A Photographer on Vacation

"The traveler who misses the journey misses all they're going to get." - Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon

For some of us, taking pictures is a part of who we are. It’s almost as necessary as breathing…as close to us as the clothes we wear. And for those of us who suffer from this affliction, going on vacation presents something of a challenge.

Most of you have had this experience–you are on the beach with your kids and the setting sun turns the sky into cotton candy,  or you and your wife emerge from a thick forest after a long hike and you find yourself on top of a mountain with a a magnificent vista that seems to stretch from horizon to horizon.  In those moments you want, more than anything, to pull out your camera, attach a polarizing filter, put it all on the tripod, adjust the exposure, make sure you have just the right composition and then press the shutter button—hoping to create an image that will preserve the awe of the moment.

But the second you begin to do all of that, you lose the experience of being in this special place with ones you love.  And as obsessive as we all may be with our photography, we also know that, in the end, the experience of being present to a moment of beauty with someone you deeply care about is more important than any image you can capture.

But that doesn’t keep us from lugging 30 pounds of photography gear and a tripod through the forest on family hikes or schlepping an oversized camera bag on the family picnic, does it?  Seems we just can’t help ourselves.

I had an opportunity to contemplate all of this recently when my family spent a week on vacation at Glacier National Park in northwest Montana.  Glacier posed a particular challenge, because it offers some of the most majestic scenery in the continental United States. A big part of me wanted to spend  every waking minute photographing the endless vistas, turquoise lakes and alpine forests.  But that’s not why I was there.  I was there to experience this beautiful place with people I care about.  And sometimes – as hard as it was to do – that meant leaving the camera bag at the cabin. 

By way of example, words can’t describe what it was like to hike the Hidden Lake Trail with Katie as the sun came up at Logan Pass. We had crawled out of bed at an ungodly hour to make the hour and a half drive in order to be on the trail before the sun crested the eastern ridge.  But it  would have been tiresome in the extreme for her if I had been setting up a tripod to compose the perfect photograph every 20 yards. 

As it turned out, I ended up having the best of both worlds.  We went on long hikes as a family, complete with a picnic lunch, almost every day.  But in addition to these outings, I also hired a photo guide to accompany me on a couple of solitary adventures.  Together, I returned with a handful of images I was proud of, and family memories that would last a lifetime.

So, after my week at Glacier, here are a few thoughts:

  • If you’re traveling to somewhere special that you’ve never been before, make sure you bring your photography gear. This means the good camera, the best lens you own and a sturdy tripod. But don’t take all of it with you on every outing. Most of the time, the camera on your I-Phone will do just fine (see my post on tips for capturing everyday moments here.)
  • Carve out some time to head out by yourself and find those images you’re dying to capture. There is nothing like the grandeur of the natural world to inspire you to create art. Your family will understand.  They know what it means for you to be able to craft beautiful images, and they will want you to have that opportunity. 
  • If your family is gracious enough to give you an opportunity to go out on your own to do some photography, don’t squander it by spending all of your time searching for the “perfect” location. I strongly recommend you hire a guide.  A good photography guide will know the best places to go at the best times of the day—when it comes to the direction of light, a 15-minute window can make all the difference in the world between a mediocre picture and a truly stunning photograph (on my recent trip, I worked with Sarah Ehlen of Glacier Photo Guides.
  • Relax and accept the fact that you are one of those people who simply loves to take pictures. There’s nothing wrong with that.  Hold the tension between wanting to create beautiful images and wanting to be fully present to those you love. It’s your desire to pay attention that makes you good at both.