Introducing Phoadtography

It is going to be a struggle to make my blog quota for this month.  I only have one to go after today’s entry, but currently in the midst of something that is limiting my access to the Internet which quite frankly is a pretty important component to blogging.  I will try my best, but the Life Intrigued Complaint Department might get a little busy on Dec 1st.  I did want to pull away from my current activities and introduce you to one of my new favorite pastimes (and provide a lead-in to some future posts).  Let’s get right to the topic shall we?  I would like to introduce you to:

PHOADTOGRAPHY: The fun activity of taking photographs of various interesting subjects while cruising down the road usually at a high rate of speed.  This pastime can be performed by anyone in the vehicle except the driver and only requires a digital camera with high shutter speeds and/or high ISO capabilities.

Pretty clever eh, combining two nouns representing the two key components of the activity and forming a new word.  Okay, admittedly it is kind of lame, but there is one key aspect of this …. no one has taken it (yep, I checked Google) which means it is ALL MINE (true to copyright rules, the act of putting this concept out for public consumption today makes me the rights holder!).  Note, the name is unique, but others already have galleries out there with snaps from the road … I just have a new not-so-clever name for it.

As a little background, I have been twiddling around with this for a number of years in a desperate attempt to put some fun into long vacation rides. It really started by trying to take pictures of various state signs as I crossed the borders.  This had a side benefit of putting a place holder in my digital image cards so I knew at least what state I was in when a group of pictures was taken.  It then evolved into a little game trying to get the sign centered on the frame as I flew by at 65+ mph.  From there it evolved into trying to capture other interesting things discovered in our cross-country jaunts.  Due to some inner ear issues, my wife prefers to stay off of planes as much as possible, so our vacations tend to have a lot of car travel in them, giving me plenty of time to hone my craft.

Every activity is a little more exciting if you are trying to reach some kind of achievement/goal.  In the process of refining phoadtography, I have set a context (guidelines if you will) that hopefully make this a little more entertaining and potentially more challenging to boot.

Rule #1: A little blur is okay, a lot of blur is not:  Clearly it is going to be hard to get anything really tack sharp when you are shooting from inside a car traveling down the road.  Not only do you have the motion of the vehicle to worry about, you are often shooting through a window, typically spotting subjects, focusing and snapping in under 2 seconds and with all that trying to compose around other moving objects.  Do your best and I highly recommend fast glass.  My preferred glass is a Nikon 2.8 end to end zoom

Rule #2: Grain is the name of the game:  There is really no way around it unless you want to take a mortgage out on your house to buy the mega-glass and if you are like me, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  To compensate, you have to jack up the ISO to help freeze the image and we should all know by now what that does to the overall quality of the image… GRAIN.  Learn to love it and at worst case, employ a little noise cleanup software (the new Lightroom 3 does a pretty awesome job by the way).  On the highway on sunny days, my ISO is usually set on 1600, but off the highway it can go down to 800 without issue.  This changes during the day which just adds to the challenge.

Rule #3: Horizontal trumps Vertical:  When you are at a shoot with your tripods at the ready and your assistants fluttering about, composition separates the men from the boys (and of course the equipment bank account).  On the road, it is a different story.  If you have time to compose, you are probably holding up traffic.  Instead, the task is horizontal centering.  The goal is to hit the shutter at the exact moment in time that is centered horizontally on the frame.  This can be made easier or significantly more difficult depending on the glass you happen to be using.  Over the years, I have become pretty good at the required timing and actually use a 70-200 zoom usually at the extent.  When you are just starting out, you might want to use a wide glass or pull that zoom all the way back to give you more frame space to work with.  One critical requirement comes into play here.  If you are going to be showing off your centering skilz, no cropping allowed in post processing (and yes, we can tell!)

Here is an example of horizontal centering.  Admittedly the car wasn’t going 65 at the time, but this is a good shot of a well centered sign snap (from a lettering perspective).

hit the jump to see the rest of the rules and some examples from the road

Rule #4: Imagination takes you only so far:  With standard photography the goal is to position yourself in such a way that the subject of the shot is in the best possible position in  respect to its surroundings.  That is a luxury that does not exist with phoadtography.  In fact, this might be the toughest part of this activity.  Actually, for those budding photographers out there struggling with composition, this may be a great way to take some stress off since the goal is to get the subject visible somewhere on the frame regardless of what is around it.  But the key word here is visible.  Sure, we can fill in some small details due to the occasional clip, but the viewer will need something as a basis to do that.  Here is a perfect example.  I happen to like unique bridges having spent a significant amount of time building one myself.  What do you think of this particular bridge that was taken on our trip to Maine?

