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How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

In this article, I’ll show you how to photograph your family vacation starting with simple gear, creative photography tips, and the most important part – managing personalities and emotions.

“I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” – Diane Arbus

A grumpy moment on a family vacation. - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Not every photo has to have a great big smile in it. My little girl was pretty grumpy at this moment. But I found something humorous about her expression as well as something artistic about the colors and the distance between her and her shoes.

I was 9 years old on a family vacation when I first fell in love with photography. My parents let me snap some photos with their camera. From that moment on, all I could think about was photography!

In spite of how much I loved photography, I grew up taking terrible photos of our family trips, mainly because I didn’t know how to take good photos. But thanks to places like Digital Photography School, I’ve finally learned to take good photos of family adventures with my kids.

#1 – Itinerary and Gear

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

Your family vacation has a destination; you’re not wandering aimlessly. Your trip has a goal; perhaps adventure or relaxation. So too, should you also have a goal for your photos.

Why is a goal so important? Many families come home from a trip discouraged that they don’t have better photos of their journey. It’s easy to be distracted, lazy, or burnt out and just forget to take photos. But having a goal will keep you on track.

First step of the road trip is to wash the windshield! - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

When my family took our first long road trip together I was determined to document the entire journey. This would also be my first big photography project.

Anticipation is one of the best parts of a trip. During the weeks of pre-trip excitement, consider what excites you most about your destination. Jot down some notes about things you’d like to photograph. Keep those notes in your camera bag and check them off as you travel.

Write the list when you feel most inspired and then it will guide you in the midst of vacation chaos when you are feeling rushed and less inspired.

Pack Lightly

Try to bring along as little photography gear as possible. Your kids will be asking you to hold their coats and hats, you’ll be carrying souvenirs, the last thing you want on top of that is a mountain of gear in an extra large camera bag.

Just a camera and rubber boots. - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

This was my main gear for a trip to the Canadian East Coast; a camera and rubber boots! I also had a tripod but almost never used it. It was a pain to carry around and set up. I’d rather be free to move and have fun with the kids than being loaded down with camera gear I won’t even use.

Here is a list of my favorite gear for traveling light on day trips and longer vacations.

  • Wide-angle lens
  • Telephoto lens
  • Underwater camera housing
  • Spare batteries
  • No tripod

The wide angle lens is perfect for landscapes, the telephoto lens for those far-off sights, and the underwater camera housing is perfect for beaches and oceans.

Remember, traveling light allows you to be free in the moment, instead of wrestling with gear. Some photographers constrain themselves to only one camera body with 1-2 lenses. This forces them to think more creatively about the scenes and moments in front of them rather than fussing over gear decisions.

Kids on a rock in the ocean. - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

This photo was taken with my underwater camera housing. The ocean was so cold I was numb from the waist down!

#2 – Creative Ideas

“For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

There is a lot that can be photographed on your family vacation. Always keep your camera handy rather than having it packed away in a hard to reach spot. There will be so many little moments to capture and you’ll get pretty discouraged if you miss them because your camera is packed away.

These 5 creative tips will guide you as you photograph your family vacation.

1. Photograph from inside the vehicle or plane

Mugs of hot chocolate on the dashboard. - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

My wife and I journeyed to the south-west for one last trip before becoming parents. The desert was hot but the mountains were cold! We brought a tiny stove with us to make hot chocolate along the way.

Depending on the nature of your trip, you may spend a lot of time inside a vehicle. Don’t waste the chance for some unique photos.

A view from inside the vehicle adds a different perspective to your photos. If every photo is shot from the same perspective or angle they will be boring. You want your friends and family to be excited as they flip through your photo book.

Mountain road view from inside the car. - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Driving mountain roads is my favorite part of every trip. I’m always torn between being the driver or being the passenger and taking photos.

View of a storm on the plains from inside the car. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Storms can be a beautiful part of the journey. Especially when you’re nice and snug inside the car!

A view of houses from a plane. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

We had a friend who was training to be a pilot and took us to breakfast on a plane!

One dark cloud hangs over the road ahead. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Driving toward the Midwest United States, one black cloud hung over an otherwise cheerful sky. Maybe it was warning us that the next time we took a trip like this there would be two screaming toddlers in the back seat!

