It was in 1940 that Ansel Adams conducted the first generally credited photography tour workshop, albeit the touring was limited to Yosemite Valley, California.
Adams was a great believer in the photographic education, and knew there was no better way to learn than by working in the field under the tutelage of a master.
Many of Adams’ workshop graduates went on to very successful professional careers of their own, including Chris Rainier, who in addition to his project & assignment work, leads photography “expeditions”, for National Geographic.
Among the more popularly known photographers who also lead photo tours or photo tour workshop hybrids, are Steve McCurry, Joe McNally, Art Wolfe, Zach Arias, David Lazar, and Trey Ratcliff.
There has been a steep rise in the number of photo tours on offer over the last decade, coinciding with the steep rise in photography as a serious hobby, if not a semi-profession/profession.
It also coincides with more working photographers looking for more revenue streams in an increasingly competitive and mostly under-paid market. It’s tough out there for a P-tog!
What is a Photo Tour, Exactly?
First, there is no “exactly”. Each photo tour varies by operator, location, focus, and personality of the photographer(s) leading the tour. The most popular photo tours fall under the umbrella of travel photography.
Other popular foci are wildlife, landscape, cityscape, documentary, street, adventure sports, and aerial/drone. Generally speaking, the photo tour is NOT a workshop, though most will have certain elements of a workshop. In the field instruction, image review and Lightroom/Photoshop tutorials are a few examples.
Some photo tour operators do not use the word tour at all; but workshop, which is misleading. Photo tour workshop would be more accurate, if indeed they include workshop elements, which most do to varying degrees.
Other commonly used photo tour exoticisms are “expedition”, “adventure”, and “safari”. Some are accurate, some misleading, some just silly. Photo “expeditions” to the Antarctic or other remote areas make sense. African photo “safaris” make perfect sense.
But what’s up with “New York Photo Safari?” (To where, the zoo?), or “Paris Photography Expedition?” (The far reaches of the untamed Champs de Elyse?).
It should be noted that the condensed intensity of the weekend or multi-day workshop conducted from a central location, (with possibly some field work), simply cannot be executed or maintained over the course of two to three weeks of dawn till dusk photography on the road. And nor would it be desirous to do so. Working in the field is what photo tours are all about.
Who Participates in Photo Tours?
Although cost and other factors have tended to make full length photo tours a niche-niche market for older, more affluent photographers, more and more mid-income and younger people are learning that investing in access, instruction and in-the-field experience can offer them something of considerably more value than the next major equipment upgrade.
As anyone who really understands photography will tell you, it’s not the quality of the gear that makes for consistently outstanding images, but the skill of the photographer.
Photo tour participants fall into three basic categories – rookies, regulars, and aficionados, and three basic skill levels – novice, intermediate and advanced. Rookies are first or second time attendees.
Regulars have at least a few photo tours under their belts, and look forward to attending a few more. The aficionado attends at least one photo tour per year, if not two or three.
They are bound and determined to photograph in every exotic location they possibly can, fulfill their bucket list with time to spare, and then return to some to capture “the one that got away.”
The regular and the aficionado are passionate about their photography, no doubt.
And when it comes to photo tours, they have learned how to navigate through sometimes treacherous waters – from pre-tour to post. The better the pre-tour navigation, the more likely there will be smooth sailing and rewarding image making ahead.
The photo tour aficionado has “seen it all”, has gone on great photographic journeys with wonderful photographer guides, run through the various shades of mediocre, and perhaps has even fallen into the gloomy grip of the flat out lousy.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
A lot of great things have been said about photo tours, because when they are run well by dedicated people, they result in great experiences and a lot of exciting, much improved image making by the participants.
The good news is that there are enough well run photo tours running across the globe, that with proper due diligence, it’s reasonably easy to separate the best from the rest. The bad news is that there are too many of the ‘rest’. These are the ones not well researched or organized, and led by photographers not well suited to the task.
Even some well-organized photo tours that have been around a long time, serve as little more than a well-paid opportunity for the photographer to focus on his or her own photography, while giving short shrift to their paying guests.
