Surviving the Family Photo Vacation
Text and photography copyright © Ian Plant. All rights reserved.

Ah, the family vacation—time for some fun in the sun, for grilling hot dogs, playing volleyball, and building castles in the sand. Or so it is for most people. For the serious nature photographer (whether a working pro or a weekend warrior), the family vacation can be a time of anxiety and dread. Family doesn’t always understand your obsession with getting “the shot,” and marital and familial friction often results when you scamper off to chase the light. As a result, photography during a family vacation can be sort of like having an illicit affair: anxious waiting for a moment when you can sneak away, furtive glances at the weather, and slinking back to bed in the morning hoping your spouse didn’t notice that you were out for some steamy sunrise action.

How does one get great shots while avoiding family strife? While recently spending a week on a family vacation in scenic Door County, Wisconsin, I gave this some serious thought. Here are a few helpful tips I came up with:

1. Plan Ahead

The key to success in any photo shoot is advanced planning, but this is especially true for family vacations. Getting to know the area before you arrive can help you optimize your limited field time. Read hiking or tourist guides to get a sense of the area and to help identify good shooting locations. Basically, the more prepared you are, the less time you will have to spend scouting for shooting locations, and the more time you will have for photography. Oh, and the more time you will have for your family, of course!

2. When Negotiating, Start High

While on vacation, your spouse, kids, and other family members will want to spend some quality time with you sans camera. As a result, bargaining for some photography time is an inevitable part of every family vacation. You should approach this time-honored tradition with the aggressiveness of a mother grizzly defending her cubs. Demand to be allowed to photograph from sunrise to sunset. Graciously offer to give up mid-day shooting if necessary.

3. Stay Close To The Action

This one is important: choose lodging that is near a planned sunrise shot. Your chances of getting permission to shoot sunrise greatly increase when you don’t have to wake your spouse up at 3:00 am!

4. Build In Some Extra “Me” Time

I always try to schedule extra time before or after the family vacation so I can shoot without distraction. Even just an extra day or two on location—without the family—can mean the difference between getting the shot or not.

5. Everyone Can Join the Fun!

Get family involved in the photography process as a way to strengthen familial bonds. Explain that carrying heavy photo equipment enhances overall health and builds character. Children can learn what is meant by the phrase “human shield” when strategically positioned to protect your camera from flare, wind, water, or charging buffalo.

6. Keep A Weather Eye

Check the long range forecast for your area ahead of time, and check the short range forecast as much as possible when on location. This will allow you to pick the best times to shoot. If it turns out, for example, that it will be raining at sunrise, then you can graciously offer to sleep in with your spouse that morning. Just don’t let on that you already know the forecast!

7. When Necessary, Bribe

Provide incentives for your family to embrace your erratic shooting schedule. Dinner at a nice restaurant (tip: avoid restaurants where you order by number), taking the kids for a few hours, or being nice to one’s mother-in-law are all effective. Avoid the last option unless desperate.

8. Looking for a Few Great Shots

When I have limited time to shoot a location, I don’t try to hit all of the scenic highlights. Rather, I concentrate my efforts on a handful of particularly photogenic locations, returning as often as I can to photograph them under changing conditions and light. I’d rather come home with a few great shots, rather than a bunch of good ones.

9. Don’t Be Ashamed To Be Shameless

When your family absolutely refuses to let you go shooting, you may need to resort to dirty tricks. I employ several tactics that are usually effective. Distraction works well when you need to sneak away for a quick shot: “Look over there, isn’t that Johnny Depp/Jessica Alba [choose one or both as necessary] nude sunbathing?” For more time-consuming photography, try a fake injury: “Owwee, I just pulled my latissimus dorsi. Go on and enjoy yourselves, I’ll just stay here at this scenic location until sunset, hopefully I’ll feel better by then.” When family is being particularly obstinate and you’re afraid you’ll miss that shot of a lifetime, go nuclear: “Officer, I just overheard that woman talking on her cell phone and she mentioned the words ‘President’ and ‘weaponized avian flu.’ By the way, she appears crazy, she seems to think she’s my wife.”

10. Move Over, Sparky!

It is inevitable: you will anger and disappoint your family because of your photography addiction. Upon return from the family vacation, be prepared for an extended period of contrition. Use your time in the proverbial doghouse wisely: start planning your next family vacation!

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Ian Plant lives in the Washington, D.C. area and has been photographing the natural world for fifteen years. His work has appeared in a number of books and calendars, as well as national and regional magazines, including Outdoor Photographer, National Parks, Blue Ridge Country, Adirondack Life, Wonderful West Virginia, and Chesapeake Life, among others. His sixth and most recent book is the critically acclaimed Chesapeake: Bay of Light. Ian’s work has also appeared in five other books of the Wonder and Light series. Ian is co-owner of Mountain Trail Press, a publisher of fine art nature photography books and calendars.

To see more of Ian's work, visit Mountain Trail Photo. The Mountain Trail Photo Team consists of some of the top nature photographers in the country, whose mission is to educate and inspire others in the art of nature photography. There you will find team member images; articles on photo techniques and destinations; and information on workshops in some of America's most beautiful places. Also visit the Team's blog for a more eclectic mix of images and musings.

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