The Delicate Balance of Photography and Family Life

family vs photography balance

Regardless of whether you are a complete beginner, enthusiast, or leading pro, being an outdoor photographer requires oodles of patience and no shortage of dedication. If you want to capture great shots of nature, you simply have to be prepared to invest time in order to get “the shot”. The hours are often long, tiring and antisocial, aren’t they? As I write this, it is mid-June and the longest day of the year is fast approaching. During the summer months, I am often on the road by 5am and I am rarely back home from an evening shoot until after 10.30pm – sound familiar?

My current levels of sleep deprivation are comparable to that of a new mum! I’m not complaining, though. Would I want to do anything but take photos? Other than play central midfield for the mighty Spurs, no I wouldn’t. And if you had ever watched me play football, you would know that was never an option! In reality, since my early teens, photography is all I’ve ever wanted to do and I feel very privileged that I now earn a living through doing something I love. But what about the impact of what we do on the people around us?

Generally speaking, photography is a fairly solitary pastime, while the optimum times of day to take photos are typically early and late. Basically, it is a fairly antisocial business, isn’t it? Unless you are fortunate enough to share your passion for photography with your other half – and there are a few well-known photography couples like Steve and Ann Toon and Tony and Carol Dilger – you have to consider how the time you invest in photography will affect your home and family life.

balancing photography and family
Male banded demoiselle {Calopteryx splendens}, roosting among reeds, silhouetted, Lower Tamar Lakes, Cornwall, UK. May 2018.

Photography is certainly no spectator sport and only the most understanding partner will willingly accompanying you while you disappear into the landscape to take photos. And even if your partner is happy to travel with you and wait while you take photos, you will always feel that nagging pressure to not take too long. But photography can’t be rushed. It is a creative process and outdoor photographers typically need to wait for their subject, or for the light and conditions to be just right. You don’t want to have to drag yourself away from a shoot – just as things are getting interesting – due to pangs of guilt, or because of a string of text messages asking where you are and how much longer you will be! Let’s face it: you can’t leave your other half reading a book in the car indefinitely! Good photographs are often the result of planning and time, though there are few shortcuts, and free time is something few of us have in this modern age. Achieving just the right balance between work/family and photography is always going to be an ongoing struggle with no simple solution. 

It is even harder to juggle things if you have children. Your kids should always be top priority and, when they are very young, heading out with your camera early or late (to capture the best light) may require missing precious playtime together, and bedtime stories. Even if your partner is happy for you to leave them alone to negotiate the bath and bed time shenanigans, opportunities to take photos will inevitably be restricted when you have kids to consider. And – admittedly to a lesser degree – this applies to professional togs like myself as well.

I have three children aged 5, 10, and 11. Although photography is my profession, I still have to try and find a balance between taking photos and my home life. I am very fortunate to be handed some amazing opportunities to travel with my work, but I want to see my kids grow up and be there for them when it matters most, and so I consciously restrict long trips and overseas travel. I replace it with trying to work locally as much as it is practical to do so. This is very much my decision. My lovely (and very patient and understanding) wife Fliss knew exactly who she was marrying and never puts any pressure on my to stay at home.

My wife, Fliss.

She fully understands the unpredictability and inconsistency of my work. I have often left the house before everyone is awake and regularly return home after bedtime. My working hours differ every day, depending on my commitments, light and the subject I intend on shooting. Photographers must be a nightmare to live with.

Photographers must be a nightmare to live with. Click to Tweet

But my photos help pay the bills, so my family have no choice but to make greater allowances for what I do. However, I often find myself contending with deep feelings of guilt in my pursuit of achieving just the right balance between family life and photography – you might be able to relate this? When I’m taking photos deep into the evening, and maybe haven’t seen the kids awake for a couple of days, I can’t help but feel guilty – I’m neglecting my role as a dad and I’m missing out on all their news and excitement. But equally, when I’m home relaxing with the family, I regularly feel frustrated and anxious if I’m missing good light, or a great sunset is glowing in the sky above. It is like I‘m trapped in a never-ending no-win situation. I’ve spoken to other photographers with young families and they share the same conflicting feelings – maybe you do too? 

balancing photography and family life
View of Godrevy island/lighthouse with flowering sea pinks/thrift {Armeria maritima} in the foreground, near Hayle, Cornwall, UK. May 2018.

As a photographer, you never want to have to compromise, but once you’ve made the decision to have a family then they are your number one priority. I occasionally feel slightly green-eyed when I look at the images other professional photographers – who do not have the responsibility or tie of a family – are taking on their adventures all over the world. But I accept that until the kids are older, my opportunities to travel and take more varied photos will be limited. I’ve made a conscious and willing decision to compromise my career in order to have a family – and that is not a decision I will ever regret.

This ongoing struggle to achieve both satisfaction within your photography, while simultaneously being a good husband, wife, mum or dad is not an easy one. Most enthusiast photographers have a 9-5 job to throw into the mix also. None of this allows us a lot of free time to pursue our passions. “So what is the answer Ross?” I hear you cry. Unfortunately, I don’t really think there is one – and as someone who struggles to get the balance right themselves, I’m probably not the best person to give advice. But I’ve now learned not to try and mix family and photography. For example, when we are on holiday or enjoying a family day out, I rarely take my camera with me. I try to ensure my focus is on them and just grit my teeth (and swear silently under my breath) if I miss good photo opportunities along the way. But then when I’m out with my camera, taking photos is my sole focus.

balancing photography and family
Going abroad to photograph exotic species and landscapes in something that has taken a backseat whilst I have a family to care for.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that it is better to opt for quality over quantity. As a photographer, you ideally need to be unhindered when you are behind your camera in order to take great shots and develop. You might have to accept that there will be fewer photo opportunities, but I firmly believe this is still preferable to grabbing the odd rushed shot. The key is to generate good opportunities for yourself. What time are you able to set aside for photography that won’t impact too much on the people around you? Everyone’s situation is slightly different.

If you don’t have young kids, it shouldn’t be too difficult to grab the odd day away from time-to-time, when you can then simply self-indulge and explore new places or subjects. The occasional day or two away can prove more productive and fulfilling than grabbing regular hours here and there when you will feel pressured and can’t venture far. Explain to your family that you have to scratch that creative itch. For example, Fliss understands that I’m a happier, more content person after I’ve taken a few good shots. In the past, when I’ve tried to mix family time and photography, I’ve found I do neither thing very well – the photos I take are rushed and I don’t relax and enjoy being with the kids as much when I’m semi-focused on photography. I’ve learned to one thing or the other well, rather than compromise on both. Does that make sense? My solution may not suit you – everyone’s circumstances and attitude is different. However, one way or the other, you need to discover the magic formula. The one where you achieve the family/photography balance that allows you to take great nature shots, while not neglecting the people who are most important in your life.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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