by Dr. Robert Berdan
February 12, 2012
In the past decade I have driven an average of 30,000 km per year in search of photographs, that’s more than 300,000 km or 7.5 times around the earth. I have driven from Calgary, Alberta to Midland Ontario, a 3,600 km trip one way four times. I consider any place within a days’ drive of Calgary to be within my backyard. I drive a JEEP for the simple reason that I can drive on almost any road I encounter with the knowledge I probably won't get stuck. Driving down dirt roads with a vertical windshield means I usually have to change the windshield every other year. Sometimes I just want to drive off road in order to explore and access remote locations. Traveling by car allows me to bring all my camera equipment, and it provides shelter should I need it. I keep a sleeping bag, tent, cell phone and food with me for emergencies on overnight trips. During these trips I always try to include a few photographs of the road to document my journey and sometimes the road can make for an effective photograph. Below I show some examples of road photography and provide tips on how to take better road photographs.
My JEEP photographed along highway 40 in Kananaskis - I choose a red JEEP so I could use it as a prop in some of my photographs like this one and the photo below.
Traveling by car lets me cover large distances and I can stop whenever I see anything interesting. Traveling down new roads lets me feel like I am exploring, but without the risks that early explorers faced. Whenever possible I take the less traveled road and many of the dirt roads do not show up on my GPS. I usually rely on Back roads map books – these books are detailed and include logging roads, smaller parks and trails that are not indicated on most road maps. When driving logging roads in British Columbia you need to be extra cautious as the large logging trucks have the right of way and often the roads are extremely narrow.
A JEEP gives me the freedom to go off road when I want to - Stoney River Park over looking the Bow River.
I don’ t ever go out to specifically photograph roads. Most of the time I am interested in photographing landscapes or wildlife that I find adjacent to or close to the roads such as: moose, deer, snowy owls, foxes, and coyotes. Sometimes, I am just trying to get from A to B, but I always try to leave extra time to take photographs along the way. When I am on a road trip I remind myself to photograph my journey. Canada is a big place and I can't walk to the mountains every time I want to take pictures, but once at my destination I will often hike and\or kayak further.
Highway 566 East of Airdrie Alberta around sunrise. Photographed with 70-200 mm lens
Pictures of roads can make a good lead in for a slide show, or an article about your trip. Roads also convey symbolic meaning and can represent our journey through life. None of us knows where we will end up and exactly what path we will take. Some of us will take the safe and popular routes between two places, others will take the less traveled or bumpy road. The choices we make determine where we end up - some paths can only be taken once.
Highway 6 to Waterton National Park in Twin Butte, Alberta. This scenic highway provides many opportunities to photograph the mountains and adjacent prairies.
As with most types of photography the quality of the light helps make a photograph more interesting. Sidelight around sunrise and sunset adds texture to the vegetation surrounding the road. A road disappearing into the fog conveys a sense of mystery. Soft light is ideal to show off trees adjacent to the road in Autumn. When photographing the road in fog or at night be sure to pull well over to the side of the road, use a pull over or drive into a side road to avoid causing an accident. No photograph is worth dying for. The scariest road I have ever driven on is the Heckman pass leading into the Bella Coola Valley. This narrow winding dirt road is single lane in places and there are no guard rails. Going over the edge means a fairly steep drop in the valley below. The road is so steep that on pulling my small trailer up hill my transmission was burned out. View video of Heckman Pass. One of the most scenic roads I have ever been on is the "Going to the Sun Highway" in Glacier National Park in Montana.
Early morning Fog along Big Hill Springs Road just after sunrise
Range Road East of Calgary on a wintery March morning
The two main lenses I use to photograph roads are my wide angle lens (e.g. 20-35 mm) and a telephoto lens (70-300 mm). The wide angle lens exaggerates space and I often prefer to shoot from near the ground with this lens. Telephoto lenses compress space and make telephone poles and hills appear to stack closer together. Telephoto lenses also work well when trees cover the road and form a canopy. I try to use a tripod most of the time and set my camera to F11-16 for a maximum depth of field, though I admit sometimes I just jump out of the car and shoot away.
Using a telephoto lens compresses perspective making the telephone poles appear closer together. In summer you can also see a shimmer or mirage on the road when it gets hot.
The Four Seasons
Spring time along a road east of Brooks Alberta. A friend of mine told me his car broke down here and he had to walk 12 miles to the nearest farm for help. Make sure you bring a cell phone with you when driving down some of the backroads just in case. Photo above taken with 17-55 mm lens at 17mm.
Road next to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Summer, this winding road is now paved.
Road to Midland Point in Autumn with a canopy of autumn colours - 300 mm telephoto lens.
Range Rd 22 North of Calgary in mid winter - 300 mm lens used to compress the perspective.
Snow plows clear Highway 63 leading to Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Roads can look very different as the seasons change and also during different times of the day. Early morning and evenings provides warm side light that enhance textures around the road. Having a road lead to a mountain also provides a picturesque view. A thunderstorm, rainbow, or snow storm can all make for more interesting photographs of the road. Sometimes during a snowstorm on the prairies all you can see are the telephone poles disappearing into the distance (my favorite road photograph by Courtney Milne in his book W.O. Mitchell country).
Cone Mountain in Kananaskis 70-200 mm lens at 200 mm
Sunrise on the Rockies near Black Diamond, Alberta
Highway 93 looking south toward Bow Lake
I also like to photograph roads on the prairies where they seem to reach the horizon. Placing the road low in the picture frame emphasizes space and is a technique I use often when out on the prairies. just how vast the prairies can be.
Less traveled road south of Calgary
Road next to the Oldman River East of Medicine Hat
Highway 1 near Brandon, Manitoba just after sunset
Park road in Waterton National Park at night
JEEP liberty parked on a back road in Northern Alberta outside the town of Boyle in order to photograph the Aurora.
Road, Aurora and City lights reflecting of clouds north of Calgary - August, 2011
Car lights on road in High Level Alberta with Aurora overhead (DM) - long exposure 12 seconds.
Bearspaw Road NW of Calgary early morning in Winter
Bearspaw road early evening - driving at night on back country roads can be dangerous - watch for wildlife.
Bearspaw road NW of Calgary around sunrise in early summer.
Winding road with Mt. Lorette in the background in Kananaskis Provincial Park, AB along highway 40.
Watch for animals crossing the road
Caution Moose crossing
ROAD PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
- Use a tripod when ever possible
- Try using both a wide angle and telephoto lens
- Use F11-16 for maximum depth of field
- Include part of the road in the corner of your photograph
- Vary the angle if possible consider positioning your wide angle lens low to the pavement
- Put the horizon near the top of the picture frame to emphasize depth
- Pull well over to the side especially if photographing at night or in the fog - look for a pull out
- At night consider using long exposures and including lights from passing cars
- Include other subjects in your images e.g. a car, person or animals
- If you plan on driving off road its a good idea to bring someone with you in case you need a push
The next time you are out shooting and driving in your car consider including some photographs of the road you travel on. One other piece of advice if you are alone keep a pair of spare keys in your pocket in case you accidently get locked out of your car. RB