Open the scrapbook of a trailer or motor home lover and you will see a few photographs of grandchildren, friends and family, and the occasional candid picture of life on the road. Here’s a picture of Brent and me in front of the trailer in Alaska. Here is a picture of the trailer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And another of the trailer in Denver, Colorado. Here is a picture of….
As you can tell, most of these pictures are of us and the trailer. A lot of times we can’t even tell where we are. There was some reason that compelled us to take the picture, but we can’t remember what it was. Pictures of our trailer bores most other people, but it is our home and life on the road, so important to us. We want to share it with others. So how do you capture an image of your motor home or trailer and make it look like the cover of Trailer Life?
Photographing your trailer or motor home represents some unique challenges in photographic technique and ability. The techniques used to photograph your vehicle on the road are no different from those taught in basic photography classes. You keep in mind perspective, good composition, and quality of light. For those of you who haven’t had Photography 101, here is a crash course.
It’s a Point of View
Perspective is the view the camera has of the subject. Every photograph tells a story, so the perspective helps the viewer with the story. Is the story about the people in the photograph? Then the camera should be close to them and their faces should fill the viewfinder or “frame”. If the story is about the location the people are visiting, then the camera should be far enough back from the people to include the background and clues to remind the viewer of where the photograph was taken.
If the story of the photograph is about some activity, then the perspective should show the activity and possibly the people involved. Is it because you just got back to the trailer after fishing all day and catching a big one? Then have them hold the fish up as you stand next to the trailer. Many RV photographers are so in love with their vehicles, the entire motor home or trailer must be in the viewfinder before they click the shutter. This tends to make the people having the barbeque in front of the motor home very small, almost invisible as the motor home and not the barbeque becomes the main subject. There are times when showing only part of the motor home or trailer is enough to give a sense of the experience and still capture the story of the photograph.
How many times have you gotten photographs back and wondered where it was taken, who these people are, what are they doing, and why did I take this picture in the first place? Stop for a moment and think about why you took the picture. A photograph must speak for itself and it must tell the story the photographer intended. When you brought your camera up to your eye in the first place, something compelled you. There was a moment, a feeling, some emotional quality that impelled you to dig out the camera. Find the story and tell it with your picture.
The Greeks and the Concert of the Eye
Art is not a new subject. Since the first scratch was made on a cave wall, there have been critics; people who don’t do the painting who pass judgment upon those who do. The Greeks, in particular, made the study and criticism of art a science, studying every aspect of is the difference between good art and “excellent” art. One of their conclusions is called the “Golden Mean” or the “Rule of Thirds”. This rule states that the “concert of the eye” is the most critical difference between a good picture and a great picture. A piece of art must flow in a smooth and rhythmic fashion through this concert of the eye. This concert is created by the placement of the most important subject(s) in the image, how long they hold our attention, and the movement between these subjects and the image.
There is a chronic plague that attacks many photographs. It is in direct violation of “Golden Mean”. Called the “Bull’s Eye Syndrome,” this is a chronic condition caused by the photographer being compelled to put the main subject smack in the center of the frame. The eye goes to this center and is held there, trapped forever, never moving. The subject is so strong, it acts like a magnet, pulling us back into the center every time we try to move away. This makes for a static and boring picture as the eye is halted.
When a subject is locked in the center of the frame, you feel like it has nowhere to go. It is trapped there. By moving it into one of the intersections of the Rule of Thirds, you give the subject a place to move to in your frame. Often overlooked is another dimension to your photograph. It is forward and backwards. People don’t only move sideways in a photograph, they move forward and backward. By placing your subject, be it a person or motor home, in the center of the image and having it move or about to move toward the camera, the viewer will sense the motion.
Make sure the eye follows a road or some line that points towards the viewer as you compose your photograph, or make sure that the main subject, the trailer or person, fills the frame, giving the illusion of them moving forward. It creates an exciting photograph.
The Rule of Thirds represents the notion of dividing your “frame” into thirds like a game of tic-tac-toe. If you place your main subject at one of the intersections of these lines, your image becomes instantly more interesting to the eye. The eye rests on the subject, and then moves around through the frame and comes back to rest again on the subject. The concert flows with a beat or two in the same place and then moves on. So the basic answer to battling Bull’s Eye Syndrome is to GET IT OUT OF THE CENTER.
A similar syndrome is caused by having the eye actually leave the concert, or the photograph. In your photo album I’m sure you have a photograph of Aunt Susan grinning with her arm outstretched towards the distance, but her hand is cut off, we don’t see what she is pointing to, so the concert of the eye in the photograph will look at Aunt Susan, recognize her, notice she is grinning, and then follow that arm out of the photograph. Then we will spend our time wondering what she is pointing at and what was so important about it, and not return to the photograph. In fact, even if someone nudges our attention back to the photograph, we’re still thinking about what is outside of the picture.
As you photograph your trailer or motor home, take into consideration its placement within the rectangle of the viewfinder. If it is locked into the center, it makes for a static and boring photograph. If it is cut off in an awkward way, does the viewer spend a lot of time wondering what is NOT in the picture rather than what is? Mentally draw the tic-tac-toe of the Rule of Thirds in your viewfinder and place your main subject in one of those intersections to simply and easily improve your photograph.
Light: It’s All in the Timing
The quality of light is probably the part of the photographed most often overlooked. A photographer makes a lot of decisions before they press the shutter. Light is a major part of the decision process. Once you understand the impact of light on your subject, you will learn to take advantage of the light as the top nature photographers in the world do to change their drab picture into a work of art.
The early morning and late afternoon when the sun is not overhead is the best time for photography. The warm colors found at these time illuminate your subject. Instead of seeing Aunt Susan washed out by the sun overhead with deep, dark shadows under her eyes, photographing her in the early morning or late afternoon gives her skin a warm glow with sparkles in her eyes and shadows off to the side or away from her face. The other best time is on a high overcast day. High thin clouds make shadows fade away and soften, and the natural colors of your subject can shine through.
Pay attention to the photographs of trailers and motor homes in magazines, especially those used by advertisers. Where is the sun? What color is the light? Where are the shadows? Below the trailer or off behind it? Are there clouds in the sky or do you see the sun low in the sky and not overhead? Professional photographers of trailers and motor homes know their business, and they choose the time of day to photograph to take advantage of making their subject look its best.
Perspective, composition, and light seem like a lot of details to consider when snapping a photograph of you and your vehicle, but stop and ask yourself these questions to make the process easier:
- What story do I see in my viewfinder?
- Is my main subject out of the center?
- Is the light complementary to my subject?
Tips for Photographing Your Trailer or Motor Home:
Here are some basic tips for photographing from the road:
- Pick an interesting background. A shot of the trailer in a trailer park with garbage cans and picnic tables might be the story you want to show, but it makes for a better picture to have trees around it, or a lake in the background. Choose your angle to include something more interesting than a dull campground, unless the campground is lovely.
- Watch your foreground. Again, including garbage cans, picnic tables, water hoses and other things on the ground may be interesting to some, but it is usually distracting. Is the story you are photographing about the anarchy of RV life? Then include all of those distractions. If it’s not, then make sure they don’t show up in your photograph. If you can’t move it, then change your position or tilt your camera up to eliminate it from your picture.
- Watch for details. Is there a window open that looks funny? Is the water hose all tangled up off to the side looking like a big white lump? Is mud smeared across the side of the vehicle? Or has someone written “wash me” in the dirt? Take a moment to look through the viewfinder of your camera and really look at everything in there. What is distracting and in the way? Get rid of it or compose the picture to eliminate it.
- Go vertical. Don’t forget that you can turn your camera on its side to get a vertical perspective. Not only will it add more foreground or background, but if you are working with mountain scenery, for example, the vertical mountains will add a vertical feel to the photograph. Accentuate this with a vertical composition.
- Time your picture taking. The best light for photography is early morning or later afternoon, or a brightly overcast day. Middle of the day light creates harsh shadows. RVS cast shadows. If you are photographing someone in the shadow, with the trailer in the light, you will not see the people in the shadow. Either use your flash or have them stand out in the light.
Beautiful scenery is often right off the road or highway. Stopping to photograph your RV alongside the road can be dangerous. Do not stop if there are signs asking you not to or an avalanche or rock falling area. Don’t put yourself at risk for a photograph. If a bear wanders up to investigate your motor home, don’t jump out a back door to get a picture of the bear and your RV.
- Pick a road and spot that is little traveled, or plan to be there when the traffic is light such as early morning.
- Take all safety precautions to protect both the photographer, the driver and the RV.
- Do not block traffic. It is illegal in most states.
- Have the photographer wear a reflective vest or something very brightly colored to increase visibility.
- Not only look both ways, but listen closely for any sound of traffic coming.
- Do not stop or work on corners or hills. Do not work in any area where oncoming traffic cannot see you.
- Carry walkie talkies and use them to stay in touch with the driver of the RV about traffic and positioning.
- Be prepared with fresh film and fresh batteries so that you can move quickly and not be delayed.
- No photograph is worth your life.