When you travel, you’re supposed to put your camera down and just use your own eyes. “Enjoy life in the moment,” they say. But for a photographer, getting that magical shot is the moment. Here are five photography tips for your road trip if making spectacular images is at the top of your to-do list.

1. Find Some Travel Photo Inspiration Before You Start Shooting

When we were on our National Parks trip, one of our rituals was to go to the visitor center on our way in to each park and head straight to the art section in the gift shop for a little creative intake of the travel photos on display.

We weren’t there to steal ideas. In fact, I think seeing what others had already done often inspired me to want to try something different while out in the field. Nobody wants to take the same shot that’s been done a thousand times.

In addition to seeing other artists’ takes on the place we were about to explore, viewing the gallery gave us an idea of which areas of the park we wanted to head toward next. I never even knew there was a rock arch in Canyonlands National Park until we stopped by the visitor center to look at some photos.

Photo of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands
Mesa Arch is a short hike off the main road through Canyonlands National Park.

There doesn’t have to be a fancy, federally funded visitor complex where you’re going to use this planning strategy. Try doing a Google image search for the place you’re going, or look up the location on Instagram. There’s a world of content out there waiting to inspire you.

2. Make the Safer Choice by Designating a Driver

If there’s just one person in the car wielding a camera, offer to chauffer them around when you’re in a really visually interesting area. It’s tough (and dangerous) to scope out an area for great shots when you have to also watch the road for increased traffic from pedestrians and wildlife.

If you’re the one looking out the window for that perfect photographic opportunity, make sure you look from multiple angles. Keep your eyes locked on a feature of interest as the car drives past it; the landscape and lighting can be completely reshaped as your angle of view evolves.

Don’t be afraid to turn around, either. By the time you have the perfect point of view on something, it’s almost always too late to stop. Acing your photography technique takes patience, so you need to be willing to retrace your steps and know that it’s all a part of the process.

3. Rethink Your Pacing on Dead-End Drives to Take Better Photos

When exploring remote areas, you’ll pretty frequently run into scenic drives that just…terminate. Your natural instinct will be to stop at every overlook and point of interest on the way in, because the landscapes are all new and interesting. If you do that, you’re more likely to leave in a hurry once you reach the end.

Instead of just doing what’s natural, consider what time the lighting for photography will be best, and do all your stopping, exploring, and shooting then. If you’re heading in at sunrise, you might want to go with your gut and stop to take pictures all along the way. By the time you’ve reached the end, that magical morning lighting will be gone, and you won’t feel so guilty rushing out.

Photo from the Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii
Chain of Craters Road in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park offers some incredible views, but since it terminates on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, you’re gonna have to retrace your steps sooner or later. This photo is available in our art shop.

But if you’re inbound in the afternoon, consider skipping everything and going straight to the end. Scout some stuff out along the way, but don’t stop for any of it. When you turn around, take your time with taking pictures as the day slowly fades into night, and the light is perfect.

4. Leave the Car Behind — But Bring the Camera with You

When you’re on those beautiful byways, it can be tempting to just drive endlessly, stopping only momentarily to snap a photo from the designated overlooks. But the most unique vantage points come from going where others don’t.

Photo of Waimoku Falls in Maui
We (and all of our equipment) got soaked on our hike to Waimoku Falls in the Kīpahulu district of Haleakalā National Park, but it was totally worth it. Want to support this blog? This photo is available in our art shop.

By taking an extended hike, you’ll get to see things most people (photographers included) miss out on. Along the way, you’ll get some exercise, and you’ll take in more of what makes the place you’re visiting special, like sounds and smells you might have not experienced from the road. These non-visual sensory elements can inform your photography in ways you might not expect and help you take better pictures.

@tripofalifestyle Other people are lazy, and exercise is good for you. Win-win. — #lifehack #travelhacks #optoutside #exercise #fitness #bedifferent ♬ original sound – Trip Of A Lifestyle

5. Pack the Tripod and Make Time for Night Photography

Nighttime brings a dramatic visual change to any landscape. Whether you’re capturing a sky full of stars or just the entirely new lighting that comes with nightfall, you’ll see the same place differently.

The tripod you never picked up once during the day becomes a staple of every shot, so it’s worthwhile to lug around a sturdy one. I use a Slik Pro 700DX, which has served me well for many years. A quality tripod will last a lifetime, so while you can buy one brand new, there’s really no disadvantage to grabbing a used one on eBay instead and saving a few bucks. When you place an order through one of those affiliate links, we’ll earn a small commission (learn more). 100% of our affiliate profits go to charity.

Photo of Capitol Reef at night
The rock faces in Capitol Reef National Park were black against the starlit sky, until we painted them with a couple of flashlights.

Low-light photography allows (and requires) an entirely different set of techniques, too. Selective motion blur is possible with slower shutter speeds, you can soak up every last photon to make the stars pop, and you can even use a flashlight like a paintbrush. It’s a whole new world.

— Steven

Trying to find the best equipment for the road? We’ve written a whole camera buying guide to help — check it out!

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