Toys on Vacation

Who doesn’t like to take toys on vacation? Its fun to think about packing specific toys that reflect a particular holiday destination. Taking toys on holiday is a recurring theme in all of our toy writings here on the blog. Recently Brett talked about the difficulty of choosing toys for his upcoming trip to join the Toy Photographers meet-up. We always talk about the joy of taking toys on vacation. But what happens when your trip is a photographic failure?


I love Moab. It is one of my favorite places to visit. In fact it is where my husband and I chose to honeymoon so many years ago. We have travelled there in every season and shared this special place with our kids multiple times. I love taking toy photographs there because it is such a different landscape from my usual haunts. Red rocks and scrub is a far cry from my typical puddle and moss photos. I enjoy the challenge and I always look forward to our visits.

So it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to having another chance to photograph and explore in this unique environment. Like most photographers I had a hard time choosing my toys. Driving only compounded the problem because I wasn’t limited by space. I packed my usual three bins of figures and an additional four larger bins of vehicles and large animals. To say I had over packed would be an understatement. My expectations where high and I wanted to be ready for anything!

Reality Hits Hard

I think there is a fantasy that comes along with taking toys on vacation. The weather is always perfect and the locations inspiring. There is always plenty of time to set up complicated photos. And of course sunrise and sunset are always perfect and nearly cloudless. You know, a photographers paradise.

But of course this is never how it turns out. Reality hits hard. For example, this trip to Moab, Utah, was a total wash. The weather was difficult and my attention was often divided between enjoying the moment and setting up a toy photograph. And while my family was supportive of my toy photography, there was competing photographic agendas. My husband had brought his 8 x 10 camera along on this trip with the goal of capturing a couple of photos of his own. I wanted to assist and support him as he has always done for me. It was time for some payback.

But honestly, even with all the hiking, jeeping and other photo agendas, the biggest hinderance to taking good toy photos was the weather. While we where there a large front moved into the area and was proceeded by a large wind storm that lasted more than 24 hours. To give you some idea about how windy it was, I will be replacing more than 50% of my tent poles because they where seriously bent by the wind.

Wind Sucks

Of all the weather conditions to take toy photos in, I think wind is the worst. Wind sucks; give me rain any day. It nearly impossible to set up a toy photo. And trust me, I tried. My T-Rex was knocked over even though I was in a rather protect location on Dead Horse State park. My stage coach was knocked off a rock and I had to scramble to find the missing lego pieces. And even when the light was good, the wind was moving the clouds so quickly, it changed to quickly, it was hard to capture.

LEGO stage coach and two lego horses in the fading light of Arches NP, Utah
This was taken just after this was blown to the ground. Soon after, I gave up for the evening. The light was great, but the wind was unworkable.

With the wind whipping the sand against my legs and my toys to the ground, it was easy to get discouraged. I would look for a ravine out of the wind or huddle behind a rock cropping looking for a location out of the wind. With the sky grey and overcast much of the time, I would use my portable light to simulate the sun. It was a poor cheat at best. But damn it, I had travelled 1,100 miles and I was going to get a few toy photos!

Even with this poor photographic conditions I persevered. I packed my toys for our daily hikes. I was hopeful I would steal time at lunch or during our frequent explorations to capture a few photos. When we stopped in the evenings to explore the desert I was given an hour or two to take my time capturing photos while my husband and son explored. But even with enough time, unique locations and the desire to take toy photos, the reality is I didn’t really capture anything. In fact in all the chaos caused by the wind I believe one of my raptors was left behind. So yeah, wind sucks.

three lego raptors on a rocky outcrop with red rocks in the background.
Last seen near the Court House in Arches NP, Utah. If found, please send him back home, his friends miss him.


Unlike my raptor, all is not lost. I had a great trip! I love Moab and the surrounding parks and I know we will be back. Of course there will be other opportunities to take my toys on vacation, like the upcoming toy meet-up. I haven’t unpacked my toys yet and many of these ideas will be attempted again in two weeks. I will have friends who can help me mange the complicated shots and hopefully nearly unlimited time to concentrate on the photos. But even with these advantages, I know the weather could torpedo this trip as well.

LEGO hot air ballon floats in the air with dark clouds looming in the distance.
Where is the glorious glowing sunset I was expecting? I will be trying this set up again at Cannon Beach. Hopefully with better light!

