7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Choosing a Travel Photography Tour

Large man photographing buffalo from a jeep

Going on a travel photographer tour can be a spectacular adventure: You’re exploring a bucket list destination, making new friends who have a shared interest, and improving your skills as a photographer with the help of a talented professional.

But with the myriad of organizations offering excursions of all kinds, it can be a challenge to find the right tour to fit your needs. To make sure you get the most of your journey, keep these seven questions in mind when weighing your options.

Do I want a photo tour or a workshop?

Both offer photographic instruction, but a workshop usually has a formal structure that includes assignments, critiques, post-processing techniques, and the instructor often pushes you to think differently about your photography, whereas a tour is typically a cultural adventure through the lens of photography. (Check out my post about whether a photo tour or workshop is right for you. )

The photographic leader is on hand to answer questions, inspire, offer suggestions but it’s a looser structure. If you want somewhere in-between they are available, you’ll just need to do a little research. For example, the team at Wild Eye — who run photographic safaris throughout Africa—are great at giving guests as much or as little instruction as desired, from capturing wildlife, all the way through to post-processing. (Full disclosure: my first safari with Wild Eye was comped, I have paid for three other safaris since.)

Am I inspired?

The photos of the trip’s host photographer should inspire and motivate you. Make sure to look at the photo-tour company’s online photo gallery from previous trips to your destination.

If the work of the photographer leading your trip isn’t included, ask the company to direct you to galleries you can check. Visit the photographer’s personal website and Facebook page. You want to get a feel for their skill level and sensibility. Photography is very subjective. Does their work speak to you? Do you find it compelling? Don’t pay to learn from an expert unless their images make your jaw drop.

Photographers on a Santa Fe Photographic Workshops' tour of Cuba
Guests of a Santa Fé Photographic Workshops tour in Havana, Cuba. With lead photographer, Jennifer Spelman on the far left.

How many people are on the tour?

Pick a tour with the smallest number of guests for your budget. In big groups it can be difficult to cultivate the camaraderie that makes trips of this nature so much fun. “The more the merrier” is also not conducive to capturing a location, it makes it difficult to take a decent photograph when you’re jockeying for a good position. It’s distracting to subjects, your choice of angles could be reduced, locals may be intimidated by a large pack of camera-toting travelers, and it may limit your opportunities for valuable one-on-one time with the lead photographer.

Is the itinerary crafted to make the most of my photography?

Unfortunately, some of the larger travel companies market their standard tours to photo enthusiasts by inserting “photography” in the title and adding a big name photographer to the mix — without modifying the itinerary.

What should you expect? Worthwhile organizations craft their itineraries with the following in mind: the photogenic qualities of the locations, the time of day you’ll be shooting in relation to those destinations, and the customs and habits of the locals.

For example, any professional photographer will tell you that lighting can make or break an image. If you shoot a temple bathed in the glow of the rising sun, you’re more likely to take an image that will make you proud. If you don’t leave the hotel until 10 a.m., the light will be harsh.

I’ve had the best luck with boutique companies that are owned and led by the lead photographer because they design their trips according to what they would need.

Has the photographer leading the trip been to my destination before?

One of the many great things about photography tours is that you don’t have to worry about wasting time scouting locations.

Ideally, your leader has been there before and knows what looks best at certain times of the day. They know where the hidden gems are in addition to the tourist hot spots. They know the area it like you know you’re own neighborhood, meaning you’re bound to have more successful pics than not.

I won’t go as far as to say that joining a photographer who hasn’t been to your destination is a guaranteed bust, but I prefer that they’ve spent time in the destination.

Students learning to use a reflector on a Photo tour in Myanmar
Lead photographer David Samuel Robbins instructs a guest on how to bounce light with a reflector into an ancient temple to capture a photograph ~Myanmar

Will the Lead Photographer Teach Me?

If you want instruction, make sure the photographer on your tour is keen on teaching. Surprisingly, this is not a given. Some companies will hire big-name photographers to lead a trip, but that doesn’t mean they like to teach or, more important, are any good at it.

Discuss with the tour’s representative what you’re hoping to get out of the experience and ask if the photographer on board is the right person to help you meet your goals. 

I often choose trips where the owner is also the lead photographer. That way I can speak to them directly to make sure I’ll get what I need and I can get a sense of their personality and whether we’ll be a good fit.

Is the Schedule Flexible?

