Person walking a path in the country with a tripod in hand.

Traveling Cross Country? How to Photograph Your Trip

Upon embarking on my first cross-country road trip, I went to the internet in search of tips suggested by fellow photographers who have also made this iconic exploration. To my surprise, there were precious few articles depicting the experience of others in relation to the photographic aspect of the trip. In my search, however, I did come across a wonderfully inspiring photographer, Amelia Fletcher, who, with the help of a crowd-funding website, trekked across the country on a sole mission to photograph its landscape and inhabitants. This type of trek, of course, is nothing new. It follows in the footsteps of world renowned photographers such as Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, and William Eggleston just to name a few (do yourself a favor and look these up!). Fletcher was generous with her time after her trip and answered a few questions for me. Continue reading to discover what she had in her camera bag, how she approached subjects to photograph, and what her best successes and failures were.


© Amelia Fletcher

Cortigiano: What were your photographic intentions and/or goals when you first set out to cross the country by car?

Fletcher: My photographic goals were comparable to my other hopes for the trip. I wanted to put myself out there, experience different cultures and ways of life here in the United States, and see this beautiful country we live in as best I could. My hope was that my photos would reflect all of that. Everyone and everything I photographed has some type of story that goes with it. I didn’t want my images to be that of an outsider, but of someone who immersed themselves in this traveler lifestyle and all that entails. The portraits of each person in the series are portraits of people I spent time with, often a lot of time.


© Amelia Fletcher

Cortigiano: How did you decide what kind of gear to bring along? Did you ultimately feel like you made the right choices, was there anything you wish you had, something crucial your forgot, or something that was too cumbersome along the way?

Fletcher: I try to pack light everywhere I go, and use natural light whenever possible, so I brought almost everything I have as far as gear goes:

I would have loved a 24mm lens for night photography, a 70-200mm lens for wildlife, and a strobe setup, but ultimately feel like I made the right choices in what I brought. I don’t think that having the extra gear would have affected my work very much. When you’re on a budget and living out of your car you have to be very selective.


© Amelia Fletcher

I have 16GB and 32GB memory cards, and since I had my laptop with me I was able to transfer everything when they were close to filling up. Right before I left for the trip I signed up for CrashPlan, it’s an awesome app that backs up all your work online automatically. My smart phone really came in handy with GPS and places to stop. I’ve heard it makes a great camera too but haven’t tried that yet 🙂 And although it’s not tangible, please don’t go anywhere without insurance. Things happen.


© Amelia Fletcher

Cortigiano: How did you engage with the people you met along the way? What was your approach when asking subjects to take picture of them or their properties/belongings?

Fletcher: One night over a campfire in Lake Tahoe I was talking to another photographer about portraits. A professor had once told him that it was extremely important to ask someone before taking their photo as a sign of respect. In a way the photographer is using the subject for their own personal gain. I can see where the professor is coming from, and I know I don’t like it when someone takes my photo without asking, but my intention is that each person that lets me create an image of them gets as much out of it as I do. I never want anyone I photograph to feel they are being used. For this reason I always ask permission and make sure he or she is comfortable with the idea. In most cases it’s someone I had gotten to know, someone who knew about my project and wanted to be a part of it. My approach is always something along the lines of “Would you be willing to let me photograph you.” I was told no once, he wasn’t comfortable with being photographed and hoped I understood. I felt embarrassed for asking him and embarrassed for assuming he would say yes. This was before the conversation in Lake Tahoe. After that I approach people much more humbly.


© Amelia Fletcher

Cortigiano: What would be your recommendation for someone taking this trip in a short amount of time vs. a more leisurely excursion? Are there any situations that simply must be done, seen, or photographed?

Fletcher: Plan ahead, no matter how long your trip, and pack light. That is the best advice I can give! It’s always good to have an itinerary even if it’s really loose. Delays and mishaps will come up, and that’s ok, but it’s good to know what you want to see and do beforehand. Ask the internet, ask friends, ask locals once you arrive. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you traveled all that way and missed the best parts because you didn’t know about them. (Example- I didn’t do enough research on Arizona and drove right by “The Wave.”  According to Google it’s amazing.) Also, you must be willing to put yourself outside your comfort zone and go with the flow.


