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By Elizabeth Gray

If you’re like me, you’ve planned a trip, had visions of coming home with an SD card full of National Geographic images, but ended up with a hard drive full of vacation snapshots. What can you do to better prepare for a trip when you really want to spend some quality time behind your camera? Consider taking a photography tour. You will find yourself among a group of like-minded people, all of whom are excited about spending several days dedicating time to photography. A tour can be a wonderful learning environment. And if you take the time to do some research and planning, you will end up at the right spot, at the right time, and you will come home with some exceptional photographs.

Galapagos Sunset
NIKON D800 + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm, ISO 400, 1/320, f/10.0

1) Choosing a Photography Tour

Of all the things to consider when choosing a photography tour, the first is location. Not all tours have to be to exotic, distant locations. A tour near your hometown can give you well deserved time to immerse yourself in photography. All too often the best-laid plans to spend a day shooting get interrupted by work, errands or other disruptions. On a photo tour, your time is focused (mind the pun), on photography.

Bachman's Sparrow
NIKON D7000 + 200-400mm f/4 @ 550mm, ISO 800, 1/350, f/6.7
This shot was taken only a few miles from where I was living in Houston while on a birding photography tour. Bachman’s Sparrows are very elusive. Without an experienced photography guide, I never would have found this extremely secretive sparrow which likes to hide in the underbrush.

Cost is a big factor in tour choice. Tours to the same location can vary greatly in price, which makes comparison hard. When you start searching, look closely at the tour descriptions. For most tours you will be responsible for getting yourself from your home to the tour location. However, the costs of accommodation, meals, entrance fees and transportation during the tour may or may not be included.

Another consideration is group size or student/leader ratio. One of the big advantages of a tour, compared to a self-organized trip, is that you get photography instruction. Make sure that the group size is not so big that it becomes hard to ask questions and get help from the guide(s).

No Room on Deck
Canon PowerShot S95 + 6-22.5mm @ 6mm, ISO 320, 1/1600, f/8.0 © Paul Gray
Too many photographers on a very small boat!

I classify photo tours into three categories:

  1. Workshops
  2. Educational photo ops
  3. Photo only tours

Workshops combine shooting time with dedicated classroom teaching time. You can expect some combination of lectures, instruction on post-processing techniques and supportive critiques of your images. Of course, workshops also give you plenty of opportunity to ask questions when you are out in the field.

Hasting Street Reflection
NIKON D7000 + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm, ISO 400, 1/320, f/10.0
This shot was taken during an architectural photography workshop I participated in. We alternated shooting time with classroom lectures.

Educational photo ops do not offer separate instruction time. However, the leader is readily available in the field to answer questions about composition and camera techniques. Some may offer critiques as well.

Yellow, Red and Green
NIKON D800 + 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 340mm, ISO 200, 8/10, f/20.0
With seven of us on this fall foliage tour in New Hampshire, there was plenty of opportunity to ask questions while we were shooting.

The last type, photo only tours, simply get you to the right place at the right time. This type of tour is to be avoided! If you are paying top dollar for a photo tour, you should not be bankrolling the leader’s trip so he/she can pad their portfolio. Make sure you ask if the guide will be taking pictures too. It is one thing for them to bring a camera to show you how to compose, or how to set up. It is another for the leader to be so busy taking his/her own images that they don’t have time to answer your questions. Two years ago I was fortunate enough to take a photo tour to the Galapagos Islands. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. However, one of the instructors seemed more interested in taking her own images than helping the paying clients. There were several instances where she asked me (or others) to move because we were in her frame! Luckily the other guide was extremely knowledgeable, and freely shared his knowledge with anyone who had questions.

Fisgard Lighthouse
NIKON D7000 + 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 15mm, ISO 200, 1/200, f/10.0
Our photography guide got us to the Fisgard Lighthouse in Victoria just as the sun was rising.

If you are a beginner or intermediate photographer, a workshop tour is a wonderful learning experience. If you are more advanced, you may find that it is not worth paying extra for classroom instruction. An educational photo op tour may be best for you. Regardless of your ability, a tour that includes group critiques is invaluable. Having an opportunity to see other photographers’ images can inspire all kinds of creative ideas. Getting your images critiqued by a professional helps you understand your photos’ strengths and weaknesses. This can elevate your photography to the next level.

