Travel

Travel: San Gimignano sunset

Travel changes us. Whether it’s a trip around the corner or around the world, travel has the ability to affect us in so many unexpected ways. Find out why where you are affects who you are and how to travel better, no matter where you go.

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How to master travel—and why it matters for beginners AND seasoned travelers

Master travel - Blue Mosque line

Master travel? What’s that?

Whether you a beginning traveler or an experienced road warrior, chances are you’ve never considered how you might master travel or even why you might want to.  When you first start traveling, you just jump in and let the novelty and excitement of the journey propel you forward.

As an experienced traveler, you figure you know how to travel already. But eventually, as with all endeavors, you hit a plateau where, though the destinations may change, your trips start to feel oddly similar. You may believe that you have mastered travel, but it can start to feel as if travel has mastered you.

You desperately try to mix up the activities or sights, but a similar routine or pace has crept in over time. You’re in a bit of a travel rut. Trips are still fun, but they lack the meaning or sense of life-changing possibility that they used to provide. What do you do when this happens?

You learn to master travel

Why learning to master travel matters

If you’re a beginning traveler, that starts with realizing that travel is a skill that can be mastered. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (queue the music) is to seek ways to improve that skill.

If you’re an experienced traveler who needs a boost, well, the remedy is surprisingly the same, but for a different reason. You’ll want to learn how to master travel not to learn new approaches so much as to get you out of—to free you from—ones that no longer serve you well. 

In both cases, your goal is mastery of a skill you probably didn’t even consider to be one.

Until now.

Master travel - Ship at night

10,000 hours of travel

You may have heard or read the stat promoted by Malcom Gladwell and others that you achieve mastery after 10,000 hours of practicing something. It’s a widely quoted finding.

It just may not be true.

This article does a good job of summarizing the more recent research on the subject noting that 10,000 hours of practice was only an average and that it doesn’t apply the same to all kinds of activities. For example, with travel, 10,000 hours of time spent on trips (not counting sleep) would be about two years of consistent travel. If you’re only taking a vacation for say, a cumulative total (counting weekend trips) of a month per year, using the 10,000 hour mark means you wouldn’t hit mastery for about 21 years.

Oh, and that is counting every waking moment on a trip as “practice” when in reality, you’re likely only thinking about the actual travel part of your trip a fraction of the time. Thus, you could probably double or triple the number of years to reach the mastery level of traveling if you based it on the 10,000 hours idea.

Good thing you don’t have to.

Why? Because what seems to apply more than time if you want to master something is a combination of interest and what’s called deliberate practice. Let’s start with the former.

Montreal

Love what you do

As a traveler, you’re not training to win a travel award or to be admitted to the top travel school in the country (and no, I don’t believe there is such an institution…yet). Nor are you competing with others to be the world’s best traveler nor are you turning pro. Unless you have to travel for work or other necessities, you travel simply for the love it. And you know what that makes you? An amateur.

The word “amateur” derives from the Latin “amare” which means “to love.” We sometimes deride amateurs for their lack of skill but true amateurs, those who take on something new for the sheer joy of doing it, don’t care. It is in the doing they find satisfaction, not necessarily in the mastery. But here’s where a paradox of mastery comes in.

You don’t have to be a pro at something but you do need to know enough to enjoy it. As my surfing coach Shaun says, “You have to reach that point of being stoked.” Once you hit that level of really loving it, you’re hooked. But many people give up before that point because they don’t get good enough to enjoy it. So you need to work to reach at least some degree of proficiency. With travel, this is pretty easy because the process itself is so enjoyable. In fact, I suspect you may never have even thought before that travel is a skill you learn, right? That’s because we don’t usually consider fun activities as something requiring effort and practice. But practice does make perfect. Sort of. Only, however, if you do it right.

Master travel through deliberate practice

Doing the same thing over and over may seem like practice. Instead, it usually means mindless repetition. A better approach is what is known as deliberate practice. Being aware of how to navigate through an airport or train station, how to choose the best flights, how to know before you arrive if a hotel will be good—all of those are travel skills that come with practice. But if you don’t think about learning those skills and only pick them up haphazardly, they’ll take you much longer to master.