Taking toys on vacation is always a risk.  You are often entering unfamiliar terrain and locations, different light and your time is not always your own. There is a certain amount of luck and serendipity that has to happen to come home with a truly amazing photo. But then again, maybe thats not the point.

Whatever the outcome ends up being from taking toys on vacation, I know I will keep trying.

~ Shelly

What are your Traveling with Toys horror stories? Please share the worst moments you had traveling with your toys? Does this discourage you, or do you get right back out there and try again? 

Large toy tyrannosaurus Rex rampages across the red rocks with a deep canyon in the distance.
The wind was so strong, even this heavy guy was knocked over! Notice the lack of visibility across the canyon?



  1. Did your husband get any good shots with his 8×10 camera? 🙂

    Travel and photography always requires a lot of luck to come out right. Sometimes you need to adapt, and sometimes you need to just forget about the camera and just enjoy the moment.

    • Thanks for asking Dave. He got one great shot and one which is good but not framed well. He doesn’t do it enough to relax and slow down. Im trying to urge him to do it more. On the plus side, this means we get to go back and try again!!

      You’re right about the luck. I was listening to a podcast on photography and the host was talking about how he and his friend traveled to a new place every year for a week. They finally stopped because they never got anything and just went to the same place over and over. It was more successful. There is something to knowing a location to really minimize the luck factor.

  2. Yes, YES, YESSSS. So true. I enjoyed this piece and share too much in your delight and misery. My son seems to always most remember the lost mnifig accessory or the near misses, so I have him to thank for pointing me to the big risks and disappointments. Still, your shots are great here and we all know you made it fun despite the wind and everything else. See you at the toy meet-up… whatever the conditions. xo PS: I hear Moab calling for a toy meet-up. I know you’ve wanted this. I’m in!

    • I agree with Doug — I’d totally be up for a trip to Moab for a toy safari! We just returned from Moab/Canyonlands this week, and it was fantastic (our second time in that area in as many months).

      Wind is the worst. I’m glad to hear your experience with rain, Shelly, because I probably wouldn’t even try if it was raining. Do you have any blog posts with tips for rainy-day photography? If not, I’d love to see one someday!

      • If your down for Moab, then so am I! I want us to decide as a group where we want to go next year. Moab is high on my list, but so is a mid west or east coast location. Come with your suggestions and we can at least our choice narrowed down.

        Rain can suck too. But at least it ends and the puddles left behind are glorious. If its really rainy I wont bring out my camera, but use my phone. In Seattle we found sheltered locations and set up where its dry and rain in and out of the rain. If it rains in Oregon we have a great location for this strategy. Maybe I will spend a day in the rain and write about the experience. I will keep you posted 😀

    • Doug Im glad my pain and misery caused you some delight! 🙂
      Im pretty sure I wrote this because for all my success, there is always as many or more failures. I will be bringing the hot air ballon with me and the sand speeder that never even got out of the plastic bin. Thank god for our kids! They keep us grounded. And really, whats a missing raptor? With the new sets out I may simply have to grab a replacement!

      See you in a couple of weeks! And be prepared with your suggestions for next year! Im making us decide on next years location on Sunday! All suggestions welcomed. The fun part about Moab is we could camp! I have the perfect in city camp ground that would hold us all. Could be a lot of fun!

  3. I love your stage coach shot!! My one travel story is a little different. Not even sure it qualifies. I had a client assignment that required a particular toy be photographed in a location with a view, and if possible, pine trees. It just so happened that we were planning a trip to Mammoth Lakes, the perfect location for that, so I packed the toy in my camera bag (along with my go-to travel toy, ET) and traveled to multiple destinations across California until we arrived in Mammoth. During a day of hiking I found the perfect location overlooking a beautiful waterfall. I get set to take the shot and can’t find the toy. I tore my bag apart looking for it. Couldn’t believe it! But at least I did manage to shoot ET overlooking the waterfall. We get home a week later, I unpack my camera bag and (you guessed it) there the client’s toy was in the one pocket I apparently didn’t check! I don’t even know how that happens!! Anyways, it wasn’t a complete loss. I setup the toy in my backyard, in similar light, angle and soil surface to the one I took with ET, and then photoshopped it directly into the waterfall image (after removing ET). Turned out great haha!

    • Mitch thats a great story! You really made the best out of a terrible situation. Im impressed by your resourcefulness. I have to say side pockets are the death of all toy photographers. On one hand they seem really handy, but like you I’ve been on location and forget that I had an important piece of equipment (read spare battery) hidden in a side pocket. Grrrr…..

      Im glad you experience was ultimately successful. Onwards and upwards my friend!

  4. WIND! Worst than rain. At least after the rain, you can still take some interesting reflections or provide some interesting texture. Shooting outdoors certainly comes with a certain level of stress while setting up and fighting against the elements like the natural light moving so fast. Ever setup a shot where the light is so gorgeous and then the next second, it’s gone? AUG!

    But you did come back with some nice shots tho! Love the stagecoach! I went looking for a used set after I saw your awesome pic!

    • Omg Sunny! Have i set up a shot in gorgeous lighting to then turn around and have it be gone? More than a few times!!! How about those times in Hawaii while the entire family went to dinner why I sat on a deck and took photo after photo watching the sun sink into the sea so fast!! I was trying not to rush but still get my photos before I lost the sun completely. Its always a race! I guess we’ve both learned to take it in stride and appreciate it all the more when it works out! 😀

      I think the stage coach is my favorite. I have one I like better for the lighting, but the hooves of the horses are off the ground. I hate when that happens!!! You wont regret buying the set. It is one of my all time favorites!!

  5. Ann

    Great post Shelley. We had beautiful blue skies when we were in Moab but the first day was quite windy and cold. To make matters worse I was still recovering from a bout of the flu I had come down with a week before. (On our second day after we had arrived in the States, no less.). I did manage to find a couple of protected areas in Canyonlands for some pretty basic shots, in between coughing fits. The rest of our trip was also a battle of wits against the weather but I was pretty happy with what I got overall. It was my first trip with my toys and I was very excited. I think they were the first thing I packed. As we flew from Australia I was limited with what I could take but I did have pretty firm ideas on who to take. Woody, Benny, my Indians and my hikers were top of the list. Sadly I somehow lost my hikers in Monument Valley. I comfort myself that they were found by some Indian child and will forever roam in the valley of the Gods. Btw, I love that Stagecoach.

    • Ann Im so glad you had good weather when you where in Moab. I think it is one of the most amazing places in the US. It would have been a shame not to see the red rocks in all their glory. I think you can relate to my experience since it sounds like you had one day like it. Im so sorry to hear you got the flu. That sucks!!!! To come all that way and then to get sick. 🙁 Im so glad you saw Monument Valley. I haven’t been there in years, but is also a very special place. I would love to go back now that Im older and take a tour into the valley itself. I still remember it vividly even though its been over 20 years since Ive visited. Maybe your hikers and my raptor will both have amazing adventures in the South west?

      Btw the Stagecoach is from the Lone Ranger series. 😀

      • Ann

        Thanks Shelly. I’ll have to see if I can find the Lone Ranger set in Aus. We’ve been to Monument Valley many times. It is my second most favourite place just behind the Teton N.P. I’ve done the valley tour both in our own car and with a Navajo guide. You must go back and do it. The new View Hotel is awesome. Perfect views of the valley from every room and a balcony for each room. I love it there.

  6. I take a pair of Aliens, 6 inch plastic toys with me where ever I travel. Images are mostly them in front of iconic structures. When going through the smallest airport, TSA questioned what was in the bottom of my computer back. They could not tell what my Alfa Romeo 6c die cast car was.
    As the agent open the container the die cast was in, they came across the aliens, he looks over to me and ask and these? I tell them” busted I’m smuggling Illegal aliens” and the whole TSA crew break up.

  7. Wonderful post, Shelly – even for someone who has not yet taken any toys on a trip. First of all, I think you photos are wonderful (and as it often happens, they drew me into reading the story). I just love what you did with the stage coach and the balloon, and was sorry to read about your struggles. Secondly, in spite of being a “horror story”, your post inpired me to pack at least two or three toys, although the H0 figures might be too small for a safe return. After reading you post, I can’t say I haven’t been warned… Thanks for that, too!

    • Tobias, thank you for your kind words. I cant believe my story about the trials and tribulations of traveling with toys INSPIRED you to give it a try! That’s amazing! I look forward to hearing how your adventures turn out. Im glad you’re taking a variety of sized toys, you just never know what is going to work best. Good luck!!

  8. brett_wilson

    I hate wind! Even when I’m not cursing the wind for blowing toys over, it makes me angry.
    In a couple of weeks we can look back on this post and laugh at how great the weather was for the #ORToyPhotoSafari… I’ve had a word, and the weather should be ok! 😉

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