Photography From a Moving Car


Some of my favorite shots over the years have involved movement. I started shooting movement when I worked at Ford Design and I continue to explore new ways to capture a feeling of movement in a still image.

On my last trip into the Shenandoah Mountains to photograph the fall colors I decided to capture some shots of the colored leaves from my car (while driving 30 mph on Skyline Drive). For this blog entry I’ll share some of my current techniques to capture these kinds of shots in camera.

Setting Up For The Shot

One thing I want to say up front about this blog entry is that I’ll be talking about some camera techniques that help me to get my shot. I’m pretty skilled with Photoshop and with enough effort (along with some serious use of the radial blur filter, numerous layers and some masking) it’s possible to create a similar look. But I prefer the challenge of trying to get it in camera so I used a Manfrotto MagicĀ Arm with a studio clamp to get my camera outside my car. I also used a cable release (a wired shutter control) to safely capture my shots while I was safely belted into the drivers seat.

It’s fun to get the shot in camera plus you look totally cool to the other cars that see you with a bunch of photography gear mounted to your moving car. Here’s a look at my Manfrotto Magic Arm, the camera mounting plate and the LumoPro studio clamp I used to get my shots:

To capture my shots I used a 28mm f2.8 lens on my Sony A900 (a full frame digital SLR camera) because I wanted to get a little bit of my hood into the shot. I’ve always preferred to include some of the vehicle in my shots and I’m always looking for new ways to get different views. By including part of my vehicle (traveling at the same speed of the camera) I can include an element that will be completely without motion blur and that helps to emphasize the motion blur.

I’m also a huge believer in trying to tell a story with a photograph and to me that means including elements (like parts of my vehicle) in my shots because they can help describe a scene. Another reason I used a prime lens was to prevent zoom creep (unwanted changing of focal length) caused by the movement of my car. For focus I set the camera to manual focus and I set the lens focus to infinity.

For my fall color shots I opened my sunroof and used my magic arm with camera mounting plate (and a studio clamp) to get my camera into position. Here’s a look at my camera positioned above my car and held in place with the Magic Arm:

The Magic Arm was attached to a studio clamp that was mounted directly to the glass of the sunroof. As a final safety precaution the camera strap was attached to a safety strap which was attached to a solid handle inside the car. The chances of anything happening are super low but I still use additional safety straps to secure things just in case.

With the camera mounting done it was time to begin taking shots.

Camera Settings and Neutral Density Filters

The trick to making this kind of photography work is to have real motion blur but still have elements in the shot that are sharp enough to be able to understand what is going on. You need to juggle shutter speed and the speed of the car to make a successful capture. I’m sure there’s a mathematical formula that says that the vehicle speed is directly proportional to shutter speed (as the car speed decreases you need to increase your shutter speed to introduce motion blur) but I just go with a seat of my pants approach.

My method is to use settings that get me a longer shutter speed to give me the motion blur I want. By focusing at infinity (with a wide angle lens) objects that are further away from the camera should appear sharp because they appear to be moving less than objects that are closer to the camera. This kind of blur really communicates speed (even if your vehicle isn’t moving very fast).

To get longer shutter speed but still get proper exposure (too long of a shutter speed will blow out the image from over exposure) I leave my camera in Aperture Priority mode. By using Aperture Priority mode I’m telling the camera that I’ll set the aperture and the camera can meter the scene to decide on the best shutter speed so that the exposure is correct. Another trick I use is to set my exposure compensation to over expose the image by a stop. This lengthens the shutter speed (because the camera is trying to over expose the image) and getting back to normal exposure is easy with a RAW processor like Lightroom and some finishing in Photoshop.

Another setting that is important for this kind of shooting is ISO (sensor sensitivity). Raising the ISO setting can let you shoot in low light situations (while keeping the shutter speed lower to help prevent camera shake from ruining your images) and lowering the ISO to 50 or 100 lets the camera lengthen the shutter speed. Lower shutter speeds help you get great shots with little to no sensor noise but it’s best to keep your camera steady (like using a tripod). I usually shoot at ISO 200 but dropping to ISO 100 gives me just a little more shutter speed for creating my motion blur.

A really handy tool for lengthening shutter speed is a neutral density filter. Unlike a standard protection or UV filter (made of clear glass), a neutral density filter is designed to lower the amount of light that enters the lens without affecting color. They range from a light grey (for a one stop ND filter) to dark black (like a 10 stop ND filter). Adding a 2 or 3 stop ND filter is a great way to get a longer shutter speeds without having to increase your aperture setting all the way to maximum (where most lenses don’t look very good) or over exposing the shot (meaning you don’t have to fix things in post-production). I use ND filters from time to time but on the day I took these shots I wasn’t using one because I left my 49mm 3 stop ND filter at home.

