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  • Writer's pictureDave Pidgeon

Leaving the cameras and lenses behind

I left my camera at home. All the fancy lenses too.

Well, that's not entirely true. Everywhere we went, the iPhone 14 Pro Max was with us, so there was a camera.

Just not the trusty DSLR.

The one thing we all must accept about parents traveling with young kids is this - these trips are not for us. They are for them.

Our comforts, our desires for repose, our experiences, they are all secondary. If we want our children to have experiences that create memories, that just might reshape their point-of-view or create a shift in how they see themselves, as parents "on vacation," we have sacrifices to make.

I gathered my three sons (ages 12, 10, and 5), squeezed us with a whole lotta camping equipment into my Jeep Grand Cherokee, and left on a summer road trip, going southbound on I-81 to Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks.

Blue haze covers mountain ridges in Tennessee
A road trip to the southern mountains meant capturing it solely with an iPhone

For the first time (in, I think, 12 years?) I left my camera equipment at home. No camera bodies, no lenses, no batteries or SD cards.

Gives me a nervous tick just to think about it.

Hauling cameras has become such an intricate part of my solo and family travels since I became a Dad, it took serious effort to leave it all at home.

This road trip along the Blue Ridge, though, would be the first for me with my boys, post-divorce. I would be the only adult on this trip. No reinforcements. No in-person support. No breaks.

I had to push back against my creative instincts, which kept finding excuses for bringing a camera along.

What if you see wildlife? What if the mountain overlooks beg for a poster-size image? What if the iPhone isn't good enough and this amazing trip passes you by with only mediocre images?

I don't think I'll ever become an iPhone exclusive photographer. Sure, they're great to have when a spontaneous moment unfolds in front of you - a well-laid out restaurant dish, a portrait of your kids, a selfie with friends.

Three boys sitting on a rock outcrop looking at mountains and a valley
My sons enjoying the view from the summit of Hawksbill, tallest peak in Shenandoah National Park, Va.

But cameras with interchangeable lenses, whether DSLR or mirrorless, remain more versatile for what I do.

DSLR or mirrorless are just superior in low light situations. They capture more detail (blow up an iPhone pic, even a RAW image, and it looks like a paint-by-color project). Actual depth of field management, like silky backgrounds, is based on the reality of your lens aperture, which makes it look natural (because it is). Apple's "Portrait" mode is just computer-generated AI peach fuzz behind your subject.

Plus, let's just put it out there - I love my cameras and lenses (take it easy, you cellphone camera snobs).

You'll never sell me on how using an iPhone camera makes things easier. I don't want easier.

I want something that allows me to master the image making craft, that slows me down and requires presence of mind, that works as a tool to take what's inside my mind's eye, my imagination, and transfer it to the screen or in print.

So why, then, did I take off for an entire week to introduce my boys to the national park experience and not bring my Canon 5D Mark IV or 6D?

A black bear crosses a road in front of a white pickup truck
A black bear crosses the Parkway Bypass in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (image taken by my son Ryan)

During the months leading up to our trip, I did some real thinking. A dangerous activity for someone like me, I know, but I had to get honest about something.

The goal of this trip was not to make amazing images.

I have plenty of those trips (in the past and ahead of me). And even though this would mark the first time I returned to the Smokies in 18 years, this trip wasn't about me or making images.

It was about my sons. About their experience. About introducing them to the national parks. About being present in their presence and not engaging in a image-first-fatherhood-second subconscious mentality.

The best way I could achieve that was to leave those tools like camera bodies and lenses behind. To use them takes thought and intention, and if I focused on ISO or whether to use 16mm or 200mm to capture a scene, then that was time away from being present with my kids.

So, okay, there's a hint of regret here about leaving the camera and lenses behind. See that image at the top? I won't be blowing that up into a 24x36" print any time soon, and that, honestly, makes me a little uncomfortable.

We saw black bears, wild turkeys, horned owls, snails, snakes, circling hawks, grazing white-tail deer. Ugh, how great would it have been to have 400mm of glass in my hands?

But I'll be back. Some day.

A cloudy sky above forested mountain ridges.
Clouds drift over the Blue Ridge mountains in Shenandoah National Park, Va.

For now ... for always ... the memory of the joy this trip created for the boys, capturing their imaginations and generating great interest in seeing other national parks on future road trips, that will carry me forward more than any image ever could.

So it's okay, my fellow photographers, to leave the cameras and lenses behind sometimes. iPhones and cellphones aren't ideal, but it's important to remember what the goal of your trip is, and if the top priority is someone else's joy and not creating bold, artistic, creative photographs, everything will be all right.

Dave Pidgeon is a seasoned writer and photographer. He lives with his three sons in Lancaster, Pa. You can contact him at


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