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How to Take the Ultimate Photography Road Trip (Even If You Don’t Have Much Time)

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Quick, grab your camera. Toss a change of clothes into your backpack. Add some extra batteries. Memory cards. Snacks. A map. Now pile into the car and hit the road. What lies ahead? Adventure. Inspiration. A change of energy. And some totally incredible experiences.

Is there anything more fantastic than a road trip??

Answer: A photography road trip!

Last month we took a little road trip for my birthday. It was a chance to shake up the routine, get a change of scenery, and go out and shoot. We packed up our gear, some toys for our son, and piled into our adventure van. Destination? The Canadian Rockies.

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This is our adventure van. It’s from Japan. We like it a lot. 

Those few days on the road were jam-packed with adventure, excitement, inspiration and honest-to-goodness joy. There’s a whole lot of photographic value to be had from road-tripping. It can help you to improve your skills, and you’ll come away with both amazing photos, and new insights.

But how to do it? How to make your road trip a great experience from a photographic standpoint? There are some big mistakes to avoid, and some easy ways to ensure success. Here are 12 key tips to planning your ultimate photography road trip.

1. Just Do It

The most important part of going on a road trip? Actually committing to go. Sounds silly, right? Well can I tell you how many trips we’ve intended to go on that never actually happened? Too many.

Work has a sneaky way of filling in all those little gaps that you try to carve out for your adventures. If you’re not careful, you’ll always intend to go, but never actually do it. So here’s what it took for us to actually make the trip happen:

How Long Should You Go?
One thing that kept us back was the concern that leaving for a week would be too long, and we’d get behind in our work. So we just went for a few days. A weekend would do. A long weekend even better. But really you don’t need more than a couple days to get the benefits of a road trip.

Where Should You Go?
You don’t need to go far. In fact, it’s sometimes better if your destination isn’t too far away. Our driving time was 4 hours, and that was perfect for a short trip. Enough space to feel like we’d really traveled, but not so much that we weren’t spending all our time just getting there.

This isn’t about visiting the most exotic place; it’s just about changing your scenery. That’s all it takes to refresh your eyes.

If you’re having trouble picking your destination, do some research. Head to the library and browse the travel guides for your region. Where do the tourists go? You can road trip to a city, to a particular natural formation (sea, lake, mountains, desert), along an interesting road, or to no place in particular.

Don’t start thinking that there’s nothing interesting around you. That’s simply not true. Open your eyes, try to see things as if you’ve never seen them before, and you’ll realize that everywhere is interesting.

Now Just Book It
The best way to make a road trip happen is so simple. Just book the room. Now you’ve really committed, and you’ll find a way to make everything else work.

This was an old trick we learned when we started travelling. Just book the plane ticket, and you’ll figure the details out after. It works the same way for a road trip.

So if you’ve been waffling on a trip, here’s your sign. Go book the room, and then come back and finish reading. I’ll wait :)

2. Pack Light. Pack Smart.

The lighter you pack, the more you enjoy the trip. Less to carry, less to sort through, less work. Sounds good right?

When you set out the clothes you think you’ll need, try to cut it in half. Same goes for accessories. Lenses. Books. Keep trimming until you have just the essentials. Right away you’ll feel a weight lift off your mind, and then when you pick up the bag, the weight is off your shoulders too.

But don’t leave the things you really need. There’s a fine balance between packing light and packing smart. You’ll find your sweet spot with some thinking ahead and some experience.

Make sure you’re bringing extra batteries, memory cards, all necessary chargers and readers. Can you imagine running out of memory in front of the perfect scene? Major bummer.

You’ll also need the RIGHT clothes, and car snacks. Our trip was in the winter, so we had long underwear, fleece layers, mittens, hats, warm jackets, and winter boots. Lots of clothes, certainly. But they were all necessary for us to be comfortable and enjoy the experience of shooting outdoors. Being cold and miserable does not lead to good photos.

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Stay warm out there, friends!

