In all of my years driving the old highways I’ve learned a thing or two about how to photograph a road. Here’s how not to do it: straight on, from eye level, like this.
I’ve made dozens, maybe hundreds of shots like this as I’ve documented old roads around the Midwest. As a piece of documentary work it’s fine, as this road is hereby documented. It’s good that I documented it, for three reasons. First, this is historic pavement that carried the old Dixie Highway. Second, it is from the early 1920s (I estimate) before they figured out you need to put expansion joints in or the concrete will crack as it will. Little of this continuous concrete remains anywhere. Third, you can no longer visit it as it was destroyed in about 2017 when an Interstate highway exit was built here. This image is very interesting to roadgeeks.
But as a photograph, it’s boring. When photographing roads, you have to find the interest, or add it. I aim to show you here what I’ve learned about how to do that.
Before I go on, let me say be careful photographing roads. The cars on them can maim or kill you. (Unless the road is abandoned!) Make sure the road is clear of traffic both ways before you step into it. Wait for a quiet moment an listen carefully for vehicles. Work quickly — do not lose yourself in the photographic process. Get in and get out.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
You don’t need special equipment. I made most of these images with point-and-shoot digital cameras and occasionally my iPhone.
I do some level of post-processing in Photoshop, most commonly to boost contrast and and adjust exposure as I like it. If Photoshop is too rich for your blood there are a few less-expensive alternatives. That’s more than I can tackle here; Google can help you with that.
I wish I could always make road trips on good-light days. I can’t. I get the light I get. You’ll see that in the examples that follow. But light matters a lot, for all the reasons light always matters in a photograph.
Sometimes I get lucky, though. I made this photo as late-afternoon sun cast long, soft shadows.
The gloomy sky and diffuse light heighten this road’s desolation.
A road in a photograph naturally guides the eye. Eyes find curves more interesting than straights.
Does the road disappear around the bend? Use it; it adds mystery. Where is the road going?
Something crossing the road, or appearing to cross the road, often adds interest. Here this abandoned road is juxtaposed with a bridge carrying this road’s current alignment.
Here, a rusty old railroad overpass gives you something to look at other than pavement.
This hairpin turn is interesting by itself, but because of challenging terrain it was difficult to find a great angle on it. So instead I brought in the rising hill behind it.
The rising hill and the low placement of this long road create contrast. I made this photograph from the passenger seat of the car while my wife was driving, by the way. The windshield tint doesn’t do your colors any favors, but fortunately a quick hit of Auto Tone and/or Auto Color in Photoshop almost always clears it away.
Look for interesting things by the roadside
Objects by the roadside let you photograph a straight road at an angle. I usually put the object on one of the rule-of-thirds lines.
How improbable to find a basketball goal on this abandoned highway!
Make the road the backdrop
Sometimes the roadside object can become the subject, with the road passing by in the background.
Making the most of straight-ahead shots
Sometimes none of the above tips work in your situation, and all you have to work with is a straight-ahead shot. Sometimes, if you crouch lower you can pick up interesting textures in the road to add interest.
Sometimes a rolling hill can add a little drama.
Perhaps the surroundings can act as a frame, creating a tunnel effect.
There you have it, everything I’ve learned about making interesting road photographs. Go forth and stand in some roads. Carefully!
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Last updated on 14 March 2020 by Jim Grey