I suspect that a lot of landscape and cityscape photographers, like myself, are not always able to devote the time necessary to wait for atmospheric conditions and astral bodies to be in that “ideal” position for the image you have in mind. Some of the early landscape masters were known to camp out for days waiting for all the variables to line up just so. The realities of needing to make a living and driving to and from work five days a week can, with minimal effort, be transformed into an approximate equivalent to an extended wait for the elements to align.
In brief, the method that I have used with success (all the photos accompanying this article are products of this methodology) involves a few very easy steps. It starts by keeping some photo equipment in your vehicle, then identifying interesting locations on the route between home and work. Each time you pass by, check to see if the conditions are good for photography. When everything looks right, you can stop and capture your photograph under optimal conditions. Although easy, patience is a necessary ingredient to make this method work.
This can run the gamut from a smartphone to a large format camera. I personally believe in keeping things simple. A DSLR, a favorite zoom and a tripod is on my minimal equipment list. A cable release and a polarizing filter are also helpful, and these require little extra effort. A word of caution here: the inside of your vehicle can subject your equipment to some extreme temperatures. The heat in summer can be minimized by storing your camera in a cloth insulated bag, and under a seat if possible. This provides some insulation from the heat and avoids direct sunlight. If you park in a shady spot on a hot day, the inside temperature will be dramatically lower. The cold temperatures in winter are usually not as bad for camera equipment (although it can drain batteries) compared to the heat of summer.
If you store your camera in a small equipment bag, you can easily carry it with you, avoiding the environmental extremes inside your vehicle. I would leave the tripod in the vehicle, as they are typically less susceptible to high and low temperatures. At times, I have stored my camera in a small, dry cooler, which provides excellent insulation from hot or cold temperatures (and has the added benefit of not being very attractive to would-be thieves). Having said all this, I admit that I still remove the camera from my vehicle when extreme temperatures are forecast.
In my opinion, it is how a person interprets a visual scene that separates a photographer from just someone with a camera. As such, identifying prospective scenes on your commute might be the easiest part of this method. It is likely that you are already performing this step on a sub-conscious level, if nothing else. It is important to make a list of these sites, as you need to keep a close eye on them when you pass by on your commute.
The quality and quantity of sites obviously depends on your route to work. Check parks, playgrounds, parking lots, or undeveloped land for opportunities. This works equally as well for landscape photography as it does for cityscapes. Again, this should be almost an intuitive exercise. To increase your opportunities, if feasible, take a different route home than to work. Like a fisherman who has many lines in the water at once, the more scenes you monitor, the better your chances of success.
The term “optimal” here is totally in the eye of the photographer. Living in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, I see a variety of conditions over the course of a year – clear, clouds, rain, snow, and fog. Every month, the moon will progress through its phases, accompanied by a variety of moonrise and moonset times. During summer months, the sun will be high above the horizon for both the morning and afternoon commutes, with a chance of dramatic thunderhead clouds. In late fall and early winter, I will witness the “golden hour” as it progress over my sites, culminating with both sunrise and sunsets occurring during my commute in December and January.
I hope you find this methodology a convenient way to incorporate photography into your work / family life balance. Who knows – you may even find yourself enthusiastically anticipating your drive into work, just to see the photo conditions at the sites you monitor
Thank you to Photography Life reader Douglas Middleton for this essay, published as part of our 2018 guest post contest!