Bus Tour Photography


Roy Lobenhofer


My wife and I have taken a number of bus tours. Frequently they are to places featured in past issues of National Geographic or similar publications and I look forward to the photographic opportunities they provide.


Before going into our experiences, it'll be beneficial to know from whom these observations are coming. First, and most significantly, I am not a professional photographer. The tours I am talking about are not photographic tours. They are simply tours for the general public interested in the region. I’ve never been paid to photograph anything on the tours nor were any of the tours complimentary. Quite conversely, we’ve paid handsomely to go on.


I also believe it is important for you to understand the type of photographer I am. I like tripods, cable releases, low ISOs and small apertures. It's not unusual for me to spend an hour taking a picture of one scene or even one flower.


A recent tour of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales quickly reminded me of the problems facing my photography. As the challenges became more evident, I started making a list of them. In developing that list, I also found some things were truly photographically beneficial and started another list.  


Let's start out with the challenges and end with the opportunities.


Challenge #1 – People


At the first stop on the tour on the tour of England, I realized my photographic expectations for the trip faced some severe problems! We loaded up on the bus and were off for our first day of sightseeing. We arrived at a very majestic cathedral. It was breathtaking! However, it was not only breathtaking to me and the 40+ other people on our bus, but also to the umpteen other busloads of people visiting at the same time as we did. The cathedral, after all, is a tourist attraction and visitors are to be expected.

While most were quite conscious of people trying to take photographs and tried not to get in the way, I snapped plenty of shots with people’s heads, backs and one case a nose being displayed prominently. Unfortunately, they were never in focus.


Again it is most likely important to inform I generally avoid having people in my pictures. (Grandchildren excepted.) Occasionally, a person in a picture to give a size perspective isn't all that bad if there isn't a better way of doing it.


You see, I believe in the golden rule "Do unto others ..." and I hate having my picture taken.


It is very evident everyone does not share my aversion to being photographed. There were a gaggle of girls who were every place we visited. I must confess they were excellent in their disguises. Sometimes they looked like a group of elderly women. Sometimes they looked like families or some other group.  But I could tell they were the same people by their actions. They each had to have their picture taken in front of every angle of the site and their routine was the same. They'd giggle. They'd fuss a little with the appearance and then pose. The picture would be taken. They'd giggle and run to see what they looked like in the picture. (Don't you just love digital photography?) Rarely they'd decide they didn't look quite right and the picture would have to be retaken; however, most of the time it was merely on to the next girl.


I will have to give the girls credit. They had great photographic sense because they always picked out what I thought was the best angle. The other point I have to give them is being fast because they were always ahead of me.


Challenge #2 – Time


Early in our touring, I realized my favorite tripod was not the way to go. It was too big, heavy and cumbersome for tours. I bought a lighter one once but it quickly became apparent there wasn't room for using a tripod on the bus and there wasn't time to set it up when we were off the bus. (A monopod does help some for people who are as old and shaky as I am.)


The other thing about time is that tours have a different concept of golden hours than photographers. With breakfast usually 7 AM and checking into hotels and dinner around sunset, the golden hours were not spent behind the camera. I suppose I could have forgone breakfast and/or dinner and gone shooting at the prime time, but we were usually staying in cities not near the natural wonders I like to photograph. More truthfully, everyone who has seen me knows I don't pass up meals.


The final challenge with time was not so much time but of speed. On tours I primarily shoot with an 18 to 55 mm lens. Since I’m generally taking pictures of scenes, I felt 1/100 would be a very adequate shutter speed. It is for shots taken when off the bus and when I was taking something well off in the distance. Shots taken of something relatively close to the bus while the bus was moving are a different story. Those were very blurry. Being the relatively smart individual I am, it didn't take me too long to figure out the problem was the bus was moving even if the bush was standing still. I try to avoid taking pictures from the bus for a few days. But usually find I can’t pass up the opportunities. I’ve found my pictures improved significantly when I take the shutter speed to 1/500 sec.


Challenge #3 – The Wrong Side


Another challenge presents itself is being on the wrong side. (No, I’m not talking about playing games.) I'm talking about being on the wrong side of the bus. My wife being conscious of my photography gives me the window seat whenever there’s a possibility of taking pictures. (I generously let her have it when we were driving at night.) However, having the window seat is not an advantage when something is worthy of a photograph on the other side of the bus. Not only do I have to avoid taking a very close up of my wife, I have also been able to take close ups of many of our travel companions (usually not their best sides). I won't tell you how many of those pictures I took before I finally realized it was best to enjoy those scenes with my eyes not through a lens.