Pretty cool don’t you think?  Okay, there is a slight problem here in the sense you probably have no idea what it looks like due to the huge black void in the middle of the shot.  Turns out I was taking this particular shot while on another bridge which had supports positioned at various parts of the span.  This happened to be taken at the exact same time the car was passing one of those metal beams.  This is when the camera viewer comes in handy.  A quick check of the camera back showed the unfortunate timing and allowed me to get another shot in before it was too late.  Guessing this looks a lot more interesting to  you.

Rule #5: There is only one Leaning Tower of Pisa:  This is not so much a rule as a guideline since actually meeting this rule requires a healthy dose of luck.  As you are engaged in your phoadtography activities you will come across interesting buildings and other subjects for that matter that are vertical in design.  Trying to maintain that alignment while snapping a picture on the road is a difficult task.  Typically you get one or two, at best, shots at a subject.  The pressure of the time, coupled with the horizontal centering goal leaves very little time for vertical alignment considerations.  You are going to get some lean and everyone will accept that.

For example, take this particular shot here.  My guess is this particular orientation would make a lot of people nervous downtown.  Either it’s taken in San Francisco or we might be a little off on the vertical orientation of the camera.  I’d have to give this effort about a ‘good’ rating since the two building are actually in the frame.

This one is a little better and heck, let’s just give it a ‘better” grade since the building are again in frame and the angle (easier to judge if you measure against the right side of the image) is improved over the first, but still has a Pisa look to it.

On the other hand, this particular shot gets a ‘great’ rating.  It is going to be real tough to improve much on this without the aid of a stabilizing device and the buildings are both in the frame quite nicely.  This is the goal, but don’t get discouraged if you don’t always achieve it – if it was easy, it wouldn’t be that entertaining, trust me.

Let’s test your ratings skilz.  This is another one of my building shots taken while heading to Maine last year.  Your rating?

If you said anything more than a ‘D’ you are too kind but welcome to grade all the rest of my Pisa shots so favorably in the future.

Rule #6: Mirror slap painless, legal slap painful:  This probably goes without saying, but try to keep your phoadtography efforts within legal bounds.   Having your driver go through a person’s yard to get a shot of their weird lawn ornament is not condoned or appreciated by the house owner regardless of just how bizarre that gnome may look.  That is a universal rule of thumb, but various states have additional laws regarding photography you may not be aware of.  One I was not aware of and gaining momentum across the states are bans on photographing police agency personnel.  I am not entirely sure of the reasoning behind this other than the numerous examples of images being taken out of context or construed to reflect a different truth.  Regardless of the intent, laws are laws and I am in no way suggesting behavior outside those parameters.  So shots like the following may not be allowed depending on the state you are in.  This particular cop was literally taking a photograph of me so decided it would be okay since he didn’t seem to be in an enforcement mode… or they needed some 8×10 color glossy pictures with a paragraph on the back of each one (any Alice’s Restaurant fans out there?)

Rule #7: Have some respect for the unfortunate:  If you travel by car for any extended amount of time it is highly likely you will come upon some form of tragedy either due to a wreck or other misfortune on the side of the road.  Be considerate of those involved and if you really feel compelled to take a shot due to the extent of the damage, keep your photos free of victims, care givers and emotional onlookers.  Put yourself in their shoes and make the appropriate decisions.

Rule #8: Photography is about the what, not the who:  This particular rule may also be an extension of the legal rule above, but for the benefit of all, remove indicators that identify specific individuals.  For example, license plate numbers, addresses and other personal numbers should be blocked out before putting images up for public display.  Permission is a sticky game best left up to people with more time than you likely have to spare.  Prevent the hassle and cut the subjects a slight break.  Everyone has done something stupid in life and god knows how relieved I am not to have pictures of those gaffes to hold over my head the rest of my life (go to some retirement parties if you want a feel for why this is important).

Rule #9: If it feels like work, you are not doing it right.  The intent of this is to have fun and help pass the travel time.  You will be amazed at how much shorter trips feel when you are focused on the surroundings and not the dash clock.  Now go grab a designated driver and get out there and capture all those unique scenes you missed while reading a book or heaven help us backseat driving.

In an effort to get your creative juices flowing, here is sampling of some phoadtography shots taken while on our trip to Maine in June of this year.

One area of personal creativity is mailboxes.  There are a lot of unique decorations and ornate mailbox holders out there ready to greet you as you pass by their curbs.  Some of these provide a glimpse into their occupations, others provide insights into their hobbies or interests and quite frankly there are some out there which may be a plea for help.

Every once in awhile you come upon a strange coincidence that might intrigue you for any number of reasons.  This one caught my eye for a couple of reasons.  The first is my distaste for the Prius (a personal thing and not going into it here).  Add that to the fact we come up on two of them exactly the same color and from the same state resulted in a shutter snap.  I wonder if they have the motorcycle courtesy and give themselves some kind of acknowledgment when they pass (like maybe the finger ha!)

And then there are those things that you just don’t see every day and likely that is for a reason.  In this situation, not only does one wonder how they got that ATV in there, but also how are they going to get it back out.  To their credit they managed to keep the top on which probably made the travel a lot more pleasant.

While in Maine, we managed to make it out to one of the overlooks around 4am to capture some sunrise shots.  This is one of the first places in the US to get the sun so it had some novelty to it as well.  I only mention this because of the following images taken at sundown from a vehicle traveling at 70mph which rival those shots taken with great preparation.

In true phoadtography spirit, this sunset picture has the always present power lines gracefully snaking through the middle of the shot.  Although definitely not planned, I did appreciate the overall alignment of the lines to the graduation in the sunset colors.

Of course, popular phoadtography subjects are strange large objects in unusual places.  This yellow monstrosity fits that grouping.  Not only is it large, it appears to be sitting in the middle of a residential area making it very strange indeed.

I am not sure if I am just noticing it more now or the practice of putting statues in various parts of a city is becoming more popular.  In either case, there are a lot of these objects out there positioned as attention getters or historical markers.  Still a win in my book especially if they are again unique or way out of place to its surroundings.

A staple of this activity are signs.  Some of them are basic building signage that make you chuckle because of funny lines or juxtapositions.  The following made me laugh at loud.  It is almost a nod to the defendants in the sense that it appears they are the benefits of having a nice lawyer, not likely the people hiring them.  Rarely do you see the words nice and law firm in the same sentence, much less in bold letters on the front of a building.

You would think in the digital age, the billboard would be nearing its end of life.  The Internet, ubiquitous TV and targeted marketing seem like much better approaches to spending marketing dollars.  However, on the major highways, you can still get a healthy dose of advertisements littering the countryside.  This was before the liberal agenda smackdown vote making this particular sign a foreshadowing.

My favorite is still the South Dakota “We in SD shun all animal activists” billboard, but there are plenty of less serious billboards out there.  In the following image, I’m not sure exactly what is being marketed.  On one hand it could be clever McDonald’s add, but on the other hand the gutter was calling … you get my drift.

More rare is the practice of putting images in barn shingles.  This was more common in my childhood, but there are still examples of it today – few and far between.. but still out there.  I have also dabbled a lot in mosaics from a graphic/artist perspective so these block like images have a definite appeal to me.  This pony below came out quite nice – maybe not law firm nice, but still nice.

Ah, corporate mascots.  You have to love them especially when they make a 40′ statue of it and couple it with a digital screen showing some form of a cartoon advertisement.  No question here regarding what company inhabits the associated building.

In the last couple of years, the blowup creatures have come storming onto the scene.  This may be a byproduct of the holiday air blown decorations popularity or they just might be cheap attention getters.  In either case, it works on the attention front (and thus the effort to phoadtograph them) but from a marketing perspective I’m not sure if I’d buy a car just because they had giant purple lizard on their roof.  But I may be in the minority here (although I hope not)

Unusual architecture is also a common phoadtography topic.  Especially if you don’t live in a big city and not accustomed to the larger construction going on in and around those cities.  This one was sitting out on its own and I believe it was a technical university – not sure on that.  It had an interesting shape to it and warranted a quick shot.

Most of today’s water towers are standard shaped and boring.  Every once in awhile you stumble upon one with a little bit of creativity in its design or a unique paint job to make it stand out.  Clearly Hamburg is a resting ground for a Men in Black alien getaway ship.

How about an ambulance in the graphic stylings of that 80’s hair band Stryper.  I guess if you have to go to the hospital, listening to a religious heavy metal (joke of course)  band might make it a little more pleasant.  This was slightly amusing in the sense that you might actually need this vehicle if you were “struck” by something (get it?.. sorry, nevermind)

And of course any shot of a fine Caterpillar product in the field is ALWAYS a good subject.  I may be a little biased here.

Well, there you have it.  Hopefully you are now inspired enough to get out there and participate in your own phoadtography shoots.  If not, maybe you got some enjoyment out of the various images.  Thanks for listening and take care.

On a side note, this post was actually written from the road so apologies for any typos etc. – my battery has about 10 minutes left in it before I lose everything so pressure was on.  I’ll try and fix those up when I get back home.

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