Nigel Barker on Planning Family Trips and Taking Better Vacation Photos

Nigel Barker
 Courtesy Nigel Barker

Nigel Barker may be famous for shooting models for magazine spreads, but his personal favorite subjects to photograph are his family on one of their many adventures together. Recently the crew returned from a weeklong excursion to the Grand Cayman, spending time with the native wildlife and eating the local cuisine.

“I have nothing against going to an all-in-one resort, but I will say there is a different takeaway when you all get to interact with nature on that level,” says Barker. For the 45-year-old photographer, the trips are an opportunity to entertain and expose his growing children to world, while building a strong family bond. “Both my wife and I understand that this is an important age to teach them how to care, love, and respect the environment.”

Naturally, given his career, there is always a suitable camera on hand to document the experience and preserve each moment. Men’s Journal spoke with Barker on his favorite escapes and the gear he uses to capture them.

So what made you want to plan family vacations that were more adventurous?
I grew up in a family of six kids, and my parents tried to take us on vacations where we could see the world. Those early trips instilled a love and respect for the people who lived in those countries, and taught us what it means to be a part of the world. I don’t see anything wrong with places like Disney; I went there as a kid, but sometimes there could be a more affecting experience available for the same cost. There is a way that the world makes more sense when you see places like India, Africa, or even other parts of America.

How did you decide to bring the family to the Grand Cayman?
I went there originally for a job about five years ago and really liked it, so last year I took the family there during spring break. I have been lucky to see a lot of the Caribbean and the Bahamas, but I will say Cayman is probably the best spot because there is so much to do with the kids. I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son, and there is only so long you can ask them to lie down on a beach. They need to be active.

What do you like about the island?
There is a real chance to interact with nature. You can go to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park and sit down with blue iguanas. The kids to hear the story of how they turned blue, the self-defenses they lack because they have no predators, and how invasive species of iguanas are disturbing their system. Now they are being eaten by cats, which is another invasive species of course, and through that the kids learn why it is important to respect the biology of a particular place. The kids are able to see how the world is affected by our actions.

Where did you stay?
Staying anywhere is amazing of course. We stayed at a place called the Caribbean Club, which is different than the other places on the island and fairly developed. I like it there because they are more like apartments than hotel rooms. It is very low key. As an adult you don’t feel like you are in a kid’s world. But the location is still great, it is right there on Seven Mile Beach, which is the main area.

Have you been able to make your kids adventurous eaters as well?
I am part Sri Lancan. My wife is part Chinese. We have mixed backgrounds and that means we cook different kinds of foods at home, which I am glad for. The kids grew up with a wide variety of snacks in the house, on top of the fact that the wife and I don’t eat meat. I was proud on this last trip to see my son order scallops, local fish, and even some curry burritos.

Have other trips had a similar kind of affect on the family?
One of the best vacations we got to take was to Sri Lanca, and we brought my mother. Getting to see a country through the perspective of three generations was beautiful. I will say that Sri Lanka has it all. It is almost the entirety of India is squashed into one small island. There are cities, beaches, highlands, and jungles. You can go surfing, and then hike into the jungle to see the elephants.

Is there one moment that sticks out there?
There are temples that were built thousands of years ago. It is rare for a small island like that to have this kind of ancient history. It is home to the Temple of the Tooth, which is home to the last remaining relic of Buddha. We just happened to be there when all of the pilgrims were arriving. Getting to stand there amongst these thousands of people on their pilgrimage was just spectacular. My wife and I had to pick up the kids to prevent them being crushed by the crowd, but it was this experience that they have never forgotten. There are these giant elephants standing guard, in protection of the temple. Monks everywhere. Seeing so much color is good for the soul, and taking in those smells. Those are the elements that make a place an immersion, and you actually feel like you have experienced the place. You can use little planes to get from place to place quickly and see the entire place. Getting to be in a seaplane alone is its own adventure.

Do you travel a lot in the states as well?
I like doing a major road trip at least twice a year in America. Everyone loads up into the SUV, including our rescue mutt. The stops are usually waffle houses and Cracker Barrels. The stops depend what states we are going through, like if we are going through Virginia, we try to see the battlefields. On the way south there are also lots of caves to explore. I think seeing landmarks in your own country can be as important as getting out.

Do you know where you are going with the family next?
I did a solo trip with the Thailand Insider, part of the tourism bureau, and had an incredible journey, both physically and spiritually. So I am working on a trip to get the whole family out there now.

Do you like to keep an itinerary on trips?
I have found that scheduling out our car rides is just as important as when you actually get to your destination. My wife is great at saying when the stops will happen, when we may listen to a story or the kids watch a movie together in the back. When we are going to play a game together. Or when they can have “recess” in the car. Having that kind of itinerary keeps them from getting too jittery. If you leave kids to their own devices for too long, that is when it gets difficult. Once we get there, there are days that we will have a tight itinerary, and the rest we will keep fairly loose so that we can relax or spend it however we want. If that ends up being a day on the beach, that is fine, or it can be spent doing more of what we had enjoyed before.

So what kind of gear are you taking on these trips?
I take a lot. I take my DSLRs with a whole variety of lenses, underwater cameras, and GoPros. Not to mention a lot of point-and-shoots. I like to be well armed going into any trip. My wife will usually carry one, as well, and my son has recently started to shoot, too.

Do you have a favorite point-and-shoot?
There are several point-and-shoots that I own. I will say the Sony RX100 series is great, though a little expensive. It takes great pictures in low light though, which is useful. I also have a Canon Powershot G15, which is a great camera, versatile and compact. That is one my son uses the most. It is a great rugged camera.

What do you use for those days you know you are going to be in the elements?
In the water the Olympus TG-4, which is an old camera that I bought second-hand and probably one of the best adventure cameras I have seen. They have a newer model you can get now. It is pretty splash proof and drop proof. If you are going to the beach or a kayak and you want to have a camera, you can smack this one around a bit and will still be able to tell the story.