Thursday, March 12, 2009

Shutter Speed at 65 MPH

Recently, Bob Wong asked if I would share a few thoughts about what I have dubbed drive-by photography. Unfortunately, Bob, I’m not your go-to person for technique. But, I’m willing to share further thoughts about my quirky habit.

The first time I started shooting through the windshield, then sticking my head and camera outside the window of the vehicle in which we were traveling, The Husband was incredulous. “What are you doing?”, he asked (the tone of voice said it all). I told him that I was preparing to enter the aerial photography field. He just chuckled and shook his head. In case you have the same reaction, I do have some reasons for this behavior: a. I love taking pictures; b. it helps me practice basic skills without interference from that nasty inner critic; and c. It is a better way to spend travel time than playing the license plate game.

Not surprisingly, most of the shots I take from the car end up in cyberspace. The point of shooting from a moving vehicle was never about making the best possible landscape pictures. (I have my eccentricities, but I’m not that far out there.) I use the time to acquire a better command of camera controls and train my eye to more quickly recognize pleasing compositions.

Partly as a result of starting to squander all those pixels a couple of years ago, I acquired the confidence to shoot in Manual mode. To most people that may not sound like much of an accomplishment; however, in the beginning, I was totally intimidated by that much responsibility for setting exposure. As a relative newcomer to photography, I have too-fresh memories of shooting exclusively in the Auto mode. Later, I continued to use the drive-by sessions for the exploration of other camera functions, including Canon’s focus tracking mode, (AI Servo) and the A-DEP mode.

Those sessions worked for me, because they freed me to step outside my comfort zones. For instance, I couldn’t take a lot of time to think about a shot. The moments were flying by and the circumstances forced me to quickly commit to choices. From the beginning, I had the sense to pursue these exercises with minimal expectations of keepers and all that experimenting, then deleting, toughened me a bit to see shots that didn’t work as just part of the learning process, rather than failures. Early on, I learned that the more I invested in a shot, the more the disappointments hurt. Sometimes the pain would be enough to temporarily shut me down. In other words, after viewing my results, I would put the camera down for a while and fritter away valuable time while my wounds healed. By shooting wild and loose, on the fly, I tricked myself into exploration rather than chasing success.

When I was shooting through the windshield or hanging partly outside the window, it didn’t matter so much if I stank at framing. It was okay to blow it on the exposure. It was no big surprise if I set the shutter speed too slow and the shot was a mess of a blur. I could experiment and toss the results with wild abandon. When shooting from the passenger seat, I wasn’t taking pictures; I was playing. Later, I could get more serious about shooting.

Clearly, I’m not saying that my approach is right for everyone, but it was beneficial to me. I needed a means of dealing with my personal blocks, and this was one of the things that helped me. (I wish I could say that I had totally stifled the voice of that inner critic, but I can only plug away at it.) The bonus of this playing is that, periodically, I am surprised by a shot that I like quite a lot. (Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, right?) Occasionally, a shot serves primarily as a reminder of a location that I want to revisit and photograph under better circumstances. (The photo above falls in that category.) More often, even the best of the losers are nothing more than pleasant little reminders of the scenery we have enjoyed while traveling. Still, even that is not entirely worthless.

Since I use drive-by photography for experimenting or playing, I don’t have any rules, but these are my general guidelines:

1. I only shoot when I am the passenger. Come to think of it, that one is a rule for me. I know some photographers shoot from the driver’s seat, but I know my limits, too well.

2. I always remind myself that I will discard most of what I shoot from a moving vehicle.

3. I frequently shoot through the front windshield. (This is a great motivation for keeping that windshield clean.) Yes, the windshield is another contributor to degraded image quality. But, shooting out the side window means you have to be more careful to avoid anything close to the vehicle. Even at high shutter speeds, you risk getting shots that are a partially blurred mess. (That being said, if you like the blur effect, you can have a blast shooting this way. On a couple of occasions, I played with this and got some fun pictures not to mention some great material for backgrounds.

So, there you have the confessions of a drive-by photographer. A woman who unashamedly squanders pixels and abuses digital shutter releases to selfishly shoot experimental photos destined for destruction. Just one more sad, but true story.


