From Alaska to Africa, 10 Tips on How to Pick a Great Photography Tour
© Ron Levy, 2020
Whether you’re traveling to Alaska, Africa or down the street, all photo tours have the same basic goals — provide great, safe photo experiences, and give you some great photo field tips. But there are substantial differences between tours, especially what kind of experience you can really expect to have, and what memories and photos you may or may not take away from them.
These tips, summarized here with links below so you can skip ahead if you want, will help you figure out what type of tour fits with your needs and expectations, and how to prioritize what they say (and don’t say) in their marketing materials.
Website (what they say, what they don’t)
Guide Credentials — it’s not just what they know that’s important
Ratios — participants, Time frames, etc.
Price— higher doesn’t mean better value
Itinerary – should be crammed with breathing room
Testimonials – a mixed bag, read carefully
Contact — focus your priorities and get a human
1) Visit the website
Sounds obvious, but many times people are wowed by an ad or perhaps a quick video, or even a recommendation, without doing their due diligence. Take your time, check out the substance as well as the “wow” factor of the site. Be sure that the photos you see show scenes appropriate to the time of year you will be visiting.
Are there any tips or tutorials that can nurture your photography before, during or after the tour? This is a sign of good faith – faith in your interest to learn, and the competence of the instructor. Use these free tips as a measure of how well they convey concrete and abstract information.
How long has the company been in business? Do they give back to the community or, in the case of wildlife or parklands, to conservation agencies that protect the areas you are interested in?
Do they have a purpose beyond photography (e.g. climate change awareness, Save the Whales, etc)? Not required for a great tour, but it may add credibility, relevance and value to you.
2) Guide Credentials
Every guide takes great photos. Whether they are published in National “Your favorite magazine” or not is less important on a tour. Frankly, they just have to know more about the area or photography than you do. That being said, you still want to match the guide’s style or subject matter with your own interests.
Booking a wildlife tour with a famous scenic photographer or photoshop guru may not be the best use of your time and money. Credentials are most important in terms of 2 non-photo-related qualities – organization and personal interaction.
You want a guide (and tour) that is organized well, has structure and free time built-in to give enough shoot-time at the locations, knows the photo subjects (animals, people, culture, scenery, etc.), and can anticipate serendipitous light or animals.
Perhaps most importantly, you want a guide who knows how to teach and engage participants, how to communicate clearly with different personalities (especially shy, foreign, arrogant, or those with sensory/expressive issues.
When you think about it, these are the same qualities that make you remember your favorite school teacher, or another respected influence in your life. You will know this as soon as you contact the person or company. You’ll feel it in your gut.
And above all, you will take away much more than just photos from your trip. You will be inspired and perhaps affected in a way that might focus your direction in life a little more clearly.
3) Local vs National Guides
Although related to guide credentials, local or national guides might be experienced or nicely credentialed. This a judgment call on your part, as you may prefer to have a national name as a tour guide, even if they only come to the tour area a few times a year. Ask the company who your guide will actually be, rather than assuming it will be the one you read about or perhaps an assistant much of the time.
But in my experience, nothing beats a locally-based guide who lives in the area and has lived there for many years. You will naturally get more insights about the area and how to photograph it best, sometimes in passing comments or at times when you least expect it. Local guides may know about unpublished hot spots, latest wildlife sightings, or other personal secret places or times that out-of-state guides may not. These things just naturally come to those who have lived through the weather, wildlife and conditions year-round for perhaps decades.
They may also know the right people to contact if there are issues, and redirect the group to better locations or wildlife if/when Murphy’s law surfaces. After all, who knows your backyard better than you?
The cheaper tours, or shorter time-frame tours (e.g. 1-3 days) often have more photographers per guide. You’re only there for a short time, or you’ve justified the savings in money in a budget tour by realizing you won’t get as much personalized attention. You should ask yourself if you’re mostly a hands-on or hands-off participant.
