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3 Steps to Finding the Photography Tour That’s Right for You

Learning from a pro is exciting, but all tours aren’t created equal

spinner image a woman on a photo tour in mongolia shows a young boy and his mother a picture she took of them
A woman on a photo tour in Mongolia shows a boy and his mother a picture she took of them.
Susan Portnoy

Regardless of your level, photography tours are an exciting way to learn from a pro and hone your skills, but they’re much more than capturing the perfect shot. They take you to the most photogenic spots in dream destinations and encourage you to be present and appreciate the visual nuances of your surroundings — all of which enrich your experience. Amateur photographer and nine-time photo tour fan Nancy Brandt, 75, loves photography tours for the opportunity to meet like-minded souls — people whom she says become “friends who stay with you for years afterward.”

The type, size and vibe of photography tours vary widely. You can shoot sherbet-colored villas in Cinque Terre, Italy, capture silverback gorillas in Uganda, or snap Myanmar’s bustling outdoor markets. Some itineraries focus on one style of photography, such as landscapes. Other tours — in Paris, for instance — may encourage a mix of portrait and street photography. Tour operators differ, too. You need to decide whether an individual, photographer network or international tour operator best suits your needs. In short, the most challenging part of a photography tour is figuring out which one to choose. 

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With this in mind, these are the three essential steps to finding the tour that’s right for you.

1. Determine your goals

The distinction between photographic tours and workshops would be clear-cut in a perfect world. A tour would be a fun, casual experience that gets you to the right place at the right time for the best shots possible. Workshops would focus on education, including lectures, assignments and critiques in the itinerary. In reality, tour operators blur the lines with elements of both. Knowing what you want beforehand will make it easier to peel back the layers and steer you in the right direction. Consider the following:

Proactive instruction

“Not all tours are created equal,” warns Andrew Beck, cofounder and director at Wild Eye Destinations and Photographic. “Make sure to find out how much of an educational element there is on the tour versus just traveling with like-minded people.” As an industry, there is no standard. I’ve seen a range of instruction from proactive pointers on lighting, composition and settings to a more hands-off approach, where they only share their expertise when asked.

Leaders on location

Some pros I’ve found leave guests on their own during the day, meeting later to share meals and answer questions. Photographers who favor independence will find this setup appealing. Others stay with the group to answer questions and demonstrate how to capture a scene. Some do a little of both. In many cases, the destination influences the plan. In a city like Paris, it’s easy for guests to wander independently. Whereas in more remote locations, it’s better to stay together. 

How about setups?

Sometimes an itinerary includes a learning exercise called a setup shot with models dressed in traditional garb, lighting and a beautiful backdrop. Everyone takes turns photographing the same lovely image. As a teaching tool, staging can be helpful. But if you prefer candid situations, you may find it limiting.   

One-on-one time

One-on-one critique sessions can be incredibly helpful. They offer personalized attention and candid advice about your work. But not every company offers it. If it’s included, it will be in the itinerary. Otherwise, ask if it’s possible. They may add it.   

Help with post-processing 

Assistance with post-processing (editing) isn’t a given either. If you want help with software such as Adobe Lightroom, inquire if it is included.

Group size

Christelle Enquist, cofounder of The Raw Society, which offers photo tours, workshops, and publishes a namesake magazine, recommends always checking group size. “This is mainly because you’re going to understand how much personal time you’re going to get with the [instructor] photographer.” Large groups — sometimes as many as 20 guests — affect whether you ride in a van or a bus, meal length and other activities influenced by size, cutting into photography time. After taking several tours, I prefer to book the smallest group my budget allows, anywhere from three to eight guests. The con of smaller groups, warns Enquist, is “It’s probably going to be more expensive than the larger group sizes, but it’s a trade-off.”

