Travel: A verb that means “to go to a place and especially one that is far away”. Far can mean long distances within the same country or to other countries. Trip: A noun that means “the act of going to another place and returning for pleasure”.
Journey: A noun that means “the act of going from one place to another”.
Coddiwomple: My favourite, and English slang for “to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination”.
It doesn’t really matter which of the above you are doing this holiday season or in the coming year, as long as you make memories and capture them! Adventure could be around every corner. For some of us, it must be filled with adrenaline. For others it simply has to be a new personal discovery, something unexpected, the weird and bizarre, or something from our history.
Instead of taking the highways to your destination, take the back roads, those less travelled. Wikipedia says: ‘’Metaphorically speaking, someone who takes ‘the road less travelled’ is acting independently, freeing themselves from the conformity of others (who choose to take ‘the road more often travelled’)’’. Stop at the farm stalls, the small towns and everything in-between. Talk to the people and capture the moments! I’ve learned that the phrase ‘’we will stop next time’’ is a hollow promise, because life happens, as we have all learned during the pandemic. Armed with your camera, smartphone or any smart image-collecting device, here are a couple of simple ideas on what and how to photograph what you see along the roads less travelled, making the memories last forever.
The actual road less travelled also needs to be part of your memories. Some stretches of road are incredibly photogenic, and require little additional creative effort. Composing your shot is easy – frame wide (portrait or landscape) and simply make the road the main subject. Your perspective on the road can be straight and centered, at an angle across the frame or as a winding line. Use the ‘’rule-of-thirds’’ to place the horizon on one of the horizontal lines. Alternatively, let the road frame another subject on one side, occupying one third of the composition. You would want as much as possible in focus by using a wide depth of field between F/11 and F/18.
Crossing & bridges
Don’t forget water crossings and ferries! The roads less travelled often have shallow streams crossing the road and when there is no bridge over a deep river, a ferry is the mode of crossing. The manually pulled ferry at Malgas, crossing the Breede River, was recently replaced by a mechanically operated ferry. The same goes for the ferry at Kazungula, which was replaced by a huge modern bridge. So don’t pass up the opportunity to experience a ride on a ferry – and capture the moment before you board the ferry, while on the ferry, and when disembarking. Bridges are part of the roads less travelled and a means to connect people. Bridges make interesting and romantic photographic subjects. Their structure and engineering are fascinating, and by photographing them you capture more than just a bridge – you capture a story of labour.
Windmills are disappearing from our landscapes, simply because new technologies are taking over. Solar-driven pumps are replacing wind power, so while we still can, it’s worthwhile to stop and photograph this part of history. A windmill can be part of a composition or a lone subject. You can get creative by capturing the motion blur with a slow shutter speed or freeze the movement with a fast shutter speed. Use the ‘’rule-of-thirds’’ to place the windmill on one of the vertical lines and the horizon on one of the horizontal lines. Move around until you get the composition right and, if possible, tell the whole story by including the surrounding elements in the composition. Use a wide depth of field between F/11 to F/19. Auto ISO can assist you well here. During the bright hours of the day, place the sun at your back; during the late afternoon and at sunset, place the windmill against the sun. The Karoo (the Tankwa, Groot, Klein, etc.) has some of the best back roads, and the highest number of windmills that can be photographed from the side of the road. In the Karoo a dramatic sky really complements any scene, so when the opportunity presents itself to capture a windmill with a dramatic backdrop, don’t let it pass by.
Roadside attractions, farm stalls, museums and monuments
The main reason to stop at these places is to support the local people and enjoy what’s on offer, but don’t forget to capture the memory. Small towns host a variety of attractions, like the Fred Turner and Windmill Museum in Loeriesfontein, Northern Cape. The windmills have been made shorter for people to enjoy and photograph from a whole new perspective, experiencing the full size of the wheel for a change. Not only are windmills on display, but the Fred Turner Museum includes a fantastic cultural museum, offering more photo opportunities.
At roadside attractions, focus on the detail, not just the big picture. Every one of these places has something special to remember and a character of its own. At Bagdad Cafè, on the road between Vanrhynsdorp and Nieuwoudtville in the Western Cape, the welcoming committee sits around, proudly dressed in previously loved outfits. Inspirational quotes are written on blackboards and the walls.