And while snacks may seem unnecessary (you could just buy food when you get there) remember that on a road trip you want to be able to go slow, stop, and enjoy the sights. If you are an hour from food, and starving, do you think you’ll be wanting to stop again to take photos? Negative. Pack some good snacks, and you’ll happily munch away as you take another amazing shot.

3. Have Your Camera Ever At The Ready

The most important takeaway: always keep your camera in reach. Always. And by in reach, I don’t mean in the trunk. Or even in your camera bag. Keep it around your neck while you walk. On the seat beside you while you drive. On the table at dinner. On the counter as you hang out in your hotel room. You get the idea.

Great moments happen in an instant, and you don’t want to waste time unpacking the camera. You also don’t want to be thinking about whether that moment is worth the extra work it takes to go get the camera. If you can set things up so that you don’t have to think, you just have to grab, that’s when you start capturing great moments.

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4. Shoot More Than You Think You Need To

When you travel you experience things in a new way. By removing yourself from your regular surroundings you see your surroundings as more interesting, unique, novel. And so you shoot more.

But it doesn’t take long before you start to habituate to your new surroundings, and so you don’t think they’re worthy of a photo. Or you think you’ll be able to remember the moment.

And you will, for a short time. But in 10 years? No way. Take the photo. Take more photos than you think you should. Every single trip we’ve ever taken, we thought we took too many photos. Now, years later, I desperately wish I had taken more. But until my Delorean comes back from the shop, I’m out of luck.

So learn from my mistake, and make sure to shoot lots. Your camera has a much better memory than you do.

5. Take Your Time

I’m seriously considering tattooing this on Rob’s forehead so I’ll always see it. Rushing is such a bad habit of mine, and it affects everything I do. On a road trip it can mean the difference between a stressful experience and a peaceful one. So here’s where to take your time:

While Shooting:
Don’t rush while you’re taking your shots. Think carefully about your settings and composition while you’re setting up. Are they in line with what you want to capture with this photo? What are some other angles and perspectives you could capture while you’re here?

This is likely your only chance to capture this scene. You’ll be on the road shortly and you’ll never see it again. Keep that in mind while you’re shooting, and take your time to make sure you do your best.

While Planning:
Give yourself generous buffers of time when planning what to accomplish each day. If you pack too much in, you’ll be rushing trying to get it all done, and worn out by the end of the day. Great photography requires energy, both mental and physical. Plan less and you’ll get it all done, and enjoy documenting the process.

While Driving:
When you’re cruising along, trying to get to your next destination, you’ll see something out the window: an inspiring scene that catches your eye, or even just a small detail that you find interesting. You’ll ask yourself “Is that worth stopping for?”. Here’s your answer: Yes. Always yes.

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The result of a “Should I, shouldn’t I?” moment that I said yes to. It ended up being the only sunset we saw during an otherwise cloudy trip. 

Remember, a road trip is not about the destination. It’s about the journey. Stopping to take photos is what makes that journey a rich experience. Whenever that little voice says “Should I stop?” listen to it. If you can’t stop because you don’t have enough time, then you’re probably packing too much into your day! Slow down.

6. Just Drive

You don’t always need to plan activities when you’re on a road trip. Sometimes planning to just drive is all you need.

In the Rockies there’s a place called the Columbia Icefield, where you actually go onto glaciers. When I was first looking at things to do on our trip I got excited about the possibility of visiting it. But with a bit of digging I found out that it was closed for the season.

I was bummed out: the Icefield looked amazing, and the drive to it, along a road called the Icefields Parkway, was touted as one of the most beautiful in Canada. “Maybe next time”, I thought to myself, as I started to look for another place to go that day.

But then I stopped and realized that we didn’t need to go to the glacier. We could just drive along the parkway. Sure we weren’t actually driving to anywhere in particular, but the experience of traveling in new territory was a worthy pursuit.

So the only thing we planned for that day was to drive on the Icefields Parkway. We marvelled at the mountains around us, stopped often to take photos, listened to great music, chatted, and enjoyed a quiet, unhurried day. It was wonderful.

roadtrip-23

7. Make Specific Time for Taking Photos

Traveling as a photographer can be challenging. It’s hard to find the balance between experiencing the trip and shooting it. We’re always trying to discover how to organically blend the two, and I think it’s something that will differ for each photographer, and for each trip.