Dance of the Egret
NIKON D7100 + 200-400mm f/4 @ 550mm, ISO 800, 1/2500, f/6.3

When researching tours, look for detailed itineraries, with some built in flexibility. Be wary of tours that shoot from dawn to dusk. They can be exhausting after a couple of days. Make sure that you pick one that has some down time, usually during mid-day when the light is not at its best. Use some of that down time to process some of your images. This will give you the opportunity to ask questions about composition and technique before it is too late and the tour is over.

Lastly, conduct some research on the professional leading the tour. How long have they been doing this tour or been in business? Do they have their own website? If so, check out their portfolio. Have they posted photographs from past tours? Are these the types of images that inspire you? If they are, then that leader may be a good fit for you. If not, check out some other tours. And of course, read reviews from past clients.

Spoonbill Takeoff
NIKON D7100 + 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 400mm, ISO 400, 1/2000, f/7.1

2) Gear

So you’ve selected your tour and paid your down payment. Now it’s time to figure out what gear you are going to take. Choosing the right gear is a balancing act. You want to make sure that you have enough equipment to get the shots you envision, but not too much that carrying it breaks your back. You may also be limited by airline baggage restrictions. Most airlines allow you to carry on one bag and one small personal item. Personally, I never check my camera gear, the only exception being my tripod and head. So that means my camera, lenses, hard drives, and all the bits and pieces that accompany them, must go in a camera bag small enough to fit in the overhead bin.

Choose lenses based on the type of shots you plan to take. Don’t try and take it all! When I pack for a wildlife trip I bring very different lenses than if I am packing for a landscape or street photography tour. If you will be doing a lot of hiking, you will want to travel lighter. For trips where I know the tour involves short walks, and we won’t be far from a vehicle, I may carry a larger selection of lenses. Will you have the opportunity for close-up shots? Instead of a dedicated macro lens, consider extension tubes or a close-up filter. If weight and space are at a premium, use a versatile all-purpose zoom, such as a 24-120mm or 18-300mm, instead of several lenses that cover the same range. Regardless of which lenses you take, challenge yourself with the gear you have and do not lament the gear you left at home!

Camera Bag New Hampshire
Camera and lenses taken on a recent trip to New Hampshire to shoot fall foliage.

As for cameras, I recommend taking two bodies. There is nothing worse than investing in a photo tour, only to find that your camera has malfunctioned. Even a point-and-shoot can act as second body. And, they have the added advantage of being small enough to keep in your pocket for casual shots, like in a restaurant or on the plane when you don’t want to pull out your full size DSLR. Another option is to rent a second body to take with you. A rental body is a wise investment for those once in a lifetime bucket list trips.

Besides a camera and lenses, don’t forget memory cards, your computer and an external drive(s) for backups. And if your computer does not have SD or CF drives, you will need a card reader as well. Other necessities include:

  • Batteries and charger.
  • Protective filters, circular polarizers.
  • Rain sleeves – the inexpensive plastic ones from Op/Tech work great.
  • Camera strap – I prefer a sling type strap to a neck strap.
  • Lightweight travel tripod, monopod or beanbag if you will be doing any low light shooting or long exposures.
  • Cell phone with PDF copies of all your instruction manuals.
  • Flashlight or headlamp for night shots.
  • Lens blower, lens cloth, lens pens and a microfiber cloth for cleaning your gear.

The best investment I ever made was in a $10 pair of kneepads from the hardware store. They are invaluable if you like to get down low to shoot from interesting perspectives. They are always in my camera bag!

Miscellaneous Gear
All but the tripod and head go in my camera bag.

A flash is another piece of gear that you may want to consider packing. However, today’s cameras have very good high ISO capabilities. I prefer to use natural light and bump up my ISO instead of packing a flash. This leaves me more room for another lens!

Will you have the opportunity to do any underwater shooting? Instead of investing thousands of dollars on a professional housing, use an underwater rated point-and-shoot camera or a GoPro. On our trip to the Galapagos, my husband borrowed a GoPro and I used an EWA marine bag for my DSLR. The EWA bag cost around the same as an underwater point-and-shoot, but much less than a professional housing. It worked very well and let me capture RAW files using my Nikon D7000 and Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 lens.

