Improving your photography through a photo tour
If you’re a photographer or a traveler, chances are you have or will someday hit a plateau. In any field, we all reach levels where we feel a bit stuck. We want to grow and improve, but on our own, we’re not sure how. One way to jump-start your progression toward photographic mastery is to take a photo tour.
What is a photo tour?
These come in various shapes and sizes from multi-day (or even week-long) excursions to workshops that take only a few hours. In most cases, you’re led by a guide/instructor who takes you out to a location and exposes you (pun intended for you old school film shooters) to new approaches or conditions for shooting.
Photo tours differ from online classes or even classroom workshops in the onsite interaction you get from your instructor. While it’s good to start with some basics before your tour, being on location and getting instant feedback provides a very different, highly customized way of learning you simply can’t obtain from a book or video course.
The competition for these tours and workshops is growing daily as photographers seek alternative revenue sources for their profession. Thus, to get the most from a photo tour or workshop and to help you sift the good from the bad from the great, it helps to know a few key questions to ask before you sign up for one. The better you prepare and the more questions you ask and get answered before you go, the better your chances of having a great experience that can dramatically improve your ability as a photographer and your enjoyment of both your craft and your tour. Here are some key questions to consider:
Important questions to ask in choosing a photo tour
- Who is your guide/instructor? Look at the types of photography that he or she specializes in. Look at his or her photos. You want someone whose work you appreciate and resonate with. How long have they been doing tours (not just photography, but actually leading workshops or tours)? How well do they relate to students? Someone can be an amazing photographer and a lousy instructor. Check out what others have said about them by reading multiple reviews.
- Where will you go? Find out if the guide has been there before and knows it well. This is really critical if you’re going for specific shots of a place rather than to learn photo techniques in any picturesque location. Some guides don’t like to reveal ahead of time the specific sites in order to keep them special. But they should be able to give you a general sense of the environments you’ll be in and the types of settings (and thus images) you can expect.
- What about timing? How long will you be in each location? How far is each spot from the previous one? You don’t want to spend your whole time just getting there or be rushed once you arrive. Also, how long will you be out each day? You want to shoot as much as you can, but also realize that you can get “photoed out” after too long without a break.
- What are the logistics? Where will you be staying? Eating? Are those included or are you on your own for those? How much time will you be spending in your room (i.e. find out if your schedule has you out before dawn and back late to know how important the quality of the room will be). Also, how easy or expensive is it to reach the starting location and then to return home? And don’t forget to include trip insurance in your planning as it can save you a great deal if plans change, you need medical help or your gear gets stolen.
- What else is included? Are there side trips or other forms of instruction that might be added or part of the package like tours to other locations apart from the photo tour or cooking classes or connections to local cultural activities or events? You may be coming for the photography, but as long as you’re there, get as much out of the experience as you can.
- Do they speak your language? The website might be in English, but is that a language your instructor is fluent in? Photography is a visual language, so you can still learn a great deal from someone whose English isn’t perfect. But it’s harder to get detailed explanations if you both can’t communicate in a common language.
- What are the payment terms? How much of a deposit is required? By when? How much do you get back (if any) due to inclement weather or other factors that mar the experience?
- What will you learn? Be clear on the focus of the particular tour. Is it mostly about a place or a type of photography (e.g. landscapes, street, architecture, portraiture, etc.)? If there are certain techniques you want to perfect, find out if those are covered or could be included. That might include panning, low-light, nightscapes or star photos, wildlife, time lapse, macros, etc.
- What about spouses or partners? If you’re traveling overseas, you may want to bookend or extend your photo tour. And if so, you may want to travel with someone else. Does the tour allow for that or offer activities for your partner to do while you’re out with the group making photos?
- Do you have the right equipment and clothing? Find out what you’ll need, not just in terms of camera(s) and tripod but also if you’re expected to use filters, flash or other peripherals. Will you need to be prepared for harsh weather? Crossing streams? Mosquitoes? Are you expected to have a laptop so you can share your images with others in the evening? The more you can get a clear picture of the environment you’ll be in and expected activities, the better you can prepare. And if you don’t have all the needed equipment, see if the guide can loan you some or you can rent some before you arrive.
- What is the amount of instruction? Will you be “trained” or merely “guided/coached.” Some tours are more about the location whereas workshops/classes are more about teaching specific approaches and techniques. Find out which is the focus and which is more appropriate for you.
- How big is the group? The more people, the more you might be bumping into each other or getting in each other’s shots. The smaller, the more personal attention. But with high-profile guides, even a few minutes in each location with a master can be valuable. Also, larger groups allow you to learn more from the other participants which can be almost as helpful.
- How experienced do you need to be? You don’t want to be on a tour where every other participant is a pro if you don’t know your F-stop from a stop light. Find out what level the tour caters to and if it is right for your skill level. Also, be aware that one of the most meaningful aspects of a photo tour are the relationships you develop with other participants. The more you have in common, the more you’ll likely connect.
The best of both worlds
Photo tours can be one of the best ways to improve your photography while having a wonderful experience in a new place. Asking the above questions will help ensure that your overall experience — and the photos you come home with — are both top notch.
Not quite ready for a photo tour? Start with my free Guide to Making Amazing Travel Photos. It’s helpful for both beginners and even more seasoned photographers.
Also, if you want to know more about my own experience on the photo tour shown in the images above, check out this article on Passion Passport.