  1. Anita, I think that you touched on a very important point. Play. Also, lack of attachment. You said that the more that you put into the shot, the harder that it was to delete shots and the more wounded you'd feel if things didn't work out.

    When you let go and have fun, you always seem to come back home with some type of surprise in the package. It's kind of like opening a box of Crackerjacks! You enjoy the eating of it, then you get that secret toy surprise. :-)

    These are good reminders, indeed. Unfortunately, I don't have someone to drive for me, or else I could get some cool shots, I think. Shooting whilst rolling down the highway is not a good idea. I've tried it. Stupid! :-)

    When I come to California, you can drive and I'll hang out the window, camera in hand, tongue hanging out (I learned that from Hobbs) and snap as if I had good sense ... which we all know that I don't! LOL!

  2. Paul - Thanks for my best laugh of the day! I love the image of you hanging out the window a la Hobbs. Besides that, no one out here uses that southern phrase "as if I had good sense", and I grew up with it. Sounds like home and that's nice.

    I thought about you guys who probably do all the driving and felt a little bad posting this. But when you come to California, I'll chauffeur you around. That is unless we can tempt The Husband to drive. Then we could hang out opposite sides of the car and make complete fools of ourselves.

    With my hang-ups, I needed someway to corner myself into learning to play. It helped a great deal.

  3. It's surprising how easy it is to forget to have fun with photography when you start trying to be good at it, isn't it?

    I went through that for a while... I HAD to shoot something on every trip, because otherwise what was the point?

    My photography improved a lot when I started to relax, and had a lot more fun with the hiking trips, regardless of what I photographed (or not).

    When you're having fun, it's easier to be inspired.

    And I want to be in the car in front of you (with someone else driving) while you guys are hanging out the windows ;)

  4. Rakesh - Welcome. I'm delighted that you dropped by. (And welcome to the SoFoBoMo group. You will enjoy it, I'm sure.)

    Your point regarding inspiration is a key principle isn't it? Inspiration never seems to cut through tension.

    Oh, dear, you want to take photos of Paul and me making fools of ourselves! But, now we are forewarned. Perhaps we will take pictures of you taking pictures of us taking pictures of ....

    By the way, I visited your site to browse and can't get past your gorgeous cats!

  5. Thanks for the warm welcome :)

    On a trip to Deception Pass early last spring, I got a call from my realtor telling me that the sales contract on my house in Maryland had fallen through (which meant that I was paying two mortgages for another month)... even in a place like Deception Pass at sunset, I didn't get a single worthwhile photograph.

    The kitty shots were just fun, and as usual, got the best pictures... I'm glad you like them! :)

    Getting pictures of you and Paul being silly would be fun -- think of the stories you could tell with portraits like that!

  6. Rakesh - Did you find my site through Paul Lester? I'm always curious how bloggers find one another among the overwhelming numbers across the web. I'm fairly certain that I found Paul L through Paul Butzi.

    Oh, that double mortgage business will put a knot in your stomach, won't it?

    You are certainly most welcome and I hope that you will return now that you know the way.

  7. This sounds like a lot of fun Anita - thanks for sharing your experiences with it. We all have to remind ourselves not to be so serious about image making sometimes - probably the reason people don't like giving me disposable cameras at weddings - they end up with too many under the table shots and partially cropped faces. :-)

  8. Mark - I do have fun with it. Sometimes, the more dips there are in the road the more fun it is.

    I am a prime case of someone who needs to keep the fun part in perspective. I always enjoy shooting, but find it more challenging to just get crazy and make wild choices knowing that almost everything will get tossed.

    I love the image of your throwaway camera shots. Is that how you avoid having friends bug you about shooting their wedding? If not, it's a great stategy.

  9. Exactly what I was looking for. I've had a sneaking feeling that drive by shooting would be similar to taking a ride at a Disney park (You expect something interesting).

    I usually park my brain in neutral when riding in a car. Holding a camera keeps you alert.

  10. Bob - I haven't ridden in the passenger seat without my camera much lately. It's become quite natural to me. I like the Disney park analogy.


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