Photography, Road Trips

How to photograph a road

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.

Concrete road

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:

Equipment

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.

Light

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.

Brick Rd.

The gloomy sky and diffuse light heighten this road’s desolation.

Narrow road among the rocks

Curves

A road in a photograph naturally guides the eye. Eyes find curves more interesting than straights.

US 40 in Putnam County, Indiana

Does the road disappear around the bend? Use it; it adds mystery. Where is the road going?

Indiana State Road 45
On N59, County Galway
Gravel National Road segment

Juxtaposition

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.

Brick road leading to the Blaine S Bridge

Here, a rusty old railroad overpass gives you something to look at other than pavement.

Railroad overpass

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.

Glengesh Pass

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.

Rural Irish road, Co. Galway

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.

Old US 36

How improbable to find a basketball goal on this abandoned highway!

Basketball on the road

Make the road the backdrop

Sometimes the roadside object can become the subject, with the road passing by in the background.

Sycamore Row
Jct 52

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.

Brick Route 66

Sometimes a rolling hill can add a little drama.

Oklahoma Concrete Route 66

Perhaps the surroundings can act as a frame, creating a tunnel effect.

PP-OO in Indiana

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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17 thoughts on “How to photograph a road

  1. Jim, I first came to your site via mutual interest in old roads, and I still enjoy most the old road posts you make. Any chance you’d identify these locations? In particular, the “desolate scene” (looks like the original Lincoln Hwy alignment where it is lost in the PA coalfields) and the brick under the 1920/30s arch bridge. Thanks!

    Like

    • Here’s a key to all of the photos!

      1: Old Dixie Highway/Old SR 37 south of Martinsville, IN (destroyed)
      2: Brick Road, original alignment of National Road, near Nowrich, OH
      3: Rural road near Lettermore, Co. Galway, Ireland
      4: US 40, Putnam County, IN
      5: State Road 45 in Yellowwood State Forest, near Needmore, IN
      6: N59, Co. Galway, Ireland
      7: West County Road 725 South, old alignment of National Road, near Reelsville, IN
      8: Abandoned National Road/US 40 near Blaine, OH
      9: Old US 40/National Road near Knightstown, IN
      10: Glengesh Pass, Co. Donegal, Ireland
      11: R344, Connemara, Co. Galway, Ireland
      12: Old US 36 near Bellmore, Parke County, IN
      13: Abandoned US 40/National Road near Martinsville, IL
      14: Sycamore Row, abandoned Michigan Road/State Road 29, near Deer Creek, IN
      15: State Road 47 near its intersection with US 52, Boone County, IN
      16: Old US 66 north of Auburn, IL
      17: Old US 66 near Hydro, OK
      18: W County Road 40 N, old US 36, former Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, between Rockville and Montezuma, IN

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jon campo says:

    Good tips Jim. I always look for the old roads when I wander around New England. Between our harsh climate and all the development there isn’t a lot left, but we do have some nice bits and bobs here and there. I found the remains of an old Colonial toll road practically in my backyard after someone discovered it while doing a title search. Very interesting stuff.

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    • You bump into that kind of thing even here in Indiana. I’ve had people tell me that old alignments of major old roads lay on their property, out of sight, crumbling.

      Like

    • Jon, since moving to CT several years ago, I’ve noticed there are a lot of “old roads” but they are usuallyt ust short stretchs (a few tenths of a mile), mostly tight curves which have been eased. Old Rt 3 through Franconia region can be tracked in some places as well, same with 302 over Crawford.

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      • jon campo says:

        Yes, there’s not a lot left for sure. I would never have known about this road if someone hadn’t pointed it out, it’s pretty unrecognizable. I’m hoping to move out of Connecticut in a few years. Enjoying the local history while I can.

        Like

  3. Dan Cluley says:

    Of your rotating header photos, the US40 in Putnam county is one of my two favorites. (the long yellow truss bridge is the other)

    IMGP5844
    Not my best work artistically, but I think this is my current favorite picture taken of a road. That is the entire length of SR520, the shortest state highway in Indiana.

    Like

    • That is one short highway! Another shorty I know is SR 329, between SR 29 and SR 25 in Logansport. 0.4 miles.

      I’ve always been pleased with the US 40 in Putnam photo, too.

      Like

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