Imagine visiting an exotic village in Southeast Asia. The lighting is ideal, the locals are friendly, and everywhere you look you see a photo waiting to be taken. If your tour is inflexible with its schedule, you may lose this special moment in lieu of a lunch reservation. Some tours are stricter than others; it’s worth learning about their approach before you jump on a plane.

Elephants drinking water in the Mara River_SPortnoy
Elephants drink water from the Mara River, opposite a Wild Eye Photographic Safari camp.

The Moral of This Story

Ask a lot of questions. What you’ll learn could save you a lot of money, time and effort. You are the client and you have a right to know what you’re getting into. The best companies will welcome your inquiries and do all they can to give you answers and peace of mind.

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68 thoughts on “7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Choosing a Travel Photography Tour

  1. Tim and Joanne Joseph says:

    Excellent suggestions! One of the biggest challenges for me is trying to find photo tours that don’t break my travel budget. I realize that you get what you pay for, but any suggestions on destinations or companies that might have more budget friendly options available would be very much appreciated.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Tim –
      I agree, combining good travel and the benefit of having an expert lead the way does add to the cost. Without knowing what your budget is, I thought it might be best to offer some suggestions that might bring the costs down. 1. Stay closer to home, don’t look at options that are out of the country you’re in. 2. Shorter trips will cost less. (I know that’s obvious but had to say it.) 3. Going through schools like the International Center of Photography in New York (you don’t have to live here to go on one of their trips) tend to be less expensive and also without any of the luxury touches many of the more expensive trips have. The Giving Lens, is a wonderful organization that is a combination of tour, voluntourism, and learning with really good photographers for a lot less money and you’re giving back. Also, are you in the States or do you live elsewhere?

  2. rollingmarble says:

    I always preferred someone else to take pictures while I was on holidays because I found it distracting, but this seems like a great way to enjoy both travelling and photography

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      If you enjoy photography, it’s a great way to see a new place, improve your skills and hang out with other enthusiasts. I’ve always gotten great things out of my trips. They all weren’t perfect, but no trip is.

  3. theharlequinsmask says:

    Great article!
    I’d have added something about age perhaps – an older group might not be to the pace of a younger person, and vice versa, but hey, that’s an observation, NOT a criticism.

  4. hmunro says:

    Superb post! You make several excellent and helpful points, Susan β€” especially about photo tours that completely ignore the “golden hour” on both ends of the day.

  5. globalphreak says:

    Very interesting. I’m not much of a photographer but you have some great tips. Also, I’ve never considered the possibility of traveling for a photo tour. Now, maybe, someday, I will.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      My hope for this blog is to inspire people to consider new ways to travel and explore the world. If this piece helped to open your mind to consider a photo tour, I couldn’t ask for more. Thank you!

      • globalphreak says:

        I’d be interested for sure. I’d just have to wait a while, I don’t think traveling on a photo tour would be wise at this point in my life. But yeah, I could see myself doing that.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I’ve gone on quite a few.

      In regards to your question. Sure, sometimes you have very similar pictures, especially if the lead photographer is setting up a shot for educational purposes. That being said, I’ve also found that people tend to shoot differently and while the images may be very close, all the little details that need to come together to make a great shot rarely do so for multiple people at once. I do try, whenever possible to find ways to explore on my own at some point, or approach the situation from a different perspective in order to have photos that are unique to me.

  6. juanitapriest says:

    This is great. Thank you! I remember needing these questions answered way before the internet came into our homes and I traveled alone with a backpack, youth hostel card, and my Cannon vintage camera. Sometimes I would tag along with a more professional travel writer and help carry gear just to learn the ropes.

      • TourTakers Dream Vacations says:

        To create a group trip through my travel agency. Make sense? Like a photo trip to Italy. We’d work with the group and coordinate the whole thing including discounts for the group leader.

      • TourTakers Dream Vacations says:

        Sorry. I was just wondering where you can connect with groups of photographers who would want to put together a travel group of photographers and we arrange the trip for the group. The group leader gets an insensitive to coordinate the group. Groups can be from 6 to 16 depending upon the destination and whether land or cruise. Have you ever lead a group of photographers on a trip? Make sense?

      • Susan Portnoy says:

        Honestly, I think you need to follow photographers on line, those that post about destinations you’re considering and reach out if you feel their sensibility matches yours. There isn’t a photography photo-tour group that I am aware of. I also think 16 is way too many people unless you plan to have two great photogs on the tour. I have not led a tour to date. πŸ™‚

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