Shut up and Drive

There’s nothing like seeing the blur of the asphalt a few inches away while cruising 60 miles-an-hour inside the sidecar of a motorcycle. Or the odd feeling you get of brushing rooftops just a few hundred feet above the earth while gently swaying inside the basket of a hot air balloon. From exotic transports like an open cockpit World War I biplane or an Army Sikorsky helicopter to the ordinary plethora of trucks, cars, vans, motorcycles and boats, I rarely turned down the chance to show viewers what the experience felt like, and learned a thing or two about shooting in moving vehicles along the way.

Telling a story using video captured from moving transports always embellishes the experience of being there, but shoot it wrong, and you can make your audience feel uncomfortable, confused or even nauseous. Depending on the vehicle at your disposal, and whether you are working solo or have a driver, there are different techniques to achieve the action shot you want.


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Van? SUV? Compact? Sports Car?

Most people won’t be shooting from a sidecar (although I highly recommend giving it a try if the opportunity ever comes up!) so let’s discuss the usual types of vehicle you might use first, and then we’ll look at some techniques.

Compact cars don’t have great shock absorbing qualities, and are awfully cramped. You can’t use their dashboards, their windows can be too tiny to fit both camcorder and operator comfortably.

Sports cars are fun to drive, but unless they’re the high-end luxury cars, they don’t have great shock absorbing qualities for the average road trip video. However, most have a convertible top, so you have plenty of head room.

Family Cars and sedans are a step above, as they usually do have a bigger dashboard and better shocks, but some might not allow the side windows to roll down all the way and you’re balancing your elbows or camcorder on the glass edge… ouch!

Luxury cars and SUVs are best for on-the-dash camera shots. They usually have very level and wide dashboards, great shock absorption and larger windshields, and if you’re capturing audio inside the car, these babies are the best at keeping outside sound outside.

Trucks can give you some wonderful footage, if you’re shooting from the bed, the newer trucks will cushion your camera better. Below are a few tips to use that source effectively.

Family vans are my favorite vehicles to shoot from because they’re so big and roomy and have that slick sliding door in the backseat for good wide shots. They have the advantages of trucks, but not the disadvantages, like being completely in the open. You have a cover over you and your gear, you can shoot in the rain, and still shoot with the side door or back gate open.

Caption: Shooting from a Van

Solo or Sidekick

Whatever you shoot from, your technique might be different if you’re shooting by yourself or with a driver, so let’s address the differences to solo or sidekick shooting. Be aware that when we say shooting solo, we’re not advocating you drive along the road with a camera in one hand and the steering wheel in another. We know some people do this, and they might even have decent enough video to show for it, but it’s highly dangerous, and the quality of the video is less than stellar… I mean, really, how can you watch the road and that tiny little sun-washed blown-out LCD screen, anyway? What you do need to process, though, is if you are shooting solo, how are you going to get the best shot possible.

Shooting Alone: Lock Down!

Solo shooting gives you less options than using a driver, but it can be done. Your first and foremost consideration should be driving safety, and your second should be your camera’s safety… but, realistically, we all know our first real consideration is capturing the best shot possible. As a solo shooter, be prepared to waste a lot of tape. Don’t try to turn the camera on and off at points along the road too often, you might forget when you’re shooting and when you’re not.

Beanbag: I always have my trusty beanbag with me when I go on road trips. It’s good for so many purposes and dashboard shooting is a great one. In a recent “Tips & Tricks” vidcast on driving and shooting, [] we set the camera on a sandbag that has an attached belt. We secured the camera to the belt, then dropped the sandbag on top of the camera for extra security. Solid as a rock… almost.

Caption: Use Sand Bags to Secure Your Camera.

Tripod: If you’re using a tripod, use the smallest one you can. Inexpensive ‘pods made for still cams are great for in-car use. They’re quite small. When shooting in the car either, out the side window or through the windshield, first set one leg of the tripod on the floorboard, and the other two legs towards the rear of the seat. Then, stretch a bungee cord around the center spreader, if your tripod has one, or around the back two legs, then attach it under the seat. Before you attach the camera, level your tripod head, it’s easier than trying to level the legs.

You really want to tie the tripod down if you’re shooting from the back of a truck or van, so a slight bump doesn’t send it flying. Tie strips of belting or bungee cords from three different positions, to secure it well. A sandbag wrapped around the legs helps with the security. You can never secure that tripod enough.

Caption: Strapping the Tripod Down.

Shooting with a Driver: Options!

I prefer to shoot handheld rather than using a tripod if I have a driver. I can maneuver the shot better, avoid shooting the car frame edges, and my body acts as a cushioning agent. If you’re shooting from the side, strap yourself in with the seatbelt, but set the camera in your lap. If you’re shooting from the back of the van with the gate open, sit as far back as you comfortably can. A beanbag helps cushion the shot.

Techniques: Through the Window

Many people want that “through the windshield” look… complete with bugs, bird droppings, and window cracks. Remember the sunspots from the opening shot of the old Sanford and Son TV show? These all say “road trip”, but let’s try to spruce the window up a bit.

Clean it: After you’ve washed the window, wipe it down again with alcohol and newspaper, it will remove streaks. [don’t clean your camera’s lens or viewfinder like this, though, the alcohol will damage some sensitive pieces.]

Time of day: The best time to shoot and avoid reflections or sun-glare is late afternoon or early morning, as long as you’re driving with the sun behind you. Keep this in mind when you have to string many shots together.

Filter it: A circular polarizer will allow you to shoot right through most windows, masking glare and reflections. An ND (neutral density) filter allows you to open the aperture a bit, softening the background focus.