One technique that has worked for us is really very simple: we set aside a few hours, or a day, depending on the trip, where we are completely focused on shooting. The rest of the time we get shots here and there, but we’re not super concerned about it. This lets us enjoy the trip without always stressing about photos. During shooting time, it’s our priority.

With our son in tow this is a bit trickier than it used to be. Previously we’d shoot together, but now, since we need to watch the kid, we take turns.

For this trip, as we were driving along the Icefields Parkway, we saw a frozen stream with a mountain backdrop, and knew it would make for some great shots.So we parked the van, and took turns marching out into the snow to take some photos. Being out in the mountains, shooting, all by myself, was amazing. I felt alive and free and inspired.

roadtrip-16

We probably each spent about 15 – 20 minutes shooting. It wasn’t long. But it was all we needed. It wasn’t the length of time that mattered as much as the intentional process of shooting.

This is also a good time to plan to take some family photos or self portraits. Those always take a bit longer, especially if you have to set up a tripod. If you try to stuff them into a day filled with activities they can feel rushed and stressful. Or you may even just decide not to take them at all.

But these kinds of shots are important, and well worth the effort. Planning them into photo days makes you all the more likely to take them, and actually enjoy the process.

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A family self-portrait, in matching plaid. How very Canadian, eh?

8. Shoot the Details and the People

In the Rockies it’s rather hard to pull your eyes away from the soaring peaks around you. But to only shoot the mountains would be missing out on so much of the rich detail that makes up the experience.

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It’s the same no matter where you go. The big sights steal your attention, while the quiet details can go unnoticed. So make the effort to notice. Remind yourself that there is a lot to shoot to recreate a trip. The details, the people, the food, the place you stay, the vehicle you drive – all these things are fantastic photo material, and you’ll be so glad you photographed them.

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Pro Travel Tip: Eat dinner at 4:00PM. You get the restaurant all to yourself!

9. Start a Series

When there’s so much around you to shoot, it can sometimes feel overwhelming. Picking a theme, or creating a series, is a really fun way to focus your attention.

For this trip we did a little series of views out the front window. None of the shots are overly fascinating alone, but as a group it’s a really cool record of what the trip looked like from the front seat.

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We don’t usually plan a series in advance. They come about more organically as we experience the place, and notice common themes or details. So look around you, and see what you could make a series out of. Then hunt for it! It’s like a photography I-Spy game that will keep you energized and prevent the chaotic feeling of overwhelm that can come when traveling.

10. Don’t Dwell on Missed Shots

There’s simply no way that you’ll be able to capture all the shots you see. It’s the tragedy of being a photographer without Google Glass ;) And it’s easy to dwell on those missed shots, and feel bad about them. Don’t.

Remind yourself that it was fantastic that you even SAW the shot. That’s a sign of a good photographer – noticing great things to shoot everywhere. Appreciate the wonderful thing you got to see, regardless of whether you captured it with your camera or not. Then move on.

There will be more shots to take, so look forward to those. Leave the missed shots in the past.

11. Do a Nightly Review

This was a technique we learned when shooting our big documentary project, Lobster Island. Every night we’d sit down and review our work from that day. By doing it right away, we were still able to remember how we took the shots, giving us more insight into what we were doing well, and what we could improve upon.

We still did a nightly review on this trip, except instead of uploading the shots and formally sitting down to discuss, we’d simply review them on the back of the camera. Sometimes we’d see areas to improve, but more often we would just discuss how much fun we had that day, and get excited about the next day.

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The nightly review can serve both functions: to help you improve your photos, and to help you enjoy the process of shooting. It can be on a computer, or on the back of your camera. Either way, it’s a great practice.

