Photography-based tours have of course been around for a long time. People pack up their cameras and kit and head off, generally in small groups, accompanied by a pro-photographer to help ensure that the opportunities are maximized when it comes to clicking the shutter.
Indeed, I lead some myself. Working with Naturetrek (the UK’s largest wildlife holiday provider), Churchill Wild and Arctic Kingdom (both based in Canada), I have greatly enjoyed escorting some extremely talented amateurs and semi-professionals on sell-out trips to Zambia, Brazil and the Canadian Arctic this year. I’m now looking forward to leading tours to those same destinations (with some extra add-ons in the Arctic) in 2017 with some others also in the pipeline.
For me, this year has been an eye-opener however.From talking to all the people that have been on the trips with me, and listening to their previous experiences, it seems that the majority of them have been, well, underwhelming. That is to say that although – for the most part – the wildlife was there, most of the trips were simply photographic-focused in name only. It would appear that some of their previous outings were all booked in good faith (I stress with companies that I am not involved with!), and yet the outing proved to be little more than a glorified version of a standard trip. Yes, a “photographer” was present, but the experience was not quite what it had been set up to be, and commanded a princely upgrade in price to boot.
For me, well, this is simply not on. When I was asked to lead photographic tours, I made some key stipulations and only chose to work with companies that wanted to operate in the right way. It is a shame that many photographers – not all, but a rising majority – are all too quick to take the job, without ensuring that a trip is run in the right way. It got me thinking quite a bit, and, for what it’s worth, I thought I’d put together some ideas that perhaps should be at the forefront of your consideration if you are deciding on a photo-focused adventure.
- How many photographers are on the trip? Some will put a couple of people there carrying gear and taking shots for just a handful of people. Ask yourself – or indeed the operator – how much time each of those guys or girls (or both) are going to be spending with each individual in your group. Are they sending two simply to enable you to get more focused time with the leader and therefore assistance and advice, or are they simply taking the chance for you to pay for more people to go and take their shots for themselves?
- Remember that invariably the cost of your photographer guide has to be factored into the trip; this is why it costs more than a standard trip in most cases. So…ask (again) how much more is it costing you to have this person along with you? How much of their time will you get? Are they compromising on the standard of your accommodation and yet retaining a high price simply to keep a high margin?
- Beware the photographer who was originally a tour-leader and now carries a camera. This is often the case…and these people are unlikely to spend an awful lot of time sharing their collected wisdom about a life taking shots. If you book a photographer trip, make sure it IS a photographer that accompanies you. It’s better that they are not 100% at getting your pillow replaced, but anticipatory when it comes to seeing where you are going wrong and where you could stretch yourself.
- Contact the photographer directly – simply ask your tour operator for their details. Most shutter pressers are happy to help over email or a quick call if you want specific info before the trip. Also, this will help you decide if you are going to get on with them…after all, it’s a holiday too and you want to make sure their company is going to add to the experience!
- Check out their website, galleries, facebook and other media.
- Are you going to be simply told to point and shoot, or is your leader going to try and push your creative and technical skills? Can they, in fact, deal with your low or high level of ability? The best photo guides have just as much time for the first timer as the semi-pro…so make sure you get some pre-trip photo advice on what to take and the types of situation you might find yourself in; a good photographer will use their knowledge to help you get yourself geared up for the trip and hit the ground running.
- If they push in…PUSH THEM OUT! Do not under-estimate the brutality of the photography business, but make sure you do not allow your photo guide to simply be on a free trip bagging their own pics whilst you have to make do with shooting over their shoulder and being very much “second choice” when it comes to priorities. They should always put you first, and then take their own shots, otherwise you are simply being a benefactor and they are building their portfolio for free!
- Make sure you are not crammed in a vehicle or boat. A photo trip in a land rover in Africa for example (and restrictions do apply in some countries) should put no more than 6 of you (2 per row, 3 rows) in a vehicle, and ideally the canopy and structure should be removed. How do you shoot the bird overhead or the leopard in the tree if you have a roof in the way? In some countries of course this is not possible, but likewise if you are jammed into a vehicle with no room for kit or to swing your lens, then you are going to suffer. If you are boat based, then overcrowding is even more key…make sure you have the most space in which to work…that is why you’re there.
- Are they doing something or supplying you something that you could not just do yourself? Are they creating a true photography experience, or simply freeloading on a holiday? Be selective…and don’t be scared to ask!
This is only meant to serve as a prompter. There are a large number of specific photo-tours these days, but there are also a large number of trips that don’t really deliver. Don’t be worried about interrogating your supplier, and making sure that this once in a lifetime trip really does maximize your chances of hitting the jackpot and grabbing that image you always dreamed of. We can’t always guarantee the wildlife, but the good ones can always make sure that not a minute is wasted.