Cover it: A small cover of tin-foil over the top of the camera sitting in the windshield will shade the lens and help cut some glare.

Techniques: Side Angle

One of the most important shots for a driving scene is the side angle shot, rather than straight through the windshield for the driver’s POV. Many people shoot their subject directly through an open side window at a 45-degree angle from the road, which can cause your subject or scenery to blast by too quickly. A trick to shooting a side angle shot is to shoot it so your viewer can see the scene without getting carsick.

Position it: When shooting out a side window, or the backseat of the van, position the camera at the 2:00 position, rather than at the 3:00 position or a 45-degree angle from the direction the car is moving. You’ll still have the feeling of driving, but the background won’t be as nauseating.
Of course, nothing says “Road Trip” better than that fast blur of the yellow lines on a road or cornfield whizzing by, just keep it short, for the effect only.

Caption: The Side Angle Shot.

Support it: If you don’t have access to a van, and have to shoot from the passenger seat, drape your trusty beanbag over the window edge, for support. If you have access to a car with a sunroof and want to try shooting outside it, set the beanbag on the roof, then support your elbows on the bag and hold the camera in tight.

Caption: Shooting from a Sun Roof.

Go Wide: The best footage is going to be with your camera at it’s widest angle possible. A zoomed in shot will reflect all the bumps in the road, is nearly impossible to focus, and blurs the passing landscape too much.

Reverse it: What if you want to show a shot that appears to be straight ahead buzzing down the road, but you don’t want to shoot through the windshield? If you have a truck, SUV or van this trick works on a lonely road: shoot out the back of the van or truck for some distance, then reverse the shot when editing. It looks like you’re going forward, not backwards. Watch for telltale giveaways like pedestrians, cars at a distance, or even birds or planes flying in the background.

Eat my Dust: A technique often seen has the vehicle with the camera approaching the subject from behind,… pace him for a while… then pass him up, allowing a natural transition to another angle.

Techniques: Shoot the Driver

There may come a time where you need to turn the camera on the driver. This can be trickier than you think. The space between driver and camera is short, and shooting inside a vehicle in daylight can cause either the background to be blurred, or the driver to be dark. It’s hard to balance both.

That ol’ beanbag again: If you are shooting the driver, set the camera on the dashboard like we described earlier, but facing the driver, instead of through the windshield. This brings the camera at his level better than if you hold it in your lap, giving you less chance of shooting into the sun.

High Noon: Avoid shooting from about 11:00 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon when the sun is at it’s highest point. To balance both inside and outside the car, your background outside will be impossibly bright, or your driver inside too dark.

Light it or reflect it: If you can, try using a small bounce card to put some fill on your driver. Sample around with a small portable light that you can balance for outdoor exposure. Shooting at the Magic Hour, that hour before dark can give you some beautiful color outside, and balances well with a small low-beam light inside. I’ve also used a very tiny pen-light, just to fill in some dark spots.

Gel it: If you have the time, patience, and money, an orange gel over the driver’s window will balance your light inside, too.

Adapt It: A wide-angle adapter on the front of your lens will appear to give you more breathing room between driver and camera.

Techniques: General

Check out the location you’re planning to shoot at different times of the day. You might need to travel north to south in the late afternoon and find you’re shooting right into the sun.

Caption: If you’re shooting right into the sun, tinfoil wrapped around the top of your lens can help reduce glare.

Screen Direction: The shadows on the scenery can flip around when you turn your car around, so stay consistent. Always be aware of which side of the car the sun is on. If you turn around and drive in a different direction, your landscape shadows will have changed, too. A way to mask this “oops” is to edit in close-up cutaways inside the car of the driver’s hand on the wheel, the tachometer, and clutch, or his eyes in the rearview mirror.

Speed: Try to use a car with automatic drive, so you don’t have the shifting jerk and drive about 35 miles per hours. Anything else is too fast and will blur your background, anything slower can actually accentuate the bumps in the road.

Eye of the Beholder: I once got seasick shooting on a child’s merry-go-round, of all things, because I was trying for a blurred shot, and kept my eye glued to the lens. Bad idea. Once you’ve focused and framed your shot, try to keep your other eye open and on the horizon for your own stability. Or pull your face away from the camera altogether, and just glance at it to assure proper framing once in a while.

Up Up and Away!

While we didn’t talk about shooting from sidecars, balloons or other conveyances many of these shooting techniques apply to those modes of transport, too. Always stay wide, so your viewer doesn’t suffer from motion sickness, and keep your eye on the distant horizon, if possible, so you don’t get sick, as well. Always shoot some portion of the transport you’re traveling in. A floating-in-the-air shot without this reference can make people a bit uncomfortable. Secure that camera as well as you can while still giving you the freedom of movement. Secure your body, too, because you can lose yourself in the shooting, and become unbalanced quite easily.

Shooting video from a moving vehicle is always going to be an experiment. More than half the video you shoot will be unusable, but the stuff that makes it to your movie will greatly enhance the experience. Try not to have too many back-to-back moving shots, allow your viewer’s eyes to settle down on something solid and static, and remember to frame some of the shots showing the window edges like the windshields wipers, rearview mirror, or door edges. Below is a list of other stories we’ve done with an emphasis on shooting from a moving vehicles. Bon Voyage!

Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer & editor and Videomaker‘s Managing Editor.


Using a Car Camera Mount:

Buckle Up and Shoot: How to Get Great Shots from a Moving Vehicle:

Roll Em’!

Lighting Car Interiors:

Tutorial: Dynamic Chase Scenes:

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