Today I want to give you an alternative take on bringing toys on vacation: It rarely works. Sure, it sounds like a great idea. Who wouldn’t be excited about combining their favorite hobby with some highly anticipated downtime? I love the excitement of packing toys that fit whatever exotic locale I’m visiting. I want to capture a unique photo of the fabulous sites. In its pristine and ideal form, taking toys with you on a vacation sounds like the perfect combination. But the reality rarely lives up to my expectations.

Off to a good start

Recently we took a family trip to Ouray, Colorado. This was a chance to drive my newest toy, a 2017 Jeep JK, on challenging Jeep trails and visit picturesque abandoned silver mines. I love the Colorado Rockies and my imagination was overflowing with fun photo ideas involving expansive mountain vistas, blue skies and small sparkling streams.

My photo adventures got off to a great start due to some unexpected quiet moments at the beginning of our trip. I had plenty of time to get the toys out and play while I waited in Price, Utah for a new drive shaft for my Jeep. It’s times like these that I’m grateful for my crazy hobby. While the family sat around bored, I was busy setting up photos and having fun playing and photographing toys. The trip was off to a great start!

Harsh reality sets in

Once we reached Ouray, our family adventure really began, and toy photography had to take a backseat. Because I’m committed to a fun family vacation, my need for good light, interesting locations and time to concentrate on my photos were put aside for the greater good. I know I’m lucky that my family supports my hobby. While they may be tolerant as I set up my photos, my guilt always gets the best of me. How can I justify hours of toy photography fun while they patiently wait? Therefore, I limit myself to one photo or 30 minutes per location. Often these photo opportunities happen when we stop for lunch. While I can guide the location, I usually have to make do with whatever is at hand; both light and scenery.

So here I am the guilt-ridden mom taking toy photos while the family mills around waiting for me to finish. Let’s just say, my concentration isn’t that great. Even with checking focus a million times and trying multiple angles I almost always miss the photo. There is always some detail I miss in my haste: tack that is visible, a hair piece askew or a forgotten accessory. Sometimes the location isn’t really what I had in mind, but I’m making do with what I have.

I call all these photos my near-misses. And while they may not be the perfect photo taken in an amazing location, they’re important for my creative process.

I photographed this set up three times in three different locations. While this is the best of the lot, I’m still not sure if the joke is apparent. Taken with a Lensbaby Edge 50, 1/13, f5.6, ISO 50

The alternative take

While bringing toys on vacation rarely results in a great photo, there is a real value to me in this exercise. It’s never easy for me to carve out the 2–3 hours it takes me to put together figures into photo ideas. But once I have the scenes ready to go, I will take them out multiple times until I get the photo I want.

All those photos I’ve taken on vacation, that I never quite capture, get me closer to the images I’m hoping to achieve. They’re still an important part of the photographic journey. 

“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

Arthur Ashe

I’ve written before about chasing the image, and taking toys on vacation is one aspect of that process. Rarely do I get the perfect photo the first time out. Often, I must play with figure choice, accessories and location multiple times to get the right combination. So, after years of taking toys to exotic locations and trying unsuccessfully to combine toys and vacations, I know it rarely works. But this doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying. There is real value to this creative exercise that gets me closer to what I’m seeking.

This photo would be more interesting with the addition of a frog. Taken with a Lensbaby Edge 50, 1/320, f4, ISO 50 to capture a little water movement.


I’m sure this alternative take on bringing toys on vacation won’t be popular. We’ve talked about the positive aspects of toys on vacation many times, but rarely the ugly truth. Sure, it’s a fun and silly part of any trip! But for me, it’s also a balancing act that rarely nets an amazing image.

Don’t worry! Even while I reveal this alternative look at taking toys on vacation, I’m not going to stop the activity anytime soon. Experience has taught me that I will probably capture mediocre photos AND annoy my family members. But it’s still valuable for my creative process.  

Have you ever taken a winning photo while on vacation?

Did I really need three cats? I wish I had taken this with only the black cat! Photographed using a Lensbaby Sweet 35 with macro convertor 1/800, F2.8, ISO 200