Family Vacation Photo Tips

If you’re into photography, then you know how hard it can be to try to do any serious photography when on a family vacation.

When I was full-time newspaper photographer, I’d take a little point-and-shoot on vacation. Trying to make good pictures was my job, and if I had a “real” camera on vacation, then I’d want to make “real” pictures. That point-and-shoot, with its fixed lens and mediocre quality, gave me permission to make mediocre pictures. Perfect. Then my wife and I planned a long trip to the Rockies, and she talked me into bringing “real” camera gear. After three days she regretted that. And so we came to an arrangement that satisfied us both. I could get up as early as I wanted and go shoot, as long as I was back for breakfast. Which brings us to the key to being on a family vacation and making pictures. Balance.

First things first, this is a family vacation, not a photo trip. On a photo trip you can get up early, skip meals, stay out way past dinner for sunset and night shots. Wait, wait, wait for a picture. You folks who have been on workshops with me know all about that. On a family trip, things like that will get you killed. Literally. Your family will kill you. So figure out the time(s) they won’t mind you going off to do your photo thing. And always remember that photography wasn’t the purpose of this trip, family time was.

Our son has lived in Europe that last few years. We try to plan one good trip each year to visit and sightsee. He’s in London now, so a couple of weeks ago we went there with our daughter, to see him and some of the country. Being a “family” trip, I took one camera and two lenses. Those were the Nikon D7200 (a camera with great features, but not that big or expensive) and the Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-56 lens and the Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-45 lens. The 18-140mm is a great, all-purpose walk around lens, and the 10-24mm satisfies my love of super-wide shots. I had a pair of 64GB cards in the two slots, and that was it. No second camera, no extra lenses, no tripod, filters or flash. That also meant I only had to carry a small bag (Think Tank Turnstyle 10, which can be worn as a sling bag over the shoulder, or around the waist).

Family photos are all about memories and storytelling. They need to be more than, “we were here, this is what we saw.” They should also be fun, showing moments and experiences that were important to the trip. And as a photographer, you should be looking for those times where you can use your talents to make something more than just another vacation snap. Here’s how I went about that on our trip, with some tips and explanations:

I saw this scene from the bakery where we were having lunch in Bath. After paying, while the rest of the gang was using the bathrooms, I stepped outside for a quick picture. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 200, 1/320 at f/6.3, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens at 120mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

I was excited to see Stonehenge, although my photo expectations were low. I’d heard that unless you get there very early, it’s hard to get a shot without people in it. Plus, the weather was overcast with a chance of rain. So when a little sunlight poked through during our mid-morning visit, I made a dash for the backlit side, where I’d be close enough to control the background (in other words, not show much of it). Then it was just a matter of timing, to shoot when people weren’t in the frame at the left or through the arch in the center. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 200, 1/640 at f/7.1, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 33mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Long before the term “selfies’ entered our vocabulary, I’d been holding a camera at arm’s length to take pictures of myself in interesting places. Now I do it with the camera set to “Continuous” frame rate, so I have a bunch of frames to choose from. And it’s SO much better than handing the camera to a stranger and having trembly framed pictures. Guess what photo will be on our holiday card this year? Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 200, 1/200 at f/11, 0.0 EV, Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 lens at 15mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

My wife Sharon found a great place for us to stay in Edinburgh, but rather than take a picture of it, I chose to show our view of the Castle from the street outside. I shot this hand-held, as I know that with a wide-angle and good technique, I can shoot down to near 1/10 second. And, as a family vacation photo, if it’s a little soft, no one will care. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 1600, 1/13 at f/4, -3.0 EV, Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 27mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Sharon’s a big Pokemon Go fan, and was really hoping to get a “Mr. Mime,” which is only found in the United Kingdom. And she did, on our third day there, while in Edinburgh. She was excited, we were amused. It’s moments like these, unique to us and our trip, that the photo will help us remember, and laugh at. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 2000, 1/125 at f/3.5, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 27mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

To see the Scottish highlands, we’d booked an all-day bus tour. At one stop in the mountains, we found this man performing just off the parking lot. After first tipping him, I got down on the ground to frame him against the threatening sky, and managed to get in a few frames before the other tourists crowded around him. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 160, 1/500 at f/7.1, Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 33mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

We visited Loch Ness, and I even got a picture of Nessie behind Rachel! Again, fun photos like this should be an important part of any story of your vacation. Popping up the camera’s flash made it so I could see her as well as the monster. While I normally shoot in Aperture Priority mode, when using fill flash like this I switch to Program so the camera can sync its shutter speed to the flash. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 160, 1/320 at f/10, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 72mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Shockingly, it was overcast almost the entire trip, which means I avoided having the sky in the pictures as much as possible. But with this statue of Winston Churchill, and Parliament in the background, that sky helped give a sense of solemnity to the scene. Shooting up also let me get rid of the crowds gathered around it. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 200, 1/400 at f/, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 lens at 27mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

We took a mid-afternoon break in London one day to experience a real (translation, pricey) English tea. The two teas we ordered had different times they needed to steep, so I showed that with a close-up of the two hourglasses, with Sharon seen through them. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 2000, 1/60 at f/5, -0.3 EV, Nikkor AF Zoom 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 lens at 15mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Did I mention how overcast it was while we were in London? In that situation, as I mentioned before, I either try to avoid the sky, or put something in it. This was as close as we got to Buckingham Palace (lower center of the photo), so I chose to frame it this way to both minimize that sky and add more interest to the foreground. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 500, 1/160 at f/6.3, +1.0 EV, Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 lens at 16mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

London wouldn’t be London without well-dressed soldiers standing and marching around various places. If I timed it right, I could make it look like these two did a little fist-bump each time they met. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 640, 1/80 at f/5.6, -0.7 EV, Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 174mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

With a HUGE Beatles fan for a wife, you knew we were going to Abbey Road. Too cold for barefoot, the biggest challenge here was getting a clear shot without any cars close, or other people in the way. I’m not a patient photographer, but sometimes that’s what it takes. And once again, a fun family photo for all of us to enjoy years from now. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 400, 1/500 at f/6.3 0.0 EV, Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 174mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Our whole family enjoyed the Harry Potter books, and then movies, so we were definitely going to see the Studio Tour outside of London. We spent a full three hours there, and I made sure to shoot more photos than anyone else would want to see. Most of it was fairly dark, so I used ISO’s ranging from 2000 to 4000. Nikon D7200, Aperture Priority, ISO 2500, 1/50 at f/3.5 -1.3 EV, Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 lens at 15mm. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

This is just a small sample of the photos I took on our trip. And that’s also an important thing to keep in mind. For the family, I can get away with showing a hundred photos. But for other people, unless I want them to fake death to get away, I’d better limit the show to just the best photos and best stories. I hope your next family vacation is a fun one, filled with happy moments, and a few nice pictures too!

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