Rural Photography On The Cheap

When you get your first hammer, everything becomes a nail.
When you get your first camera, everything becomes a photograph.

If you’re anything like me: you live in a city and work in a basement office, but yearn for those days when you lived out in the country.

I’ve done rural photography for a decade now. It’s been my experience that you don’t just find a bunch of little places to go — it’s all one big place, and it’s your sworn duty as a landscape photographer to explore every square inch of it!

I’ve never been caught trespassing (yet), and police have only spoken to me once: An officer asked me why I was “leaning on a fencepost” while photographing a sunset. Looking back on the experience, I think he was more concerned for me being parked on the shoulder of a four-lane state highway with a 65mph speed limit. It’s much safer to stick to ‘section line roads’ out in jack nowhere. Besides, the whole point of this endeavor is to find those little nooks and crannies that most people don’t notice. And yes, the photo I took from the side of that road wasn’t all that interesting.

Before you leave

Pack the usual: camera, tripod, circular polarizer, neutral density filters, but think twice about bringing lights/flash. You don’t want to attract any more attention than you already are. If you really need fill light, consider a foldable reflector sheet.

Bring a cooler with plenty of water. But unless you’re hiking several miles away from your vehicle, leave the cooler in the car and carry a single bottle with you. Don’t litter.

If you think “I don’t need no stinkin’ map! The best photos are found when I’m totally lost!”, be mindful of how much gas you have in your car. Oh, and resist the urge to check the GPS map on your phone every five minutes — you’ll never get lost if you keep fiddling with that thing! But on the flipside:

Put your smartphone to good use

Get a good idea where the signal will drop out: listen to online radio. You don’t want to find yourself in a bad situation without a signal. Go to each cell carrier’s website and check their coverage map. It’s been my experience that AT&T hasn’t expanded their 3G network into very many rural areas. You’ll likely get a phone signal, but data will be dog slow. Verizon offers 3G (and 4G now) in places as remote as western Kansas.

Sleeping in your car

A few years ago, I was hired to photograph a new McDonald’s at sunrise — 6:15am. Instead of leaving at 3:am to get there at 6:am, I left home at 11:pm and arrived at 2:am. So, I had a few hours to catch a nap. This particular McDonald’s was on the turnpike, and knowing that I couldn’t get any sleep with all the trucks whizzing by, I stopped at the nearest small town, parked in the dark corner of a unused derelict gas station, and opened a side window slightly to get a breeze going. I set the alarm on my phone, and tried to nod off. Just as I was getting there… BZZZZ BZZ-BZZZT!!!

I jumped out of bed (“MY HAIR!”), and thought my van was about to explode or something. No, a junebug found the glow of my cell phone interesting, climbed in and and couldn’t get back out. It was rattling on the back window — which doesn’t open unless I press a button, so I pressed the button. BEEEP! BEEEP! BEEEP! My van seemed quite pleased to announce to the inhabitants of this small town that, yes indeed, the back door was opening at 3:15am, and y’all better stand the heck back!

I jumped out, grabbed my blanket, shooed-away the already terrified junebug, hopped back in and tried to get back to sleep. It wasn’t three minutes, and a cop car comes creeping around the corner of the gas station. It parks right next to my van and sits there.

I’m expecting a flashlight at my window any minute now, and my brain is frantically trying to fabricate an excuse as to why there was a loud beeping sound two minutes ago, and I’m sprawled out in the back of my van alone with no pants on while parked in the corner of a dark parking lot. “Well, officer, I’m just trying to catch some sleep before I take pictures of that McDonald’s up on the hill, but there was this june bug, you see..” He never gets out of his car, just sits there. He was either waiting for speeders, or considering the same thing I’m doing — getting some sleep here in this awesomely dark parking lot! Who knows, he takes off a couple minutes later, and my heart rate calms down enough to let me sleep.

So, what did we learn, kids:

You have to be there when the light is perfect. If you can’t arrive at the right time, camp out and wait. If you have a van, take out the seats, and sleep on a foam mattress in the back. Tinted windows are a plus. Turn off your engine, and don’t draw attention to yourself. Check the weather on your phone to know how cold it will get overnight. Set the alarm clock, roll up your windows, and LOCK YOUR DOORS.

There’s no reason to be afraid to sleep in your car, as long as you park where the average person will expect you to be, and/or where nobody will bug you. Look for an area where a parked car wouldn’t seem out of place — designated rest areas, or that dark corner that you usually ignore. If you find some area uninteresting, chances are other people will find it boring and leave you alone. (If you’re a Doctor Who fan, consider those places to have “perception filters” on them. You have to look carefully to see them.)

Don’t park in hotel lots; they check license plates. If you park in a lot belonging to a business that’s closed for the night, check their hours and get the heck out of dodge before they open.

Being out in the middle of nowhere

While you’re out photographing, pay attention to where you park and be visible to oncoming traffic. Don’t park in the middle of the road (duh), don’t park immediately over a blind hill, don’t park on onramps/bridges/overpasses, don’t park in somebody else’s driveway, and don’t park in the ditch — you won’t get out unless you call a tow truck. Oh yeah, AAA is worth it for the towing service alone.

It’s best practice to ask permission before hopping fences, but don’t be surprised if you can’t find the nearest house. Some tracts of land are utterly enormous. But if you do hop the fence, you might not be able to sell the photos. (Private property laws, and so on.)

State / National Parks

If you want to get great landscape photos, go to the places that contain great landscapes.

Parks generally contain a higher percentage of gorgeous vistas than you can find by just driving around at random, but this makes them “photographer magnets.” In other words, you’ll never be alone:

Heck, just get out there and shoot! If you don’t, somebody else will get that shot!

This entry was posted in Tutorials.