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Bus Photography. How to Get Great Shots from a Moving Vehicle

Are you missing travel, even if it is just travel to the local Mexican restaurant, it’s a sense of loss, of missing the moments you enjoy. Having had the opportunity to take three to four “big” trips a year for the last few years, I am definitely a little lost with no journey to plan. No researching currency and power outlets. No learning how to say hello and thank you in another language. No deciding what camera gear needs to go in the bag. No keeping an eye on the weather forecast for the other side of the world. No reading about the history and the culture before reaching our destination.

Missing the new experiences and the surprises, trying new food, and photographing - well, photographing everything. So today, I thought I would share my take on what I call “bus photography". All the photos in this post with the exception of those with me in them (obviously), the goat, and the group photo with life jackets, I shot from a moving bus, using the techniques that I will describe later in the post.

Everybody wants to ride the bus!!!!
Everybody wants to ride the bus!!!

You’re familiar with the genres of street photography, landscape photography, underwater photography, etc., but I have found that I love the challenge of bus photography. Just to clarify, I’m not photographing buses, I’m photographing from a moving bus.

Like many travelers, most of our trips are part of a tour group. I’ll confess, I used to roll my eyes when I saw a bunch of people with badges on lanyards tracking behind some guy holding up an Acme Tours sign!

We’ve traveled with groups as small as six and as large as 30 and I discovered I love it. Why? It’s easy - after selecting a great sounding trip, the rest of the logistics are basically handled for me. I’m processing my photos (or having a glass of wine, or two) instead of figuring out where I need to be and when the next day. I’m looking for good shots instead of looking at my GPS. The tour managers are experts and know when and how to beat the crowds. It’s efficient - I’m spending my time seeing and doing. For international travel with the intent of seeing a lot in 10 to 18 days, it’s my favorite way to go.

Now, back to bus photography. Many of the tours encompass a large geographic area, so there is air, train, or boat travel for greater distances and bus travel for the next point of interest. Some have very little bus travel, others quite a lot. I once thought that taking photos from a moving bus would just be bad snapshots of boring, blurry scenery. Not so, or at least not always! Also, you may suggest that if I was not attached to tour, I could simply stop and take the photo I wanted. On a recent independent trip to Italy where I was doing the driving, I realized there is frequently no place to stop because you’re either on a narrow, winding hillside road or on the Autostrade (toll road with few exits) or in the city and it takes an hour to find a parking spot. Also, if I could stop for every photo I want to take, I would never get anywhere!

The advantages of bus photography. Buses are high, giving a better vantage point over visual barriers like fences and bushes. Buses allow me to be less obvious photographing people in street photography style so I’m less likely to influence the shot with people posing or hiding. I’m inclined to really look for interesting landscape shots with simple elements instead of just famous landmarks. And, finally, I’m not doing anything else on the ride so it’s great entertainment and I often see things that others miss.

The challenges of bus photography. I’m shooting through a window which will always cause some degree of distortion. Buses go really fast when on the open road and fast equals blur. Buses may be high, but another tall vehicle alongside will still block your view. There is minimal opportunity to change your position for framing a shot. The view of subjects close to the bus will always have a downward perspective.

So here are my tips for getting the bus photography shots you will love. There are two typical situations to consider. One is the open road with the bus traveling at fast speeds. The second is going through villages or cities at slow speeds and often with people and buildings closer to the bus. I’ll address the challenges mentioned above for both situations.

First of all is window distortion. While some minor distortion can’t be changed, I haven’t found it to be a big problem unless the it rains, the window is dirty, or the sun is causing major reflections. Not much I can do about the rain, so just pray for good weather! Tour bus drivers typically wash the bus every evening and the windows are pretty clean. Try to select a seat on the side with the least sun in your face. If there is an opportunity to have the row to yourself on both sides of the aisle is ideal so that you can move from side to side as the bus turns or the sun moves throughout the day. If that is not an option, well, just accept it and be nice. Get to the bus early because it is essential to get a seat without a bar on the window that will completely ruin your photo opportunities. Placing your lens against the window can help avoid glare, but remember a little bump will cause you to smash your lens against the glass. If necessary I will cup my hand around the edge of the lens to protect it, but often I just keep it close, but not against the window.

Buses go fast. The most important trick for bus photography is shoot at high shutter speeds and always, always shoot toward the front or toward the back, never straight out the window when the bus is moving fast. I like to look ahead and then try to get my shots just as the subject passes me and I shoot toward to subject as it is moving away. As a side note, I do find it easier to sit on the left hand side of the bus as my hand and arm on the shutter button side of my camera is less constrained as I’m twisting backward in my seat all the time. I set my camera on shutter preferred mode so I know that I can keep the shutter speed high, usually 1/1000 to 1/2000. Since the subject is not real close, depth of field is not nearly as important as shutter speed, so letting the shutter speed and ISO guide the f-stop is fine. I set the ISO accordingly to make sure I get enough light for that high of a shutter speed. My ISO is often 1000 to even 5000 depending on lighting conditions. What about grain or noise you ask? Most of the time I can minimize the noise in post-processing and it’s not like I’m shooting a fine portrait, but more likely a landscape or buildings when the bus is at high speeds.

Obstructions in your view. Trucks, signs, trees, light posts, all kinds of things fly by in my way when I’m shooting. When I see I shot I want, I use burst mode at 3 frames per second, so that I have a good chance of getting a shot without the tree or light post blocking my subject. My camera will shoot up to 7 fps, but then I usually just end up with more shots that I want to deal with. And sometimes what might be considered an obstruction can actually add visual interest.

In the small villages with narrow streets, the people and buildings can be really close. The bus is usually going slow and these are tremendous opportunities for street photography from a bus. I’ve been able to capture people going about their daily lives in ways that would be very difficult if I were actually in their midst. I haven’t found the downward perspective to be distracting from most photos and in fact, can add interest such as being able to see into an interesting stove of cooking foods.

So a little more about my gear. I shoot a Canon 7D Mark II and my go-to lenses are a Canon 18-135mm for most travel photography, including bus photography, and a Canon 100-400mm lens for animals, birds, and street photography. The 18-135 is all I use on a bus and I often use its full range. Shooting RAW gives me more ability to “pull” light and color into the photo and noise out of it in post-processing. However before I started shooting RAW and learning more about editing, I still had some great shots shooting JPEG.

Final thoughts for you. Set up your gear with the settings you want as soon as you get on the bus and take a test shot. Don’t wait until you see a shot because that shot is gone in a flash. Check your settings throughout the ride as lighting conditions change. There is no reason to be shooting at 5000 ISO in the middle of the day, but you may have needed that when you left in the early morning. This is important - change your settings back to a typical non-bus setting BEFORE you get off the bus. I’ve had that great shot when I had a split second just as I got off the bus and quickly fired way with my settings waaaay off for the best capture.

Every shot will not be great - you will be doing a lot of deleting every evening. Most shots will not be technically perfect, but do you want a slightly technically imperfect shot or no shot at all? And by the way, most people don’t notice.

It will never replace regular street photography for me, but I do love bus photography because it’s a game, a challenge. Sometimes I’m disappointed because I lost the great shot and other times I’m surprised and thrilled by getting a winning one, all while constrained to a bus! Give it a try!

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