Photographing from Buses!
Updated: May 24
Rural Buses & shooting photos from a window.
All shots in this post were taken with the techniques described below.
Camera settings are given under each photo - all taken from a moving bus unless stated. You know what is like - you're on the bus traveling to an exciting destination and you're seeing photos in your mind as you pass through the landscape. Maybe it's the landscape itself or maybe it's people you see from the bus. Whatever, it's driving you nuts that you are missing these awesome opportunities (inverted commas) !
The standard phone (or camera) shot through the window most definitely isn't going to cut it.
However, with your Mirrorless or DSLR you can take great photos that, even if not fully print worthy for larger prints (but maybe still saleable to a stock agency) will most certainly tell the story for a blog ... and sometimes way more than that.
I'm going to break this post down into two sections a) traveling on rural buses in China and if you just want to skip past that to the good stuff then b) Photographing from said buses.
A) General tips for traveling / photographing on Buses, likely anywhere.
1. Google map check!
Prior to even arriving at the bus station you need to know which side of the bus you need to sit on - or your plans are toast. Get out a map app and note the bus route then zoom in to key points - if there is a river on one side (as there usually is through valleys) then obviously if the road is to the left of the river in the direction you are going then you need to be sitting on the right and vice versa! Make sure you zoom in to a number of points because you want to be sure you are sitting on the optimal side of the bus - whether you are photographing or not.
2. Get there early!
This is to ensure you get through any health checks, ticket purchase and security on time.
3. Bag Storage
If you are there early find out which is your bus, place your on-bus bag close to the door and stow your other luggage in the under-bus storage compartment. You should be able to open it yourself if it's not open and the driver is not around.
4. Secure your seat ! Once the bus door is open (keep an eye on the driver or sometimes there's an assistant) and get on first (or at least early) and put your bag on the seat you want. You can then get off and walk around until 10 mins before departure (a good idea to keep the blood flow to your extremities). If the only windows that open are at the back that's where you want to be - also because you will annoy fewer people with all your window opening/closing !
5. Be aware of your fellow travelers' comfort/discomfort levels. Note that if you are following my tips on taking photographs out of a bus window then it's possible that there is only an openable window at the very back. I've not had anyone complain if I open and close a window after taking a shot - even when taking frequent shots. In China most people will mind their own business. This might not be the same everywhere you go and in every season (hot/cold air or noise etc. may annoy some people).
6. Clean & Disinfect. The window sill / window / grab handle etc are likely dirty / dusty so wipe them down with a wet disinfectant wipe or it'll end up on your clothes.
7. Aisle Blockage Don't be surprised if luggage (suitcases/bags of vegetables /other paraphernalia) blocks the aisle - totally normal!
8. Delays There may be a delay to departure! Most depart roughly on time (never early) but the longest delay I've encountered was 35 mins.
9. No Heating / Cooling ! There is no heating / cooling on some buses! Especially in rural China. Wrap in layers you can remove / add as required. And sometimes other passengers insist on keeping the windows open all the time (see the guy below) !
10. Seat Belts You may be required to wear the seat belt! Don't argue, do it up (surreptitiously remove it when underway if so inclined).
11. Toilet Breaks Short distance buses/trips (at least 4 hours) usually don't stop for toilet breaks! Don't drink a lot before boarding and personally I don't drink on board at all (I have a weak bladder)! For emergencies (gents) I carry an empty wide mouth bottle and make sure I have something to cover myself with to remain unseen/unheard. You must be seated on the back row and / or a window seat to take advantage of this possibility if desperate!
12. Sick bags!
Make sure there's one handy. If not for you then to stop your neighbour surprising you ! Especially on those windy mountain roads. I've seen a few sufferers and had one right next to me on my last bus ride in Sichuan.
13. Phone signal & Payments
China is remarkably strong in this feature as so many people are utterly reliant on it now. For example on a recent (2021) trip in Sichuan I only used 5 rmb cash (less than $1) during a 2 week trip to the rural hinterlands. Everything was paid (to shops /taxis /buses/ street vendors etc etc, by WeChat, for which a signal is always required of course. You may lose the signal in the mountains but it won't be for long though the signal is often weak ( not strong enough for YouTube for example - for which you'll need a VPN too in China).
14. Noise! Earplugs / earbuds
Oh yes. It can get very noisy on buses in China as it's the perfect time to telephone / video call all your family and friends to catch up on stories from both sides ! Earbuds to listen to music/podcasts or just earplugs if you want to sleep, are not something to leave behind !
15. Lose the shoes!
Goes without saying really but if you are going to be comfortable on a long bus journey then lose the shoes ! I'm happy enough in my thick socks but if you must then grab a pair of hotel slippers (those ultra-thin ones that weigh nothing) in case you need to stand up in a hurry.
16. Bag between your feet (size)
If you don't have room to stash your bag on the seat next to you (I will until it's clear I need to empty the seat for a fellow passenger), then make sure the bag fits beneath your feet in comfort with room either side for your plates of meat !
17. Keep your camera secure !
Hold your camera with the lens down between your legs. That way if the bus brakes suddenly your lens won't either go crashing into the seat in front of you or, should you be taking a photograph out of the window, ensure you have your hand cushioning the camera/lens from the metal window frame. Also, since you are likely on a long-distance bus, always keep your hand in a strap attached to the camera - no chance of losing it out of the window with a sudden jolt, or of falling asleep and dropping it onto the floor, or even worse out of the window!
B) Camera Settings for Photographing from Rural Buses in China.
1. Push the ISO up (how much depends on the light - mine was at a steady 400 most of the time, whatever you are at you need to ensure your shutter speed is up way more than usually necessary. A little noise won't ruin the shot, blur almost certainly will, so don't worry too much where your ISO is at. On some cameras you can set a minimum shutter speed and use Auto-ISO, a nice solution if your camera can do this.
2. Shutter Speed
The most important setting in this type of photography. Of course the scene moves across your sensor a lot faster when shooting close-in subjects than mountains in the distance so get that shutter speed up to at least 1/8000 when going through villages. Of course there are many considerations that will affect this calculation (especially distance to subject & the bus speed) - so it's best to try to make them obsolete by having a fast enough shutter speed that those factors become irrelevant. I'd say around 1/800 is an absolute minimum for shots at distance and 1/8000 or faster for portraits of roadside people). The faster your shutter speed the more likely you'll get a keeper, a well framed sharp shot.
2. Shoot at F4 and burst.
f4 should be more than enough for roadside people at 10-20m to have their faces all in focus (increase it slightly if you have room to play around due to good light) assuming you have fast and accurate autofocus. Ditto for villages and mountainsides, you'll likely already be at infinity so no depth-of-field issues.
On that related subject (depth of field) : for most people the speed of the bus and arrival of scenes/people mean there is little time for zone or manual focus. However it is a good idea to pre-focus at the expected distance if you notice you are approaching an interesting village/scene/person that is a little further down the road. Worst case scenario your AF doesn't have much work to do to catch up, best case scenario is you don't need to touch the AF at all !
4. Burst Rate I usually keep the burst rate to around 6-10 frames a second and hold that shutter button down for 0.5 to 1 second at a time. This is necessary in the mountains at least because of roadside vegetation, you want to be sure at least one shot was taken perfectly in the gap between trees, bushes and telegraph poles !
5. No Hood
You don't want to knock this against the side of the bus and have it drop off - gone forever. A little flare is unlikely to spoil your shot. A lost hood will most certainly kill your good mood so keep it in the bag!
6. Be Ready
Honestly it's tough for hour after hour but the time flies by when you're having fun so keep the camera at the ready, finger on the power button and eyes on the scenery. Try to anticipate : see a village coming up? Get ready ! You may have just a second to capture a lovely interesting portrait/scene so start shooting around a ½ second before you need to. On a side note : toilet breaks mean stops at local roadside stations/shops and just maybe interesting locals so bring your camera (not that you would leave your camera alone in the bus anyway - would you)? The wonderful old lady in the photo below was just one of those situations. She could hardly walk and was struggling to get up the slope because of everyone pushing past her on their way to the toilet. I held them up and gave her my arm and walked her back to her shop/seat. She rewarded me with permission to take her portrait when I asked. Sweet!
If you have any thoughts / tips on how to improve photographing from moving buses /trains /cars (within reason) ! I'd love to hear them - post them below!