© Amelia Fletcher

Cortigiano: What most inspired you while on the road? What most surprised you after all was said and done?

Fletcher: What most inspired me and most surprised me is the kindness of people, especially complete strangers. I was at a laundromat in the middle of nowhere, Texas and a lady struck up a conversation with me then invited me to her family’s home for dinner. I stayed with friends of friends I’d never met, organic farm owners that taught me about what they do, and I raised double the amount of my goal for the trip on a crowd-funding website. People are my favorite subject to photograph because we are all so uniquely complex. It’s inspiring to me to see the good in us.


© Amelia Fletcher

Cortigiano: Is there anything you would do differently if given the opportunity to take a similar trip?

Fletcher: Yes. I would go see The Wave. Ha! But also I would try and spend a little more time in a little less places instead of trying to fit every single thing into a short amount of time. I would prioritize a bit more.


© Amelia Fletcher

Cortigiano: What was your method of sharing the work you were creating on the road? Were you sharing as you shot or culling your photos in larger batches? Did they ever make it into print?

Fletcher: I share all of my work through social media and photo sharing sites (links below). I culled everything down and edited as I had time, so I didn’t finish up until just recently. A few have made it into print as perks for the people who so kindly donated to my campaign for the trip. I’d love to publish a book but haven’t gotten to that point yet.

© Amelia Fletcher

Cortigiano: Has the work you created during your trip had any affect on the work you are producing now?

Fletcher: Yes. The world looks a little different than it did before, I grew up a bit over the last year through taking this trip and that in turn transformed the way I work, in small and big ways. I’m excited to see what happens in 2015. Although I probably knew it all along, this adventure gave me the confidence and motivation to make photography my full-time career and dive right into making that so. I’m booking weddings, working on agency representation, contacting editorial gigs, and taking business seminars. It’s all new to me but I figure if I can make it cross-country on my own I can figure out how to make a living! Aesthetically my work hasn’t changed much aside from a little less editing.


© Amelia Fletcher

Shortly after finishing my cross country trip to relocate to a new part of the country, I reflected on Fletcher’s practical photographic lessons. I had to get across the country quickly by car and it is hard to photograph under those circumstances. I compiled some additional tips for others who may be faced with a similar trip and who want to take pictures along the way. 


© Kymberly Cortigiano

Packing a Bag: Bring What You Know, Pack Light

I logged a lot of internet hours trying to decide what was best to include in my camera bag before departing. What I ultimately decided on was to pack simple and not include any new systems that may trip me up when trying to act fast. I was very interested in shooting with a mirrorless camera. However, on the test run I decided against it because I was just not familiar enough with it. I knew it was better for me to be able to quickly navigate my settings than to sacrifice for weight and size. Had I gotten comfortable with a more compact system and felt confident that I would be able to act fast with it, I would have certainly opted for a small form factor!


© Kymberly Cortigiano

Instead I chose a Nikon D7100 for its relatively lightweight body, familiar DSLR controls, and 24MP count with an option to shoot video. The crop sensor was a conscious decision as I am still very excited about using the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC zoom lens and wanted to put it to the the ultimate test while on the road (it performed fantastically)!


© Kymberly Cortigiano

The magnification increase of the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 when paired with a crop sensor body allowed me an effectively longer focal length than if I was using a full frame sensor. I also wanted a fast aperture lens. Lastly, the Vibration Reduction technology was crucial to my success.


© Kymberly Cortigiano

To round out my kit selection I went with the Nikon 10-24 DX wide angle lens for shooting vistas and general landscape. Since I chose a DX lens that was made specifically to fit the crop sensor of the D7100, I was able to take full advantage of the wide angle-of-view.

winde ca graveyerd

© Kymberly Cortigiano

I also brought a small reflector, extra batteries and memory cards, a lens cleaning cloth, laptop, and a mini hard drive. Like I said, simple. One thing I wished I brought was a circular polarizing filter. I suggest these on a daily basis to customers calling in for recommendations on what to bring on their next big trip regardless of where they are going. I wish I hadn’t second guessed myself and followed my own advice!


