Is a photo tour right for you?

By Donna Pyle
This article appears on page 20 of the November 2019 issue.

An image from our Patagonian photo tour — Torres del Paine National Park.

Throughout our 50 years of marriage, my husband, R.C., and I have enjoyed photographing the many places we’ve visited, adding to the joy of travel itself.

We would condense all our photos from each overseas trip into a “show” we could share with friends. In the days of slides, our rule was to make a trip fit into one tray (140 photos). Moving into the digital era, we’ve used software that has allowed us to share not only photos with clear labels but music from the countries visited.

About five years ago, we started getting more interested in the quality of our photos, joining local camera clubs, reading magazines, getting Photoshop instruction and attending photo workshops. As our emphasis on quality grew, we decided that standard tours no longer fit our needs, so we started choosing tours that were specifically oriented to photography.

Past destinations

Our first such tour was to Iceland in July 2014, and we found this trip through a feature article in ITN by Gordon Kilgore (Oct. ’13, pg. 34). The company we traveled with, Windows of Nature, no longer sells tours, but our Icelandic guide, Haukur Snorrason, was outstanding, and he can arrange similar tours (Iceland Photo Tours/Look North Travel, Reykjavík, Iceland; phone +354 863 5540, www.phototours.is).

We discovered our second photo tour, taken in February 2017, on the “Tours” page in ITN (Oct. ’16, pg. 50). I had long wanted to visit Argentinean Patagonia without having to visit a bunch of more-northern cities. Finding a strictly Patagonian tour with photography as its focus was like a dream come true. The trip was with Travel Vision Journeys (Arlington, MA; 800/866-7314, travelvisionjourneys.com), whose photographic leader, Ossian Lindholm, is a native of Argentina. It crossed over into Chilean Patagonia as well, which was ideal.

Inside Japan’s Ribbon Chapel.

Our next overseas adventure started out as one of my husband’s “bucket list” items: sailing through the Panama Canal. A travel agent recommended UnCruise Adventures (Seattle, WA; 888/862-8881, www.uncruise.com), and when we discovered they offered various themes for their trips, we chose a sailing with a photography theme.

While this wasn’t strictly a photographers’ tour, there was a professional on board who led separate excursions and hikes for those interested, sharing tips for better photos. This trip took us to Panama and Costa Rica in April 2018.

Next came Japan at the height of cherry blossom season (March-April 2019) — another dream come true. Quite by luck, I stumbled onto this itinerary with Discovery Photo Tours (Norwalk, CT; www.discoveryphototours.com) online and found space still available. Leader/cofounder Ken Kaminesky had the trip packed with iconic photo locations.

Our latest trip, in July 2019, was a return to the Galápagos Islands with Galapagos Travel (Aptos, CA; 800/969-9014, galapagostravel.online). We had traveled with this company in 2007 after extensive research and input from fellow ITN readers as to the best tour company available for our chosen destination.

After that trip, we learned that Galapagos Travel offers one trip per year with world-renowned photographer Tui De Roy, who grew up in the Galápagos. (Note: There are three trips with Tui scheduled in 2020.) This trip has typically required signing up close to a year in advance, so it took us a number of years to get it into our program.

Is a photo tour for you?

Torii-lined walkway at the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

So what makes photographic tours unique?

Most important is a focus on timing. Truly great photos take advantage of great light, and this happens at dawn and dusk. Plan on some level of sleep deprivation!

In the Galápagos, both the photographers and our boat’s crew had to start their days two hours earlier than those on a standard tour.

In Japan, we were up before 5 a.m. seven out of 12 days, and there were several mornings we were told to pick up something for breakfast at the 7-Eleven the night before because there would be no other opportunity.

In Iceland, dusk and dawn were so close together that we were out past midnight shooting those special scenes.

Another positive of choosing a photo-specific tour is that your leaders will be experts in the area of emphasis. They will know where to find the most iconic scenes or the animals you are seeking.

You can also expect small groups. Except for our Panama cruise, in which the photographers were a subgroup, and the Galápagos trip, which included 11 people, the average group size of our photo trips was seven or eight people. It’s difficult to get larger numbers of people crowded into the prime spots for special photo ops.

Of course, these trips will probably be more expensive than other tours to the same areas. Group size and leadership expertise play into this, but a photo group also may have to pay for special privileges/access. The Galápagos trip with Tui cost an additional $300 per person ($7,900 for 11 days or $9,800 for 15) compared to the same itinerary without her leadership. Our Japan trip cost about $8,000 each.

In Japan, we had a private hour with a geisha, and in Patagonia, we had a guide who specialized in tracking pumas.

In the Galápagos, larger tips were suggested for the crew, since they had to put in longer-than-normal hours to accommodate our group.

Memorable moments

A puffin poses amongst flowers along the coast of Iceland.

Although Iceland has waterfalls at every turn, the highlight of our tour there had to be the puffins. They nested in the greatest numbers on a cliff on the far-northwestern coast, and we spent two entire evenings photographing them. Unless you moved too quickly, they would be literally at your feet.

In Argentina, we shot the amazing Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the few in the world that’s still advancing. It’s so large, it can be approached in one area by boat and in another by a walkway that has an elevator between its highest and lowest points.

Chilean Patagonia is famous for its Torres del Paine National Park. Once the provenance of backpackers and climbers, it now has a few comfortable hotels as well as EcoCamp Patagonia, where we stayed in tent-suites that had permanent wood foundations and en suite bath/showers. The mountain formations there are icons known worldwide, and finding and photographing pumas was a treat.

Our dream for Japan was capturing the cherry blossoms, of course, and they cooperated throughout the trip. But there were many more special sights, including a torii gate standing in a harbor; the Ribbon Chapel, built for weddings, to which we got special access for photos; a tea ceremony; a visit to a zen retreat; a Shinto shrine with repetitive torii gates along its extensive walkways, and our time with the geisha.

And then there’s the Galápagos! A “safari” of birds and sea creatures and tortoises and reptiles — there’s no comparison anywhere in the world.

To be considered

So are there downsides to taking photo tours?

Probably the biggest difficulty is trying to get an insight, in advance, into the leader’s approach and attitude toward the tour. References may be hard to come by, except from people who’ve become friends with the leader. And leaders can vary a lot in their instruction techniques, whether they teach by word or by example or if they feel their responsibility ends with delivering you to a prime location.

The participants also range all over the experience spectrum, from professional photographers who are taking the trip to get their own special shots to less-experienced types who are trying to learn and travelers with just iPhones or beginners’ cameras who are enjoying anything they can get from the scene.

If you are looking for tips to improve your photography, try to make sure you’ll be with a leader who will be responsive.

Another thing to be aware of when booking a photography tour is that many of the companies offering these trips are operated by professional photographers with very minimal support staffs. So if you are considering trip insurance, make sure it deals with the situation of a company going out of business or even the illness of the leader.

While these are not show-stopper risks, they are things to be aware of.

We couldn’t be happier with the range of experiences we’ve had on past photo trips, the wonderful places we’ve seen and the improvements to our photographic skills that we’ve made.