12. Do Something With Your Photos. Fast.

When you get back from your trip, what happens? Life. You fall back into old routines of work, school, dinner, sleep, and your road trip gets pushed to the back of your mind. Your photos get pushed to the back of your hard drive, collect digital dust, and soon become forgotten.

Don’t let that happen! Make a point of doing something with them very soon after returning. The sooner the better, before it sinks lower and lower on your to-do list.

The best way to honor the work you put into your photos is to print them. Toss them into a Blurb book, and you’re done. It’s a record you’ll enjoy for the rest of your life. This is easier said than done, as I regrettably have not done my book yet. But don’t make my mistake. Consider your trip unfinished until you print the photos you created.


There’s a lot of lessons here on how to make a road trip more photographically inclined. And just like anything, great road tripping takes practice. You will probably make some mistakes along the way. I know we made tons this time, and we’ve done quite a few road trips now.

But the most important part is that you simply get out there, experiencing the world with your camera, and shooting what you see. The rest will come.

Now pick a destination, book the room, and pack your bags. Adventure is waiting for you.

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Lauren Lim

Hey friend, I’m Lauren! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I’m downright obsessed with photography, and love sharing it with super cool folks like yourself. When I’m not shooting, or writing, you can find me cooking (and eating!), traveling, and hanging out with wonderful people.

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Discussion

13 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. This is inspiring. I tried to do some of this when I visited my daughter in her new area recently. Lucky for me, I DO get to go back and I am able to plan what I will do differently next time.

    But the real reason I’m commenting is that I wanted to say how awesome the family self-portrait is. It’s totally awesome. :)

  2. Great article!

    Any suggestions on a great family-friendly place to stay in Jasper? We are also about 4 hours away (though on the B.C. side) and I’ve always camped in the summer. You’ve inspired me to “book a room!” Now I just need to figure out where! ;)

  3. Gary Balthrop says:

    GREAT article. Have never just done short local trips, always out for the 1-3 week trips but this article has inspired me. Being from Texas there are, I’m sure, a lot of 4-5 hour (one way) trips that offer exciting photography locals. Will begin checking on these for a 2-3 day trip

    Thanks Again for such Great articles and Inspiration

  4. Newbie question about your composition of the family portrait (with the “wearing plaid” comment).

    Was it your intention to use the low camera angle to make yourselves look like giants against the back drop of trees and mountains?

    When I look at this photo I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I feel uncomfortable because of the way you guys look “huge”. On the other hand, it is a cleaver way to draw attention to the main subject, your family. Although, the fact that you guys are much more colorful than the natural surrounds accomplishes that also.

    Thanks,

    • Hey Daren! Good question! Yep, we did want to make ourselves look ridiculously epic ;)

      At first the framing did have us smaller, but it was too hard to see us. We knew the final card would be small so we needed to be bigger! I brought the camera closer, and lower, so that we could be way big and visible!

  5. This is a great article! I’m about to enbark on a long road trip to our new home in the South and these tips will make the trip much more fruitful!

  6. Thanks for the tips and inspiration. I love your family portrait! Its original and captures the trip, I think!

  7. I agree with everything you said. :) I took a road trip to St Louis in spring, and after I was done processing the images, they went into a book immediately. I used the Moleskine photobook, but I’m also a Moleskine dork, and just love that style. :) Terrific article!

  8. WOW.. what a great article & beautiful photos. I just got back from my short 2 day photo-trip Joshua Tree State Park in Southern California. One thing I now, know .. your advice .. take more pictures! Thank you

  9. I LOVE YOUR VAN. I WANTS IT.

  10. Bring a tripod or gorilla pod! The Mrs’s and I are beginner backpackers. We’ve learned the hard way that every ounce counts. That said, having a tripod with us is always worth the weight. It’s one of the only times we actually get photos with both of us in them.

  11. Hahahaha adventure van from Japan. This makes me miss home (Hinton). Fab article, as usual.

  12. Kolbie Bartholomew says:

    Thanks Lauren! This would be lots of fun! Do you have any suggestions for managing the kids during this adventure? It seems hard to keep the kids happy and safe when I’m taking pictures because my attention is not on them.

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