Capturing Family Vacations // by Mali Workman

Few things in life give me more joy than photographing my family vacations (ranked together with looking at pictures a few – or many – years later). I have two teenagers: a 13-year-old boy and an almost 15-year-old girl. As a family, we have been traveling together a few times a year since they were born. Sometimes it’s a short trip within driving distance; other times it’s three weeks exploring a far away land across the world. But no matter the location, every trip is a time when we energize, relax, learn, and connect.

When my children were little they, of course, weren’t helpful. They ran around the airport, sometimes through security, setting off alarms and causing trouble. They spilled drinks, needed diaper changes, and had to go to the bathroom at the most inconvenient times. On the plane, they sometimes refused to buckle and tried to run back and forth across the aisle. One time, my son threw up on me right before a 12-hour flight took off. And the tantrums… If you are a parent, you know what I’m talking about.

But if traveling with your children is in your heart and you are determined to instill the love of traveling in them, you have to take those situations with lightness and humor, and that’s what we did. (There were certainly plenty of good times that made it all worth it). By the time each of them was four years old, they understood the process of traveling, and we started giving them “jobs,” such as: “You are responsible for the snack bag. Make sure it’s always with you and if one of us is hungry, you can tell us what we have.” When they could read, we asked them to find our gate on the monitor, then look at the signs to find our way around different airports. The more responsibility we gave them, the more their behavior improved and the enjoyment of the whole experience increased for everyone. Trust me. It gets to a point when they can watch your luggage while you go to the bathroom, carry part of the photography equipment, or even walk a few gates over to buy you a Starbucks.

After traveling with them for almost 15 years, I’m often surprised by the number of people who tell me that their kids “hate pictures,” their families “won’t cooperate with pictures during vacations,” and “just thinking about vacation pictures is stressful.” So here are my tips for making your photography add joy to your family experience instead of taking it away.


Simplify in every way you can. I normally take my full frame Nikon body and one lens (usually the 24-70mm F.2.8) in a small camera bag. It’s definitely not the ideal lens for everything, but I find that it covers more situations than any other lens. If our trip includes water (pool, ocean, river, lake, etc.), I also take my Sony mirrorless camera in a waterhousing in another backpack. And I take a laptop computer in my carry-on.


We only take carry-on luggage. That avoids luggage getting lost and allows flexibility to hop on another flight if your original flight is delayed (which happens quite often). So each of us pulls a carry-on suitcase, I have one camera bag, one child has a backpack with snacks, the other has the other camera with the waterhousing, and my husband has a backpack with books, more snacks, and anything else we might need. Everyone contributes to traveling light as a family.


When we get to our destination, we relax and I don’t pull my camera out right away. My cameras are always easily accessible, but I don’t photograph every minute of the day. I rarely ask my kids to do anything for pictures (with two small exceptions I’ll explain later). Most of our pictures are not of them looking at the camera, and that tells a much more accurate and interesting story of our trip.


Sometimes I get a shot in my head and the logistics just don’t seem to work out. For this one, I gave a local guy $5 to take me out on his canoe so I could get the angle I wanted. The kids didn’t even know I was taking pictures; they were having fun walking back and forth on a wobbly bridge. Win for everyone!


No one can be hungry around sunset. 🙂 I will not, in a million years, waste the best light of the day inside a restaurant . Instead, we plan fun activities for that time. It’s a short part of the day, but that’s when I usually capture my favorite images. Whenever the light is great, one of my cameras is in my hand.

Sometimes that great light happens in the middle of the day, at a time when I normally wouldn’t expect it. Daylight looks and feels different in different parts of the world, so I take full advantage at those moments, too! The image below was shot around 12 noon.

6) MANAGE EXPECTATIONS (for kids and adults)

Since, after all, it’s a family vacation, there should be some documentation of the four of us together (or 8, 10, or 15 of us, if we go with friends or extended family). This is one of the exceptions to my no-posing tip! So once a day, for only a couple of minutes, we take a selfie or put the camera on auto and all of us hop in the frame. We never turn out with an amazing shot, but there’s always one or two that make the vacation album.


Every night before bed, I download all the pictures from the day from my camera to my laptop. We all snuggle together, unwind, and look at them. It’s so fun to see our favorite parts of our awesome day! Naturally, if anyone avoided the camera on purpose, there won’t be any pictures of him/her on that day (remember, I rarely ask them to be in a picture). It never fails that the camera is NOT avoided the next day.


Be ok with things not going as planned. I can’t think of a trip in which we stuck to a plan. You can plan extensively (which we usually don’t anyway), but we can’t predict the weather, someone getting a cold, a car breaking down, or an infinite number of other things. When we visited Cuba, we didn’t plan to go to the beach (although Cuban beaches are gorgeous, there were other things we wanted to do). But it was really hot in Havana, and after three days my kids were just done with the hot city. So we shifted gears and spent a day in Varadero. Our plans were turned upside down, but was an amazing day, a much needed cool-off break, and family time we will never forget.


As the photographer in the family, make sure you hand over the camera to someone else here and there so you are in plenty of shots. (This is the other time I sometimes ask my kids to pose.) DO NOT worry about what you look like! This is not about your looks. It’s about something bigger and way more important: your family memories. They love you the way you are.

I hope you find these tips useful! If you do, or if you have questions or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you – leave a comment below! You can also check out my new online photography class or see more of my travel images on

Mali Workman teaches Beach Photography 101, a three-week course for anyone who wants to learn how to find ideal light or work with challenging light at the beach – from beach lovers who wants to document experiences to pros looking to improve consistency in beach shots to parents trying to document family time. Registration is open for the May session.

This blog was created to encourage, inspire, and feed your mind. Our “Left Brain” series offers food for thought in the form of education, excerpts, and quotes from books, teachers, poems, and leaders.

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3 thoughts on “Capturing Family Vacations // by Mali Workman

  1. These are great reminders! Thank you.

    When you are in the water with your family, how do you keep your camera safe from theft? I’d hate to have to hover over it while everyone else has fun.

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