© Kymberly Cortigiano

Set and Forget: The Benefits of Semi-Auto Modes

It took me about a day to nail down the settings I found myself consistently shooting out the window with (again, I was trying to get to point A to B as quickly as possible which meant stops were mostly limited to fuel and bathroom breaks). From my experience I found it best to shoot with Shutter Priority Mode (Tv Mode in Canon) for semi-auto exposure. I shot at a super high shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second to freeze motion and would adjust the exposure compensation for fine tuning.


© Kymberly Cortigiano

If you are having problems shooting at such a high shutter, try bumping your ISO (grain is back!) or physically track your subject as you move past it. I also set the Nikon 70-200’s VR setting to action mode to offset motion blur caused by handholding.


© Kymberly Cortigiano

Since I was shooting out of the window, I chose continuous focus mode (AF-C for Nikon and AI Servo AF for Canon). It was useful for keeping moving objects sharp within the viewfinder as I quickly drove past. In continuous focusing mode, the camera detects movements and refocuses accordingly to keep the subject sharp. This mode uses a lot of battery because it is continuously focusing, hence the need for extra batteries.


© Kymberly Cortigiano

Lastly, something I did not do but that you may want to consider is continuous shooting mode. Since I was on a 5 day/10 hours-a-day road trip I opted out of this shooting mode for fear of ending up with way too many images to cull afterwards. On the other hand, this mode would have been good for the the very unexpected spray-and-pray moments that cannot be anticipated, such as the heard of sheep surrounded by coyotes on the side of the road that is on my list of missed shooting opportunities. Again, a pitfall of this setting is battery life. To alleviate this concern invest in power inverter for your car.


© Kymberly Cortigiano

Sweating the Details: Self Stabilization, Clean Windows, and More

Everybody knows that it is much more ideal to roll down the window before shooting out of it for clarity’s sake. There are times when this is simply not possible despite your best efforts. Keep your windows as clean as possible and give them a good wipe down each time you stop at a gas station. Rain-X is a good solution, especially if you are experiencing a lot of inclement weather on your trip. You can also get some interesting shots of beaded water droplets.


© Kymberly Cortigiano

Shoot more than what you are seeing out the window and consider what is happening in and around the car, a la Lee Friedlander. A road trip is just as much about the experience as it is the destination. Try capturing the essence of memories created and storytelling portions of your trip.


© Kymberly Cortigiano

I found it hugely beneficial to have a bean bag pillow to rest my camera on when I wasn’t shooting and was partial to the ZippaRoll for its compactness. I was also able to use it to absorb the shock from the road when shooting out the window. Also available is the SkimmerSack Bean Bag that drapes over your window to rest long heavy lenses on.


© Kymberly Cortigiano

My last piece of advice that isn’t photography related at all, but rather environment-related. Bring your own travel coffee mug! It was my experience that the only disposable option for coffee or tea (or hot chocolate for that matter) were styrofoam cups. Not only is styrofoam the worst form of waste but they charge more for the beverage – since using your own mug is charged as a refill in many places. Save the environment plus save your money equals win! Plus the coffee may help you stay alert for those rare coyote-and-sheep moments.

Cortigiano is a food, lifestyle, and event photographer with a contemporary aesthetic. She received an undergraduate degree in photography at Drexel University and has gone on to work as a freelance photographer and teaching artist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get 20% your first rental with promo code BLOG20

Mirrorless, Medium
Format and more.

Anamorphic, Cinema,
Wide Angle and more.

Aputure, Manfrotto,
Profoto and more.

About BL

BorrowLenses is an online camera gear rental service that started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. We offer a wide selection of camera gear ranging from camera bodies, lenses, lighting and accessories. We make it easy to rent gear by shipping your order straight to you.