Architecture and places of worship
The churches in most small towns are true architectural masterpieces built in a bygone era. Some places of worship are simple and small, and my favourite to photograph. The angle of attack will determine if it’s just another church picture or something that grabs the viewers’ attention. I like to capture a church from a 45-degree angle to see two sides. To get the whole church in focus, you need to set a wide depth of field. Watch where the sun is: if at your back, the building will be well-lit but you could overexpose; if the sun is behind the building, it gets tricky, and you will have to compensate for shadows. Alternatively, you could use bracketing to capture three images at different exposures and stack them in post processing.
It is almost 100% certain you will come across gates on your roads less travelled. Either you will need to close and open them again when traversing farm land, or they will be next to the road. From experience, after opening and closing about a thousand gates over the past 20 years, not one operates or looks the same. And since you have to stop anyway, why not take a photo? Your angle of attack is important here. You need to compose the shot in a way that not only shows off the gate, but also includes some background or foreground – otherwise you just capture wire and frame, nothing special.
I like to include one or both gateposts and some of the road surface. It doesn’t matter if the gate is open or closed. If there is a tree or bush nearby, I include that too. I keep the depth of field shallow (around F/7.1 to F/9) to enhance the gate and prevent it from disappearing into the background. Keep the sun behind your back. Take a few shots and view them; you have a winning shot if it is what you envisioned. I always take a few shots that include our vehicle too.
Road signs and information broads
A name on a board can evoke instant curiosity and is one of the best ways to preserve a memory. Here you can’t decide the angle of the light, so choose your settings carefully to prevent over- or under-exposing the board. Compose your shot to include the surroundings and road, perhaps even your vehicle or companions. Use the ‘’rule-of-thirds’’ to place the signboard on one of the vertical lines and the horizon on one of the horizontal lines. If it’s a sign with small lettering and descriptions, take a few close-ups as well.
Corn fields, canola fields and sunflowers are fantastic photo opportunities and are often easily photographed from the road. The contrasts of colour and texture, combined with the symmetry and patterns, create interest for the viewer. When you spot a field with dust trails and large farm machines working on the horizon, frame wide and capture the whole scene. Set depth of field wide, around F/11 to F/16. The lens opening will be small, so compensate with a slower shutter speed to let in enough light. On a bright day, keep the ISO at a low 100 to 400. When it’s overcast and you are not sure what the ISO should be, set it on Auto. Flocks of sheep or goats, and herds of cattle (especially Ngunis), can produce interesting and beautiful images.
The broken and forgotten
I can’t resist the beauty of old ruins and rusted metal. Once intact structures that have fallen provoke nostalgia about the past. There is always a curiosity about the remains of past generations, so it’s worth stopping at these sightings to capture a piece of history. Frame wide, use the rule of thirds to place your subject, and set your depth of field wide to capture the whole story. Alternatively zoom in on specific details and set your depth of field shallow to separate it from the background. When you have foreground detail like flowers or rocks, shoot from a low angle to include them. On a day with dramatic skies, make sure to include as much of the sky as possible.
The rural parts of our country are still filled with vestiges of old traditions and local cultures. I can’t resist photographing donkey carts. When they are on the move, set your shutter speed fast enough to freeze the motion and try to frame your shot from the front or sideon. A roadside tavern or eatery under a tree, with spatchcock chicken sizzling on hot coals, is not only welcoming to travellers, but the smiles of the vendors couldn’t be bigger when you ask if you can photograph them. I ask for their cell numbers and WhatsApp all the images as soon as I get a chance after downloading. Even easier, take a few extra images with your cell phone, and send them right away.
Small-town harbours may be smelly and noisy, but are filled with contrasting colour, detail and texture to photograph. From tiny fishing boats to small trawlers and sometimes abandoned vessels, you will find something interesting to capture. Again, you can frame wide to capture the whole scene or zoom in on detail. In addition to everything you can capture in pixels at a small harbour, you will find something local to eat and people to talk to, making the memories even sweeter.
The totally unexpected
Never drive past totally unexpected sightings. This is where those hollow promises to yourself will haunt you forever as a photographer. You either never drive that road again, or the unexpected sighting is gone upon return. Take the opportunities that present themselves and make the most of your road trip.