The importance of culture

Think about what kind of cultural experiences you want, advises Photo Workshop Adventures founder and CEO Michael Chinnici. The differences could be as subtle as dining at touristy restaurants versus local mom-and-pops. If you’re in Iceland, Chinnici asks, do you want to focus on waterfalls and landscapes or would you also enjoy photographing a working ranch and sharing a meal with the owners? There’s no wrong answer. If learning more about a community is of interest, look for greater emphasis on cultural immersion


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Necessary amenities 

Is a homestay OK, or do you prefer five-star accommodations? Is no air-conditioning a deal-breaker? Would you mind sharing a bathroom? Being honest about your must-have amenities will help you avoid a stressful journey.  

Activity level

It’s not unusual to have early mornings and late evenings on a photography tour. Days can be exhausting in a good way. Locations may require a lot of walking, have stairs or demand long travel days. However, you don’t have to move a lot for a grand adventure. Be realistic about your physical limitations. 

2. Do your research 

After determining what you want and don’t want, the next step is research. 

Embrace social media

Facebook photography groups are a wealth of information. Members are generally eager to provide recommendations. Use Instagram to locate photographers whose work evokes that “I wish I took those photos” response, then head to their website to see whether they offer tours.

Look for your idols

Many big-name photographers collaborate with academic organizations like Santa Fe Workshops, Maine Media or the Los Angeles Center of Photography. A review of their websites will reveal which experts they’ve booked and what they’ll focus on. Generally, these organizations choose artists who are also adept teachers. You may not find the photographer you’re looking for, but you may find someone else just as good.

A personal website is the best way to see whether a specific individual offers trips. Look under “workshops” or “events” in the menu.

spinner image a group of photographers taking photos of king penguins during a cruise photo tour in the south atlantic ocean
Photographers take pictures of king penguins during a cruise photo tour to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Susan Portnoy

Some general tour operators such as National Geographic ExpeditionsNatural Habitat Adventures, or Exodus Travels hire “guest photographers” on departures that are particularly photogenic, like Antarctica or an African safari. Depending on the framework of the trip, for example, on a cruise where every passenger has access to the artist, one-on-one conversations are more difficult, says Colby Brown from Colby Brown Photography, who has been a guest photographer with a large travel company. “You still get them, but they are fewer and far between. You don’t get the attention you potentially get with a much smaller tour workshop.” That said, less contact can be a relationship-saving compromise for couples with only one obsessed shutterbug. 

Review an operator’s website

A thorough review will narrow the playing field.

If the itineraries list accommodations, do your own research. You can learn a lot about a tour from where they choose to stay.

Determine what’s not included. Extra costs can add up. Wild Eye’s Beck warns that not every tour operator arranges for weight overages for heavy camera equipment, which can result in costly charges in some countries. The same is true for daily entrance fees for national parks and reserves.

When a big-time photographer has their name on the door, it doesn’t mean they lead every journey they offer. Confirm before booking because sometimes they subcontract other experts.

3. Speak to the photographer 

This step is so important: Speak directly to the photographer. Don’t let a salesperson play middleman. Armed with all your valuable information and insight, discuss your interests, priorities and the following:  

How many times has the pro been to the destination? 

The more a photographer has worked in an area, the better equipped to craft an interesting and exciting itinerary.

Does the photographer have guide training?

Experience as a guide is especially valuable when photographing animals. Anticipating a species’ next move leaves time to set up your shot. A wildlife photographer with guide training can give you a heads-up to what’s coming next.

How old is the business?

As with many businesses linked to hospitality, bad ones don’t last very long.

What is the demographic of their groups? 

The makeup of the group is important. A beginner with a group of advanced photographers may feel intimidated. It’s also good to ask whether guests speak a different language or are substantially older or younger.

After all your hard work, you want to feel the tour is a fit. “If you make a phone call to someone like myself,” says Brown, “and you get off the phone not feeling excited about the trip or feeling worried, that’s a big red flag.” If you do “click,” start packing your gear for what could be the adventure of a lifetime. 

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