Many wildlife photographers consider going on a photography workshop tour an ideal vacation in itself. But when you're on a vacation with your family, or are traveling for reasons that don't focus on wildlife, it can be tough to balance your passion for photography with relaxing, being a tourist, and enjoying time with your loved ones. Here are five ways to plan for, and enjoy your vacation and still come home with great nature photos.
1. Be practical with gear when packing
If you're going on a photography trip, you could easily pack two full carry-ons with just photo gear, plus a checked bag with your clothes, toiletries and other necessities. But if you're traveling on vacation with family, you have to weigh the practicalities of packing and what you're really going to need during your trip. You'll probably have to leave that 500m lens at home and use that space for extra shoes and a change of clothes for dinner in a nice restaurant. And if you have young children, you're well aware of the surprising amount of luggage they require!
So, consider where you're going and what animals you'll really have a chance to shoot while there, and then take only the essentials. More than likely, you'll be able to leave heavy-duty tripods, external flash equipment, telephoto lenses and many other not-so-necessary items home.
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When it comes to lenses, it's best to select two that will cover pretty much everything. For instance, a 24-70mm and a 100-400mm will suit you for everything from landscapes and family portraits to the wildlife you're likely to photograph during your own family-free moments (we'll get to that next). A small tripod is a great idea, as are the important accessories including lens cloths, battery chargers and extra memory cards.
This leaves you with a small kit of only what you really need, and without the hassle of lugging around items you think you'll need but probably will never get a chance to use as family time takes priority. It also saves you the ordeal of enduring eye rolls from your travel companions as you lug eight pieces of baggage through the airport.
2. Schedule shooting carefully
Balancing time for yourself for nature photography while on vacation can be a sticky topic, especially with a spouse who expects you to be present for the trip.
Professional wildlife photographer and full-time dad Donald Quintana is an expert on working in photography during family vacations, and weighs in on this sensitive topic with wise words. "When I travel on a family vacation, the operative word here is family. If we travel to a location that has nature and wildlife photo opportunities but I want to stay married and on speaking terms with my children, I have to remember family comes first."
However, there are simple solutions that work out well for everyone. While considering your family's vacation itinerary, schedule in some shooting time and make it clear to everyone that these are times you're going to be out doing your own thing and capturing images. In the case of nature photographers, this schedule can usually work to everyone's advantage.
"Luckily, both wildlife and wildlife photographers are crepuscular, meaning they hang out on the edges of the day while family members are usually diurnal, preferring to stir around 9:00 a.m., or later if you have teenagers. Shoot at sunrise and be back in time for breakfast with the family," says Quintana. "Spend time with the family during the day doing whatever they want to do (the light is usually harsh then anyways), then negotiate if possible some time to go out and shoot just around sunset. Spend the afternoon and evening after the sun sets with the family again doing whatever they want. The key words here are 'whatever they want.'"
Family vacations typically happen during the summer when days are long. The sun comes up well before breakfast, and if you can convince the family to enjoy a late lunch, you can shoot during sunset hours and be back in time to head out to dinner with everyone.
Family photos are just as important as wildlife photos while on a vacation. (Photo: Kevin Dietrich)
3. Make it fun for everyone
To get in wildlife photography time while with your family, it's important to find ways to make it fun for the whole group. There are tons of opportunities to create adventures for the family that will also yield wildlife photos for you. Think about booking safari tours, guided nature walks, tours of animal sanctuaries, a picnic or day hike in a location known for its wildlife diversity, boat tours for whale watching or river tours. The list goes on. When you find something that will keep the whole family interested while you are fully justified in photographing critters, everyone wins!
If booking special outings doesn't work for your particular vacation, you could come up with ways to bring the family into the excitement of spotting wildlife.
Quintana lends the advice of creating games. "If your family does enjoy wildlife and want to go along on the search, make it fun or profitable for the whole family. We play a game where whoever spots the first photographable animal or target species, say a black bear in Yellowstone, gets a dollar. But it must be verified by all involved otherwise who is to say your 5-year-old isn’t seeing imaginary animals everywhere and taking you to the bank."
You can expand on this as well by making guessing games out of predicting animal behavior, and see who can predict what the animal will do next. For example, if you're watching brown pelicans, see who can spot the next one to dive into the ocean for a fish. Not only is it a great game to teach younger family members about animal behavior, but you have a whole lot of extra eyes working for you to spot the next great shot!
While there are ways to make it fun for the family, you might simply be the odd one out when it comes to wanting to photograph wildlife. If that's the case, it's best to just accept that family time won't equal wildlife time.
Quintana notes, "Don’t force any family member to go out on your early morning adventures if they aren’t interested. Nothing kills a morning shoot like whining children or grumpy spouses. Let them sleep in, but if they are interested, make sure they have something to entertain themselves with if you are going to be spending anytime with one particular subject that is being cooperative. Also, food is a must! Snacks are essential for keeping your party quiet and calm. Be considerate of your family even if you have a cooperative species [in front of your camera]. You just have to move on sometimes."
4. Take photos of the family, too
Say you're lucky enough to have a cooperative, enthusiastic family that fully supports your wildlife photography passion while on vacation. That doesn't mean you have a free pass to only focus on wildlife.
"Put the camera down or away, participate in the family vacation, savor the memories, enjoy each other and your time together," says Quintana. "Remember life is short and your time with your children, especially when they are young and idolize you, is even shorter. Try to see things from their perspective and what think about what they would like to do for their vacation."
Wildlife is certainly exciting to photograph, but taking great photos of your family that capture the spirit and fun of your vacation together is also a thrilling challenge. Our next tip offers a way to be sure to capture these fleeting moments.
5. Plan out a travel journal before you leave
Having a plan of action before you leave helps ensure you're getting the balance right during the vacation. As part of preparation for your trip, create a shot list.
Imagine sitting down on the couch after your trip and opening up a scrapbook that perfectly encapsulates your vacation. What does it include? Create a shot list of everything you'd love to see in that scrapbook. Include any species you hope to photograph, landscapes you'd like to remember, and ideas for family portraits you want to be sure and capture.
Get creative as you build your shot list, and put everything down that you think of. Be sure to include a balance of wildlife and nature photography and family photos. As Quintana says, "Nothing kills the memory of a family vacation like getting home and going through the photos and only seeing nature and wildlife shots. Shoot the memories; you’ll want to have those for when the kids grow up and move out of the house."
During your trip, periodically check your shot list and cross off anything you've photographed, cross out anything you know you won't get, and keep in mind those photos you still want to capture. Also double-check that you're maintaining that balance of wildlife and family photography.
Here are tips on how to create a travel journal. Just be sure to keep the plan flexible. Your journal plan should help guide you, but not dictate your trip or become a priority.
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Are you interested in trying some of these tips, or getting away on a wildlife photography adventure on your own? Consider a trip with Oceanic Society. OS is a conservation organization that takes people on spectacular expeditions to not only inspire travelers with pristine nature, but also raise funds to do on-the-ground conservation work.
I'll be the photography leader on an expedition to southeast Alaska, where we will kayak, hike and cruise the Inside Passage, including six days spent exploring Glacier Bay. Test out your wildlife photography skills on humpback whales, stellar sea lions, sea otters, mountain goats, moose and a wide variety of seabirds. And I'll be there to help you get the best wildlife shots possible while you also enjoy exploring this incredible stretch of coastline.