Have you ever driven through the mountains and suddenly come upon a beautiful
scene, perfect for video? Or perhaps seen breaking news just ahead? Maybe you
just want to get some “on the road” shots for your videos.
In all these cases, the problem is the same: how to capture all these great
images on tape while driving.
You could grab your camcorder and try steering and shooting at the same time.
You’d simply need to focus, get the shot, and drive at the same time–all the
while trying to avoid becoming the subject of a Highway Patrol video
Please don’t. There are sure-fire ways to shoot great video from a car, and
none of them involve bodily harm.
The Tripod Rides Shotgun
The first step is to establish a steady platform for the camera. “Easy”, you
say, “just find a willing camera operator to ride shotgun.” But this is neither
the easiest nor the best way to go. First, it may be difficult to find a
willing and capable operator. Second, fatigue may contribute to unsteady camera
work, especially during extended shots. Finally, unless you’re interested in
capturing corner posts, windshield wipers, the hood and the radio antenna, your
picture area is relatively small. You might say you have a limited window of
opportunity–the talents of a good camera operator may be wasted under such
A better solution is to set up a sturdy tripod on the passenger seat. Once you
set it up, you will get a consistent, steady shot. To do this, position the
tripod so that two legs point forward and the third points toward the rear of
the seat. I find that a bungee cord works best to stabilize the tripod, since a
rope can easily slip or loosen, causing the tripod to rock with any change of
speed or direction.
Another advantage of the bungee cord is that you can quickly connect and
disconnect it. Just stretch the cord across the two tripod struts forward of
the center mast, then hook the ends of the cord onto any available part of the
seat’s undercarriage. Be careful not to hook onto anything that could cause the
seat to reposition itself. You don’t want to turn your seat into a runaway
dolly (an interesting effect, but probably not what you’re after).
Once you have properly rigged the tripod, it’s time to mount the camcorder. I
strongly recommend using a compact camera, since a heavier one could cause the
whole structure to become top-heavy, requiring a more stable platform. If your
vehicle has bucket seats, your tripod will tilt somewhat rearward. If you’re
shooting out the front window, I find it easier to square the shot using the
tripod head rather than extending the rear leg.
What is the best way to power this rig? Well, if you ever needed an excuse to
buy a car battery adapter, this is it. That’s because using your camcorder’s
battery has two drawbacks. First, its relatively short life could curtail your
shooting on long trips. Second, even if you have plenty of replacement
batteries, you won’t be able to tell when it’s time to replace them, since
you’ll be driving the car, not looking through the viewfinder.
A car battery adapter, on the other hand, allows you to shoot as much as you
wish whenever you wish. You won’t need to worry about your power supply.
Once you have your camera mounted and fired up, you’ll need to aim it properly
to get the shots you want. This may seem obvious, but there are a few unique
considerations regarding shooting from a moving vehicle.
For our purposes, we’ll concentrate on shooting dead ahead through the
windshield. You’ll need to take your vehicle’s configuration into account when
lining up your shot.
For instance, many windshields have a band of tinted glass along the top. Use
your zoom to eliminate this band.
In most cases you will also want to get rid of the radio antenna, windshield
wipers and portions of the hood that may creep into the frame. This may be more
difficult on some cars than it is on others, so experiment with your pan, tilt
and zoom to get the biggest/cleanest shot possible.
On the other hand, you might want to leave some of this stuff in the frame for
visual reference points.
Keep it Clean
You have rigged your tripod and aligned your camera; you’re ready to go,
right? Not so fast. We have some housekeeping to do.
Make sure your window is clean. The sun can turn specks of dirt on the
windshield into tiny UFOs suspended in front of your lens. And I don’t think I
need to mention the contribution the local bird population will try to make to
Inside the car, remove any objects from floor and the dash in front of
passenger seat. Otherwise,ghostly reflections of sunglasses and camera bags
will haunt your video.
Are we there yet? Almost. First, though, make sure you are familiar enough
with the camera controls to operate them with one hand without looking.
Remember, your primary duty is to drive your car safely. Camera work comes
second, so the more automatic you can make it, the better your chances of
getting the shots you want. Obviously, this means keeping the number of
controls you will use to a minimum, i.e. power switch, the start/stop button
and possibly a simple effect like the fader.
Keep in mind that your camera will power down if you leave it in the pause
mode for more than a few minutes. In fact, it’s a good idea to power down each
time you pause the camera. That way you’ll always be sure of the camera’s
status. Believe me, it’s extremely frustrating to miss a great shot because you
thought the camera was running when it wasn’t. Remember, you won’t have the
viewfinder to cue you.
Carefully applying some shiny foil near the viewfinder may help you see if the
unit’s powered up, by reflecting the characteristic blue glow of the display.
Likewise, aluminum foil taped near the tally light will let you verify that
your camcorder is indeed recording.
Finally, we’re on the road.
If possible, keep the windows nearest the camera closed. It’s amazing how the
lens attracts all sorts of airborne debris.
Once you are underway, the elements that effect your shot the most are camera
angle, speed, lighting and road conditions.
When shooting through the windshield, you actually have three different angles
to consider, depending upon what parts of the frame you want to maximize.
