Phototours - Should you or shouldn't you

jaguar on the prowl photoPhoto taken on a recent phototour to The Pantanal region in Brazil

While it may seem unusual that I am writing about the pros and cons of phototours despite leading one to Alaska next year, I believe it's an important topic. People opt for phototours for various reasons:

  • Photographing a certain species 
  • Traveling to unique locations 
  • Learning from an expert in the field
  • Opportunity to meet other wildlife photographers
  • Attempting to get award winning photos
  • Experiencing wildlife not in their region
  • Learning more about a region or a species
brown bear imageBrown bear photo taken while on a phototour in Alaska

Consider multiple factors before deciding whether to do a phototour. It's important to understand your motivation for going on a tour. Is it for one of the reasons mentioned above or something else entirely? Clarifying this is the first step. For example if you are wanting to get an award winning photo and take a tour led by a biologist you may not get that winning shot. While the biologist will understand the species and its behaviour they may not understand light, backgrounds and other factors that can make a photo. On my recent phototour to The Pantanal, the tour was arranged by someone else, but I choose to go because I was going with a group of experienced photographers, some who I had traveled with before. Our guide was a biologist and he was incredibly knowledgeable about a variety of species in the area, but getting us in positions for the best light, background etc. was not a focus nor was it for our boat driver. The driver was always trying to get us a close as he could to the species which for some folks is great but for me at times did not give me the angle, background or opportunity to get that great shot. Determining your goals for a phototour is essential in finding the most suitable option.

jaguar photoIn attempting to get us as close as possible to the jaguar the angle caused branches to be visible and in problematic positions to get a good photo of this jaguar

Next is to consider whether you desire photography coaching or mentoring on location. If so, choose a photographer-led tour but its important to have knowledge about the tour's photographer leader. Some photographers are taking their own photos in the field and you are simply in the field with them where you can observe what they are doing but they usually do not provide any direct coaching while shooting. Usually these photographers do have robust conversations after the day and debrief with their clients in the evenings and critique work. Others are rarely behind their cameras and talk about settings, positioning, habitat inclusion while in the field with their clients.  Consider which style is best suited to your goals.

brown bear golden light photoMy tour leader on the trip to Alaska has the almost exact same shot as he was focused on his shots in the field and debriefed in the evenings, one of the cons is you will have photos similar to others which may disadvantage you in photo contests. Judges want unique images and if they see 2 or 3 similar images your photo may have no chance.

Also consider the experience level of the people on the tour with you. A few years ago I went on a phototour with a well known wildlife photographer. The photographers on the tour were supposed to be experienced one of the criteria for the trip but there was one individual who literally showed up with their new Canon R5 still in the box, did not bring any memory cards and had no idea how to use the camera. The tour leader had to spend so much time with the one individual the rest of us on the tour did not get any benefit of their expertise in the field as this one person monopolized all of their time. 

macaws at sunsetHyacinth macaws at sunset taken on a recent phototour to Brazil, I got this photo on my own while out walking one evening so I know it is unique and no one else on the trip has it

Consider your tour goals and how they align with the type of tour you choose. Additionally, understand the pros and cons of phototours to determine if they are suitable for you. I will start with the cons

  • some people may simply annoy you, you likely are not going to get along with everyone on a tour and you will not be vetting other participants, some personalities may not be a good match with yours
  • you do not control where you go and when you go, this can be challenging if you want to stay in one placer longer to get better light or try a different location
  • you are likely going to come back with many similar photos of other people on your tour
  • not everyone is field savvy, folks may walk in and out of your shot, or scare off a species 
  • you will be vying for that great spot to get the shot with other photographers
  • you may be on boats, planes or vehicles for long periods of time and often times it is not comfortable
  • people may be of varying photography abilities and someone may continually ask you for assistance or help when you are trying to photograph

The pros:

  • someone has done all the work of finding where and when to look for the wildlife and you benefit from the knowledge, it is great way to learn where to go in an unfamiliar region and then you can return on your own
  • in some regions and with some species there is safety in being in a larger group then being alone in the field
  • you may meet people that you connect with and develop great friendships
  • you can pick up some great pointers from your tour leader or other participants 
  • guides understand the behaviour of the wildlife and can help anticipate a moment to capture
  • all regulations, permits, park entry fees etc,, travel, accommodations have been managed you can simply just focus on the photography
monkeyThe dominate male capuchin monkey from a troop in Brazil

My advice know your own style, how you like to work in the field, where you are flexible and where you are inflexible,, understand what you hope to accomplish on a tour and decide if a tour is right for you. 

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