouldn't it!

One filter to avoid if you are photographing through vehicle windows, especially the windscreen itself, is the polarizing filter. This will show the stress lines in the special safety glass used for windscreens as a series of rainbow color patches. Quite pretty to look at, but not very useful.

Is there an ideal seat for the Travel Photgrapher to choose when sitting in a coach or Overland truck? After trying most of them, I think probably not. Obviously the window must open. Too near the back and the ride will be more bumpy, causing photo blur. Too near the front and your field of view is often obstructed by the driver's rear-view mirrors, though you might have an extra view through the driver's windscreen. Watch out for fellow passengers: some of the most annoying types are those who sit behind you and then complain whenever you have the window open, due to the draught. The very best seats on an Overland truck are the roof seats. These are only available for passenger use when the truck is travelling off the tarmac road, and at a suitably low speed. The field of vision is excellent, and I would recommend them for scenery as well as animal photography.

Here's an annoying scenario: something that has happened to all of us at one time or another. We take a photo from a moving vehicle, only to discover that we have also caught a passing power pole, street light, tree, man on bicycle, or cow in the shot as well. What would have been a good shot is now ruined. To avoid this happening to you, don't just shoot one shot. Set your camera to 'Continuous Mode' and shoot a burst of photographs. Not only will you find one or two shots that avoid the power pole, street light, tree, man on bicycle, or cow, but as you move past the scene, the different elements in it will all move in relation to one another, providing you with a range of compositional possibilities.


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