2. Locations and Landscapes

You’ll likely visit many beautiful landscapes during the day. But how would that same landscape look during beautiful evening light? Revisit some locations to take photos at different times of the day.

Monument Valley in Harsh Light - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

This is Monument Valley during the harsh light of midday.

Image: This is Monument Valley during the beautiful evening light.

This is Monument Valley during the beautiful evening light.

Hall’s Harbour in the evening light. - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

This is Hall’s Harbour in the evening light.

Hall’s Harbour in the harsh light of the day. - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

This is Hall’s Harbour in the harsh light of the day.

Many of us take pictures of family members simply standing beside landmarks or landscapes. But there has got to be a more creative way of documenting the places and things you see.

Try photographing candid or natural moments while working landmarks and landscapes into the background.

Family photo at Peggy's Cove - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Here we are as a family. Do you know where this is? It could be any body of water in the world. I’m glad we have this photo, but I had to get more creative with my backgrounds.

Colorful East Coast homes. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

I loved the charm of these colorful East Coast homes, but I didn’t want photos of random houses. So I made these homes part of the background instead of being the focal point of the photo. The bigger story is about my kids having a blast throwing rocks into the bay and the homes are part of the beautiful scenery.

Photographing Niagara Falls - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

I have many photos of my kids looking at the camera on vacation. But I wanted something more creative. How about a silhouette with interesting framing?

Here is a simple question that will help you take better photos of the places you visit. Ask yourself, what is the essence of that place? Why do you love it so much?

Skipping stones at Hall's Harbour - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

I had many beautiful (and not so beautiful) photos of Hall’s Harbour. I wasn’t satisfied with any of them and I wasn’t sure why. One evening I saw this couple come walking along and start skipping stones. That was it! That was the essence of this place; peace, solitude, skipping stones. This is a far more personal photograph to me.

Lighthouse at Summerside PEI - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

In Summerside, Prince Edward Island, the vastness of the ocean overwhelmed me. That was the essence of the place to me. No matter where you go on PEI, you are surrounded by the ocean. I composed this photo to portray that vastness. A tiny lone lighthouse in the distance.

Image: When you’re among the massive rock formations in Utah, you feel very small and vulnerable.

When you’re among the massive rock formations in Utah, you feel very small and vulnerable.

Black and white photo of Niagara Falls - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Niagara Falls is one of the most nostalgic places on earth for me. It’s where I first came to love photography as a child. The viewfinder is an icon for travelers, and Niagara Falls is one of the most recognizable sights in the world. The slight misfocus, the grain, the black and white, all work toward capturing the essence of Niagara Falls for me; memories.

Image: This is Monument Valley during the beautiful evening light.

This is Monument Valley during the beautiful evening light.

Visit locations at different times of the day, think creatively rather than making your family stand beside things, and consider the essence of the place you’re in.

3. Moments

You’ll be busy photographing the obvious landscapes and big moments of your trip. But you will experience many little unexpected moments in those places. Photograph these odd moments too. You’ll find them to be very meaningful moments and love talking about them when you look back at your photos over the years.

Kids riding an escalator - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

My kids loved their first trip to Niagara Falls and I loved sharing that place with them. It was also their first time using an escalator (a moving set of stairs). They rode it over and over. I love this low angle perspective and how the main lines converge in the center of the photo.

A toddler making a mess of sunscreen. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

My two-year-old daughter was being so quiet in the backseat. But you know when a toddler is being quiet they might be up to no good! She had discovered the tube of sunscreen and applied it liberally! Needless to say, she did not get a sunburn that day. If this had happened earlier in the trip I would have freaked out. But by this point, I had learned to relax no matter what happened.

4. Food

Often you will experience new foods on your journey. Whether you like the food or not, photograph some of it. Viewing the photos of food will instantly trigger memories of the meals you shared.

A lobster on a plate. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

We tried lobster for the first time! The sun was shining directly on it, giving such deep color to the photo.

An empty plate of fish and chips.

Fish and chips is a must on the East Coast. The dinner was so good I forgot to take a picture until it was too late!

5. Hotels, campsites

Hotels and campsites are a blast for kids to explore! Make sure to capture some photos during downtime at the places you sleep.

