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How to take great pictures of your kids while traveling

It's every mom's frustration at least once on a family trip. The moment she had planned and looked forward to for months seems ruined because the kids won't stand still or even look at the camera for a picture. What she dreamed of in her head as the perfect picture moment is all but a fleeting dream.  

So how can parents get those beautiful shots of their kids enjoying family time together on vacation while not drowning out the fun at the beach or the amusement park?

“Do encourage play time while taking pictures,” said Nicole Hill Gerulat, a commercial kids photographer and mother of a one-year-old daughter. “..It’s more like they’re living in the scenario.. so you’re a traveler and not just a tourist.”

Even a few years ago, the “Kodak moment” was the family posing rigidly along a line in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. or the wharf in San Francisco. Now with fast digital cameras and what seems like an unlimited number of shots on memory cards, candids are the golden images. 

“You’re looking for lifestyle opportunities instead of just the ‘cheese’ in front of the monument,” Gerulat said.

The professional photographer encourages parents to snap pictures of their kids discovering or reacting to the new sights, sounds and smells on vacation.

“I think it’s boring when a baby is just standing in front of a monument,” Gerulat said. “Show them playing in the environment because they should be having fun too.

“If they’re looking at the Statue of Liberty or pointing to it, that would be an adorable shot. You’re looking for opportunities to show their personality instead of the Kodak moment... There’s nothing wrong with the Kodak, cheesy moments. I would just introduce the lifestyle approach to make it more personable and fun,” she says.

Gerulat says the kids will likely cooperate more and the image will look better if they aren’t facing towards the sun as well.

“It will look prettier if you can keep the sun behind them so they’re not squinting and that’s important with little kids,” Gerulat said. “But if you want the sky to be very, very blue when you do that, you might have to fill it in with some flash.”

Be Equipped 

Whether you’re taking the kids to Hawaii or London, packing the right camera gear could make all the difference in the images you bring home from the trip.

Gerulat suggests parents avoid the easy trap of using their iPhones as their primary camera on vacation. If at all possible to carry a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) or point-and-shoot camera, always shoot with one of those first. She says too many people are relying on images taken on their iPhone and will likely be disappointed in quality when they print them.

“Resist the real time urge to post to social media sites so that you can get a better quality image by using a point-and-shoot or DSLR,” Gerulat said.

If you have no option other than the camera on your phone, Gerulat says make sure the sun is in front of your subjects.

“With the iPhone, it doesn’t do well backlit,” Gerulat said. “It is actually going to be better if you’re facing the sun because iPhones have a hard time adjusting.”

Best option: Gerulat says bring a DSLR camera with a lens in the 28-135mm range.

“It’s a good all-around lens where you can get a wide-angle shot and zoom in when you have to get something closer up so you’re not changing lenses,” Gerulat said.

If a DSLR is too expensive to buy or too big to bring on vacation, point-and-shoot cameras are the next best choice.

“When it’s not always feasible to carry around that bigger camera, point-and-shoots are fine,” Gerulat said. “Just learn the settings so you can have as much control over it as possible.”

Finally, make sure the card for your digital camera is large enough to hold the images until you can download them onto your laptop. 

“It’s not good for the card when you delete directly from the camera,” Gerulat said. “You don’t want to accidentally delete good shot.”

And it shouldn’t need to be said - but never pack your camera equipment in your checked bag, especially your memory cards.

Know Your Gear 

Besides having the right equipment in your carry-on bag, Gerulat says parents need to know how to use at least basic camera settings. Precious vacation time could be lost and tender moments missed if you don’t understand how to work your camera before stepping on the cruise ship or plane.

“Knowing your camera is the most important thing so you can spend time playing with your kids, directing your kids - versus figuring out your camera,” Gerulat said.

Gerulat is also the founder and owner of Nicole’s Classes, which offers affordable online education in photography, Photoshop and Illustrator. She teaches one class specifically on how to capture images of some of the cutest, youngest, yet toughest subjects - babies, toddlers and kids. 

“Nicole’s Classes can help you learn all the in’s and out’s so you can get the best photos out of your travel opportunities,” Gerulat said.

Taking in the Scene

When discovery or playful moments aren’t possible, look for ways to capture the day. Young children won’t ever remember the trip to Paris when they were two years old and they might even be sleeping when you walk by the Eiffel Tower. Even if they aren’t old enough to be aware of what’s around them, capture the moment of where you took them with a wide shot of the surroundings, such as how Gerulat did with her one-year-old daughter during a recent trip.

“When we were in New York, I took a picture of Evie asleep and tucked in her stroller at 42nd Street,” Gerulat said. “It was a fun shot of where we were... it’s more fun to step back and see the environment.”

Not Always Smiles 

Let’s face it: kids get grumpy or cranky on vacation, just as much, if not more than at home. Encouraging goofiness with younger children may help create a sweet moment when they want to do nothing, but frown.

“Let them make silly faces,” Gerulat said. “While you’re making fun of their silly faces, they will eventually erupt in laughter - and that’s when you continue shooting so you can actually capture their natural smile.”

Even if the vacation is at the Happiest Place on Earth where Mickey and princesses roam Main Street, the kids might still not cheer up - but Gerulat says that doesn’t mean you have to put the camera away.

“Sometimes when they’re completely spent and tired, it’s still important for you to get that photo,” Gerulat said. “There’s nothing wrong with taking a picture of a screaming child. That’s the memory.”

Teens and In-Between 

It’s not just little ones that might not want to smile. Teenagers, especially boys, might not be so interested in having you snap their picture at every stop on the Freedom Trail in Boston or at every meal in Cancun. Gerulat says give them a chance or a even challenge to be silly and you’ll probably get a better shot. 

“Let them jump off the ground or ledges,” Gerulat said. “If you’re as close to the ground as possible, they’ll look like they’re so much higher in the air. Teenagers love that because it looks really impressive.”

She also suggests letting them “pinch” or “push up” with their fingers the buildings or monuments in the shots.

Get in the Action

One easy mistake for parents to avoid is forgetting to get in the picture with the kids. 

“Try to trust people to take a photo for you so you can get pictures with your kids,” Gerulat said. “You need to show that you’re on vacation too.”

If it’s a family vacation, make sure your photos reflect that experience. You don’t need every picture to be a multi-generation shot, but show who was there together.

Avoid Overshooting 

One of the best parts about digital photography is the ability to capture nearly an unlimited number of images. It can also work against you on vacation if you’re not careful. Taking too many photos can freeze the fun on a trip. Or worse - you come home with an excessive amount of repetitive or mediocre shots that it’s too overwhelming to even wade through the pictures to make an album or share with friends.

“Be very deliberate in how you shoot so you don’t come home with 3,000 photos and then have to decide,” Gerulat said. “Don’t take 1,000 shots. Take 20 really good ones... Instead of taking five shots of the same smile, same action - be very deliberate in when you pull the trigger.”