How to take photos while driving

We drove from Cherbourg in Normandy to Saint Malo in Brittany while the sun was setting. I opened the window and shot this tree. Not two sunsets are alike, and I would love to photograph each single one of them. Photo by: Jacob Surland,

Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8, ISO 100, 27mm, f/5.6, 1/1250 sec

Rule number #1 – Don’t ever drive the car and take pictures at the same time!

The shot above is shot while driving from Cherbourg in Normandy to Saint Malo in Brittany. I got this scene in the neighborhood of Saint Mere Eglise. There was a beautiful sunset, but we would arrive late and couldn’t afford the time to stop to take any photos. But with the right configuration of the camera and some training, you can get good photos and sometimes even great photos out of the window of a driving car.

We’ve been on a few road trip vacations and a thing you just can’t do is to stop every two minutes to take a photograph. It just doesn’t work with the family (and schedule). But don’t get too frustrated! Let your spouse do a lot of the driving and arm yourself with a lens that allows some zooming, but not too much. My preferred lens is a 24-70mm on a full frame camera, which would be something like 18-55mm if you have a cropped sensor camera.

One thing you can’t do while driving 60 mph is to adjust the camera – you have to have some overall working quite good settings.

Then configure your camera to the following settings (look up in your manual if you are unsure how to do it), and then you will be just fine shooting:

Step 1: Fast shutter speed.

If the photos are blurred or shaken, you can’t use them. Shutter speed is the one control you have to set fixed to 1/1250. This is fast enough to freeze a straw of grass even close to the car, while driving 60 mph. Put your camera on S (if you have a Nikon) or Tv (if you have a Canon). This will allow you to set the shutter speed to a fixed speed. Dial until you see 1/1250 in the display.

I started out on 1/1000 sec but I have decreased it one notch to 1/1250 sec.

Step 2: Focal length

You can’t zoom too far in for two reasons. Number 1, you can’t frame anything, because the car is rumbling. Better to take a bit wider photos and then crop them in the post processing. The further you zoom in, the faster the shutter speed will have to be. Of cause you could make an even faster shutter speed, but you would then put more strain on other factors of the camera and you will risk ending up with unusuable photos.

You can’t go too wide either, because you then include the car. Most of my successful shots are between 24mm and 70mm (or 18mm 55mm on a cropped sensor).

Step 3: Auto ISO

You don’t have time to test what ISO you should set the camera to. You only have one chance on each photo. By setting the camera to auto-ISO you let the camera decide what f-stop to use and what ISO to use. It does this quite well – your camera is quite clever.

Step 4: Under expose a little bit

It’s better to slightly under expose a photo than slightly over expose it. Why? Because blown out parts doesn’t look very good to the eye, while black parts are much easier accepted. I have found that if I set my Nikon cameras to an exposure compensation (the +/- button on the camera) to -2/3 of an exposure, I rarely get blown out highlights, if it is broad daylight.

In more difficult lighting situations I shoot exposure bracketed hand held. I know that I will not be able to use them for HDR because they will be different photos, but I can use the best exposure.

In the cause of the photo above I had set the camera to take a -2, -1 and a 0, and with the exposure compensation of -2/3 I got some weird exposures like -2 2/3 and -1 2/3 and -2/3. But never mind the numbers, just shoot away! I got a good exposure at -1 2/3 and that one I used for the photo above.

Step 5: Focusing

You can either set the auto-focus to the center or you can use manual focus. It depends a bit on the focal length you are using and what you are trying to hit. In this particular photo I used manual focus and set it to infinity, because the light was fading and I had trouble getting the camera to focus at all.

Step 6: Learn to read the landscape

You then have to learn to read the landscape passing by. You don’t get a lot of time to react and when you see a great photo it is too late to shoot it. You have to read that the scene is coming and then shoot when it’s there. It’s a difficult situation hitting a target while moving, but while you are trying you will get better and better at it.

What I had in my mind this particular evening was a lone tree, if anything else showed up, I would try that as well. To shoot one of these lonely trees I first of all had to find a hole in the highway fencing. I could see these coming up from time to time. Second I had to have the combination of a hole in the fence and a lone tree. I was lucky and got this shot, which pretty much was what I was after.

Step 7: Get close to the window to avoid reflections

You have to get the camera close to the window to avoid too many reflections in the window and you have to keep the window reasonable clean. Or at least shoot around splashed bugs on the wind screen. The closer you get the camera the less important the dirt is.

Step 8: Don’t drive the car

Let somebody else drive the car. It is way to dangerous and illegal to take photos while driving yourself.

Another example

This is from New Zealand on our way to Lake Tekapo.

On The Road Again

Nikon D600, Nikkor 28-300mm, ISO 100, 35mm, f/3.8, 1/1000 sec


6 thoughts on “How to take photos while driving

  1. Cool article. I have been looking for something like this, since I am a confirmed “shotgun shooter”. (not sure if you are familiar with the term, “riding shotgun”. It means one is a passenger). Thanks for sharing the info. I am off in a few minutes to practice as we visit Yosemite National Park. Thanks again!

    • Hi John,
      Thanks a lot for taking your time to comment on my images, and I respect your point of view. In fact, I always love to get this kind of feedback, because it confirms what I do, I play with reality and the surreal.

      If you look in the header of the website you will see, it says Fine Art Photography and not Photo Journalism or that I am a Documentarian. If you read the “about me” section, you will no doubt also have noticed that I work in the borderline between the real and the surreal. I don’t try to portrait reality. On the contrary, I try to find new ways to present it, and I don’t try to satisfy everybody. Clearly I can’t satisfy you.

      If you find my images too over saturated, my guess is that you find Black and White photos too under-saturated – nothing in nature looks like black and white photos. I always felt that way too. I like to make richly saturated photos, and I respect people who find it over the top. That is fair, they are saturated, and they are heavily processed.

      On one point, you are wrong, though. These images are not HDR photos. Not even processed like HDR. A lot of my images, most in fact, are HDR photos, but not these. I shot them out of a moving vehicle, HDR would have been impossible.

      Thanks for your input and have a great day.


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