If, however, you practice deliberately, some of the more frustrating elements of travel—like getting a decent seat on a flight or learning how to find great local restaurants—get much easier, much faster. And the better you get, the more you enjoy. The more you enjoy, the more you’ll push yourself to be better not because you have to, but because you want to. And in so doing, you’ll discover a whole new level of travel because you’ve learned to master travel.

Naples, Italy

But what happens when you’re an experienced traveler?

All of the above is well and good for learning how to travel initially. But once you’ve done it for a while, how do you get out of your travel ruts and routines? Here’s the fun answer: Same thing. Deliberate practice. 

The exact same approach that works for beginners in learning how to master travel works for master travelers who’ve plateaued. To understand this, let’s apply some key attributes of deliberate practice to travel. I’ll note how to do this for both beginners and seasoned travelers wanting a new boost in their trips.

  1. Concentrate. For both types of travelers, be mindful and aware that you are learning a skill. As you learn to navigate the metro in Paris, make a conscious effort to pay attention to how it works. Treat it as if you will be quizzed on it later. Does that take away from the fun of your trip? Actually, it can enhance it because every mundane logistical task now becomes a creative challenge. For seasoned travelers, this means paying attention to what moves and delights you. Note what has started to feel routine and what still feels fresh. What feels missing? Be aware of your emotions and interests as you travel and you’ll be able to diagnose how to make changes for your future trips.
  2. Give yourself a break. Yes, you want to master travel by learning how to do it better and treating it as a skill to acquire and perfect. But you don’t have to do that all the time. Use the down times on a trip to mentally inventory what you’re learning. Then, the learning or practice part of this won’t bog you down when you’re in pure exploration mode. This applies to both types of travelers.
  3. Write it down. Having a travel journal is so helpful for many reasons. For beginners, you can record and even track your learnings as you go so you’re more aware of them later. For seasoned travelers, you’ll want to record what you learned in step one regarding what is working for you emotionally and what’s not. For both types of travelers, also write down as the ideas come to mind, additional travel skills you want to learn. That way, you can deliberately pursue those over time.
  4. Experiment. Try different approaches to a travel challenge whether it’s your first trip or your 100th. If you’re used to taking a taxi or ride share, take the bus. Or vice versa. If you always pack a lot into your trips, try a slower approach. Then record what you learn. Glean what works and discard what doesn’t. For beginners, you’re seeking to find your travel style or cadence. For experienced travelers, you’re looking to discover a novel approach that will break you out of your travel habits and let you master travel in a whole new way.
  5. Be consistent. Don’t just try all this once and stop. It will take a lifetime to fully master travel. You can always learn more. But that won’t happen if you forget to learn. If you go back to not paying attention to the process and the skills you’re acquiring, you’ll travel like everyone else and your trips won’t get better. They may be different, but they won’t improve. You have to be deliberate about practicing travel to master travel.

Enjoy the process as you master travel

This may all seem like hard work. But hard work, if it is enjoyable, adds greater meaning to life. If you travel only to lie on a beach and sip fruity drinks, don’t worry about how you’ll master travel. You don’t need to. But if you love travel and want to continue doing so more and more over time, start thinking about travel as a skill you can learn and even master. It may not be as easy as lying on a beach, but it is so much more rewarding.

As a friend of mind often reminds me, “I don’t like to travel. I like to have arrived.” Most of us do, especially on today’s flying buses and over-crowded attractions. But when you master the harder parts of travel itself, you’ll find a greater sense of accomplishment and greater joy, both in the arriving and in what it took to get you there. Mastering travel will make the hard parts of the journey easier for beginners. And best of all, taking a deliberate practice approach to master travel will help experienced travelers continue to reap rich rewards from travel for years to come.  

 

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The art of cropping: In photography, travel and life

Why cutting things out improves what is left

Cropping — the cutting off or leaving out of areas of an image — is one of the most common yet powerful tools a photographer has. And the principle behind cropping — editing to reveal the most important element of something — applies to far more than photographs. As we’ll see, cropping has implications for how we approach many creative aspects of life including travel.

Cropping after the fact

Great photographers crop, but they usually do so mentally when framing their shot, seeing the final image in their mind before they release the shutter. Personally, I’m not quite there. More often then not, when I get home from a trip or photo shoot, I find that many images could stand a trim to improve the image I thought was there or, in some cases, to reveal an even better one.

Cropping: Val di Funes, image croppedThe photo above is a good example. You may recall this general scene from the article on the Dolomites. Here’s what the original looked like before cropping:

Cropping: Val di Funes - uncropped

I almost deleted this shot because at first it seemed like a picture of a big field with some mountains crammed in on the right.

I was actually trying to get the shot that most people take when they come to Val di Funes, this lush green valley in the Dolomites. Here’s an example of the more typical shot of the church with the mountains behind it:

Cropping: Santa Maddelena, Val di Funes, image cropped

It’s an interesting photo. But I still like the one of the field because it’s less typical. And even this one with the church benefited from cropping as this view of the original reveals:

Cropping: Santa Maddelena, Val di Funes - uncropped

In both of the above original images, cropping helps. With the first, it takes a so-so image and turns it into a strong composition. With the second, cropping improves an already interesting image by concentrating your eyes on the essential elements in the photo and removes some distractions like the white hay bales on the far left.

Cropping is for more than images

The same principles of cropping apply to most art forms, including travel. Writers edit. Chefs eliminate ingredients from recipes or replace them with something new. Composers take elements from a symphony that isn’t working and use those to create a smaller, yet more refined piece. And travelers? They choose to cut out parts of their itinerary in order to enjoy fewer places or experiences in greater depth. Here are some principles of cropping you can apply to travel or any creative endeavor.

Principles of cropping

  • When you cut out the non-essentials, you enhance what remains. That, is the heart of cropping, improving what is there by removing what shouldn’t be.
  • Cropping helps you discover something fresh in a scene, a focus beyond the obvious original intent. We like the familiar but we love the novel, especially when it retains enough of the familiar to be inviting. I once saw a wonderful photo taken near the Taj Mahal. But only a portion of that famous building could be seen in its reflection in a pool. The rest of the image captured the interesting people there. It was a new, intriguing way to view this iconic landmark and far more interesting by cropping out just enough of the more familiar.
  • You learn to transform the merely adequate. Cropping lets you take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. Each photo becomes a treasure hunt to see what can be improved by finding the true story in the image. Like the comment attributed to Michelangelo that within the rough block of marble lies a horse and all he did was to remove the parts that didn’t look like a horse, so too with a photo or trip. You crop out the parts that don’t fit the best story inherent in the image or experience.
  • You see the same scene but in a different way. You’re actually re-seeing it because cropping allows you to shift perspectives. Same with a trip: Eliminate a few activities and gain more time, and you’ll view what you do see in a different way than if you were rushed.
  • You learn to tell the true story inherent in the image or trip. You may not always consider your viewers when you snap your shot. But when you edit, you begin to think about how others will perceive the image. What’s the story you want to convey? Cropping helps you refine that story and craft a final image that “reads” and makes sense even if the viewer has never been to the location in the photo. On a trip, you define what you want from your time in a place then ruthlessly cut out anything that doesn’t fit. It sounds harsh, but the results can be extraordinary because you’ll have the trip that matters to you, not one that everyone else did. This is the same idea as that expressed in this article on how to enjoy a museum: by seeing less, you actually see more of what delights you.
  • Everybody crops. Every decision to forgo something in favor of something else is a form of cropping. Cropping is so familiar, we likely don’t realize what a useful tool it can be. Cropping is the difference between a first draft and a final work, the refining process that separates good (or even adequate) from great. With travel, cropping out the non-essentials is the difference between visiting a place versus truly getting to know it.
  • Cropping well only comes with experience. It takes time, exposure to good design and practice to learn what makes an image, an experience or any work of art “just right.” Guidelines such as the “rule of thirds” help, but practice remains the key. Same with travel. You learn your own pace and what to leave in and out only by doing it repeatedly.

The results of cropping: Less is more

Thus, if you’re a photographer of travel images, you may want to pay more attention to the cropping function. With it, you can recenter, rotate, remove and re-position. But most of all, far beyond the realm of photography, cropping serves as a vital discipline for all creative types, including travelers. It enables you to discover and highlight the heart of the image, subject or place and to eliminate the distractions and lesser narratives. You end up with less: cropping is inherently reductive. But that less is almost always more: a stronger image, story, point or trip. By taking away, you add. And the results can be spectacular.

 

Get more from a museum by getting less

Museums: HuntingtonHow to enjoy a museum more

Museums, particularly art museums, overwhelm me. And the bigger the museum, the greater the feeling of being thrashed by a wave of sensory overload.

I want to see it all. But in museums like the Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid, I simply can’t. Not at least in a few hours. And if I go beyond that, fatigue tends to mar even the best viewing experience. So, what’s the solution to getting the most out of an art museum in a short amount of time? Here are three solutions I’ve found that work well.

Choose your battles carefully

Museum: bust of insane man

As this and the following head shots show, art museums have interesting characters.

The same strategy that works for parenting works for visiting museums. Knowing you can’t see it all, choose only a few sections and concentrate on those. Forget the rest. Maybe you can come back later. Maybe not. But many museums now put their collections online so you can see what you missed when you get home. You’ll at least have seen in person those works of art that seem most interesting to you. I pay special attention to visiting exhibitions knowing that these will be the hardest to see again.

Play reconnaissance

Intentionally go fast just to see what stands out. No one said you have to appreciate every single artwork. Zip your way through until you find something interesting. Then, move into the next approach.

Go deep

Chinese sculptureStop and stare. Then stare some more. If you’ve found something you like, take time with it. This New York Times article from a few years ago recommends essentially the same thing. Peruse the paintings or sculptures until you find something that speaks to you. Then really look at it.

Here are two additional approaches I’ve found to help you do that even more effectively.

Sketch it

I’ve recently resumed an earlier attempt at drawing. I’m still no good at it (if “good” means capturing the image in its exact proportions), but that doesn’t matter. The very act of trying to sketch something helps me see it so much better. You literally see things you miss with a cursory or even extended examination. It’s like learning anything. You learn best when you teach others. Drawing is like that as well. You see best when you have to translate it into a different medium line by line, shape by shape, color by color.

Museums - The Five Senses - Sight painting

There’s a lot going on in this painting, The Five Senses – Sight by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1625). It’s a great candidate for looking more closely at the details.

Snap a detail

Can’t sketch? No worries. Try this. Take a photo instead. You can shoot the whole painting, but lately I’ve found a greater enjoyment of the whole work when I concentrate on just a part of it. Taking a photo of just one section that appeals to me is again, another form of translation. But instead of translating what I see onto a piece of paper, I’m translating what I see into an emotional experience.

Museums: The Five Senses - Sight: Detail

Here’s a detail of the same painting. There’s plenty to keep you interested in this one small section.

Let me explain.

Unless you’re an art historian, student or critic, you’re likely going to an art museum simply for the delight of it. I know this is hard to imagine if you don’t like museums. But somewhere along the line, we picked up this notion that art museums were all about culture and appreciation. They are, but that’s not all.

Let your jaw drop

Greek SculptureArt museums are, to me, places of wonder. Sometimes I’ll come across a work that staggers me. It is usually some piece I’ve never heard of before. Something that isn’t bogged down in expectations or hype. Other times — and this is where the details exercise fits in — I’ll see a piece and I may like it. But if I spend time with it, I find that there is some element that speaks not to my head about technique or lighting or the historicity of the piece, but to my heart.

With these small sections of details, my reaction isn’t to tuck the ear piece of my glasses in the corner of my mouth and nod philosophically. Instead, it is to smile. Maybe even sigh in a happy way. In those moments, I’m completely disarmed by the beauty of that one detail. It triggers something inside me. It connects to some inner longing or interest. I may try to figure out what that connection is. Or maybe not. Often, it is enough to just stand there and be enchanted.

Go slow and small

Roman sculptureSo if art museums tend to overwhelm you, don’t “go big or go home.” Instead, slow down and go small. Find the artworks that appeal to you, but also focus on the small sections or moments within those. Take a photo (where allowed) and capture that section as its own work of art. Some artists hate this. They feel you should appreciate their work as a whole. And quite often, you will. But other times, take the opportunity to find what matters to you in their work. Treat each piece like a “Where’s Waldo?” book or poster: find the secret gem within the bigger whole that resonates with you.

One aid in doing this is my guide to seeing the right details. Check it out if you want to get better at noticing and capturing details, either in photos or in writing.

However you do it, finding the works or even the details of the works that resonate with you will enable you to walk away from the museum happier, more energized and more inclined to visit other museums in the future.

 

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Museums: How to get more by getting less

Museums: Get more by getting less

 

Gardena Pass (Passo Gardena): Experiencing the best of the Dolomites in one breathtaking place

Gardena Pass - view with dog

The magic of the Dolomites

The Dolomites of Northern Italy are, to me, some of the most visually distinctive mountains in the world. The Himalayas are more extreme. The Andes longer. The Rockies higher. The central Alps of Switzerland, France, Austria (first cousins to the Dolomites which lay within the Southern Limestone Alps) are more famous. But the Dolomites can be just plain magical.

Val de Funes

Val di Funes lies in the eastern side of the Dolomites about a two hour drive from Gardena Pass

The limestone of the Dolomites affects both their shape and color. The hard, chalky stone wears down over millennia in such a manner as to create the dramatic jagged rows of peaks that, in some areas look like the Bumble’s teeth on Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and in other places, like lofty cathedral spires, castle battlements or simply bizarre rock formations on a massive scale. And the whiteness of the stone that gives the Dolomites its other name, “the Pale Mountains,” makes these peaks stand out at any time. But view them when the sun rises or sets and the mountains radiate Alpen glow colors ranging from soothing pink to purple to brilliant scarlet. Locally, they even have a name for it: “enrosadira” (from the Italian word, “rosa” for pink).

Gardena Pass: Santa Maddalena Church

Also in the Val di Funes, the Santa Maddelena church stands before the rose-colored mountains that make up the Dolomites

The sharp, spiky nature of these mountains at first reminded me of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. But the Dolomites’ appeal goes beyond the mountains themselves to include the lush green valleys, the quiet lakes and the tiny hamlets of surprising history and character that you find throughout the area. It’s a place I long to return to simply because every season will reveal a very different experience.

The various ranges that make up the Dolomites are part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site. In summer, many people come to hike, bike or climb. In winter, skiers throng the area enjoying the numerous downhill and cross-country runs. But if you visit the Dolomites in the shoulder seasons, spring or especially in early fall, you can enjoy their beauty without jostling others on the trails or getting stuck behind a dozen cars on the twisty mountain roads.

Gardena Pass

Experiencing the Dolomites in a single day

You can spend weeks, even months, exploring the Dolomites and still never see or experience all they have to offer. But if you want to get a sense of them in the shortest time possible, head to one of the range’s higher passes, both literally and figuratively high points of the Dolomites.

Three of the most popular are Passo Sella (Sella Pass), Passo Pordoi (Pordoi Pass) and Passo Gardena (Gardena Pass). With Passo Sella, you can look out on a lush valley beneath you. With Passo Pordoi, you can take a cable car up from the pass itself getting even higher to Sass Pordoi where you can hike, eat or just enjoy the view. Any of these will provide an incredible vista of the surrounding mountains and give you a clear sense of why the Dolomites are so special. But Passo Gardena, is less visited. As such, once you get out of the main parking/overlook area, you can enjoy spectacular views all to yourself.

In addition, Passo Gardena (which I’ll refer to as Gardena Pass from here on) serves as such an excellent exemplar of the Dolomites because it lies near the center of the range. You can’t get to it without beholding other enchantments along the way. And when you arrive, it feels as if everything else has simply been a foretaste to entice and intrigue for the view ahead.

Here are some other factors that make Gardena Pass stand out.

Gardena Pass

A place of wonder

First of all, you experience sheer awe. It doesn’t matter what type of traveler you are, the vastness of stone around you and the dramatic views below you leave you in a state of wonder. I’ve seen incredible mountain ranges around the world, but on the day we visited, with contrails above crisscrossing the blue sky after a snowfall the day before, I can only describe the scene as stunning.

Road to Gardena Pass

On the well-maintained road to Gardena Pass, you sometime encounter road rallies like this group of sports cars seen through our windshield.

Surprises beyond surprises

You also experience the surprise factor. We drove up from the west, driving past the ski towns of Ortisei, Santa Cristina and Selva di Val Gardena. The views through each of these are magnificent so you think, “Well, that was lovely,” and you assume the best is behind you. And then, you navigate your way up the snaking (but well-maintained) road and you realize how wrong you were. By the time you reach the overlook at Gardena Pass, you’re a bit numb from sensory overload.

Church at Gardena Pass

Seeing the details

In addition to the grand vistas, Gardena Pass affords some up-close interests as well. Just out of the parking area, you can hike up to a small church and past weathered wooden huts, each with its own personality.

Hut at Gardena Pass

Getting out into the scene

Numerous trails radiate from Gardena Pass, both short and long (the pass is part of the Alta Via 2, one of several multi-day hikes through the Dolomites where you stay at refugios – mountain inns set up like hostels, usually with shared bathrooms and dormitory-like rooms – along the way foregoing the need for carrying tents or food).

Gardena Pass chair lift

In the winter, these ski lifts carry skiers from all over Europe to the runs above the pass. In the summer, trails lead out from here to points throughout the Dolomites.

The one downside of coming in October when we did is that most of those refugios close at the end of September and many of the chair lifts or smaller cable cars aren’t running. Thus, you’ll have to hoof it a bit more for a longer hike since you won’t get the shortcut of the cable car. But even a short hike in any direction provides additional views and an opportunity to behold this beautiful scenery all by yourself.

Gardena Pass overlook

The view from the upper parking lot near the guesthouse showing trails and ski runs on the right and the craggy peaks in shadow on the left

Making it personal

Gardena Pass was for us (my wife, son and daughter-in-law) one of those magic moments on a trip. You don’t expect it. It completely wows you with beauty. And it provides you the opportunity to not just observe nature at its finest around you, but to take time to contemplate it and enjoy it in a manner that personally brings you joy. Every type of traveler (you can learn what type you are by taking this quick Traveler Type Quiz) will find something of value, all in this one spot.

For example, you can take it in on the immediate level as my wife and daughter-in-law did. They observed the view outside then, because they weren’t prepared for the colder temperature of the pass, headed into the lodge near the lower of the two parking areas. There, as Connecting Travelers, they had a wonderful conversation with the multi-lingual couple in the gift shop followed by a delightfully warm respite, sitting by themselves in a secluded area of the restaurant in front of a large picture window, knitting and crocheting (transportable hobbies useful on long car rides), sipping Italian coffee and hot chocolate and simply enjoying each other and the view.

The inn at Gardena Pass

You can also go deeper in your experience of Gardena Pass as my son – a Creative Traveler – did, sketching the magnificent view from various perspectives. Or you can do what I (more an Adventurous Traveler in this place) did and explore, physically taking in as much of the scene as possible. I hiked all around, made photos and continuously marveled at the views in every direction.

Gardena Pass and hut

In short, we all encountered the same place. But we each came away with something personally meaningful.

Places such as Gardena Pass make that possible. They stun you with an oversized beauty, which then opens you to the whispers of your own longings. That’s the power of awe. The marvels you witness before you stir emotions within you, ones most of us rarely feel. The good news is, there are no right or wrong ways to process it. Just feel it. And be grateful for places such as Gardena Pass which, in our distracted and jaded world, still have the power to capture our attention and our hearts.

East of Gardena Pass

Descend several hundred meters from Gardena Pass and the temperature and colors change dramatically, but the magic of the Dolomites remains. This is on the east side of Gardena Pass on the road to Cortina.

 

 

What to look for in a photo tour

Photo tour

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.

View finder on 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:

Photo tour group

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 tour photographer

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.

The value of the splurge: How to know when and when not to go all out

Splurge: Soca River

Hisa Franko, site of our splurge, lies outside of Kobarid, Slovenia through which runs the gloriously blue Soca River

Splurge: the act of spending money freely or extravagantly

The making of a good splurge

I’m a big fan of splurges, experiences where you go big and spend a lot on some special occasion that will stand out and be remembered, potentially, for the rest of your life. But splurges come with some significant caveats if they are to work as intended.

  • First, they need to be rare. Justifying that fancy new outfit as a splurge doesn’t work if you just did the same thing last week.
  • Second, they need to be somewhat reasonable. Spending a month’s salary on great seats at a playoff game or an opera performed in some exotic setting makes sense if you know you can make up that expense later on. If it leaves you in debt or jeopardizes necessities, you better think twice. Splurges should stretch you, not break you. Optimally, you save up for them beforehand. Doing so builds your anticipation for the event and helps insure you can afford it.
  • Third, they should align with your greatest passions, not just a passing interest. If you’re going to spend that much money, make sure it’s on something you’re pretty sure ahead of time will be both memorable and meaningful to you.
  • Fourth, they need to deliver. And that’s not easy. The problem with splurges is the pressure they create. You’re spending a lot of money, so your expectations are somewhere north of Saturn. If one or two aspects of the activity don’t turn out perfect, the whole experience is diminished. Maybe even ruined. And all you’re left with is disappointment and the deep dread of receiving your next credit card statement.

Let me give you an example of a recent splurge on a trip to Slovenia with my wife, son and daughter-in-law to give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to splurges.

Splurge - Plum five ways

Plum in five consistencies filled with sour cottage cheese and served with a spicy plum nectar

Splurging in Slovenia

We decided to visit Slovenia in large part to try out the restaurant Hisa Franko outside the small town of Kobarid. The chef, Ana Ros, was not only profiled on the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, she was also deemed the world’s best female chef last year. Not Slovenia’s or even Europe’s. But the best female chef on the planet. Dining at her restaurant seemed splurge-worthy. The problem was, we didn’t realize ahead of time just how much of a splurge it would turn out to be.

Splurge: Ravioli

Goat-cow cottage cheese ravioli, corn, prosciutto and hazelnut broth

Let’s be clear up front: The dinner was astounding. We had eleven official courses (plus a few additional starters and a third — yep, third — dessert thrown in), each offering combinations of tastes I’ve never (or rarely) had before (you can read the menu for yourself if you’re interested). However, all of that goodness still didn’t push it over-the-top in terms of a splurge that becomes a “defining moment” on a trip. What follows are some of the reasons why.

Splurge: Trout

Trout, whey, roasted poppy seeds, beets in tonka vinegar, sour cress

Expensive

First of all, I messed up on the price. We booked way back in March for an October dinner and at the time, I had read that the price for the eight-course tasting menu was 75 euros per person. I unfortunately didn’t bother to double check the price when I received an email a week before we left for the trip informing me that the eight-course menu was no longer being offered at dinner time. I figured we’d pay a bit more for the 11-course meal. But I didn’t realize it would cost us 150 euros (about US$175 per person, not including drinks or tip). Thus, the shock of the price when we sat down to eat created cognitive dissonance that was hard to overcome. What made it worse was realizing it was my fault for not confirming the price ahead of time.

Splurge - Potato cooked in hay

Potato cooked in hay. Again, it was helpful that they explained that the thing in the lower right corner is what the potato cooked in and is not edible.

High Expectations

Second, our expectations were so high that while we enjoyed most of the dishes (the parsley and porcini mushroom crumbles on sour milk ice cream was a stretch too far for some of us), they didn’t blow our taste buds away the way we had hoped. That’s not a knock against Ana Ros’s amazing food. Her creativity and the presentation of each item are dazzling. It’s the inherent problem of expensive splurges: You go in with such unrealistic expectations that nothing in reality can reasonably match them.

Splurge - beef tongue

“I love red” – beef tongue, oysters, redbell peppers and roasted salad of
purslane and borage

Limited Appreciation

Third, if you’re going to splurge, make sure you’re able to grasp the nuances of the experience. Personally, I may not really be able to appreciate the genius of Ana Ros. When I was younger, I once noted that I could tell the difference between a $50 stereo speaker and a $500 one but my hearing and training were incapable of discerning the difference between a $500 speaker and a $5,000 one. Such is likely the case for us at Hisa Franko. I recognized and applauded the inventiveness and the unusual combinations – these truly are works of culinary art rather than simply food prepared in a novel manner. But I may not have been able to value it as much as say, a food critic with a more discerning palette.

Splurge - Roebuck

Roebuck (venison), forest mushrooms, parsley root, spruce

Knowing Your Own Interests

Finally, and in hindsight, probably the most important, I believe we did the whole splurge for the wrong reasons. We have friends who have splurged on fine restaurants like this and they love it. But for us, for all the value in trying one-of-a-kind food like Hisa Franko’s, we realized that it’s not really our thing. We dined at a restaurant in Kobarid the next evening that specialized in local cuisine. It wasn’t fancy. But for us, the atmosphere, the new tastes and the hospitality made it as enjoyable an evening as the meal the night before that costs us ten times the price. Thus, it comes down to this: Know what matters to you. Discovering a simple family-owned restaurant on our own that produces a remarkable meal for little money, that’s more of what delights us. Or if we’d taken a cooking course with Ana and had hands-on involvement in the meal – learning from a great chef, combined with eating – that would have been worth the same investment as eating at Hisa Franko – to us. And that’s the key. To us. Know your own longings and pursue them. Hunt down experiences that satisfy you, not what others tell you works for them. In short, choose your splurges carefully to maximize the likelihood that they will reward you well.

Splurge - Rowan ice cream

Rowan ice cream, aged goat cheese, foam of apple and butter, brown butter shortbread

Close, but not quite there

In summary, our evening at Hisa Franko was one we’ll likely remember, but not a defining moment. Yes, it had elements of a defining moment, but not enough of them. It was, in part, an elevated experience. (We don’t dine, for example, on beef tongue, oysters, red bell peppers and roasted salad of purslane and borage every night. Not even every Wednesday night.) There was also some accomplishment in getting there (it’s way out in the Slovenian countryside) but not really a sense of pride. In fact, when we looked around the dining room and realized that Americans (including us) occupied six of the eight tables, even what we’d thought would be a contributing factor to the experience – finding a place far from home that few others get to – even that got knocked down a notch. We did have taste combinations that provided new insights, but not ones that stuck with us beyond the evening. And finally, over the four-hour span of the full meal, we definitely had a great sense of connection, to each other and to the charming, yet very down-to-earth wait staff. (When my wife mentioned, for example, that she didn’t like the parsley on the ice cream, one server scrunched up her nose and amiably concurred).

What prevented it from rising to the level of a magic or defining moment – a splurge worthy of the investment – was the combination of value for the money and investing in the wrong kind of experience for us.

Splurge - Sour milk ice cream

Sour milk ice cream, parsley granite, porcini crumble

The Bottom Line

In reality, splurges will always be a gamble. You never know until you try. But if you want to increase the likelihood of creating defining moments on a trip, don’t assume that spending more money alone will do the trick. Splurge where all the factors are in your favor:

  1. You have some sense of what you’re getting into. The more expensive the splurge, the more careful research you should do up front.
  2. The splurge feels worth the extravagant expense.
  3. You do something that aligns with your values, interests and, since it’s a splurge after all, your deep longings.
  4. You keep your expectations low so you leave room for surprise. Surprise is critical to a splurge. That probably was the biggest missing piece of all for us: There were some intriguing new tastes, but no true revelations. What the evening lacked most was the crucial element of surprise that is key to delight and essential for that even higher-level response, wonder.

Finally, if you haven’t done so already, check out my piece on defining moments noted above. It shows that sometimes the most powerful experiences, the magic moments that stick with you forever, don’t have to be splurges. In fact, often when they align more with what you know delights you, you can substitute ingenuity and personal attention for money and come out with a richer experience. It’s a splurge of an entirely different nature with only upside possibilities.