Travelling light

Combine serious photography with a family holiday
Photographers do not take holidays; they just take less camera kit. If you are a keen snapper, the family holiday will be one of the best photographic opportunities of the year: interesting and unusual places crying out to be captured by your itchy shutter-finger. But how do you avoid your camera becoming a source of conflict with the family or your travelling companions? How do you make sure that you get a holiday and a great haul of pictures?

One solution that has worked for me is travelling light. I made the trip to Vancouver in Canada with just an ordinary Canon DSLR, two lenses, a lightweight tripod and a handful of memory cards. The resulting pictures were everything I had hoped for and so was the holiday. Here is how to make the most out of a modest amount of camera gear on your travels.

You have to plan flights and hotels and foreign currency, but give a little thought to the photographic aspects of your holiday too. This starts with your choice of location and accommodation, it includes which excursions you make and it means thinking about what type of pictures you hope to take.

We chose Vancouver because it looked like an exciting, vibrant city to visit. We decided to go in the autumn because we hoped there would be good leaf colours and light to add to photographic options such as cityscapes, the stunning harbour, nearby mountains and wildlife. We went for a harbourside hotel and specifically asked for a high room to give us a chance of aerial views.

Trips up the Harbour Centre Tower, with its panoramic vistas, and to Grouse Mountain, with almost guaranteed sightings of resident bears, were easy to agree as holiday must-sees with excellent photographic potential.

I had seen enough in the guidebook we bought before the holiday to suggest that the Vancouver skyline could be a good night-time shot. As a result I packed a small tripod – my only accessory apart from polarising filters and battery-charger.

See the sights with your family and shoot them: the sights, that is. Everybody does. When you are faced with some iconic and impressive building or landscape, it is near-impossible not to commit it to film or memory card. And there is nothing wrong with that. You are on holiday. It is what the folks back home expect and want to see. It is what you see on most of the postcards you have been eyeing up in the tourist shops thinking ‘I could do better than that’.

Then, when you have some first impressions of unfamiliar scenes safely in the bag, you can start to think more creatively. You can try to capture the mood of the place.

Is there a more unusual angle on a much-photographed landmark, perhaps from a higher or lower viewpoint? What about isolating a detail or else shooting from a distance with foreground interest? Take the shots most holiday snappers don’t – the ones that will give your collection a superior edge when you show them off at home or work. What gives the place its distinctiveness? Consider subjects such as people, animals, markets, transport, street scenes, signs and advertising as well as attractions, buildings and landscapes.

Unless you are very lucky, the weather is unlikely to be perfect for photography throughout your holiday. So what to do when the conditions are less than ideal?

Enjoy time with your family or travelling companions. Relax. It is all credit in the bank for the occasions when the weather is better and you want photography to dominate. Recce: use the time to find viewpoints that you can exploit quickly when conditions improve. If you are stuck with leaden skies, consider tracking down close-up details or indoor shots you have identified from guidebooks.

If you get ‘interesting’ weather, get shooting. Two of my favourite shots from Vancouver were taken in rainstorms. In one I caught a rainbow mirroring the shape of the Science Centre building. In another, one of the city’s quirkier attractions, a steam-powered clock (no, really), was made interesting mainly by the effect of the downpour on the vapour and the lights of traffic.

And that leads to a final tip for successful holiday photography with minimal kit…

I went to Vancouver hoping to get pictures of skyscrapers with autumn colour and some night-time cityscapes. And I did capture those. Planning is good.

But some of my favourite shots were unexpected and unplanned. For example, there were colourful pictures of the indoor market at Granville Island, featuring some of the plumpest fruit and vegetables I’ve ever seen, which were a fortunate consequence of trying to avoid the rain. In spite of the weather, I bumped up the ISO-setting to 1600 and grabbed a graphic shot of the colourful exterior of an artist’s workshop at the market. On the final full day in Vancouver, after a week of varied photography, I went along with my other half’s desire to visit the city’s aquarium and bagged a memory-card full of exotic wildlife in a naturalistic setting: Beluga whales, sea-otters, dolphins, sea-lions.

The lesson I learned was to plan, by all means, but also to be prepared to take the opportunities that a holiday throws up.

I ended up with a hugely varied selection of pictures that both captured by view of Vancouver and added to my files illustrating animals, buildings, weather and night-time.

By travelling light and being flexible you can have a relaxing holiday and a rewarding photographic trip.

Martin O'Neill