The single most common complaint we hear about photo tour leaders around the world, is breaking the first commandment of photo tour leadership: Thou shall not put your own image making above thy esteemed guest’s!
When you travel with a photographer who breaks this commandment as a matter of course, who is not a good leader and whose trip is also not well organized on the ground, that’s when it can get ugly. This is the last thing you want to find out first hand, with the trip in progress!
We’ll get more into this below, but one of the simplest aspects of vetting a photo tour is to look for reviews and/or testimonials from past participants who are willing to stand by their words.
Look for the first and last names of the testifiers, and if you still have doubts, don’t be afraid to ask to be put in touch with one or some of them. If the company makes excuses about why this isn’t possible, it might be wise to look for another photographer and/or company. Good photo tour companies maintain good relations with their clients and more often than not, these clients are more than happy to tell you about their experiences.
Here’s an example of the type of testimonial you’ll want to see and possibly follow up on. It concerns a two week photo tour in Myanmar: “David Lazar and A.P. Soe are amazing photographers and teachers — and just great people. It was a fabulous tour with real pros that actually care that you become a better photographer. What more can one ask for?” — Patricia Pomerleau, USA.
Unless you have the experience or have otherwise educated yourself on what to look for and how to vet a prospective tour, you may well have high expectations without really knowing what to expect! Armed with the following insights however, you will stand an excellent chance of choosing a winner.
When, What, Where
Many areas of the world offer the best photography (and photo tours) only seasonally. For example, landscapes in Iceland are best photographed from late June into September, while travel photography in Southeast Asia is generally best mid-October through February.
Since you may only be free to travel during certain times of the year, you’ll want to start making a match in terms of available dates. What photo tours and where, fit with your schedule?
Some photo tours are offered off season, to take advantage or certain conditions or events. (Note that some photo tour companies may also have the resources to offer private tours, where you can choose the dates).
Decide your primary photographic goals for the trip. They vary from person to person of course, but generally speaking people are looking to come away with a number of professional quality images; become more proficient with their camera and settings under a variety of shooting conditions; learn a specific technique or image style; capture specific landscapes, portraits or cultural images; learn certain post processing techniques; get as many stock images as humanly possible on one trip; or just to try something new & exciting to see if photo touring really is a lot more fun and interesting than herding with regular travel tours.
Along with goals come expectations of achieving them. Look for a photo tour with an itinerary, approach and leadership style that comports with your desires and personal preferences. If you are fiercely independent and like to strike out on your own a lot, make sure the tour allows you that freedom.
If you’ll need extra one on one time with your leader, check to see if you’ll get it. Read the tour descriptions, itinerary, testimonials, and photographer bios.
Make a numbered list of questions you may have and make inquiry with the person in charge. Confirm that your expectations are both reasonable and likely to be met.
Verify the Itinerary
Often the listed itinerary is many years old and/or just a “sample”, without so stating it. Sometimes they are even plagiarized from other photo tours! It’s OK if the itinerary is a noted sample or “skeleton”, (there are legitimate reasons for this), but it must be representative of their actual tour, not outdated and not someone else’s!
You may have specific locations you want to be certain to have the chance to photograph, so you’ll want to confirm that those will indeed be part of the itinerary. If hotels, meals and modes of travel are not shown, don’t hesitate to ask. If they hesitate to respond or are vague, beware.
Vetting Photo Tour Leaders – Willing & Able Leaders
Once you’ve made decisions based on the above and narrowed things down, it’s time to vet your final choices for lead photographer. As mentioned above, check the testimonials, especially for insight into your prospective leader.
Check their experience and images from the places you’ll be photographing. Are they high quality, professional photographs that show they really know what they’re doing?
You might be surprised by how little some “pro” photo tour leaders are willing to show, or how utterly average the images often are.
Making sure your potential leader is a skilled photographer experienced in your chosen destination(s) is important. But it won’t mean much if they are not willing & able to share their expertise effectively, even generously.
This is vitally important, most especially for novice to intermediate level participants. It can also be the most difficult to determine beforehand, as great photographers are not necessarily effective teachers, or even particularly interested in becoming so. Many are excellent; many more are not. Find out.
Consider lesser known and even local photographers. Great photographers are not always famous, and famous photographers are not always great, especially when it comes to leading a photography tour.
And you will want a leader who knows the light, locations and people extremely well, which translates into true insider access, a key element of any high quality photo tour.
Let’s face it; most photo tours are expensive, some prohibitively so for the average person. Then again, photography is an expensive pursuit! And as previously noted, sometimes money is better spent on education & experience in the field, rather than on that next equipment upgrade.
The best equipment in world won’t make you a better photographer. Give a good travel snapper an old Nikon D70 and kit lens, and he will consistently make better images than an average shooter with $20K worth of gear.
Full length (7 days or more) photo tour prices depend on destination(s) and leader profile. They range from about $300 per day on the budget end to more than $1,000. Most add a supplemental charge for a private room, which is normally between $50 and $100 per day.
The median price of a high quality, all inclusive photo tour at 4-star hotels runs about $450 – $550 per day. It should be pointed out that to many destinations, a regular 4-star travel tour without the benefits of a professional photographer(s), can cost as much as $300 per day more!
Seen in that light, many photo tours considered overpriced, may actually represent an excellent value for money. Price is NOT necessarily indicative of the overall quality of the experience. You can pay top dollar for a disappointing trip or significantly less for a fantastic one – which is why doing your homework beforehand is so important.
Budget Photo Tours – There are good budget photo tours and not so good – but all of them are budget for a reason – to attract budget minded participants. Nothing wrong with that of course; but by definition some things must be sacrificed or ‘hidden’.
Be sure to check for hidden costs by paying close attention to what is and is not included. (True for all photo tours.) Take note the number of meals you’ll have to pay for, and schedules beginning and ending in different cities, all of which will add to that sticker price. Are camera and entrance fees included? Tips expected?
Are the one or two star hotels and/or guest houses acceptable? Are there long bus trips instead of short flights, which will cut down the amount of time photographing what you came to photograph? All of these may add up to less value for money, not more.
Itinerary Fudging – A “fudging” of special note is claiming to operate photo tours of a specific duration, when in actuality they count travel days from your home country as part of the itinerary! This can happen even when international airfare or arrangements in your home country are not included.
On one well known “13 Day Expedition” they audaciously count an extra day for crossing the international dateline, and the tour program does not actually begin until dinner on Day 3, with no photography until Day 4!
International airfare is rarely included in any photo tour, while in-country flights usually are. If not, these flights can add significantly to the sticker price, which is precisely why they are listed separately.
Single room supplements are by definition not included in the sticker price, which are calculated assuming double occupancy. Singe room supplements are perfectly legitimate, as obviously costs are higher with private rooms. However, sometimes these supplements can be significantly, even grossly higher than what the company needs to cover the extra cost.
When this seems to be the case, you may well benefit from negotiating a lower price, especially closer to tour start date if there are more spaces to fill.
Photo Tour Wrap Up
Photography tours and photography tour workshops can be invaluable learning experiences and some of the most culturally rewarding travel of ones’ life. You get the benefit of traveling with like-minded people who share your passion, making new contacts, and establishing some new and lasting friendships as well.
On the best tours the inside access is unparalleled, and you’ll see up close and personal how the pros work and get such consistently outstanding images.
With excellent photographer leaders/teachers who really care about giving you all you came for and then some, you’ll not only gain significantly more working knowledge and confidence in the field, but also a fair number of new images to help take your portfolio to the next level.
Choosing a winning photography tour may take some effort, but it’s an effort well worth making. We’ll see you out there!
Bennett Stevens is a documentary & travel photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand, and Yangon, Myanmar. He is director of photo tours for Luminous Journeys, a boutique travel company specializing in Southeast Asia photo tours, including Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia.