17 Photography Tips to Save Your Family Vacation

Before having kids, we lived in Budapest and traveled all over Europe. It was a great learning experience for how to balance photography and vacationing.

In case you have not figured it out by now, I am big into travelling. No matter where the place is, if it has my interest peeked them I'm visiting it. In fact, when I had visited Maui last year, I am thankful to this exploratory guides to the area which made it quite easy for me to visit the main attractions. It was the only time I have taken a guide till date while being on a trip. There's an old question that asks whether you are a traveler who enjoys photography or a photographer who enjoys traveling.  I honestly cannot give an answer either way to that question.  Luckily, my wife also loves to travel, and, with our recent trip to Costa Rica, we hit our nineteenth country.  We did most of those countries prior to having children, but we have done 3 international trips and several in the United States since our first child was born in 2013.  Through our experiences, I have learned many tips on ways both of us can enjoy travel and still allow me to capture quality images.  Below are 17 of my top tips I have learned or that have been suggested by my wife.


As photographers, we typically carry a lot of gear.  Even if we may not use something every time we leave the hotel, we like to have the comfort of having an extra camera body, every lens we may need, even flash gear and other equipment just in case.  This is great when you are travelling by yourself, but if you have kids, they require a lot luggage space.  From multiple changes of clothes, diapers, bottles, toys and lots and lots of snacks, there is a lot to carry.  My wife and I travel with one big suitcase and we each carry a backpack.  It is not fair if my backpack is just my camera bag full of camera gear and she gets stuck carrying a bag full of snacks, toys, diapers and other things.  To make things easier and keep my wife's bag light, I try to use a camera bag that has extra space so I can carry non-camera items.  To do this, I have to give up some of the gear I would normally take, but there are always some things I know I will likely never use.


5. Downtown San Jose Del Cabo (33)
I was able to take plenty of time to shoot this cathedral in good light because my family had plenty to do in the city square and nearby shops.

I am going to be publishing an article soon with tips for planning a photography trip.  It is easy when we are planning a vacation to map out all the places we want to photograph and plan the trip around that.  Again, that would not be fair to your family.  In Costa Rica, I really wanted to photograph the multi-colored homes and shops in the grungy urban center of Liberia.  That would have been fun for me, but there would have been nothing for my wife and kids to do.  In a situation like that, I would look for nearby shopping or parks or something else to do and then try and get ten or twenty minutes to sneak away and get a few of the images I want.  I have had to work really hard to be conscientious of what else is around when I see a scene I want to photograph.  Sometimes, it may not be worth it if it will leave your spouse in a rough spot.  If it is worth it, perhaps you can help get your family into a manageable place and then go take the time to make your image.


Plan your photography outings for times when you don't have to ditch your family.  On almost every vacation, I try to get up for at least one or two sunrises.  I usually skip the sunsets.  This works well, even though it is less convenient for me, because I get my photography in while my family is still sleeping and I can usually get back in time to help get the kids ready.  It also means I am not leaving my wife alone to feed the kids dinner or get them ready for bed.

The other time I like to shoot on vacation is after the kids go to bed.  Depending where you are, you may be able to get in some good astrophotography, cityscapes or street scenes late at night after your children or spouse go to sleep. But when in a different country, or more specifically, a continent, there certainly are laws that one is expected to abide by, and work different in different cities. For example, the German traffic rules are distinctly different from American traffic rules. All of this requires you to go with less sleep, but that is a sacrifice I find necessary if I want my family to enjoy the vacation while I get to make good images at the same time.  The more your family enjoys the vacation the better it will be for you and the more vacations everyone will want to go on.


2.1 Rincon de la Vieja-063
We found this little waterfall in Costa Rica. I took some time to go off trail and set up the tripod, but I still hurried as much as possible and did not bother bracketing or focus stacking as I probably would have if time were not an issue.

When my wife and I traveled across Europe, I made an image at every single place we went and at every site we saw.  Before we went to Thailand, my wife politely asked me to cut back.  Then, we had kids and I learned I needed to cut back way more.  As my photography has improved more, I have also learned more about what makes a good image.  With that, my need to shoot everything has diminished because I know the shot of a cathedral mid-afternoon with a white sky is never going to do anything other than take up room on my hard drives.  As such, I am much more picky about what I actually shoot while we are on vacation.  While we were in Costa Rica, we went on a long hike through the rainforest on the side of volcano.  At one stop, my wife kindly offered to take the kids so I could have an extra twenty minutes shooting at some mudpots we had stopped to see.  She was surprised when I declined her offer.  After looking around the site with my 16-month old, I had already determined there were only two shots I really wanted and neither of those required a tripod.  I easily could have shot for an hour there, but I knew nothing I produced would be epic, so I passed and we continued on our hike.  Later that hike, I took an extra twenty minutes to shoot a waterfall where I knew the shot I wanted would require me to go off trail and set up a tripod.  Being picky about what you shoot will lead to more keepers, more computer storage and more time with your family.