Do you want a guide mostly for general logistics, specific photo knowledge (including best light or times for animal behavior), or specific local geographic or cultural knowledge?
Especially if you’re visiting bucket-list locations in world-class destinations that you may not return, you want a guide who will 1) know where and when the best light and times will be for shooting, and 2) spend more individual, personal time with you on your photo shoots.
The cost of tour with fewer participants per guide will be well worth it. More 1:1 time with the guide, less time wasted waiting for others to load their luggage or run back to grab what they forgot from the hotel room. Also, less chance of delays from injuries, slow walkers, discrepancies between skill levels in larger groups, people monopolizing questions, personality squabbles, etc.
All that leads to more time shooting at the location, staying longer, and capitalizing on any good luck. Try to find tours with guide:participant ratios at 1:6 or less.
Generally, higher prices reflect higher costs in primo, world-class destinations, even though those destinations might be remote camps in Africa or Alaska. But not always. A big national company has more overhead than smaller local tour companies. Similarly, a famous national tour guide or photographer might demand more pay. Your actual personal experience and value on these higher priced trips may not correlate directly to these higher costs.
They also may also provide more luxurious accommodations, food or travel luxuries. Ask yourself if you really want your money to go into luxury, or would you prefer other benefits that might result directly in better photos from the tour.
Compare all-inclusive tours that include food, accommodations, park entrance fees or transportation when you’re not shooting (e.g. to/from airport or other attractions). These are sometimes only found in their Terms & Conditions, and, if not included in the main fee, may involve unexpected charges.
Another thing to be wary about especially with cheaper tours – will there be an upsell involved? Are they trying to get you to buy equipment or more expensive add-ons to make up for lower prices, rather than give you better visitor experiences, more productive face time with animals, more personal 1:1 time, better skills, etc.?
Remember that your most precious commodity on a tour is time. Comparing tours of the same time length, try to see which tours actually give you more face time and field time with the animals or scenery in the locations you want.
Look at the tour itinerary for two important clues:
1) Field time — your most valuable commodity! Does it include enough time (half-days vs several days) in primo locations to catch a variety of lighting/weather conditions, or give you maximum face time with animals for more behaviors? You want, more than anything, enough time to witness, enjoy and shoot an extended moment of glorious light or animal interaction. The extra day or two or three on some tours is what makes all the difference between boring (or no!) photos vs some of the most thrilling and memorable experiences and images in your life.
2) Murphy — Does it give room in the schedule, as well as alternate plans, in case of weather and other unexpected delays? Is there time for discussion, downloading and backup of memory cards, etc.? A tight itinerary may look good as far as your ability to get away only for a short while, but is probably not realistic. See if breathing room is incorporated into the itinerary, or otherwise indicated in the website or verbally by the guide. You don’t want to be running from 6AM till midnight, even in the northern locations where it’s light all night. You need breaks for rejuvenation and food!
A mixed bag. It’s great to read testimonials about the tour or tour guide. But usually most companies won’t put bad testimonials on their pages. Sites like Trip Advisor and Expedia may list them, but they are not often places that book photo tours. And you have to read between the lines and see if the person posting may have contributed to a bad situation, or has some “excess baggage” that may discredit what they say.
If a tour is new, they may not have a lot of testimonials, yet they may be led by great guides who have lived/photographed there all their life. They may offer great experiences in the same fantastic places that the established tours go, for hundreds or thousands of dollars less than the glitzy tours by famous leaders.
Put more weight into substance rather than overly slick websites or big names.
8) “Photo Tour” vs “Workshop” vs “Tour for Photographers”
There’s a little bit of gray area here, so let’s clarify. Is the tour is geared to photographers, or simply a tour that allows photographers to join?
In general, a “workshop” generally includes more theory and technical instruction in a structured classroom setting than the other two. In fact, though they may be for beginners through advanced photographers, workshops may include little to no field time, depending on the subject (e.g. print making). That doesn’t mean they’re not fun, but participants generally expect more of a formal learning environment with workshops. If you’re considering a workshop-type experience, also make sure that your learning style (visual handouts vs videos vs hands-on, individual vs group-oriented) fits the teaching style of the instructor. Ask how materials will be structured, or what the general style of the instructor is.
“Photo Tours” generally encompass tours really geared to spending as much time in the field shooting in the great locations, or amidst photogenic animals or people. Relating to the earlier post about price, the more expensive photo tours will naturally appeal to photographers willing to pay more to photo skills in the field, with more time for shooting and to catch great light. Photo Tours may include huge bonuses like helicopter or aerial segments, or less “cliche” locations that can provide gorgeous images. There will still be varying skill levels in these tours, but it behooves you just make sure the tour has an itinerary and emphasis on those factors that appeal to you as a photographer.
A “Tour for Photographers”, as we refer to it loosely here, is more for the general traveler who wants to go to great locations and have logistics taken care of, and just wants to improve his/her photo skills. It will be less “hands-on”, without an intense focus on photography. They may include more upscale accommodations, and, most likely, less time in the hot spot(s) waiting for better light or animals.
These tours usually charge less than the other two, and often have higher guide:participant ratios. An example of this type of tour would be whale watching in Hawaii, which often pack 50-100 on cheaper boats (vs smaller rafts charging 3-10X+ more for fewer people but spend more time in the water.
9) Terms and Conditions
Though necessary in every legal or liable business situation, terms can differ wildly between photo tour companies and photographers. The vast majority are well-drafted and fair to both parties. Here are the clauses to pay particular attention to:
1) Cancellation periods and refunds. Do you have time after you pay your deposit to think about it and request a refund within a period of time? Obviously this would depend on how close to the tour date you reserve your space, but there are many tours that simply state “No Refunds”, regardless of when you book. And there should be a clause that gives you a refund for specific fees (e.g. aircraft) or other services that weren’t used or had to be cancelled due to weather, etc. Above all, the terms should seem fair to you, and if they don’t, you can always run it by an attorney or legal friend for clarification.
2) Review period: Related to the previous clause: Do you have time after you pay a deposit to review the confirmation and terms you get back on your receipt? It just seems fair to give some period of time to make sure everything is as you expect. Although hard to believe, many tours do not give any review period or any refunds once you pay your deposit!
3) Do the terms clarify the actual activities on the tour (and those not included), as well as whether your payment covers all meals, tips, extra expenses, etc.? The terms should match anything and everything you’ve read in their website and advertisements.
4) Do they have guidelines for behavior that they expect on the tour, and tips for interacting with either animals, people, cultures, etc., depending on the tour you’re taking? This will give you time to review, and get comfortable with, expected behavior, especially if you’re going to remote areas or international destinations.
5) Do they list physical or emotional requirements for the tour? You don’t want to lose your deposit or have to cancel because they didn’t tell you about strenuous activities or long periods of time on your own until you were boarding the boat or plane.
6) These are rough guidelines, but important to think about. If the terms look too “legal” or confusing or contradictory, then you’re ready for our last recommendation:
10) Contact them!
Think of what matters to you most, write down your priorities, and call or use their contact form or email. Don’t be unclear about anything. When you call or write, do you get a real person, or if possible, the actual guide? How well do they answer your question or take the time to see where you’re at in your skill level or desire to learn? Do they try to sell you or wow you more, or just stick to more relevant, helpful answers?
They should be more than happy to address any details, and give you an idea how comfortable they would be as a guide on the tour, where you’ll be navigating new situations and unfamiliar territory.
I hope these tips are useful and get you to think about what you really want in a photo tour. Clarify for yourself what you expect, and look carefully for the clues and insights mentioned above. You have a lot more control than you may think before and during a tour in terms of how much bang you can get for your time and money.
Photos & text © Ron Levy, 2020
Ron Levy started leading tours back in 1980 when he was stationed as a Park Ranger on San Miguel Island off the coast of California. He has guided hundreds of travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years. His images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and provides assistance to agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide.