Capturing Long Distance Landscapes: GoPro Time-Lapse Photography

Craig E. Colten
Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography at LSU
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2019.62.1p

The roadside has long been a topic of interest to geographers. Over the years multiple approaches and methods have been used to understand this prominent landscape. In recent years, a wide chasm has opened among traditional geographic studies of the roadside, landscape histories, and current mobility studies. The former relied on slow, halting excursions that demanded the field worker pause and record roadside features in great detail. Landscape histories rely on archival material and field work to trace changing assemblages of features that line routeways. Mobility studies insert the traveler as the primary object of observation and analyze the travel experience more than the landscapes outside the vehicle. This paper reports on the use of a GoPro camera mounted inside a car to capture time-lapse images of long-distance drives which blends some of the strengths of each approach.

Figure 1. Dogtrot house, Dubach, Louisiana. Photo by author.

Fred Kniffen drove the roads of Louisiana in the early 1930s to identify, document, and classify folk housing (Figure 1). His field work was done in a car, but involved frequent stops to meticulously record the traditional structures: dogtrots, Acadian cottages, and other folk dwellings. Although relying on an auto for conveyance, his pace was more akin to Carl Sauer’s description of field work: “Locomotion should be slow, the slower the better, and be often interrupted by leisurely halts to sit at vantage points and stop at question marks” (Sauer, 1956, 400). Indeed, the cursory mention that Kniffen made about his method was: “It is slow, it involves an unwieldy mass of data . . .” (Kniffen 1935, 180). He made the case that his field work, although filled with challenges, would enable the mapping of culturogeographic regions that were readily apparent from the roadside. In Louisiana, he argued, house types are an element of culture that possessed great diagnostic value in regional differentiation. He later went on to enlarge his analysis of vernacular structures to map the routes of cultural diffusion across the entire eastern U.S. In his words, he ranged “through the whole eastern United States from the Gulf [of Mexico] to the [Great] Lakes and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi” (Kniffen 1965, 550). His focus of folk housing reflects his belief that “folkways are comparatively the simplest and most direct expressions of fundamental needs and urges” (Kniffen and Glassie 1966, 41). These efforts were classic windshield geography - observation from the seat of a car moving through the landscape, interspersed with close inspection of specific features. The target of observation was narrowly defined, and the methods were akin to a biogeography field survey - mapping distributions, charting morphologies, and classifying types.

Figure 2. Louisiane Motel, Natchitoches, Louisiana. Photo by author.

Over the last few decades, landscape histories of roadsides have proliferated. John Jakle and Keith Sculle have produced a library of books about roadside landscape change that directs attention to the material culture alongside the road (Figure 2; Jakle and Sculle 2002, 2004, 2008, 2011). And there are numerous books about the more prominent highways, such as the National Road (Raitz and O’Malley 2012) and England’s M1 Motorway (Merriman 2007). The Vales’ and Wyckoff’s work on repeat photography provides a complementary tool for capturing insights about the changing roadside landscapes (Vale and Vale 1983 and Wyckoff 2006). While these authors follow rigorous methodology, copious use of landscape photographs illustrate these works, and method and theory are mentioned in passing.

These traditional approaches stand in contrast to a host of recent cultural geography field studies which rely on thick discussions of methods and theory. In these works the role and sensations of the observer becomes as important as the external landscapes (Delyser and Starrs 2001). Indeed, an emerging line of inquiry framed by the conceptual approach referred to as mobility studies contain remarkably few images (Edensore 2003 and 2004 and Merriman 009). Overlapping in time, if not conceptual orientation, with the more traditional approaches, mobility studies demonstrate a new appreciation for observation of the roadside landscape from vehicles in motion. With their emphasis on the driver as an experiential traveler, they afford little concern with the landscape (Endensore 2003). Some authors ignore the underlying processes that create the roadside that is visible from the driver’s seat and eschew photographs, while others acknowledge the importance of highway construction history and the resulting infrastructure (Merriman 2007). Those practicing these newer approaches declare that the observer’s presence, moving through space, in effect creates the landscape. Their inquiries – which focus on the body in motion and experiencing that movement – concentrate on the personal experiences of the drive.

Alongside these pursuits is also a burgeoning body of scholarship that considers the use of various photographic tools to record the landscape and the individual in motion (Rogoff 2000, Garrett 2010, and Vannini 2017). Discussions of wearable technology merge with this experiential reporting and place the field worker at the center of the scene - rather than the landscape (Chalfen 2014). Time-lapse photography has been used extensively to track change from a fixed camera position (Simpson 2012) and also to capture long-distance journeys (Mather 2014). Mather’s transcontinental drive across the U.S. consists of an intense 1 hour and 47 minutes of driver’s seat -view of interstate highways, that offers no insights into the processes behind this extensive engineering accomplishment.

This paper will draw some connections among the slow field work akin to the work of Sauer and Kniffen, historical roadside landscape history, and the emerging work on mobility and visual studies. The notion of mobility was not absent among those pursuing the traditional approaches. Pierce Lewis used the term as the unifying thread in his opening chapter in the landmark volumes on the National Road. He makes the case that mobility is a driving passion that has defined the whole American experience, and that Americans are enraptured with the people and things that make mobility possible (Lewis 1996, 3 & 7). Jakle and Sculle, the two-headed juggernauts of roadside landscape scholarship, argue that geographic mobility, in the American context, promised not just geographic mobility, but social mobility as well (Jakle 2010, 420). Participants driving the current mobility turn see mobility in very different terms. They make the case that we experience the landscape by moving through it (Ingold 1993), and that what we observe, what we experience, is influenced by movement. The perspective from a body in motion becomes the core of their observations. As a consequence, their methodological challenge is how to capture and present mobile experiences (Urry 2007 and Finchin et al. 2010, 1-2). Thus, there is a range of conceptual underpinnings to the notion of mobility that, while not in complete alignment, are not necessarily contradictory.

In this preliminary presentation on recent field work, I hope to critically examine what time-lapse photography along Louisiana’s highways can add to our understanding of landscapes and landscape change and how it can serve as a document of historical landscapes and also a record of the observer in motion. Most of the traditional houses that Kniffen tallied are no longer standing along Louisiana’s roads, indeed they would be largely invisible in this form of documentation. Nonetheless there is an abundance of material culture features and physical landscapes that time-lapse videography captures and permits subsequent examination and interpretation. The field work that provided the basis for this paper represents the first foray and will be followed by subsequent repeat videos that can expose change over time. Each sequence will also encapsulate a long-distance drive in a compressed format that will allow others to gain at least a superficial experience of traveling the particular route. Thus, I am convinced it offers a bridge among windshield geography of roadways, landscape change, and mobility studies of highways.

Capturing Long-Distance Landscapes

In the spring of 2017 I began documenting the main routes of Louisiana using time-lapse photography from a windshield-mounted GoPro camera (Figure 3). My work sought to use a form of photography that captures individual images at set intervals of time. For decades, it has been used extensively from a stationary vantage point in biological and meteorological studies to track the slow growth of plants or the more rapid formation of storms. It is also used with increasingly frequency, again from a fixed position, to track the construction of large buildings and engineering works. Depending on the interval between images, the camera can compress a two-year construction project into a matter of minutes. Likewise the film maker Evan Mather has compressed a multi-day cross-country drive into less than two hours (Mather 2014).

Figure 3. GoPro camera mounted on interior windshield. Photo by author.

I set out to record the observable landscapes along the principal non-interstate highways in Louisiana. The so-called blue highways - the non-interstate, lesser-used, and often forgotten highways among long-distance travelers (Moon 1982). My intent was not to retrace Kniffen’s routes, but to travel the major highways and routes that were central to the state’s economic and cultural development – Louisiana’s equivalents to the National Road or the Lincoln Highway. Most are numbered U.S. highways that parallel railroads, but I also drove the River Road along the Mississippi River which in many sections is a series of minor state highways. In all, I traversed over 5000 miles of highway, in some cases filming the route in both directions.

I opted for time-lapse photography to enable me to recreate extended drives in compressed time frames for my classes and public audiences, but also to explore the method’s potential to capture some of the experience of travel. This decision will allow audiences to accompany me across the width and length of the state within modest time spans. A video of the trip would avoid the messy and choppy imagery of the time-lapse, but oblige me to spend an entire semester introducing students to the state’s highway landscapes or limit presentations to frustratingly short segments of the road. After some experimentation, I selected a 1-image per second interval. This gives fairly complete imagery at lower speeds, but also provides the sensation of viewing an uninterrupted scene at highway speeds. It also captures pauses in the normal motion of the highway. And although Kniffen thought he was dealing with unwieldy volumes of data, the digital files for this procedure are substantial – but less than full video recordings. Using this method, I traveled the longest route in the state over a three-day period and compressed the resulting video to about 20 minutes. In homage to Kniffen and Sauer, there were some lingering halts at “question marks,” but they were not recorded in time-lapse. I did shoot a lot of still images as well to document those pauses.

