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Family Travel: Beyond The ‘I Was There’ Photograph

A different photographic style to shoot friends and family on the road

A Backroads bicycle trip around Japan’s Noto Peninsula led to person-to-person cultural exchanges, making for a much deeper and more rewarding experience.

During four very different Backroads tours—hiking through the Japanese Alps, cycling around Japan’s Noto Peninsula, crossing western Cuba and biking/cruising down the Danube—I focused my cameras on families and friends immersed in experiential travel. This approach to tourism can be far more rewarding and yield more meaningful photographs than simply showing up at a well-known place on the beaten path, snapping a static “I was there” photograph, and then moving on to the next bucket-list location.

Once an itinerary is locked in, the question then becomes, “How will I best capture these experiences?”

Family travel photography is a balancing act. It shouldn’t become a burden for those who find themselves on the front side of the lens. People want their trips documented, but most non-photographers don’t want to spend hours doing it.

By working quickly, the rolling eyes that greet “Let’s stop here for a picture” can be avoided. As with any profession or avocation, knowing your tools of the trade—which includes the much-dreaded reading of the manuals that come along with the equipment—will expedite an impromptu photo session.

Certain pieces of camera gear are made for working fast in the field.

I use a carbon fiber tripod with a dedicated plate on my Nikon D850 so that I can quickly slip the camera into a ballhead. A tripod opens up a world of creative possibilities. I avoid handholding my DSLR at anything slower than 1/60th of a second and go for faster shutter speeds with longer lenses to avoid camera blur.

Family Travel
Every family photo album has plenty of “I was there” photos. A good change of pace is to position a family member or friend experiencing their surroundings such as in this magnificent scene in the Japanese Alps in fall.

My image of fellow hikers in the Japanese Alps experiencing an ice-cold spiritual cleansing was shot at a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second to blur the cascading water without camera shake while freezing my companions. A great test to see how slow you can go handheld is to shoot something with type (like text on a sign) with slower and slower shutter speeds—perhaps from 1/125th to 1/4th of a second—then check your images on the computer.

Remember, you can find your camera settings in your metadata long after you’ve depressed the shutter to check both what you did right and what technically didn’t work. This image is a good example of how you can do a dynamic group shot by documenting people involved in activity rather than a static image.

Carrying a speedlight further expands photo opportunities, especially during the middle of the day, by reducing or eliminating harsh shadows on family faces. A camera’s internal pop-up flash won’t have the power to compete with the sun, but a strong flash can.

I carry 1/4, 1/2 and full CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gels to warm up the daylight-balanced flash to match the ambient light of a given situation. I’ll also often employ a Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible diffuser over the flash head to soften the light. My goal is for the resulting image to never obviously appear to be a flash photo. Even indoors, a flash, when used creatively—which usually means getting it out of the hot-shoe—can be an effective tool for creating dynamic imagery.

Cameras, such as GoPro’s HERO series and DJI’s 4K Osmo Action, are ideal for recording experiential travel from one’s own POV, or point of view.

Family Travel
Family and friends who freeze together, stay together! A group of fellow travelers brave the ice-cold waters of Japan’s Nisseki-ji temple during an ancient ritual designed to cleanse the spirit. I used a Nikon D850 mounted on a Really Right Stuff tripod with a 24-70mm lens so I could get the movement of the water with a 1/8th of a second shutter speed.

These demure cameras can be attached to almost anything, from a bike helmet to a kayak, to take the viewer along for the ride. I put the Osmo Action to the test as a helmet cam on my bike ride on an at-times bumpy ride from Vienna to Bratislava, Slovakia. Engaging the camera’s internal-stabilization technology system, called RockSteady, smoothed out rugged terrain while capturing 12-megapixel photos and 4K HDR video between the European capitals.

For sections of the ride, I took advantage of the camera’s built-in intervalometer to produce high-resolution stills at fast shutter speeds without the need to depress the shutter. Both GoPros and the Osmo Action are ideal POV cameras to share adventures below sea level as well.

Smartphones have become a completely worthwhile way of capturing high-resolution images of family and friends that go far beyond the “look at me here” selfies that flood social media.

The new iPhone 11 Pro comes with three lenses—ultra wide, wide and telephoto—and can shoot 4K-resolution video, with extended dynamic range and cinematic video stabilization as well as 12 MB stills.

When used as a serious photography tool, the phone can certainly produce works of art. The portrait mode is particularly impressive for creating an elegant “bokeh,” the quality of out of focusness in the background, while keeping the subject tack sharp.

Family Travel
I positioned my fellow riders next to a sign at the entrance to Cuba’s Parque Nacional Vinales as an establishing shot for a photo essay on the trip. I timed the shot to have our tour leader on her bike in frame to add a dynamic element to an otherwise static scene.

Panoramas are also something that smartphone cameras do extremely well. Here’s a useful tip: When panning, be sure to keep your feet positioned so that they point where your panning motion will end. This will allow you to turn your body in a smoother, more level fashion.

When smartphones are used to document friends and family engaged in adventure activities in and around water, protective cases, such as those made by Ounne and Catalyst, can be camera savers.

Professional lighting companies, such as Profoto with its new C1 and C1 Plus lights for smartphones, and sound companies such as RØDE with its VideoMic Me-L, have also recognized the evolution of the smartphone into an effective tool in the transmedia world.

The latest lights from Profoto can fit into the palm of a hand and emit both flash- and flicker-free continuous light. The company’s intuitive smartphone app can control them, while the light can be crafted using magnetic clip-on light-shaping tools.

The RØDE VideoMic Me-L is designed for recording professional audio on iPhones and iPads. No battery is needed for this directional microphone, which, because of its cardioid polar pattern, provides clarity of sound by eliminating background noise and focusing on the subject directly in front of the mic.

Family Travel
I lit the Backroads Danube trip leaders, elegantly attired in their bathrobes, cocktail-in-hand, being photographed by a passenger on the AmaWaterways AmaLea with my Nikon D810’s pop-up flash, triggering my off-camera Nikon Speedlight with a Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible diffuser attached.

As with all mics when used outdoors, a furry windshield for protection against wind noise is suggested.

From the 100 countries I’ve traveled to on assignment by every mode of transportation, I’ve observed that cruising, both ocean and river versions, makes for more harmonious and dynamic family reunions.

Because someone else is in charge of preparing a large variety of world-class meals, family members can opt in or out of daily activities, and everyone can retreat to their own staterooms at the end of the evening. My Floating Photo Workshops on Uniworld and my most recent Backroads bike/cruise on AmaWaterways have reinforced this idea. It’s hard to beat a week on a floating luxury hotel, visiting new places on a daily basis, camera in hand, without having to pack and unpack luggage.

In my book The Travel Photo Essay: Describing a Journey Through Images, I wrote that no journey is complete until a physical book, digital album and/or video of the experience is produced. I recommend something tangible, like a book published by companies such as BLURB or Lulu, be part of the equation.

These will last more than a lifetime, preserving family memories for generations to come.

For more on Mark Edward Harris and his work, visit or his Instagram account, @MarkEdwardHarrisPhoto.

“Family Travel: Beyond The ‘I Was There’ Photograph” Comments

  1. I like your ideas for unique family vacation/travel photos. So many family vacation photos are posed and rigid with cheesy smiles. Or gods forbid the now ubiquitous duck-faced, narcissistic selfie that is usually uploaded to Instagram. I am disgusted when scenic views are ruined by selfie takers who crowd out the view for other photographers.

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