Rejuvenate Your Photography With A Road Trip
Growing up, road trips meant a car full of family. Brothers and sisters jockeying for space in the back seat while playing I Spy for hours. Despite the tight ride, lack of restrooms and endless road, a sense of nostalgia surrounds those trips. Now, as adults and photographers, road trips hold new feelings of adventure and even more, rejuvenate one’s creative spirit. Driving away from the familiarity of everyday life into new landscapes and unknown towns not only provides photographic opportunities along the journey, but can also serve as inspiration when you return home.
Three days is a perfect amount of time to do some exploring with your camera. As a photographer, your road trip isn’t so much about the destination as the things you see along the way. When there are only a few days to travel around and shoot, it’s more likely that you’ll stop to take advantage of photographic opportunities rather then pass them by. Choosing your route is as important as scouting a location and a fair amount of research should be put into where you decide to go. What do you want the focus of your road trip to be? Is it about discovering small towns and photographing undiscovered America? Are landscapes and nature what you are looking for? Would you rather photograph cultural festivals? Whatever your goals are for the trip and wherever you decide to go, it is a good idea to do your homework. Information about towns and events along your route are usually easy to find by visiting any town’s chamber of commerce Web site, consulting a travel guide or by Googling the roads you will be traveling on.
One of the great aspects of a road trip is that you can take every piece of photography equipment that you own along for the ride. You don’t have to lighten your load as you might when you are carrying all your gear through an airport. Bring it all, the digital point and shoot, the film camera, the Holga! This type of trip is all about freedom. You have the ability to go anywhere and use any piece of equipment you want. The lack of restrictions can do wonders for creativity because you never know when the opportunity to use a camera or lens that you normally leave at home may present itself.
Make sure when you’re packing your car that there is plenty of room for other necessities you will need on the road. First of all, bring water, lots of water. You should also stock a cooler with plenty of food. If you are driving down back roads, you may not have the chance to grab something to eat or drink from a local convenience store or road side café. Also, be sure to put gas in your car when you have the opportunity. If you get wandering, you never know how far you are from the nearest gas station. Maps are a must. Even if you looked at Google maps one hundred times before you left, you’ll need a map. Another useful gadget is a battery charger for your digital camera batteries that plugs into your car’s lighter so you can re-charge as you drive. Some of these chargers will also work for computer batteries. It’s always a good idea, especially if you are by yourself, to have a “car trip kit” which includes items such as flashlights, flairs, a small tool kit, jumper cables and a first aid kit.
Summer is a time of freedom, exploration and endless subject matter for photographers. If you have a few days to take a vacation this summer, grab your carry-on bag out of the x-ray machine, put your shoes back on, and jump into your car. Enjoy the journey involved in car travel. Enjoy the landscape, the events and people that you experience along the way. Put your camera in the passenger seat and just drive.
At RMSP our instructors and staff frequently take photography road trips to jump start their creativity. Here are some of our staff’s favorite quick trips.
1. Arizona- Flagstaff to Phoenix via Sedona.Traveling from Flagstaff down 89A South through the incredible Oak Creek Canyon, you begin at an elevation of more than one mile (even higher than Denver) and wind your way from alpine forests through groves of oaks and aspen to the juniper forests of Sedona. From there, you will find yourself amid the incredible red rock monuments and canyons of Sedona and the Village of Oak Creek. Get on Interstate 17 heading south. This road travels from the dry juniper deserts through rolling grasslands, literally to the edge of the fantastic Colorado Plateau. A vertical drop ensues through Black Canyon and into the unique towering saguaro cactus forest of the Valley of the Sun. Phoenix and all of its metropolitan beauty lies in your view. All told, this thee-hour excursion, takes you from 6,000 feet to sea level and through six different climate zones. Amazing! Photo Ops: • Oak Creek Canyon in autumn• Sedona • Red Rock Crossing National Park • Black Canyon Overlook and Black Canyon area for sunsets • Vistas of saguaro forests. • All along the way are various side trips available to view Pueblo Indian ruins such as Montezuma's Castle and Montezuma's Well near Sedona.
2. Central California Coast- Solvang to Monterey.Photographically speaking, the central California coast is literally a postcard-per-minute. Start off in the European-style town of Solvang, amid rolling, oak-dotted farmlands. Travel north on Highway 1 along the winding, rugged coastline. Stop at Hearst Castle and stay at any quaint bed and breakfast in the coastal town of Cambria. Continuing north there are absolutely breathtaking vistas of towering cliffs and islands near Big Sur and Carmel. Monterey is nothing short of spectacular with its fishing village and cannery history, tide pools and abundant sea life. Sunset vistas abound along the whole trip.
3. Montana to Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah There are so many different geologic changes in the landscape on this trip that the entire route holds endless opportunities for unique images. From Missoula, Montana you head east on I-90; before you get to Butte take I-15 south towards Idaho. As you drive through southwestern Montana and into Idaho you will notice that the mountains get smaller and the landscape turns from dramatic grandeur to rolling hills with far less vegetation. If you hit this portion of the drive after a storm, the dramatic light in combination with the simple yet beautiful landscape, is stunning. Continuing south, you enter Utah and the Salt Lake City area. While you are there don’t miss the Great Salt Lake and its many surrounding salt flats. They offer unique landscape opportunities especially at sunrise and sunset as the colors in the sky illuminate all that salt! Salt Lake City is a good place to stop for the night. With the back drop of the Wasatch Mountains and the city sky line they make for great sunset and night photography. There are tons of photo ops south of Salt Lake City all the way to Natural Bridges National Monument as the land turns from salty white to red sedimentary rock.
Other favorite routes to consider: The Oregon coast Northern California coast.Back Roads of Eastern Montana
My Favorite Montana Weekend Photography Trip
After sunrise, continue south on US 93 to Montana 43 (80 miles south of Missoula). Drive east toward the town of Wisdom. On the way you will encounter the Big Hole National Battle Field. This is a great place to stop. Historically, the Nez Perce and the Army fought one of their more famous encounters here. Photographically, it is very scenic all along route 43, with a lot of subject matter to shoot.
Continue on to Wisdom and from there take 278 south. This is a beautiful route with many great photos all along the way. When you get to the turnoff for Bannack, turn and drive four miles to Bannack. Now a ghost town, Bannack was the first territorial capital of Montana. It is never very crowded and offers great shooting in the late afternoon and evening. Be prepared to spend a good amount of time here as there are many things to look at and photograph.
There is a campground at Bannack or nice lodging and meals down the road in Dillon. Route 278 S ends on I-15 just south of Dillon. As an interesting aside, Patagonia has located one of their few outlet stores here and it is a popular destination for many people.
On your second morning, drive south and get back on 278 N. Head back to Bannack for the morning light. After shooting in Bannack head west for less than half an hour until you see the road to Polaris. This is a right turn heading north. This road is a great drive of one to three hours depending on the number of stops you decide to make. This road goes between the east and west Pioneer Mountains and offers many landscape and macro opportunities. It is especially nice for wildflowers and autumn colors. The highway ends at the town of Wise River on MT 43.
Take a left on MT 43 and drive about 15 minutes until you get to route 274. Turn right on 274 and take the short drive to MT 1. Turn left into the town of Anaconda, which is a good place for a meal. Continue to the very photographic town of Phillipsburg. This is a quaint old mining town and it is worth spending some time here. Four miles above Phillipsburg is the ghost town of Granite. Both are wonderful to photograph as they are representative of the old mining areas.
From Phillipsburg head north on MT 1 for 28 miles to I-90. Head west 50 miles back to Missoula. This 2 day trip gives you landscape photography, macro, ghost towns and many times, unexpected wildlife opportunities. If people photography interests you as well, you will find many good people pictures along the way.
I hope you have the chance to enjoy this trip as much as I do.
Keith Graham as Interviewed by Bob McGowanKeith Graham is joining RMSP’s staff of instructors in 2007. He is head of the Photo Journalism Department at the University of Montana in Missoula and has had an extensive career shooting for newspapers across the country. Keith will be co-teaching The Character of Montana Location Workshop with school founder, Neil Chaput de Saintonge in June. I spent a few moments with Keith to get the inside scoop on his personal background and approach to road trip photography.
Would you please describe what started your interest in photography and a bit of your personal background?My childhood was spent in Mississippi and I first picked up a camera in high school. I took an interest in black and white photography after my dad gave me my first 35mm SLR camera. I completed my graduate degree at the University of Missouri in Photo Journalism. I worked for several newspapers in my career such as the Miami Herald (Staff Photographer/Page Designer), San Jose Mercury News (Graphics Editor, Photographer), and The Roanoke Times in Virginia (Picture Editor, Photographer, Director of Photography). Currently I am Associate Professor of Photo Journalism/Multimedia at the University of Montana in Missoula and love it here!
Have you taken roads trips specifically for photographic reasons and how have they influenced your photographic style if at all? Oh yes. I often have taken road trips with different artists and photographers, and they all use completely different styles and techniques. I enjoy observing these various ways of seeing, and it truly effects my own approach to subject matter, story telling, atmosphere etc.
How do you mentally prepare yourself for photographic road trips? I definitely prepare myself by considering my mental and physical well-being before embarking on a road trip. I make efforts to exercise and sleep well beforehand. I also am determined to tie up loose ends. I take care of all specific personal or work-related tasks that could potentially interfere with my focus while away. I will not respond to e-mails or check voice messages, and avoid those kind of distractions when on the road.
Do you plan out a “shot list” or itinerary with specific goals in mind or do you let moments “speak to you” in terms of what you shoot? Have you planned out certain themes or projects for road trips?Yes, being a photo journalist I definitely plan out ideas for a narrative piece if that’s what I’m working on. I don’t generally prepare a shot list. I’d rather consider the time of day or specific events that take place in an environment and let them determine key moments to document. These would be events such as sunrise, sunset, branding of calves at a ranch, things that are important to an overall sense of place, activity or drama. I will also check the weather reports before arriving at a destination as the weather may contribute some creative options for story telling. Is there any particular favorite road trip you’ve taken that stands out in your mind?There is family-operated, multi-generational, Donald Ranch started in the early 1920’s and is located in rural Melville, Montana. I’ve spent a great deal of time on this ranch documenting its various activities such as the calving season. In order to document this event, it requires being up at the crack of dawn. Once on an early dreary morning, I managed to produce two very dramatic shots by 5:30 am! I learned early on, that photography is often the process of attempting to capture the extraordinary from the ordinary.
For more on the work of Keith Graham, please visit this Web site:http://www.umt.edu/journalism/student_work/MJR/MJR_2004/stories/08-Photo_Story.html
RMSP's 19th year of Summer Intensive is now underway!