The Art of the Matter

We love photography, especially transportation photography because it is dynamic, full of activity, life, and purpose. People in transportation photos inspire us and make us work all that much more diligently to make America’s transportation system the best that it can be.

But can transportation photography be art?

Can a photo of a hard-working transportation professional, a commuter riding the bus, a family out on the great byways of this country, a soaring bridge, a beautiful plane, a chugging ferry be elevated to the status of art?

And does that really even matter?

Let’s be honest: we’re not producing a gallery show or a coffee table book.

We are running the Faces of Transportation photo contest to get great photos of people designing, building, maintaining and using the transportation system this wonderful country has to offer so that we can show off those photos in our publications, web sites, brochures, reports, etc.

And, you’ll probably agree, even utilitarian photos can be artful (or even just well taken). After all, a poorly shot, confused or boring photo is not going to win any contest, no matter the subject matter.

So, here’s what it all boils down to: we encourage you to strive for great photos, and if they reach the level of “art” in somebody’s eyes, all the better.

Take a close look at some of our past entries, past winners and some tips from the pros and get out there and make some transportation art!

Tip: Let the Color Orange Be Your Friend

It’s unavoidable in most photographs of transportation.


Signal Man
A signalman working for the Nebraska Department of Roads.

Cones, barrels, safety vests, fencing, lights, equipment. It threatens to dominate any photograph you take of a project and the people working on it. It doesn’t seem to be a very friendly color to have in a picture…

But don’t let it overwhelm you (or your photographs)! We read a fascinating article on color theory in photography and it opened our eyes (pun intended). When you’re out shooting, be conscious of how one color (orange, yes, but other colors, too) can add depth, interest and excitement to your photos. Find out how one color can even jump out and emphasize your subject.

Orange you glad we posted this?

Getting a Model Release

An inspector looks at rebar as part of an Idaho Transportation Department project.

You’ve scoped out where you’re going to take that winning transportation photo. You’ve got your plan on how to take pictures safely and efficiently. You’ve got your equipment ready and your battery charged.

What about the model release?

Since this is a photo contest all about people (after all, it’s called “Faces of Transportation”!), everyone in your photos whose face is clearly recognizable must sign a model release. This protects all involved (the subject, you, and AASHTO) by giving us permission to use their likeness in books, reports, brochures, web sites, and many other publications.

Read up on the issue in this great article by Better Photo, and be sure to take one or more copies of AASHTO’s model release along with you in your equipment bag.

Now you’re ready!

Florida DOT: Historic Transportation Photos

Here’s a very interesting site from the Florida Department of Transportation that really gets us inspired! Transportation photography offers such a wide variety of subjects that even back then, with bulky, sometimes difficult equipment, photographers got a lot of great shots.

So many wonderful pictures, so little time…

Brooksville Road Construction late 1926
Hernando County voters approved a $100,000 road construction bond in August 1925 to provide 75 miles of hard rock roads. The road bed materials at the time cost $4.60 a ton. In 1926 a road was prepared between Old Spring Hill Road and Weeki Wachee. Old Hammock Road, seen here in this photo, was improved between Brooksville and Crystal River.

Tip: Photographing Transportation Means Working Outside

Obvious, right?

Harvesting Wildflowers
Dan McCarver, of INDOT’s LaPorte District, harvests wildflower seed along US 31 in Fulton County, Indiana.

But there are many considerations when taking pictures outside that, combined with the special requirements of photographing transportation, mean some extra effort on the photographer’s part.

Read this article from e-How magazine to get some ideas!

Tip: Photographing People at Work

Sometimes, it can be challenging to take pictures of people at work, especially if they’re working in a dynamic environment like a transportation work site, or on the train or bus.

Safety is number one, of course. Proper precautions and planning are essential – as Julie Duewel of the Nevada DOT explained in a recent post.

And picking the right subject is crucial. Katy Warner of North Carolina DOT shared that nugget of information just last week.

But, how do you take award-winning pictures of people working? Our friends at Shutterbug Magazine have some great ideas. Check it out!

2011 Category Winner – Katy Warner, North Carolina DOT

To give you an idea of what to photograph, and what might be good to submit, we’re letting you in on the thoughts of some our past award winners and what made a particular photo worth submitting.

This week features Katy Warner, the At Work category winner from the 2011 contest. Katy is the photographer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Photography is a passion for me, not just a job. I am extremely grateful to be in a profession that is so rewarding. I’m Katy Warner, photographer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and I have been working here for almost eight years.

I travel across our beautiful state, from the coast to the mountains, photographing projects, employees and events.

Louis Sandoval, North Carolina DOT
NCDOT maintenance worker Louis Sandoval.

I shot the photo of an NCDOT maintenance worker, Louis Sandoval, that won the “At Work” category. Louie was competing in a test of skill as part of the department’s annual “Road-eo” competition, which honors the most talented maintenance crew in Winston-Salem. I am so pleased to have won with this photo because I feel it really captures not only the essence of Louie, but also the spirit of all of my fellow DOT workers. We are a friendly bunch!

This photo is technically a bit more complicated than it looks. It was somewhat challenging to capture a proper exposure due to the reflective vest: you have to remember not to use a flash! I exposed the image with a meter reading of his face instead of the overall scene. If you do not have access to a digital SLR like the Nikon D700 that I use here at the NCDOT, search your camera for the spot meter setting, and target what you would like accurately exposed.

I may photograph many images of construction sites and other representative images for the NCDOT, but my favorite photos to take are of diverse folks that work all over the state.

Good luck to all with your submissions. I look forward to being inspired again by this year’s group of images.