There is also the other problem with being on the wrong side – this time of the road. It’s very surprising how frequently I’d see an attractive shot on my side of the bus coming up and snap the picture just as a truck passes going in the other direction. The obviously solution to that problem is to be aware what is coming toward you; however, it’s difficult to concentrate what is coming toward you and concentrate on what you’re trying to photograph. I tried going to the continuous shooting mode; however, that too has its drawbacks. You see I shoot RAW and I can only get about 4 pictures before the camera needs to free memory. That means I get 4 pictures of the truck.


Challenge #4 – Bus Windows


I find three individual challenges with shooting through our bus’s windows. The first of those are reflections. Reflections are always a problem when shooting through glass, but when shooting in zoos and the like, you can usually line things up so the reflections don’t come into play. It’s a lot harder to do when traveling in a bus. The advice I’ve read about glass reflection is to get as close as possible – even touching the glass. I would definitely not recommend having your lens touching a bus window. There are always vibrations when the bus is moving and the vibrations are magnified by potholes. Getting close does seem to help, but again it’s not easy or sure fire. I took many pictures I thought were reflection free until I looked at them on a monitor.


Nice picture of the aura around Mount Cook in New Zealand until

you notice the ear on the “aura” in the lower right.

Another problem with shooting through bus windows is the windows are almost always tinted. Of course that decreases the light requiring slower shutter speeds, larger apertures, or higher ISOs. The tinting also seems to dull the pictures. I was able to help this (at least to my eye) in post processing by increasing the contrast and vibrance. As always, compensations are never as good as getting it right in the camera.


The final problem I’ll complain about in regard to bus windows is safety decals/stickers. They are important to the safe operation of the bus. It is important to know how to knock the window out if the bus is upside down; however, it does look strange to see such information when looking at a photograph of a lovely field.


Obviously, the best way to handle bus windows is to not take pictures through them. However, as beautiful scenes continue to roll by, I’m afraid I have not been able to develop the discipline to adhere to that philosophy. Therefore, I must be willing to accept the multitude of ****** shots I get.


I have now provided you with four of the more significant challenges presented while trying to take photographs on bus tours and now it is time to turn to the benefits that I get from such tours.





Benefit #1 – Happy Spouse


My wife enjoys seeing different parts of the world. She enjoys reading about the people of the region, the flora and fauna and traditions. We’ve had a perfect record in regard to having wonderful, knowledgeable, and personable tour directors. In addition, with only a few minor exceptions, the people we have met on these tours have been very nice and accommodating (and especially important to me – on time).


Since the concept of “living together” happened much more recently than my time, I can’t speak to those, but every married person knows a happy spouse is a good thing! That is especially true of would be photographers who drag their cameras just about everywhere.


Benefit #2 – Great Excuses


Another nice thing about “bus tour” of photography is that it allows the photographer numerous excuses. (Actually they are listed above as challenges.)


“I know it would have looked better if I was standing little to the right, but someone was standing there.”


“Yes, the light is harsh but we were only there for lunch.”


You get the idea. Of course, in reality, in my case, I would’ve most likely made the same mistakes whether I was there by myself or as part of the tour. But, the excuses are nice benefit.


Benefit #3 – Where to Return


One of the benefits I’ve long touted of such bus tours is they give an overview of areas so you know where to return with your tripod to get some “real photographs”. I started saying that when we first started going on bus tours, I said it long enough that I realized there were most likely too many “other” places to go to actually return anywhere, but then on a bus tour we visited a wild horse sanctuary in South Dakota that intrigued me enough that I did return and spent a more appropriate amount of time. (Pictures weren’t that much better – see Benefit #2.)


As I reflect back on the tours we’ve been on, there are numerous places I’d love to return to photograph with the equipment and knowledge I now have. The pictures may not come out any better, but I’d love to try. Therefore, if anyone has insight into future lottery winning numbers, I’m willing to listen. (I’m also willing to listen to information about magic elixirs that would remove some of the effects of age on my body and let me get those low angles easier!)



Benefit #4 – Every Once In A While …


There are undoubtedly challenges to good photography on bus tours, but every once in a while I get lucky. I’m sure you would end up with more than I have.


It was best said by our guide in Kenya. He pointed out we should not expect National Geographic quality photographs because the National Geo photographers spend months or years getting the shots we see in the magazine and we had a week. Obviously, he’s right! If you go on your bus tours with that in mind, you’ll be far happier.  (I’m trying.)


All in all, if you are into sightseeing where someone else does the planning, making all the arrangements, and worrying about when things don’t go right, tours are the way to go. As for the photography on such tours, there are challenges, but every once in a while you get lucky.


As always, I’d welcome your comments. rwl@lobenhofer.com


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