5. Downtown San Jose Del Cabo (11)-2
This snapshot of my daughter showing off her new doll in Mexico is more important to me than any of the shots I made of the Cathedral down the street.

Your spouse will forgive your need to photograph a lot more if she gets to look at, use and share great images of your family on vacation.  During our recent  trip to Costa Rica, I ended up with more images of our family and friends than I did of anything else.  My wife enjoys blogging about our travels and sharing images with friends.  Knowing she will have images to use makes her much more excited for me to have my camera with me at all times.


Nothing is more annoying to your spouse than to sit around and wait for you to try and figure out how to change something on your camera.  When I got my first DSLR, this was a common occurrence as I had to go into the menu and change autofocus modes, aperture, ISO and so forth.   Now, I know all those dials without looking and have easy shortcuts to access anything I need to change.  This means less sitting around for my wife and less time trying to get the kids to stay posed while I fiddle with the camera.  My Fuji has been great for this because it has the dials on the outside and because the digital viewfinder eliminates the need to take multiple shots to see what the exposure looks like since you can see it before pressing the shutter button.


1.1 Beach-039
With the light being different out on the bay, the beach and the trees, my wife would not have been able to capture me taking my daughter on her first jet ski had I not left the camera mostly in auto.

Forgive my blasphemy, but sometimes shooting in auto is okay on family vacations.  This is especially true if your spouse or someone else is going to be using your camera or, as discussed above, if you are not yet efficient with your camera controls.  We spent a morning on the beach in Costa Rica with the light changing as the sun continued to rise and lots of trees providing shadows on different parts of the beach.  To get a perfect exposure would have required me to change my settings on almost every shot.  Knowing I was mostly shooting images of my family (and the giant iguana that hung out with us for a while), I set most of my settings to auto so I could hop out of the ocean, grab a couple images and get back to playing with my kids.  This was also great because it allowed my wife to take photographs of me playing with the kids or taking my oldest on the jet ski.   There is nothing more annoying for my wife than to have to call me over because the image she wants to take is completely washed out or dark and I need to change the settings.


I usually do not like shooting in Raw + JPEG because the JPEGs just take up space on my computer and I end up storing a raw file, a jpeg file and then my edited jpeg.  However, my wife insists that I shoot in jpeg because I am not always the fastest at getting images edited and a raw file is worthless to her when she wants to use the image on her blog or to send to family.  Plus, we don't always have the same taste and sometimes I do not bother editing images she wants to use.   I have developed a good compromise that is a little inefficient, but better than the alternatives.  I shoot in raw + jpeg and edit the images I want to edit.  Once I edit an image, I export it as a jpeg and delete the original jpeg.  This way, my wife still has a jpeg available if she wants to use it before I finish editing and I get rid of the wasted space once I am done editing.  It really is not that big of a deal as I just do a quick delete of all the jpeg files I have edited once I am completely done editing the folder.


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It would have taken a lot more effort and time than was worth to try and get a great image of this palace in Copenhagen given the conditions. In this situation, I grabbed a quick shot and decided nothing more was warranted.

Landscape photographers are used to having a lot of time to plan and set up a shot and take different angles and exposures and so forth.  Do not do that when you have family waiting on you.  The old adage “get it right in camera” can be ignored somewhat when you are on a family vacation.  Unless it is a truly epic shot, just get what you can get and do some extra work in post-processing when nobody is waiting on you.


If you are blessed with a wonderful spouse like me, you will get some alone time to go make images.  It is important to remember during this time, if you have kids, your spouse is taking on extra duties for you.  Repay the favor and watch the kids so they can get a better night's sleep or enjoy some time at the spa or whatever else is available.  Even little things like letting your spouse enjoy lunch while you deal with feeding the kids can go a long way toward showing your gratitude.


Most of us rely heavily on lightroom to organize our images.  Remember your spouse may not even know how to open lightroom.  Make sure you are organizing in such a way that your spouse can find the images they want to use.  Again, the more your spouse can use your images, the happier they are to let you tote that camera everywhere.  There are many ways to organize your images.  The way I have found that works best for me (and my wife) is to use folders for each year that are subdivided into months and then subdivided further into activity.  I number the activity folders to keep them chronological and within each folder I organize the images by placing a number in front of each different event.  It is also important to my wife that I do not use too many subfolders because she likes to be able to attach a lot of images by opening only one window.  For example, all my images for Costa Rica are in 2016->6. June->1. Costa Rica.  Within that folder the images are individually labeled 1.1 for the first activity of the first day, 2.3 for the third activity of the second day and so forth.  So, one file name might be 1.3 Jetskiing (8).  That would be the eighth exposure from jetskiing, which was our third separate location/activity on our first day of vacation.  I have found this method to be very easy and efficient for both my wife and I to find and use images.