If you’re looking for a clean shot without any auto parts showing, you can
line up anywhere from just left of the radio antenna to just right of the rear
view mirror. If you want to maximize the right sidewalk, you can use the end of
the windshield as the right edge of your frame.
An obstacle here could be a radio antenna. If your objective is to convey
forward motion, not driving, then the antenna could present a problem. It
doesn’t obscure much of the frame, but it is there on many cars. However, if
the feeling of a moving car is what you’re after, the antenna might add to the
Up to now we’ve concerned ourselves with shooting straight ahead through the
windshield. However, under certain conditions you might want to try some shots
through the passenger side window.
One advantage here is that you don’t need to worry about glare or reflections
from the glass. Just roll the window down. (I know I told you to keep the
window rolled up to avoid trashing the lens, but like most rules, this one can
be broken judiciously if the situation calls for it.)
But be careful. The closer the camera angle is to 90 degrees from the
direction of travel, the trickier the shot is. Shooting at or near right angles
works best when you are traveling very slowly or when your subject is
relatively far away.
You could use this technique while driving down a coastal road with an
unobstructed view of the ocean. Your car becomes a dolly, tracking left.
A subject which is too close, however, will become just a blur. People on the
sidewalk will go by like pickets on a fence. You might try it just to see the
effect, but don’t use it too liberally in your finished tape unless you plan to
issue motion sickness bags at your screening.
You might also try a right angle shot which includes the driver. You can use
this for cutaways.
Also useful for cutaways are stationary shots of road signs, traffic lights
and distinctive landmarks. These are good for breaking up long driving
Since moving cars are usually outdoors, the outside environment is an important
consideration. The direction of the sun, the time of day and cloud cover will
all affect the final outcome of your shots.
Here’s a simple way to keep the sun in the right part of your shots. Imagine a
large circle with your camera in the center, then cut the circle in half at
right angles to your camera’s direction. This will leave you
with one imaginary semicircle on the lens side, and another on the viewfinder
side. Keep the sun in the viewfinder half of the circle for the best lighting
results. This is sometimes difficult, since you can’t dictate which way the
road turns, but do your best. You can mitigate the problem by carefully
planning your route, making note of the time of day and the sun’s approximate
When is the best time of day for shooting? You’ll get the best results when
the sun is well above the horizon but not directly overhead. Later in the
morning and in the afternoon will yield the most vivid color and detail.
Shooting at high noon could result in a harsh, flat light.
When the sun is close to the horizon, your image may take on a reddish tint.
You can get some spectacular shots at these times, but generally you want to
avoid sunrise and sunset.
Even Rod Serling fans should be aware that shooting in the twilight zone (just
after the sun has dropped below the horizon) will result in a bluish hue.
Cloud cover is also an important consideration. Surprisingly, bright sunshine
is not always the most desirable situation. In fact, an overcast day can be
much more effective. For example, if your subject is fall foliage, the
brilliant colors of the leaves will show up better if they don’t have to
compete with the bright sun for your camera’s attention.
Pay attention to road conditions as well. Even though it might surprise you
how well your car’s seat and shock absorbers can smooth out a bumpy road, try
to pick a dry, well-maintained road and keep a sharp eye out for potholes. And
if your camcorder has image stabilization, so much the better.
The visual environment also plays a great part in the continuity of your work.
If you change direction on the same road you will not only pass the same
landmarks going in the opposite direction, but the location of your light
source (the sun) will change. This could mean that objects in front of you
which were once fully lighted may now be in silhouette.
Similarly, long gaps between shots may result in abrupt changes in lighting.
Your audience will no doubt notice this. Some will be confused. Some will be
amused. And some, no doubt, will discover some deeper meaning in it.
This is not to say that all of your shots must be similar, but you should
provide a transition that explains any noticeable changes.
For example, if you want to change direction, provide a shot of your vehicle
turning around. And if a significant amount of time has elapsed between two
shots, you might want to provide a cutaway of a clock on a church steeple. It’s
somewhat old-fashioned, but maybe you could dissolve from a shot of the clock
showing the earlier time to the same clock showing the later time. If your
editing equipment isn’t capable of dissolves, you can fade out on the early
clock and immediately fade back in on the late clock.
Be creative. You can probably come up with something better than these
cliché examples. In any case, the editing process will go more smoothly
when you have a way of logically linking two otherwise incongruous scenes.
Cut to the Chase
OK. You have enough information now to go out and get some good road footage.
This is where your creativity comes in. Experiment with different lighting
conditions, camera angles, or whatever moves you. The only rule is that there
are no rules. The considerations I have outlined here are just things to keep
in mind so they won’t jump up and bite you when you least expect it.
Remember that developing video skills and techniques is a cumulative process.
You can combine principles and practices you have learned on other projects
with the ones we’ve been discussing here to build something new and exciting.
Even if you don’t want to make the “video drive” the subject of your work, you
can add to your bag of tricks what you learn from experimenting.
So get out there and give it a try. When Hollywood calls to ask you to direct
the car chase scenes in Lethal Weapon XII, you’ll be ready.