“Come on honey, let’s go! No Dad, I don’t want to pose there again! We want to go to the beach, not to visit this other thing! Tonight is pizza night! I mean it, if you do not move I’ll ask for the divorce. Now. Let’s GOOOOO!”
We have all been there.
Family holidays are both fun and great, and can also be the long-awaited opportunity to photograph something new and exciting.
But family trips are highly demanding, particularly if you travel with toddlers and/or young kids and nobody shares your passion for photography.
Here are some tips to help you juggle your time between family and photography, and managing your expectations for a pleasant holiday with your family.
How To Prepare Yourself For Your Family Trip
As passionate photographers, it is hard not to get excited when planning to point our camera at that majestic landscape or to get lost in a lively and folkloristic crowd of an exotic destination.
Astrophotographers are no exceptions: who would not get excited looking at the possibility to stand under a bortle 1 class sky or to image the “other half” of the sky, the one we never get to see from home?
Here is the most important tip for preparing your vacation or family trip: be realistic with your expectations, or you may face unnecessary disappointment and constant stress.
Keep Your Expectations In Check
Let’s be clear: this is not an article about (astro)photography travels, where all revolves around the need to take photographs. Nor am I talking about the trip of your life.
This is about how to enjoy as a photographer the “average Joe” family trip, travel, or excursion, with wife, kids, your doggo, and everything else.
Time and space are the big issues here.
Good photography is not done in a hurry: you need to go to the perfect location, wait for the light to be right, go to visit this or that other place, etc.
You are on a family trip, remember? You are supposed to spend time with your family, not to disappear for hours going after a landscape or a candid portrait.
But, wait a sec! Astrophotography is done at night. The kids will be asleep, and I can do whatever I want and enjoy my time under the stars!
True! In theory, but you probably had a busy day and chances that tomorrow you will be able to recover from the sleepless night are slim.
Research Your Location
While photography will not be your main activity, that does not mean you cannot do it at all.
You should always research what your destination has to offer, in terms of photographic opportunities: if anything, it will give an idea about what gear to bring with you.
For us astrophotographers, that means to check for interesting landscapes and landmarks you could include in a star trail or Milky Way shot.
And if you are stuck with a boring foreground, don’t forget that a simple lone tree or even a vehicle can save the situation.
Apps for your smartphone will also tell you about interesting targets that are visible from your destination and that can be photographed with a limited amount of gear.
And this brings us to the last problem to consider: space.
Choose Your Equipment Wisely
Space is vast up there, but surely is tight in the boot of your car or in your checked-in luggage.
Particularly for astrophotography setups.
The more equipment you bring along, the higher your expectations are and the less focused on your family trip you may become.
Does it make sense dragging along several kilograms worth of (astro)photographic equipment if you may use it only twice?
Will there be a safe place for you to store that equipment during your family outings and activities? And if not, will you be willing to carry your equipment with you all the time or to gamble and leave it in your car?
But a family trip does not need to be so dramatic for a passionate photographer, particularly with a few tips and, maybe, a few “ad-hoc” last-minute purchases.
Tips For Having A Great Time Under The Stars
What Gear Should I Bring?
This existential question will pop in your mind over and over again. The answer? Is never a straightforward one.
If you are on a photographic trip, you should read this article to see how to plan the trip and what to take with you.
But on a family vacation, I have learned the hard way the true meaning of the old saying “less is more”.
If you bring things for “just in case”, it means that those are not essential to you and you will probably not use them enough to be bothering with, if not at all.
To better decide what equipment to take, it helps to break it down into categories.
Let’s consider first what we should bring to work comfortably in the dark.
- A sitting pad is lightweight, compact, and cheap, and you can also use it at the beach, on rocks, etc.
- Warm enough clothes to stay comfy at night.
- A headlamp with red light.
- External intervalometer for your camera.
- A general purpose light pollution reduction filter, such as the Hoya Red Intensifier.
- The charger and spare batteries for your camera.
- A dew heater strip to prevent lens fogging.
- A decent power bank to power the dew strip and recharge your mobile or tablet.
- Have your smartphone packed with all the useful apps for planning, doing, and (astro)photography.
If you can, bring a small binocular, like a classic 7×50 or 8×40: something your kids and partner could use to get great views of the Moon and to bond with your passion.
And don’t forget a tripod.
Lightweight and compact travel tripods are great, but in astrophotography, stability is everything.
Better to opt for a slightly larger and heavier, but sturdier, tripod such as the Benro Mach 3 TMA 28-A over a short, lightweight, travel tripod.
What Camera And Lenses Should I Take For Astrophotography On A Trip?
It is time to learn enjoying a more minimalistic approach to astrophotography: stay open minded, and you may even like the challenges this offers.
Favor walkaround cameras and lenses that can be used for everything: high-end bridges are a great choice with a 1”-type sensor (or larger) and fast travel zoom lenses.
If you are shopping for such a camera, make sure:
- it offers decent low light performances
- it shoots in RAW
- it has manual focus
- it has a fast lens
- it has, or can use an intervalometer
That should do for travel astrophotography, particularly if you can track the sky.
I have experimented with my Sony RX10 bridge camera and I am quite pleased with the results.
The Sony RX100 pocketable compact cameras are also good and more portable options, with the latest models also great for vlogging. Skeptic? Have a look at what the RX100 can do here.
A big plus of compact and bridge cameras is that they can often be recharged via USB, so you can easily recharge them while driving your car to your destination.
With interchangeable lens systems, a fast wide-angle and middle telephoto lens is enough to cover most of the situations you may find during your family trip, including astrophotography.
A fisheye or wide-angle lens allows you to take untracked starry landscapes and great star trails.
With a telephoto lens, Moon aside, you will be better off tracking the sky using a star tracker. A great lens for DSLR is the nifty-fifty, such as the Canon EF 50 f/1.8 STM, which is a very affordable must-have.
I Don’t Have A Camera: Couldn’t I Use My Smartphone Instead?
This is a question often asked in groups about photography and astrophotography.
Many astrophotographers will go bananas reading such a question and the answer will be a resounding “No!”.
Until a few years ago, they would have been right to be negative about using a smartphone for photographing stars, but today things look a bit brighter.
Not that a smartphone is the ideal camera for astrophotography, but thanks to the improvement in the hardware and the ability to use specific apps, you can photograph the starry sky with a modern smartphone.
Apps like NightCap, available for Android and iOS devices, specifically target night photography: the only requirement is that the phone is mounted on a tripod.
The app not only offers manual focus, white balance, and exposure settings, but it also features specific night and astrophotography modes such as:
- Low light long exposures
- General Light trails
- Star photography
- In-camera star trails
- ISS photography
- Meteor showers
Some phones allow you to save the images as RAW (or TIFF) instead of JPEG: you should really switch away from JPEG images for night photography, or, at least, shoot in both formats.
The advantages of using your phone for photography are obvious:
- It is always with you.
- It is as good (or better) than many budget compact cameras for daylight photography.
- You can share and edit your photos while on the move.
Plus, you can get real time weather forecasts and reports with apps as such Clear Outside.
You can take advantage of the many star maps apps using the phone sensors and augmented reality to guide you through unfamiliar skies and show you what is visible to be photographed.
Stellarium and Skyguide are my favorite apps to explore the sky.
Finally, you can use apps such as PhotoPills, The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE), and PlanIt! For photographers to scout for interesting locations and to plan your shooting session.
Do I Need A Tracker? And Which One Should I Take?
As mentioned before, you can save yourself the complication of taking a tracker if you limit yourself to shoot the sky with (ultra) wide-angle and to star trails.
To avoid ending up with trailing stars in your long exposures, you can use the NPF and 500 rules to calculate the longest possible exposure to have round stars with your setup (lens+camera).
The PhotoPills app mentioned above app offers, among the rest, a handy NPF calculator.
While it is possible to do some astrophotography without a tracker, for the best possible results you should use one.
A Star Tracker allows you to create starry landscapes with a cleaner and more detailed sky and to engage in some deep space astrophotography.
We have recently published a roundup of the best trackers available in the market and the SkyWatcher Star Adventurer PRO was, to me, the best all-round performer.
With the Star Adventurer PRO (read our review), you can spare some weight by ditching the declination plate and counterweight and use the ball head adapter
But while it is a great performer and capable mount, the Star Adventurer PRO is not the most portable of the trackers.
And if you need a lighter and smaller unit, SkyWatcher offers the Star Adventurer PRO little brother: the Star Adventurer Mini, offering some interesting features such as timelapse capabilities and dithering.
But the king of portability is, without any doubt, the Omegon Minitrack LX2/LX3. This mechanical tracker is lightweight and so streamline you could carry it in your pocket.
Thanks to the clever built-in spring loaded balancing system, you do not need to worry about carrying a counterweight.
When I bought and reviewed the Minitrack, I thought it targeted adventurous landscape astrophotographers traveling up the mountains or to remote locations more than the occasional shooter.
But after my recent family vacation on the road, sleeping in a rooftop tent and everything, it should be advertised as the mount for the family astrophotographer too.
If you camp, you know space is limited, particularly if you have kids, and I have to say the Minitrack is the perfect tracker for family vacations:
- it is compact and lightweight enough it can come along in your backpack all day long.
- it is fully mechanical.
- it is so affordable I would have no problem to leave in my car during family outings.
- it offers good performances even with medium telephoto lenses, thanks to the integrated spring-loaded, balancing system.
Combining photography and family vacation is not the easiest thing to do, particularly if you are passionate about astrophotography.
But with a few compromises, careful planning and the right gear, plus a bit of luck, you can still have fun with your family as well as under that exotic (or simply darker) sky.