When I travel by train or car I like to aim my camera out the window. The point of view is unusual and the motion produces unique visual effects. Lee Friedlander, Ishiuchi Miyako, Robert Frank, and Patrick Zachmann are just a few of the photography legends who have tried this technique; Friedlander’s America by Car consists entirely of photos made from inside autos (although his car is stationary in many of the shots). While this type of photography can be rewarding, it presents some challenges. Maybe you’ve tried it and didn’t get the results you were hoping for. The best photos come from anticipating problems and making choices about equipment and settings in advance to yield the desired outcome: “making” pictures vs. simply “taking” them. Here are some things to consider if you’re ready to give it a try:
If you’re making photos in motion you should be comfortable with motion blur. Instead of trying to minimize it, I like to use it to enhance the picture. For example, when the camera itself is moving quickly, foreground objects blur more than those in the background. I can use this effect to draw attention to or away from certain elements in the picture.
Lens & Settings
For this type of photography, a shutter speed of at least 1/125 works best and if available light permits, I may go up to 1/250, even 1/500, depending on how fast I’m traveling, how much blur I want, and how close the nearest objects are to the camera. Faster shutter speeds mean wider apertures, which limit depth of field. Shooting in motion works best on days where bright sunlight gives back a stop or two. It’s a challenge to focus when you’re moving rapidly, and interesting objects often pop quickly in and out of the frame at different distances, so I ideally shoot at f/8 or higher to have as much depth of field as possible. Consider raising ISO a bit to maximize the zone of focus.
Another way to get more depth of field is with a wider angle lens. In that case the tradeoff is between field of view and the size of objects in the distance. If you’re driving through the desert, the saguaro cacti that seem so impressive to your eyes might look tiny and trivial in a wide-angle photo. On the other hand, if you’re shooting urban streetscapes from a commuter train and the most interesting parts of the frame are within a few dozen meters of the lens, a wide perspective can enhance the photo with more context and detail. I use prime lenses and find that 35mm (full frame equivalent) is a good focal length for many shooting-in-motion situations. A zoom lens offers more options, but you have to be quick to respond to the fast-changing scene. A lens that’s too long – more than around 50mm – tends to have such a narrow field of view that the sense of horizontal motion across the frame is de-emphasized or eliminated entirely; the result is more like a stationary picture.
Finally, I zone focus. If your lens isn’t marked to make this easy, there are depth-of-field smartphone apps to do the calculations for you. Still, you have to make decisions about the zone’s parameters (minimum and maximum distances) and develop the knack of estimating distance at a glance. In most cases I want a maximum distance of infinity. For a 35mm lens set at f/11, this means a minimum distance a bit under two meters. At f/8, the closest in-focus objects are around 2.5 meters away if the maximum is infinity.
Unique Vantage Point
A big advantage of window seat photography is the opportunity to shoot from an unusual point of view: a vehicle right-of-way. This can range from an elevated overpass to the interior of your car. The unique perspective creates opportunities for interesting compositions and unexpected juxtapositions. Shooting from a vehicle expands the options for seeing and capturing a scene, going beyond the convention of capturing shots at eye level from the sidelines. The more I shoot this way the quicker my eye is to latch onto fresh ways to position and arrange my frame.
Telling a Story
Combining an elevated point of view, wide-angle perspective, and unorthodox vantage point can yield images that capture a lot of details and information. If you arrange these right in the frame, the photo can tell a complex story that would require the proverbial “thousand words” and then some to relate verbally. In projects on both China and the Northeast Corridor I’ve found that in-motion photography is a great tool for visual storytelling.
For the same reason, this technique is a good way to capture a singular sense of place, creating a fresh take on well-known locations. Some examples: