Emily Nathan of Tiny Atlas Quarterly on Traveling with Kids and Taking Better Photos

by Joy Pecknold

While shooting for magazines and brands around the world,  Emily Nathan would end up with other images she loved and her own list of favourite places. To share those, she founded Tiny Atlas Quarterly in 2012 with her husband and a designer friend. It has since grown into a thriving photo community (just search #MyTinyAtlas) and a book, My Tiny Atlas: My World Through Your Eyes. She shares her perspective on travel and photography.

Q What’s your earliest memory of traveling? Can you recall the moment you really fell in love with travel?

I think my earliest travel memories are from Grand Cayman. As a kid my dad and eldest sister Julie were really into scuba diving and we would go and stay at the same condo on Seven Mile Beach. I would wake up before everyone and jump in the pool and swim back and forth underwater pretending to be a mermaid, waiting to go into the ocean until everybody else woke up.

Q How and why did you get into photography?

Growing up my parents subscribed to the New York Times, still do, as do I, and I really loved the magazine and the photo stories. My dad was also interested in photography. He had an Olympus OM1 system and would shoot and print his images from our family travels, frame them and put them on the walls of our kitchen. My dad gave me a film camera in middle school, and I had a great high school photo program where we had a full darkroom and a super supportive teacher.

Q What inspired you to create Tiny Atlas Quarterly?

As an editorial travel photographer, I felt the images of mine that were selected for magazines were not my favorites, which were the ones I’d put in my portfolio. As a commercial advertising photographer, I felt my voice was always meant to disappear in favor of the brands to some extent. Additionally, when you shoot large commercial productions you do a ton of research and production that is never shared with the audience of the images you produce. For example, everyone would always ask me where to go and stay too. So I made up a magazine that was a mashup of the things I felt were missing in my experience.

Q You stayed at a couple Kiwi Collection properties in New Zealand for your Remote Issue. What did you enjoy most about each of those hotels?

Oh my! Those properties were spectacular. Azur lodge is a gorgeous, modern, small hotel on the edge of a cliff overlooking Lake Wakatipu outside downtown Queenstown on the South Island. It is surrounded by cliffs which in the winter are covered in snow. It is unreal. The bathtub high up overlooking the lake and mountains is what vacation dreams are made of. It was honestly hard to leave our villa though because we just watched the weather and clouds move over the peaks at all hours.

On the North Island, we stayed near the famous geothermal area of Rotorua at Solitaire Lodge. The Lodge is super comfortable and casual while maintaining a bit of a James Bond hideaway vibe—down a private road through swan gates you go. The location is super lush and subtropical with massive ferns and an incredible array of birdlife. We had an exquisite long dinner there overlooking the lake. The beds in the nautical-themed rooms were heaven.

Totally different was their Auckland sister property, Hotel DeBrett, an art deco renovation in a super central location. We loved the bar and restaurant in a courtyard which used to be an alley between the older buildings. Our room was two stories and it was really fun to have our bedroom on one and another level for our kiddo. The bathrooms—there are two bathrooms in the one room—were very ’70s glam with gem-colored shiny tiles and velvet bathrobes.

Q Which destination that you've visited surprised you the most?

I had an assignment a long time ago in Luang Prabang. At the time I knew very little about Laos. It hadn’t been on my radar, but when I got there I loved it so much. Life along the Mekong is slow and lovely. I am a big fan of textiles and the textile craft there is excellent. The food was also so good, hello sticky rice! Tourists often get up at sunrise to watch the monks silently walk through town. After this ritual, I would buy steaming noodle soup from street vendors and then go shoot the outdoor markets in the early morning light.

Q When you visit a new place, what’s the first thing you do?

Unpack. Hah. I do like to actually unpack and put my bags out of the way and try to be in a place. If there is water, warm water, I will always hop in.

Q If you got stuck on a 24-layover in a city you’d already been to, what city would you hope it would be and how would you spend your time there?

London is huge which makes it a bit of a pain but also means there is just so much to do and see. I have a good friend, Elke Frotscher, who I know through Tiny Atlas who is based in East London and for sure I would send her a WhatsApp and hope she could spend the day with me. She loves to explore and knows so much about the city. She is an architect as well and walking the streets with her is always a fascinating lesson of some sort.

Q What tips do you have for those looking to make their own vacation photos more interesting?

Back to that high school photo teacher of mine, he gave me one of the best pieces of advice that I still think about and share with others: ‘When you shoot, know what you are taking a picture of.’ Seems simple, but think on it. So often people see something beautiful, such as a sunset, and then they just point the camera. But that doesn’t tell much of a story often. What do you personally think is beautiful at that moment? Is it the colors of the sky? Then maybe just shoot the sky and crop everything else. Is it the glowing warm light on your friend? Maybe just focus on your friend. Is it the calm on the water? Focus on the water, or have most of the frame as the water. If you think about what is interesting to you and can translate that thought into an image, that is photography.

Q You’re often traveling with your son. How different is your travel with him versus on your own and what’s the best getaway you’ve taken as a family?

Travel is so different with a kiddo! I really like to spend time looking and moving at exactly the pace I want to, and it is very different to travel with him. On the one hand, my son is a great traveler and can get excited about most anywhere, which I love. On the other hand, as a parent, you need to constantly be solving your child’s needs and making sure they are safe and fed. I am not by nature a resort person, but once I traveled to resorts with a child I fully understood them. They are beautiful and safe and have food at all hours and heated pools and room service. It’s hard for kids to not eat at a home for more than a few meals in a row. We were recently at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa—Kauai is one of my all-time favorite destinations—and we were able to experience all of those joys there, including waking up to explore the beautiful coastline barefoot at sunrise, my son riding the really fast slide, late night room service with french fries in a huge comfy bed, and nighttime routine made extra fun with bubbles in the massive tub.

Q What do you splurge on when you’re traveling?

I buy most of what I buy when I travel, including new and vintage ceramics, clothes, jewelry, books, textiles, records for my son, and little gifts for friends, family and co-workers. Because I have been traveling now for a long time I also try to be mindful not to buy things I won’t use when I am home. The biggest splurge items might be jewelry from local makers.

Q Other than a camera, you never travel without…

My glasses? I travel to many different types of places at very different distances with and without my family, so what I bring does vary quite a bit. With my son, I always bring the book we are currently reading for our bedtime routine. If I am flying, my TSA Global Entry card. If I am flying far internationally, my wireless noise-cancelling headphones.  Also, I try to bring one or two clothing essentials in my carry-on bag so that I’m good for a day or two if my luggage gets lost. If I am shooting I always bring my computer and hard-drives and backup gear. Things go wrong sometimes when you travel. You can never know when that will happen, but you can be prepared.

Q Where do you dream of going next?

So many countries in Africa are high on my list. I have never been to South Africa, Kenya or Tanzania. Ethiopia and Senegal are super intriguing. Also, the Maldives and Mongolia. I am a super curious traveler, as you may expect, so most places I haven’t been to seem fascinating to me. I’ve been lucky to have traveled to so many places, but the world is big and we will never see it all in a meaningful way. I’m grateful for any places I’ve been able to visit and to the ones I will get a chance to go or return to. Recently we did a family staycation at the beach here in Stinson and it seemed like a total luxury not to have to fly anywhere!