A boy jumping across motel beds. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

After a 10 hour day on the road, my son discovered just how fun beds in a hotel room can be. He was just barely able to leap the chasm between the two beds. He may forget the boring scenery, but he’ll love this memory.

A little girl with her face pressed up to the window screen. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Bathed and changed into fresh jammies, my daughter sits at the window with her nose pressed against the screen.

Kids playing with their parents shoes. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Kids being crazy with our shoes while we pack for the next part of our journey.

At this point, if you’ve packed light (including your photo inspiration list) and taken note of some creative ideas, you’ll be set to take some great photos along the way.

But one thing threatens to ruin your photos and your trip – emotions.

#3 – Managing Personalities and Emotions

“Tears and sweat often bring out the best in us.” – Mister Rogers

Every family is different, but most families deal with a certain amount of drama on their trips. Learning how to deal with drama and negative emotions is critical for having a better time with your family and taking better photos.

Consider the fact that you won’t be in the mood to take photos if you are grumpy and your family won’t want to be in photos or do anything fun if they are grumpy. My family learned this lesson the hard way.

Little girl happy in the car. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Everything started out fine on our trip to the East Coast. Filled with the anticipation of the journey, we had books and snacks and things to do in the car.

Crying girl in car. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

But my goal of a family adventure and a beautiful photography project is quickly met with a reality check. Our kids are 2 and 4 years old and we’re crammed into a little car – more often than not, it feels like a disaster.

Two toddlers sleeping in the car. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

My wife and I thought that we could easily relive the adventurous trips we took before we had kids. But the reality was now very different. We had to plan for shorter days of driving, more motel stops, earlier bedtimes and lots of relaxed downtime.

A little girl with sand in her eyes. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

But no matter what we tried, the first half of our trip was just a disaster. Not even a relaxed day at the beach was any fun. The ocean winds blasted us with sand. We couldn’t enjoy ourselves for a moment. Even I couldn’t keep pretending to have fun. At one point our little girl ran into mama’s arms with eyes full of sand from the relentless ocean winds.

A mom and boy playing in the mud. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

The ocean tide was always leaving behind a shoreline of muck. Normally kids love mucking about in the mud. But not on our miserable road trip. You know you’re in trouble when nothing makes your kids happy anymore. By this point in the trip, I was sure I’d have nothing but tear-filled photos for my project.

A sleeping girl. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

A week into the trip we were at our wit’s end. Finally, one Sunday, we collapsed in anger and exhaustion and slept the day away. We woke up to the realization that this trip was a disastrous idea. At this point, I didn’t even care if I got photos or not. I just wanted my family to survive without hating each other.

A family at a harbor. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Something happened when we let go of chasing new locations and perfect photos. We admitted defeat and just stayed in one place for a while. We actually fell in love with a nearby harbor tucked away from other tourists. Halls Harbor was our refuge from the crowds – and ourselves.

Slide at the playground. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

For the first time, I finally understood what it was really going to take to make our first family vacation a good one. We put the tourist life on hold and did the things that our kids really wanted to do – go to playgrounds and throw rocks in the water!

A boy playing in dirt. How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Frankly, when we gave up, that’s when everything changed. We even met up with friends who had also journeyed out east. We could talk and unload our weakness as parents, confess the disaster we had made of this trip, and hear words of encouragement from our friends.

Family vacations are rarely the times of rest and relaxation that we hope them to be. Between kids fighting in the backseat and parents getting more stressed every day – sometimes I wonder why we ever go on trips!

But we can turn these challenges into a chance to grow as people. I learned a lot about our kids and myself on our first family road trip together. There were sweaty, tear-filled moments but we learned to embrace them and grow as a family.

Editing Life

Long after your trip has ended, you can relive the moments – and the lessons learned along the way.

Don’t forget about your photos. Print them, hang them, let them bring you joy until your next family adventure.

I sat at the kitchen table late one night reliving our trip through all the photos I had taken. The tears in the car. The tears on the beach. The tears in the mud. I thought about how naive we had been about traveling with toddlers. How we tried everything and failed. But also how the trip had been redeemed.

A photobook and a camera - How to Photograph Your Family Vacation

Just a couple weeks after that I was unwrapping a brand new photo book I made of our trip – my first finished photography project.

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Mat Coker
Mat Coker

is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

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