The drive through Nevada on I-80 is definitely not listed on America’s Top 10 Scenic Drives. Boring, flat, and fairly ugly: I usually try and sleep through most of it while my husband drives and the kids lounge in the backseat reading or playing games on the tablet. This last time through, however, we purposely decided to spend the night just outside of Wendover, Utah and check out the Bonneville International Speedway. Specifically, I wanted epic photos of our Airstream on the Salt Flats.
At first glance, the speedway isn’t much. The pavement ends with only a bullet-riddled, paint covered sign explaining that the wide expanses of salt stretching out to the horizon are used to test the speed of some of the fastest vehicles in history. Undeterred, we set about exploring and making a quick dinner while we waited for the light to get good. Once the sun starting dipping towards the horizon, we slowly pulled our 2008 Airstream Travel Trailer off the pavement and onto the salt flats. Tag-teaming with my husband, we angled the truck and trailer just right to capture the setting sun behind it, grabbed our cameras, and then let the kids play while we furiously took photos from every angle possible.
Getting these photos was an effort. Timing our arrival, waiting around for the light, figuring out the best angle so we could get great back lighting, all of these took work. Now, however, I look at the photos we took and I can feel the sun setting warm in my face, I can smell the salt, I can hear my children’s laughter and the crunch of the salt under our tires. These photos have captured memories and feelings for me that I remember every time I look at them.
As we’ve traveled the United States in our Airstream travel trailer, I’ve had the chance to hone my travel photography skills. Each place we visit is unique. From the lush, green covered hills of the east coast, to the dry sweeping deserts of the west each place has its own feel, character, and ambiance. My goal is to capture not only what makes each place special, but what makes it special to us.
As you set out on your adventures, here are a few things to keep in mind to help bring back the best photos possible:
A great photograph tells a story. You picked your destination for a reason. What about the place is interesting to you? What are you trying to capture in your photo? Is it a person, place, or thing? Pick two to emphasize in your photos. Instead of a photo of Mount Rushmore, take a photo looking over the shoulder of your daughter looking at Mount Rushmore. Strike a balance between people and places.
Do some research beforehand. You had your reasons for your choosing your destination, but what else is close by? There have been many times while I’m researching a particular location that I learn if we adjust our schedule slightly we can also visit over a festival or other nearby special event.
Wait for the good light. Generally speaking, midday produces the least interesting photographs. Get up early and photograph the sunrise before your kids wake up or stay out a little past their bedtime. I often plan our outings after or during dinner (bring a picnic!) to make sure we get good lighting. Beautiful back-lighting, gorgeous scenery, and cute kids are a winning combination.
Don’t forget the fundamentals! As a photographer, you know all about the rule of thirds, leading lines, simplifying the scene, using motion to create interest, and watching your backgrounds. Don’t throw these rules out the window just because you aren’t taking a portrait.
Let your kids just be kids. The last thing you want when you get home is a folder full of your kids with cheesy smiles in front of various national landmarks. I don’t know about you, but my kids don’t smile all the time (or look at the camera) and it would be an unnatural reflection of our experience. Capture your kids pensive, silly, enjoying the moment or even the tantrum your 2 year old throws when she is exhausted.
Don’t Be Lazy. This is the one I struggle with MOST. Because I naturally want the best light I should be up early or out late shooting, right? It rarely happens. Most days I’m content with my laziness and mid-day sun but every once in awhile I make the effort and am usually rewarded.
Have your camera handy. Nothing is worse than missing THAT moment because you are digging through your purse looking for the camera. Use a sling bag, a Capture Pro, or something similar so that your camera is easily accessible and, if possible, securely fastened to your body or inconspicuous.
Try a Different Perspective. Sometimes I’ll look around online and see the same photos of famous places. How can you take that photo differently? Get low, hold your camera up over your head, try off to one side. Focus on a detail. Experiment around until you find a unique perspective. Make the photos YOURS, not just a copy of something you can find on a postcard. If you are a wide angle shooter, use a telephoto lens. If you only shoot with zoom lenses, take only your primes. Putting yourself out of your comfort zone will make you shoot deliberately.
Direct but Don’t Pose. I find there is a distinct difference. We were strolling along a beach in northern California and the fog rolled through the rocks and spilled onto the sand. It was magical. I asked my kids to walk down a ways and then run towards me. Actually, I think Sam’s words were, “Come tackle mommy!” It totally worked.
Be flexible and just let moments happen. Some of our BEST photo opportunities have happened when we least expected or when we deviated from “the plan”. Whether it is taking a few extra minutes to pull of the side of the road because the sunset is just amazing, hiking just another half mile, or letting your kids make and then jump in a pile of leaves in Independence Square, those photos can end up being your favorites because they weren’t planned. Along the same line is to just let things happen. Don’t be in a rush, let the moment play out. Be patient. Good photos come to those that wait.