Photographing Peaches in a Moving Vehicle

During a recent trip to the Shenandoah National Park I spent my day photographing all sorts of scenic overlooks, animals (including some bears), sunsets and getting some shots of the world going by as we made our way along the Skyline Drive.

Getting motion shots is something I’ve been doing for years (my automotive clients use them for creating composite images of new cars that can’t be taken out on public roads). There’s something I really like about a shot that makes you feel like your moving. Add in some additional interesting elements and you can really make some awesome shots. The difficult part of making this kind of shot is all of the planning (and getting perfect weather) and getting your camera mounted as solidly as possible. For this blog entry I’ll talk a bit about how I take these kinds of shots and the equipment I use to make them happen.

I’ve been taking moving vehicle shots for years. My trick to getting a good shot is to make sure that my camera is mounted as solid as possible. My favorite method for getting my camera mounted is to use a studio clamp and my Manfrotto Magic Arm. The Magic Arm is an incredibly versatile piece of equipment that I use for all sorts of different things (especially mounting flashes in unique places). It’s awesome for mounting a camera to just about anything. Here’s what it looks like when it’s not mounted along with some clamps and a camera mounting adaptor:

The best thing about using a magic arm for mounting a camera outside of a moving vehicle is that you can stay safely inside the vehicle to operate the camera instead of trying to hang out a window. Safety should always be taken into account when getting this kind of shot. Not only is it unsafe to be hanging outside of a car window, it’s a really bad distraction to people in other cars (you can cause an accident without actually hitting another vehicle). A camera mounted outside of a car may catch someones attention, but considerably less than a person hanging out a window. Plus it’s a lot sturdier to mount the camera than it is to hand hold a camera in a moving vehicle.

Here’s a few views of how I used my Magic Arm to mount my camera to get my shots of Peaches on Skyline Drive:

Once the camera is mounted I’ll compose my shot while the vehicle is standing still (I like to stand outside the car to look through my viewfinder). This is a situation where having a camera with a live-view LCD that can angle back into the car might be handy but I still like to use the optical viewfinder to make my decisions.

After the shot is composed I like to lock in my focus before we start moving. Because I’m going to be at a huge aperture setting a lot of the shot will have acceptable focus but I still try to get a very specific point locked in focus. Once I’m happy with the focus I change the camera into manual focus mode (this can be done at the camera but some lenses also have a manual/auto focus switch) so that the camera doesn’t change focus accidentally.

Finally, I pick my settings to try to get a shutter speed between half a second and one second long. I could have used manual mode on my camera (to lock in an aperture and a shutter speed) but I stayed in wide exposure metering mode to be able to deal with changes in lighting caused by long stretches of shadows. I set my aperture as high as it will go (for my wide angle lens it’s f32) and I set my light sensitivity as low as possible (ISO 100). If you’re still not getting a slow enough shutter speed you can add a neutral density filter to your lens to let less light in (I like using a 3 stop ND9 filter or larger to get the aperture setting back down). Once all that’s done it’s time to hit the road.

If you have a movable LCD then you can see what’s happening. If not you need to make test runs to see how things are looking. Your speed can really make a difference in how the final shot looks so you need to experiment until you get the shot you’re looking for. Here’s what it looked like when the vehicle speed was too low to get the motion blur I wanted:

And here’s a shot were the speed was right but Peaches wasn’t playing along:

And finally here’s the shot when all the elements came together:

Thinking in unusual ways to tell a story is my favorite thing about being a full-time photographer. Every new shoot is more important than the last shoot because I always want to improve. Additionally, every new shoot lets me build on previous experiences. If everything goes to plan my shots will look better as time goes by.

I’ve been using similar camera mounting techniques to get unique looking shots for my automotive clients and I’m currently working with the owners of a teen driving school in Indianapolis, Indiana to capture the excitement of their program and I hope it will help bring in lots of new students. After that project finishes up I’ll see if I can’t dream up new and different ways to keep telling stories (with my camera) about being in motion.

3 thoughts on “Photographing Peaches in a Moving Vehicle

  1. Thanks for sharing this “how to” including information on the Manfrotto Magic Arm. I never even knew such a thing existed. It’s a very cool tool!

    Your photos are really, really great. If you don’t mind me asking about how fast were you driving when taking these? I’m wondering if the speed of the vehicle has an impact on the correct shutter speed or if it all just gets evened out?

    Again, great, great stuff. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment and for the compliment, Steve.

      The Magic Arm is one totally cool piece of equipment but it is a bit specialized. You can spend $150 for everything and only use it every once in a while. On the other hand, when you do get something like this it opens up new possibilities since you have a new tool that can let you do things you can’t do without one. It helps me solve all kinds of problems when I’m on location.

      For the final shot the vehicle was going pretty close to 35 miles per hour. Two thing give the impression of speed in the shot. First, the way that everything blurs “in camera” can’t be duplicated in a program like Photoshop without looking fake. Second, Peaches and the vehicle are sharp which makes the motion blur look even more pronounced. It doesn’t take much speed (or too slow of a shutter speed) to get the effect I look for. Don’t forget that if you go too fast (or have too long of a shutter speed) everything will get super blurry and then you can’t tell where you are. If you’re going too slow (or have too high of a shutter speed) it looks like you aren’t moving at all. You walk a bit of a tightrope between a cool blurry effect and having recognizable elements in the picture.

      If you focus your camera at infinity then things that are super far away will be sharp and in focus but things that are close to the camera will look a lot blurrier. Ultimately this kind of shooting is about experimenting and seeing where your ideas and your personal vision takes you.

  2. Awesome photo, Monico, and thanks for sharing all of your techniques, too.

    I heard once that this is like drugs for a dog because they are exposed to so many more smells at a much faster rate than normal … sort of a “sensory overload” for them. 🙂

Leave a Reply to Mike Hendren Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *