John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

drive-by photographyDrive-by Photography

drive-by photos

In our modern world, especially with Americans who love their cars, what could possess more archetypal resonance than drive-by photography? Jack Kerouac inspired the counterculture idealization of capturing scenes on the road, but the adventure and inspiration of experiencing the wonders on a journey through the world has served as a metaphor for life since the beginning of human history.

Drive-by photography is unique on a variety of levels. In practical terms, it gives you something fun to do on long car, bus, and train rides. Distant trips almost always provide a wide variety of interesting scenes to shoot. Drive-by photography also offers views not possible elsewhere, especially the experience of entering, passing through, leaving, and being on the periphery of a city or landscape – or in areas where it is too dangerous to get to otherwise, like roads through mountains or along cliffs. Unlike most types of photography, you are moving. In stop-and-go driving, you oscillate between stillness and motion. Drive-by photography magnifies one’s realization of the flow of life, the transient nature of all things, and the human desire to preserve a precious moment in it.

Drive-bys as Meditation

Successful drive-by shooting requires the kind of contemplative or “mindfulness” photography that I describe in another article here in Photographic Psychology. It’s a free-floating attention without thinking, analyzing, or expecting anything in particular. Although you might use a tiny bit of anticipation – i.e., sensing an interesting shot is about to arrive – don’t get caught up in those expectations. They could very well let you down because the shot that arrives might turn out very different than what you foresaw. The way the scene looks coming down the road at you often is not the same view once you’re in range to shoot. The subjects and compositions of the scene that you see through your camera pointed out the car window are constantly and often rapidly changing. Contemplative drive-by photography involves a meditative awareness in which you simply notice and shoot, notice and shoot. The more experience you have in creating good compositions, the more likely that skill will come to you spontaneously as you spot something interesting and intuitively capture it.

You will be tempted to look in the LCD display to see how a shot came out. That might be OK if you’re stopped at a light or stuck in standstill traffic, where you’re sure there’s nothing interesting to photograph. Otherwise, if you do look at the LCD screen while you’re still moving, you could very well miss a wonderful scene that passed you by without your even noticing it. LCD screens do offer a valuable opportunity to review and improve your shots, which includes drive-by photography - but it’s also a uniquely freeing experience to notice and shoot, notice and shoot, without second-guessing yourself. Take each moment as it comes without dwelling on the past. Also accept the fact that even if you’re fully immersed in that contemplative process of noticing and shooting without the burden of thinking, some good shots will still pass you by. Maybe the scene sped by too fast for your reflexes; maybe your attention lapsed for a brief moment; maybe you were distracted by the radio or talking with someone in the car.

I want to emphasize something important related to that last point about talking to someone with you in the car. There should always be someone with you, because the first rule of drive-by photography is this: do not do it while you’re driving! Too many people break this rule. Some get great shots. But no great drive-by photograph is worth your or someone else’s life!

A Drive-by, or Not?

There are two basic categories of drive-by photos: those that look like drive-bys, and those that do not.

If you want to minimize the impression that the shot was taken from a moving vehicle, try to eliminate any visual hint of being in a car, train, or bus, and of being on a road or train tracks. Try to avoid motion blur by using fast shutter speeds (how fast will depend on how quickly your vehicle is moving). Although motion blur can be created as an interesting visual effect even when you’re standing still, as in panning the camera or applying a Photoshop motion blur filter, watch out for the obvious signs of real drive-by blur – for example, when the foreground is blurry but the background is not. If you’re in a speedy vehicle, the foreground will be moving faster than the background, which means the foreground is more susceptible to blur. When people don’t realize that your photo is a drive-by, you can take some pride in your successfully disguising that fact. It’s not always easy to do.

However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, a unique aspect of drive-by photography is that sensation of movement, speed, travel, and the adventure of being on the road. In some cases you might want to emphasize that idea rather than hide it. Experiment with different shutter speeds to get various degrees of motion blur; include parts of the vehicle to create leading lines into the scene you are shooting; use the frames around windows to create a frame for the photo; shoot into the rear or side view mirrors; take photos of the road ahead of or behind you, other moving cars, traffic lights, road signs, bridges, and other scenes that could only be shot while on the road.

Fellow Travelers

One interesting genre within drive-by photography involves shots of other people in their cars. How are they reacting to the path they've taken? Might that say something about how they travel through their lives? A person’s choice of car almost always reflects something about his or her personality and lifestyle. A well-timed drive-by shot might capture these ideas. However, as fascinating as these images can be, it’s important to consider the issue of privacy. Are people inside their car in a public or a private space? By taking a shot of them, are you violating their rights? I’m not sure how to answer these questions, which is why I prefer shots of other drivers in which you can’t make out their identity too clearly. I also eliminate or alter license plate numbers.

Windows: Pros and Cons

How dirty are the windows in your car, bus, or train? You can’t clean the glass on public transportation, at least not without puzzled officials intervening, but that might be a good idea for a car in which you plan on doing some drive-by photography. If you notice a grimy windshield after you’ve already started your journey, it’s fairly easy to wash it, as long as your cleaner fluid tank is filled. For passenger windows, you can open them, if the wind and weather permit. You could also stop, get out, and clean the windows, if you have adequate cleaning supplies and it’s safe to stop. Most likely, however, you won’t want to bother with that chore, unless you’re really serious about taking drive-by shots that are as hygienic as possible.

So why not embrace the spots and smears on your windows? Use them as textures for the photo. You might have to switch to manual focus to determine how much of the grime versus the outside scene you want to emphasize. Sometimes the resulting shot can be quite interesting, especially if you have a predilection for the “grunge” look.

Front and back seats in a car both have their pros and cons. If you’re the front passenger, you have your window as well as the windshield for shooting. Windshields have a nice wide field of view of what’s coming at you. It’s also possible to shoot past the driver through his or her window, but those are tricky, both in capturing a well-composed photo and by the fact that you could very well distract the driver. Shooting out the rear window will obviously be easier from the backseat, although those kinds of shots, in my experience, tend not to be as interesting - in part because your field of view is restricted; you have to turn around awkwardly to take the shot; and where you’ve been is not as exciting as where you’re going in the “on the road” philosophy. In the back seat, you can shoot what’s outside your window, as well as what’s happening in the front seat, including a somewhat limited view out the windshield. In the front seat, you can take photos of people in the back, including a somewhat limited sceviewne out their window.

Windows create glare and reflections. If you position your camera correctly you might be able to minimize or eliminate them. Or, similar to dirty glass, embrace the glare and reflections. Incorporate them into the composition in interesting ways, if you can. Some on-the-road shots of setting and rising suns, or of light bouncing off vehicles, can produce quite spectacular effects.

Subjects Along the Way

Other than themes about motion, travel, and being-on-the road, there really is no one subject matter for drive-by photography. Metaphorically speaking, the road that is life is filled with all sorts of experiences. If you’re traveling through the countryside, follow what you know about landscape photography. You can get some dramatic land, sky, clouds, and sunset or sunrise shots. If you’re driving through a city, think “street photography.” All of the same principles about good landscape and street photography will apply, although you might have to adapt some of them to the fact that you’re moving, maybe fast.

Coming to a Stop

If you’re stopped at a light or at a standstill in bumper-to-bumper traffic, is that really “drive-by” photography? True, you don’t have the sensation of motion affecting your photos, but you probably still have the chance to capture images of being on the road. You might also take that opportunity to review the shots you did take.

Beware, however! Don’t assume that just because you’re at a standstill, there’s nothing to shoot. You might miss something interesting happening outside the car if you’re staring at the LCD screen, especially if you’re at a light in a city. There will be all sorts of activity around you. Even if it seems like a totally boring intersection, or you’re catatonically staring at the monotonous mass of cars surrounding you in bumper-to-bumper traffic, look carefully. Maybe there is something interesting to shoot, but you just don’t see it. This is a type of “one spot shot” that I discuss in another article here in Photographic Psychology. Boring intersections and monotonous traffic jams might hold many interesting secrets. They also part of the travel experience. A photo of something boring, tedious, or monotonous doesns't have to be boring, tedious, or monotonous.

Inside the Vehicle

Then there are shots of people and things inside the car, train, or bus - whether you take them while moving or stopped. Again, these photos might not be true drive-by shots, but they can capture interesting aspects of being on the road. That chaotic pile of empty fast food containers on the back seat; the driver steering with one finger; your companions slumped over in sleep, looking excited, bored, or scared – all such things reveal an important moment in the journey. It’s a special treat when you capture a shot in which the person and the scene outside the window interact with each other in interesting ways – for example, your nerve-wracked driver trying to navigate frantic city traffic, or the child sleeping in the back seat as nighttime scenery rolls by.

Applying Time-Honored Techniques

Some traditional ideas about taking photographs are especially useful for drive-by images. As I mentioned earlier, experiment with high shutter speeds to effectively freeze scenery as it rolls past you, and lower shutter speeds for enhanced motion blur effects. Rapid bursts of shots will maximize the likelihood that you’ll capture at least one good image of a scene that speeds by. Remember that a well-cropped shot can turn a seemingly mundane scene into a perfectly composed, remarkable photo. For example, if most of the photo isn’t good, crop to the part that is. Finally, skillful post-processing can transform even the crappiest shot into something quite amazing, whereas diptychs, triptychs, collages, and other types of composite photos can integrate two or more dull shots into a masterpiece: the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. Because drive-by photography is all about a journey and the experiences along the way, it lends itself readily to the variety of traditional techniques for combining images.

The Need for Speed

In drive-by photography you’re moving, but much of the scenery around you is not. This unique situation plays some interesting tricks on perception. If you look at a shot that is obviously a drive-by because the image shows clear motion blur in the scene, your conscious logical mind knows that the photographer is in motion while the scenery is not. Yet another part of your mind can’t help but perceive the scenery as moving too, because the unconscious, automated processes of perception interpret linear blur as movement. Here a delightful ambiguity between motion and stillness emerges. The scene is still and also moving. The photographer is moving and also still in his or her seat. In drive-by photography we can play with motion in stillness, and stillness in motion. This type of photography tells us, as does modern physics, that things move only in relation to other things. That’s how the universe works. That’s the cosmic on-the-road journey.

CLICK THE IMAGES for explanations of them!

Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this image in flickr?

If you enjoyed this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:

Mindfulness in Photography
Movement in Photographs
One Spot Shots

For more examples of drive-by photos, visit my Drive-By set in Flickr.

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche