A Photographer Takes the Long Road
Follow AAA Member Jon Mattrisch as he sets out in his van—along with his wife and dog—for an extended road trip.
Jon Mattrisch is no stranger to big endeavors. When he was just 21, he helped the Wisconsin State Fair win the Guinness World Record for Largest Cheese Sculpture, which weighed in at a hefty 925 pounds. These days, Jon has a different kind of epic venture underway: an 18-month photography road trip with his wife, Krisha, and their 95-pound Great Pyrenees mix, Myka.
Road trip with a purpose
The trio set out in February in the customized van in which they’re living, working, sleeping and, of course, snapping photos. It’s Jon’s profession—he specializes in landscapes—and it’s also his passion. “I love going to explore and photograph new places,” he says. “To see an amazing view and capture it and share it with the world—it’s a cool feeling, and one that never gets old.”
Recalling many family vacations he took as a kid, Jon maintains that road travel “is in my DNA.” His mom would plan the trips with AAA, using TripTiks and TourBooks. The excitement of waking up with the world outside the car window has stayed with him into adulthood, and Krisha shares his enthusiasm.
They’ve road-tripped to Montana, the Southwest and even along Iceland’s Ring Road. “She loves figuring out where we want to go or whether we want to take a detour. It’s collaborative; it’s rewarding; and it’s fun!” Jon says.
Inspired and prepared for their journey
It was in 2020, on their 11-day jaunt to Utah and Arizona, that the Mattrisches first thought of turning that fun into a full-time pursuit. “We’d packed Krisha’s SUV, and we were just having a great time,” Jon says. “But we saw all these camper vans and thought, ‘Wow, it’d be nice to have more room.’” After kicking around the idea of hitting the road full time, they realized, “If we don’t do this now, we never will.”
Cue the planning and prepping. For Jon, that meant watching plenty of how-to videos while transforming a gray Ford Transit into a customized live-work space. Now Gracie Gray, as they dubbed it, boasts rooftop solar panels; a full electrical system; a sink; a refrigerator; a TV/computer monitor; a raised queen-size bed; a portable toilet; and a heated, portable shower.
The next task was to marry their wanderlust with some old-fashioned planning—crucial if you’re hoping your road trip reaps memorable images. (See Jon’s road trip images on Instagram at @vanswerthecall). Jon’s first priority: Build an itinerary that leaves plenty of room for moseying. “We use mapping apps to plan so that we’re able to drive relatively short distances each day,” he says. “That way, we’re never crunched for time and can make plenty of random stops to shoot and explore.” Sunrises and sunsets also dictate the couple’s schedule, he adds, as the “beautiful, soft, natural light” creates prime conditions for landscape photography, with “golden hour”—the half-hour before and after sunset—offering particularly magical conditions.
The geography of wonder—and serendipity
With great photos as the goal, the couple also plan to visit popular areas, such as national parks, at off-peak times. “Getting good shots can be difficult when lots of people are around,” Jon says.
Jon recommends national parks to anyone getting into photography. “They make getting good shots easy,” he says. “Everything is there, ready for you to capture. Then, as you get experienced, you can take those skills with you beyond the parks to other wilderness areas.”
Another pro tip: Check out Reddit communities such as I Took a Picture—a site that Jon mines for inspiration and advice on the best spots to shoot.
In the end, the most important images will be the memories the couple hold for the rest of their lives—breathtaking moments, such as the time they drove through a forest of Montana’s golden larches (pictured right), evergreens that turn a burnished golden hue in autumn.
“That’s when you have to ditch the timetable and the plan and just pull over to the side of the road and really take it all in. I can’t wait for when that happens again—those unexpected places or people that make us slow down and realize, ‘This is really incredible’,” Jon says.
This isn’t Jon Mattrisch’s first rodeo—or, rather, road trip. Besides his current 18-month odyssey, the photographer has hit the highway before, capturing images of forgotten landscapes. Armed with his Canon EOS R6 digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, Jon took the 10 stunning shots that follow. Here, he reveals the details behind each shot. Swipe to see them.
Location: Arches National Park, Utah Making of the photo: As seen here, Jon likes to capture what he calls, the “sun star.” He shoots at a small aperture—usually between f/16 and f/22 (here he shot at f/22). Note that a wide aperture admits much more light, but a small aperture limits light and can create this “blades” effect. Also required: a tripod or a steady hand. Reflections: “The sky was just beautiful,” Jon says. “Those reds, the blues, the oranges all contrast with one another. All that combined to create a really colorful shot.”
Location: Avalon Fishing Pier, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina Making of the photo: To capture the motion, the blur, of the water rushing in, Jon took a long exposure. Then, editing the photo, he raised the vibrance, boosting highlights while leaving shadow levels down to darken contrast. Reflections: To shoot this photo, Jon and his wife, Krisha, woke up right before dawn one morning this past April. “I grabbed my camera and a tripod, and I walked out of the van. We literally just had to walk over a dune. I’m a terrible morning person—it takes me forever to wake up. But that sight snapped me right out of my slumber. I knew this was gonna be one of the best sunrises I’d ever see.”
Location: Off a highway, somewhere in Arizona Making of the photo: Composing this shot, Jon followed the rule of thirds. The bottom third is orange scrub; the middle is the hill; the top is the sky. The windmill, meanwhile, acts as a focal point. Reflections: “We were just driving through Arizona and saw this beautiful old windmill. We had this really dramatic sky in the background and that one hanging cloud that was right there. And I was like, all right, we’ve got to pull over. I really wanted that.”
Location: Point Betsie Lighthouse, Frankfort, Michigan Making of the photo: Jon shot the image with a long lens, a 50mm, which blurs and compresses the plants and flowers in the foreground and makes the lighthouse larger in the background. Reflections: “We got to this lighthouse and there were these beautiful purple flowers, and we had the beautiful sky in the left and the blue water. Our van did get stuck in the sand, though, and had to get pulled out by a jeep.”
Location: Wormsloe State Historic Site, Savannah, Georgia Making of the photo: Jon took this image in high dynamic range (HDR) to capture greater detail in the highlights and shadows. That meant shooting on a tripod and rapid-shooting five different exposures, merging them together. “It brought the highlights down and gave me a really nice exposure, a really crisp shot,” he says. Reflections: “This was pretty incredible to see,” he recalls. “You’re underneath this massive canopy of trees that block most of the sunlight but let some poke through. It’s like you’re under this natural bridge.”
Location: Forrest Gump Hill, Monument Valley, Utah Making of the photo: Jon used a telephoto lens to compress the image and maintain scale. In editing, he also played up the blue light by emphasizing the color in the highway lines (which are actually white—and do appear that way later in the day). Reflections: “This is a bucket list spot for me. I’ve always wanted to go to Monument Valley. With this hill, you get such a dramatic leading line with the road. We did this at sunrise, and it just gave us these beautiful violets and maroons and long shadows.”
Location: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan Making of the photo: No need for HDR here, given how bright the scene. Plus, Jon didn’t want to use any technique that would blur the motion of the woman at the bottom of the dune. He did, however, shoot with his 11mm ultrawide lens, which gave him the perspective he wanted. Reflections: At the top of this hill, a sign warns of how steep the drop is—maybe 300 feet above the coastline, Jon estimates. “But people do take the trek down and then hike back up. Some people get stuck down there and can’t make it back. [Officials] are like, if you attempt this and you can’t get up, just know that it’s gonna be hours until rescue services come to get you. It’s kind of crazy being at the top of this and looking down. You’re like, holy cow.”
Location: Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas Making of the photo: No fancy tricks here: Shooting at dawn (on a frigid morning), Jon used an ultrawide lens to capture all the cars in one image. Reflections: “When we got there, it was 4 degrees out,” Jon says. “I didn’t have gloves on, so I had to get this done quick because I had, maybe, five minutes before my hands were completely frozen. But I got the shots, and, thankfully, the sky was beautiful.”
Location: Roan Mountain State Park, Carter County, Tennessee Making of the photo: Jon employed HDR here and shot in panorama mode. During editing, he increased the photo’s vibrance but not its color saturation: He wanted the colors to pop without making them artificial. Reflections: Jon and Krisha were hiking when they stumbled across this money shot. “It had the clouds I love,” he recalls. “And that blue sky. At the top of the photo, there are some really cool contrasts with the white against the blue. Plus, you see the shadow from underneath the clouds. I just couldn’t have been happier with it.”
Location: The Mackinac Bridge, Michigan Making of the photo: Using a tripod and telephoto lens, Jon opened up the aperture and exposed the image for 20 seconds. That gave him the nighttime exposure he wanted along with the streaking car headlights and taillights on the bridge. Reflections: “We were up in Mackinaw trying to find a place to stay, and we wound up in the Straits State Park,” Jon says. “And we saw the Mackinac Bridge right in back of our campsite. So I just went down to the beach at night with my telephoto lens.”
Are You Road Trip Ready?
Before you begin your journey, it’s a good time to check in with your insurance agent to make sure you’re covered for every eventuality.
✔ If you’re driving a van or an RV, make sure you have that specific insurance.
✔ Make sure all drivers are insured.
✔ If you’re going to be living on the road, it’s probably wise to boost your car insurance, whether that means increasing your maximums for accidents, liability, etc., or making sure you are covered for every possibility.
✔ Check that your insurance is sufficient and valid everywhere you plan to go, including international destinations such as Canada and Mexico.
✔ Are you renting a car or an RV? Make sure your coverage is sufficient for a rental vehicle, as you’ll be logging lots of miles.
✔ Keep your insurance card in a safe and handy place while you travel.