Sometimes we get so caught up in photography on vacations, it is all we think or talk about.  Take a step back and spend quality time with your family.  Put the camera away and enjoy a meal or activity together.  Learn something interesting about where you are visiting and have a deep conversation.  Doing things together will make the vacation more enjoyable for your spouse.  The last thing you want is for your family to feel like the vacation is all about you and your photography.


2. Manning-Rye Covered Bridge (9)
I fell in love with this covered bridge near Colfax, Washington. Unfortunately, the one morning I had to shoot it, the light was awful and I didn't get any images I cared for. Instead of letting it put me in a bad mood, I moved on and enjoyed the rest of my vacation.

If you have luck like me, you will get up early and there will not be a good sunrise.  You will miss great images, you will not have the right lens for a certain situation and you will not be able to make it to something you really wanted to shoot.  Don't complain about it.  Often, your spouse has accommodated you in some way to give you the opportunity to shoot, don't complain about it and don't let it affect your mood or enjoyment for the rest of the vacation.  That simply is not fair to your family.


I discussed most of this above when talking about packing lightly, but there are other things to think about too.  Setting up a tripod takes a lot of time.  Unless it is an epic image, bump up your ISO and shoot handheld to save time if your family is waiting on you.  Use a zoom lens with a long range even if it is not your favorite lens so you don't ever have to take the time to change lenses.  I used to travel with a cheap 18-270 lens because I knew I wouldn't need to carry a second lens with me and I would never have to change lenses.  Another thing I like to do is use my 27 mm pancake lens.  With this lens on, I can fit my X-T1 in my pocket.  This means it is out of the way and I am free to carry kids, hold hands or do other things, even if it means I don't have the right focal length for some shots and the quality is not as good as my other lenses.   If you are on a family vacation, your photography has to take a backseat in some aspects.


3.1 ziplining-026
I used a Peak Design clip and Heavy Leather NYC strap to hook my X-T1 and 27 mm lens to my harness. I took plenty of photos of us and our friends, but didn't even bother unhooking the camera to take anything more than a snapshot of us coming down the ziplines.

If you are like me, vacations are about seeing things and places because you can photograph things you see.  I have learned that my wife gets more enjoyment out of doing things rather than just going from site to site.  So, when you are planning, be sure to look up activities you can do.  You may have to put your camera down for a little while, but the whole family may enjoy some activities a lot more than watching you with your camera.  During our recent trip to Costa Rica, we did many things that allowed me to photograph, like hiking through the rain forest or visiting beaches.  We also planned activities where photography played little to no role, like jet skiing and ziplining.  In Mexico last year, we swam with dolphins and went parasailing.  It is nice, and very important, to put that camera down and enjoy some fun activities with your family.


13. Maya Beach (13)_edited-1
My wife enjoyed a half hour in the beautiful water as I trudged around these boats looking for different compositions.

If there is something you are excited to photograph, let your spouse know.  They will probably be more than willing to accommodate you if they know before what you are planning.  Talk through all your plans before the trip so your spouse knows exactly what to expect.  This way, there will be no surprises and less grumbling because they will have had the opportunity to tell you their feelings beforehand.  In Thailand, I told my wife I really wanted to shoot the longtail boats in the Phi Phi Islands.  She was more than happy to go on solo adventures or just relax in the ocean because she was mentally prepared for that and it was not something sprung on her.  Just make sure to stick to what you said you were going to do and photographing while traveling will be easier on everyone.


If family vacations are the only time you get to use your camera, you are going to stress about photographing everything and making sure you get a lot of keepers.  If that is the case, you will not be able to follow many of the tips in this article.  On the other hand, if you are able to get out do some photography time on your own, you will feel less stressed about it on your family vacations.  To be honest, I really did not take many images in Costa Rica.  I maybe only got a handful of keepers and no epic shots.  I was able to relax more because I knew I was going to have plenty of other opportunities this year to really focus on photography.  We are taking a family vacation to the Palouse region for Fourth of July, but I already have scheduled in some time where I will be out photographing by myself.  I am also already signed up for the free Improve Photography workshop in Glacier this September.  Knowing I would have these, and other, experiences with photography, I was able to put the camera away more in Costa Rica and enjoy the family time.

2. Narrows-147-Pano
I have never been able to dedicate so much time to photography as I did on last year's free workshop in Zion National Park. Hiking the Narrows was one of my highlights.

2 thoughts on “17 Photography Tips to Save Your Family Vacation”

  1. Excellent tips, Brent! I have used many of these on our family vacations and have learned that getting “the shot” is far less important than experiencing that precious time with my family. That last tip is a biggie. Having other times to photograph on my own or with photography friends is a must.

  2. I was a freelance commercial photographer years ago but lost interest when technology made everyone a talented shooter. This has renewed my interest with many insightful pres3ntations. Well done Mr. Huntley!

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