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Are all photographers terrible travel companions? How I balanced family time and photography in New York

Family holidays can be a minefield for any photographer.  We all know that we should be switching off and relaxing with our loved ones but it is not that easy is it?  Whether we set off on a summer holiday, a weekend jaunt, or a mid-week city break, the family holiday is a balancing act I struggle to reconcile.  As such you can imagine the dreadful combination of joy and terror that overcame me when my wife, my daughter and I finally plumped for a weeklong trip to New York.

The Met Museum New York

I know from previous trips together that I am a terrible travel companion.  I constantly find myself distracted, tense and wandering off to search for possible photo opportunities.  Unfortunately, my photography brain makes relaxation very difficult because I always seem to find something to shoot and it is impossible to watch any potential opportunity slide by.  I knew it would be especially difficult on this trip, how could any photographer with a love of the urban environment resist the allure of New York?

I know that I cannot go on like this and in the weeks leading up to our trip I decided to put a plan in place to help ease my stress.  This began when I narrowed down my kit to a minimum, taking only my Fujifilm x-t2 and two prime lenses – the 23mm f2 and my 50mm f2.  I also decided to sacrifice my tripod and shoot everything handheld.  I genuinely considered ditching all of my photography gear and taking only a smartphone thinking it would eliminate my anxiety about ‘doing photography' but I could not do it.  New York was too great a location to miss.

New York is so vast that an itinerary is essential for most visitors.  Creating an itinerary was a great way to help me plan my shots and discover locations nearby.  Iconic New York sites such as the Empire State or the Chrysler Building are obvious starting points and it was a simple task to research the surrounding area using Google Maps’ Street View feature.  This was a great way to walk the streets of New York and see what was close by before we even departed the UK.  Simple steps like this helped to control any urge to wander off and snap away unprompted.  I even went so far as creating a ‘New York locations’ map on Google Maps containing over seventy possible points of interest.  So whenever I had some spare time I could nip off and back again with minimal fuss.

Architecture Ney York Reflections

Limiting my photo gear and planning our locations meant I was able to ease my anxiety about missing any shots I had in mind.  It also meant I had to accept my limitations and work within them.  I knew night and long exposure photography would be difficult without a tripod and I could hardly expect my wife and daughter to visit the sites at sunset or sunrise solely so I could get the best light.  The vast majority of my photography was actually shot in the harsh midday sun and I had to adapt to these conditions as best as I could.  This often meant I would try out a contrasty black and white shot, seek out spots in the shade, or head indoors and make what I could there.

Reacting to weather and light is essential in photography and it is the main reason I took such limited kit. Reducing the options I had enabled me to react to my surroundings, compose my image, and shoot quickly.  It is one of the main reasons I prefer primes when travelling.  I find the limitation of using a prime lens can actually be liberating as I have less options to consider when shooting.

One World Trade Centre.jpg

I don’t know if I will ever truly manage the delicate balancing act of the family holiday. There is a constant battle between my photography brain and my rational brain.  The rational side tells me to relax, slow down, and enjoy the experience.  Unfortunately, it often loses out to my photography side which always compels me to seek that one last shot.  Perhaps one day my rational brain will stand tall and overpower the selfishness of my photography brain and my much longed for stress free holiday will finally happen. Perhaps.

Bored with perfection: why I had to create a new style for my urban and architecture photography

I initially moved to mirrorless around a year ago in order to find a camera system that was light weight and could be used in the city with minimal fuss; a system that left me a more nimble, responsive photographer.  This is hardly a revelation and I am sure this is the exact reason a lot of photographers ditched their heavy dslr and lenses for a mirrorless set-up.  For me, the switch to mirrorless ran parallel with my desire to create a new style of photography too.

I love architecture and I love photography but I have to admit sometimes architecture photography leaves a little cold.  To be honest, I have always found perfection a little boring (not just in photography!) and to a large degree, architectural photography is often too perfect for me.

I have been wrestling with this in my own photography and have been trying to create a style that focuses on architecture but embraces more of a ‘street photography’ aesthetic.  I love the immediacy of street photography, its imperfections, the grain, the way it captures the essence of a moment.

Zaha Hadid apartments The Highline

After purchasing John Comazzi’s excellent Balthazar Korab: Architect of Photography book a few months back I finally became convinced that this was the direction I wanted to go in, or at the very least, a style I had to experiment with.

It had been obvious to me that my style has been undergoing change recently, most notably in the amount of black and white work I am creating.  This certainly wasn’t a deliberate choice and I cannot really say why I began doing this.  Nonetheless, it is a definite theme in my work that has occurred completely organically.  All I know is that I want my photography to look less perfect in order to capture the ‘spirit’ of the building, place or environment I am photographing.  At this stage, I do not even know if I am even capable of this but it is something I need to try and achieve.

Reflections at the Highline

Perhaps it was my visit to New York where I finally realised that the big city is not a place of perfection.  In such a ridiculously busy environment that looking to achieve perfect images often resulted in me missing out on numerous other photo opportunities, or I felt I was creating images that just seemed to lack something.

I would be interested to know if any other photographers have felt like this and felt compelled to change their style of photography.  Is this something we all go through in order to find our voice as a photographer?  Please feel free to comment below.

Can a photographer ever truly relax while on a family holiday?

Having just returned from a family trip to New York I now find myself in the midst of a marathon culling process.  With over 800 shots to work through it is slow work and at the moment the thought of ever returning to New York is something that has been placed in the furthest recesses of my tiny brain. To be honest, with so many images to sort through I pretty much feel as if I am still there.

Looking up at the The One World Trade Centre

Family holidays can be a difficult balancing for any photography enthusiast.  The problem is that my wife (yes, she does usually come up with these things!) has a terrible habit of arranging fantastic holidays in locations that are amazing for photography – could any photographer with a love for the urban environment really resist the allure of New York?

Switching off the photography brain completely and just enjoy the time together as a family is very difficult.  There is always something to shoot and it can be very difficult to watch these opportunities slide by.  I mean, I don’t know if I will ever be in the place again so how could I repel the need to photograph it?   

In the build up to our trip I genuinely wrestled with the idea going camera free and relying solely on my smartphone.  It was only around a week before we departed that I relented and decided to take along my Fujifilm x-t2 with a couple of prime lenses (the 23mm f2 and 50mm f2).

It should come as no surprise that I am delighted to have caved in and took my camera.  Even this kit was limiting for me so I can only imagine how frustrated I would have been with only a phone to work with.  Nonetheless, I still managed to take over 800 photographs so I guess the gear I had worked well enough!

What is your experience of family holidays as a photographer?  Can you manage to completely switch off or, like me, do you find yourself ‘photography brain’ constantly on?