The windshield placement provides the viewer with a front-seat perspective that is familiar to both drivers and passengers. I directed the camera’s wide-angle lense to the road’s centerline. This produces a view dominated by the paved surface itself, but it also captures the peripheral landscapes on both sides of the road, along with other motorists. Filming both sides was important for those routes that I only drove in one direction. The camera’s orientation is pivotal to both the ability to capture images of the roadside and the experience. It also captures nearly all features the car passes by. Thus, it is less selective than still photographs. Vannini and Stewart advanced the term “GoPro gaze” to refer to the ability of this handy wearable camera to capture suspenseful adventure. While this might be true for video productions of snowboarding or hang gliding, or even dancing in at Cajun nightclubs, my long-distance drives through a state not noted for dramatic scenery offered little in the way of adventure or suspense (Vannini and Stewart 2017). In fact, one reviewer of this manuscript commented on the unexpected monotony of the state’s topography. Nonetheless, as in adventure sports, the GoPro allows the viewer to get a sense of being a part of the action and movement, to share a bit of the experience – without motion sickness. At the same time, it did not fit in the category of Urry’s tourist gaze which refers to the cultural conventions that shape how tourists view, appreciate, and capture landscapes (Urry & Larsen 2011). This technique overcame that cultural bias. Not wanting to litter the literature with catchy terms, I suggest that this method allows non-participants to get a sense of travel and inserts them in a culturally familiar front-seat position. For those with more specific training it permits what I refer to as a geographers’ gaze. Even as Kniffen commented in his 1935 paper, the trained geographer can extract more meaning and understanding from this technique. The geographer’s gaze assumes a background knowledge of historical processes underlying the construction of human roadside landscapes and even those landscapes beyond the immediate frame of the camera which impinge on the visible scene. It demands familiarity with the work of the likes of Jakle, Sculle, and Raitz, but also enables an experiential perspective.

Material Landscapes and the Front Seat Experience

Figure 4. Drive-thru daiquiri shop, Shreveport, Louisiana. Photo by author.

Opting to travel the blue highways, in many respects, pre-determined the images that would be captured. These routes penetrate the heart of towns and cities, and avoid the set-back, sculpted landscapes along the Interstate highways (the Motorways used by Merriman). This decision was vital to capturing the roadside features that crowd the shoulders of the older routes (Figure 4). Interstates have redirected traffic and consequently have contributed to considerable commercial decline along the older routes (Norris 1987). This reorientation in traffic contributed to one of the dominant overall impressions – widespread dereliction. And the commercial strips illustrate this change in profound ways. But, using the time-lapse photography, one of the underlying influences for public acceptance of limited access highways becomes all too apparent. The profusion of traffic lights and the stop-and-go traffic through larger cities underscore the inefficiency of the unlimited access roads.

John Jakle offers five categories in his overview of roadside landscapes: rural, suburban, commercial strip, inner city, and CBD (Jakle 2010). I turn to his typology, with some modifications for organizational structure. In Louisiana, there are multiple rural landscapes, most relatively monotonous, but reflective of the states physical geography or its rural economies. Three quick rural vignettes will suffice here. (Viewers should not expect sound which is not recorded using the time-lapse photo mode.)

Rural Landscapes

Figure 5. Coastal marsh, in Cameron Parish, Louisiana. Photo by author.
Agriculture (Video 1): endless miles of cotton, soy, and sugar cane line the rural highways, interrupted by occasional agriculture infrastructure such as processing or storage facilities and agricultural hamlets.
Forests (Video 2) - another form of agriculture, the tall pines provide a welcomed shade to the roads in the early morning or evening. The narrow and winding roads in the Florida parishes create a “green tunnel” interspersed with emerging crops of young pine trees, small farms, and rural non-farm residences.
Wetlands (Video 3) - in southern Louisiana, seemingly endless miles of marsh and swamp hug the shoulders of lightly used routes that pass through the Chenier Plains. The live oaks hug one shoulder and the adjacent borrow pit reminds the driver to keep his vehicle out of the ditch where gators reside (Figure 5).

Urban Landscapes

Kniffen opted to exclude cities and larger towns because they “introduce complexities out of all pro- portion to the areas they occupy” (Kniffen 1935, 180). Yet, they are too important to exclude here. I start with suburbs.

Figure 6. Double shotgun house in New Orleans Bywater neighborhood. Photo by author.
Suburbs (Video 4): The typical post-war suburbs are largely shielded by commercial strips along the routes I followed. Nonetheless, the 19th century suburbs of the state’s oldest city are easily viewed. Uptown New Orleans contains an array of traditional New Orleans house types, commercial structures along the riverfront, and the imposing floodwall. The Bywater and Lower 9th Ward showcase the closely spaced creole cottages, shotguns, and double shotguns – albeit in a blur (Figure 6).
CBD (Video 5): There is a lengthy lead up to Shreveport across the Red River floodplain, through Bossier – formerly known as the Neon Spectacular of the Arklatex, and over the bridge into the CBD. It is a short drive from the bridge to the imposing Baptist Church at the western end of the business district. While this setting was among my first youthful exposures to a “big” city, and it was a bustling commercial district in the 1960s, its boarded-up storefronts bespeak a major landscape change.
Commercial Strip (Video 6): These linear collections of services and retail stores have largely supplanted the CBD as the elongated centers for commerce and occupy some of the longest stretches of roadways leading into and passing out of larger urban areas. Signs and visual elements compete for the driver’s attention and announce many well-branded outlets. Stretches through lower income neighborhoods typically have fewer national chains and their signage. Traffic lights interrupt the flow and underscore one of the reasons that interstate highways gained such acceptance. They also obscure the post-war suburbs that were purposefully situated off the principal thoroughfares.
Industrial Districts (Video 7): Jakle omitted industrial landscapes, but they constitute an imposing section of landscapes in larger cities and exurban industrial districts depended on workers to commute by car. They typically have extensive parking lots as an indication of this reliance. Here we pass through the refineries and related industries along River Road on the west bank of New Orleans.
Figure 7. Derelict auto repair shop, Bernice, Louisiana. Photo by author.
Dereliction (Video 8): Jakle was keenly aware of dereliction (Jakle and Wilson 1992), but he did not include it as a category in his roadside landscapes. In my survey of Louisiana, it was a dominant roadside feature. The large shipyard that has been closed on the west bank of New Orleans is one example. Little remains of the ship yard but empty parking and material storage areas. Small town CBD’s and commercial strips speak to the out migration of rural agricultural populations, the decline of locally owned businesses, and the shift of commerce from old highways towards interstate exchanges (Figure 7).
Engineering Works (Video 9): Another prominent set of landscapes in Louisiana, and elsewhere, that can dominate the roadside for mile after mile, are various engineering works. In particular the levees along the Mississippi River and the spillways and other river control structures.


Monotony (Video 10): Open stretches of rural highways seemed to stretch on endlessly. The coastal marshes with their perfectly level topography and nearly unbroken grassy expanses until you reach the “highlands” up the bayou. Similar sensations are encountered across the plowed but barren cotton fields and the dense pine forests.
Surprises (Video 11): Among the experiences that the mobility turn authors note are surprises – unexpected events or scenes (Edensor 2003). While I was fortunate to avoid any highway crashes, I fell in behind this early morning driver who was weaving from the shoulder and across the center line with some frequency. And there was also the Huey Long era effort to beautify the state’s new highways with an oak alley along US 190's entry into Baton Rouge from the west.
Changing weather (Video 12): Rain offered another diversion from the tedium of driving through the bare cotton fields in north Louisiana.

Benefits and Weaknesses

These short clips reveal numerous shortcomings of this method. The road and the sky obviously dominate the image, and the fixed perspective eliminates the possibility of panning to follow an object of interest. Early morning sun light and the tyranny of shade obscures many features in this form of documentation, and when undertaking long-distance drives, it is sometimes difficult to drive only during optimal lighting. It is impossible to focus on details of the landscape and the rapid pace can be a bit disorienting if not mind-numbing after extended viewings. Using time-lapse, ambient sounds are not captured, although sounds can be inserted in the editing process. One loses external noises and also the internal sounds of radio news stories or music that shape the driver’s experiences. The actual feel of driving – vibrations, acceleration, deceleration, and turning – are absent.

On the positive side, it permits a simulated passage over lengthy stretches of road in a short time that offers a blurred panorama of the roadside that is akin to our memories of long drives. It provides a motorist’s perspective that enables viewers to discern the broad landscape textures in the sequences in which they appear. And, I am experimenting with repeat time-lapse photography along a major commercial strip in Baton Rouge that is undergoing a major modification. A series of monthly photo excursions will enable tracing landscape change along a 2-mile stretch of road that will be akin to static repeat photography, while capturing change along an extended route.

There are other benefits as well. Insertion of route maps and voice-overs can effectively introduce audiences to the varied and complex roadside landscapes at a particular point in time. Shown as a video, rather than static photographs, will appeal to viewers. This method is also more inclusive than selective photographs. It captures all the landscapes the driver passes, not just choice features. This makes it a more complete record of the landscape at the time of the filming. More importantly, using videos of extended stretches of highway, the method simulates movement and enables a sense of travel or mobility. Thus, it can begin to offer the sensations described in prose by the mobility studies scholars. The full route videos situate the viewers in the front seat and can immerse them in the visual experience of long-distance travel in relatively short spans of time. In effect, this approach can build on the both the landscape history approach and enrich the mobility approach with a powerful visual component currently lacking.


  • Bradley, Ben. 2017. British Columbia by the Road: Car Culture and the Making of a Modern Landscape. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  • Delyser, Dydia, and Paul F. Starrs. 2001. Special Issue on Doing Fieldwork. Geographical Review 91, no. 1-2.
  • Edensore, Tim. 2004. “Automobility and National Identity : Representation, Geography and Driving Practice.” Theory Culture Society 21: 101-119.
  • Edensore, Tim. 2003. “M6 - Junction 19-16: Defamiliarizing the Mundane Roadscape.” Space & Culture 6, no. 2: 151-68.
  • Fincham, Ben, Mark McGuinness, and Lesly Murray. 2010. “Introduction.” In Mobile Methodologies, Ben Fincham, Mark McGuinness, and Lesly Murray, eds., 1-10. New York: Palgrave/McMillan.
  • Garrett, Bradley. 2010. “Videographic geographies: Using digital video for geographic research.” Progress in Human Geography 35, no. 4: 521-41.
  • Ingold, Tim. 1993. “The Temporality of Landscape.” World Archaeology 25, no. 2: 152-174.
  • Jakle, John. 2010. “Paving America for the Automobile.” In The Making of the American Landscape, 2nd, Michael P. Conzen, ed., 403-22. New York: Routledge.
  • Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. 2011. Remembering Roadside America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • ______. 2008. Motoring: The Highway Experience in America. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • ______. 2004. Signs in America’s Automobile Age: Signatures of Landscape and Place. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
  • ______. 2002. Fast Food: Roadside restaurants in the automobile age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Jakle, John A., Keith A. Sculle, and Jefferson S. Rogers. 2002. The Motel in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Jalke, John and David Wilson. 1992. Derelict Landscapes. Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Kniffen, Fred B. "Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 55, no. 4 (1965): 549-576.
  • Kniffen, Fred B. 1936. "Louisiana House Types." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 26, no. 4: 179-193.
  • Kniffen, Fred B., and Henry Glassie. 1966. "Building in Wood in the Eastern United States: A Time-place Perspective." Geographical Review 56: 40-66.
  • Lewis, Pierce. 1996. “The Landscapes of Mobility.” In The National Road. Karl Raitz, ed., 3-44. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
  • Mather, Evan. 2014. From Sea to Shining Sea. (Video)
  • Merriman, Peter. 2009. “Automobilities and Geographies of the Car.” Geography Compass 3, no. 2: 586–599.
  • Merriman, Peter. 2007. Driving Spaces: A Cultural-Historical Geography of England's M1 Motorway. New York: Blackwell.
  • Moon, William Least Heat. 1982. Blue Highways: A Journey into America. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.
  • Norris, Darrell A. 2010. “Interstate Highway Exit Morphology: Non-Metropolitan Exit Commerce on I-75.” Professional Geographer 39:1, 23-32
  • Raitz, Karl and Nancy O’Malley. 2012. Kentucky’s Frontier Highway: Historical Landscapes along the Maysville Road. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
  • Rogoff, Irit. 2000. Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture. London: Routledge.
  • Sauer, Carl O. 1956. "The Education of a Geographer." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 46, no. 3: 287-299.
  • Simpson, Paul. 2012."Apprehending everyday rhythms: rhythmanalysis, time-lapse photography, and the space-times of street performance." cultural geographies 19, no. 4: 423-445.
  • Urry, John. 2007. Mobilities. New York: Polity.
  • Urry, John and J. Larsen. 2011. The Tourist Gaze 3.0. London: Sage.
  • Vale, Thomas R. And Geraldine R. Vale. 1983. U.S. 40 Today: Thirty Years of Landscape Changae in America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Vannini, Phillip. 2017. "Low and Slow: Notes on the Production and Distribution of a Mobile Video Ethnography." Mobilities 12, no. 1: 155-166.
  • Vannini, Phillip, and Lindsay M. Stewart. 2017. "The GoPro Gaze." cultural geographies 24, no. 1: 149-155.
  • Wyckoff, William. 2006. On the Road Again: Montana’s Changing Landscape. Seattle: University of Washington Press.