Balancing Vehicle Speed and Shutter Speed

Getting camera settings to work is a big balancing act. Your vehicle needs to be traveling at the right speed for your camera settings or the shot will look have too much blur or not enough blur. Your settings and speed will vary but I was at f22 (in Aperture Priority Mode), ISO 100 with exposure compensation set to +1 (because I didn’t bring my ND filter). For these settings I found 30mph to be perfect for getting the shots I wanted. Depending on your settings and the shots you are trying to get you may need a higher or a lower vehicle speed.

Here’s a quick look at a shot at too low of a speed:

The shot is fine but there is no movement of the trees on the left side of the image. I’d guess that my car was traveling between 10-15mph when this shot was taken.

Here’s an example of a shot where my speed was a little too high and I ended up with too much motion blur:

It’s an interesting shot but I don’t like that pretty much everything in the shot has significant motion blur.

A Few Words About Shadows

Shadows can be either a good thing or a bad thing. Here’s two tips that help me get better final shots and both involve paying special attention to the shadows. The first tip is to make sure you don’t get your own shadow in your shots. Here’s an example of a shot where the shadow from my car ended up in the shot:

I think the shadow is a pretty big distraction in what is otherwise a fine shot. Keeping the shadows out of your shot may sound obvious but when you’re sitting behind your steering wheel and concentrating on the road you may not notice when the shadow of your vehicle is in your shot. It’s especially tricky when you’re on a twisty road like Skyline Drive and the shadows are constantly moving around your vehicle. If the shadows are constantly ending up in your shots you may have to change the direction you’re driving. I find it best to make a few stops to review the shots to make sure that the shadows are not a distraction. I’d consider this kind of shadow to be a bad shadow.

The good news is that there are also good shadows when you’re trying to photograph movement. The kind of shadows I’m referring to are the super large shadows that completely cover your vehicle. Why are these kinds of shadows good? Because when your camera is set to Aperture Priority mode it is always metering the shot and making shutter speed adjustments. When you’re driving through some big shadows the camera feels that you need a longer shutter speed for proper exposure and that will give you more motion blur in your shots. Another benefit to shooting when you’re driving through shadows is that you won’t see a huge shadow of your vehicle.

Here’s an example of me pressing the shutter button when I’m not driving through big shadows:

Because my car was in direct sunlight the camera metered this shot to be 1/20 second for proper exposure. It’s a nice shot but a little longer shutter speed could really help a shot like this. Here’s an example of a shot where I waited until I was in the shadow of a tree line before pressing my shutter release button:

For this shot the camera metered the scene to be properly exposed at 1/6 of a second. It doesn’t sound like a huge difference in shutter speed from 1/20 but the motion blur added by the extra time the shutter was open is substantial. Because of this added shutter speed I usually wait until my vehicle is in the shadows before I press my shutter release button. Another benifit to waiting until you’re in shadow is that you won’t have to worry about lens flaring (large colored spots caused by bright light sources that hit the front element of your lens).

A Few Final Tips

I’ll end this blog with two suggestions for getting more interesting shots from a moving vehicle.

The first tip is to try to take shots when you’re in a curve or there is a curve in the road ahead. Not only does it add a cool look to the final images it also changes the speed of movement on each side of your shot. If you’re in a right hand curve the camera is further away from the center of the arc your vehicle is turning so objects on the right of the shot should have more blur than objects on the left of the shot. This adds more of a feeling of realism and speed to your final shot.

And the final tip I’ll share is to try to find interesting things to add to your shots. This could be an opening that lets you see distant mountains (which will look sharper because they are so far away and don’t appear to be moving like objects that are closer to the camera) like this:

This helps the shot because our eyes are seeking something sharp in a shot. When the sharpest area of the shot is in the center the blurred areas become leading lines that draw you into the image.

You can also try to capture a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction like this:

or a sign telling you a recommended speed like this shot:

If the sign is far enough away it will have considerably less blur than nearby objects. It may not be perfectly sharp but it should be readable and a familiar enough shape to let a viewer know what it is. This shot is one of my favorite moving shots I took on my trip to the Shenandoah and the extra element of the sign and the curving lines of the road that lead are what I like the most about it.

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