EWA Marine Bag
EWA Marine Bag with Nikon D7000 and Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6
Fish Crossing
NIKON D7000 + 10-20mm f/4-5.6 @ 18mm, ISO 400, 1/200, f/5.6, Housed in EWA Marine Bag
Sea Turtles
NIKON D7000 + 10-20mm f/4-5.6 @ 14mm, ISO 400, 1/80, f/6.3, Housed in EWA Marine Bag

In addition, check with your tour leader. They have had the advantage of visiting your tour location several times (at least you hope they have). Your guide will have a very good feel for what equipment you will need, and what you need to leave behind. They will gladly provide you with a suggested gear list before you go.

3) Conclusion

Taking time to research your tour options, and discerningly choosing the gear you want to take with you are the first steps to a successful photo tour. In Part II of this article, I will discuss things that can be done pre-tour and during your tour, that will improve your odds of coming home with more than just snapshots.

Panga Ride
NIKON D800 + 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 80mm, ISO 1600, 1/160, f/5.6You are excited about your upcoming photo tour and have narrowed down the equipment you want to take with you. But what should you do next? How can you load the odds in your favor so that you come home with winning images? On the previous page, I talked about how to choose and pack for your photography tour. In this section, I would like to suggest some ideas for pre-tour preparation and on-tour tips. These suggestions will help you come home with photos worthy of a place on your wall.

About Elizabeth Gray

Elizabeth grew up in Vancouver, on the beautiful West Coast of Canada. In 2012 she relocated to Houston Texas for two years and then moved to Gautier, Mississippi in July of 2014. She loves the gulf coast and all the photographic opportunities it offers. Elizabeth’s areas of interest are widespread and include street, wildlife, nature, architecture, macro and long exposures. She is particularly passionate about black and white images. You can see more of her work on her website at or on Instagram at photosbyelizabethgray

Nothing better than getting up in the morning with the joy of thinking that the end of the day will be toasted with another play, Cheers to the Theater (on this day that is his I have to celebrate it)!

Thus, we have a good excuse to go early to Braga and enjoy the day in this small and beautiful city.

Braga is, beyond a city full of history, the city of creativity, despite its interiority, it feels the bubbling.

We start the tour in the Sé (catedral) that still exists before Portugal is a country and that is the most emblematic building.

Located in the historical center, as we know it was projected at the end of the 12th century by Bishop D. Pedro. It is thought to have been built where there once existed a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Isis (goddess of motherhood and fertility, protector of nature and magic – this building is even magical). It offers a range of styles, from the Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles.

Inside are the tombs of the most important “fathers” of Portugal, those of D. Afonso Henriques, our first King. Let us appreciate.

Whenever I go to Braga I like to walk the old streets, to enjoy the details calmly, but also the people with all their sympathy and generosity.

One of the buildings I like most is the Palácio do Raio, sublime!

It has everything that in my imagination a palace must have, so full of details, with all the magnificent tiles (that so much taste and that so well represent Portugal), sumptuous and so different. It’s really special.

I can not fail to make reference to the architect to whom we owe his existence to our delight, André Soares.

André Soares and Carlos Amarante are two of the most important architects for the city of Braga. Already someone said that architecture is the greatest art.

Continuing our tour we have to pass in the so-called New Door Arch that never had a door, but which is worth appreciating, especially the top sculptures. This bow will connect to a square with a very beautiful fountain where a fish market was once held. It is always interesting to imagine ourselves in other times.

There is still a curiosity that has to do with the authorship of this arch, there are doubts about if it was  André Soares or Carlos Amarante who built.

It’s lunchtime and hunger tightens. We still have a long afternoon, but it sure will be worth it.

Lunch at S. Frutuoso, one of Braga classics restaurant retemper and is always so good.

Let’s go to one of the favorite places, Bom Jesus do Monte or Braga.

As the name implies it stands on a hill and has one of the most curious buildings I know, it is a staircase with 573 steps where the five human senses are represented in each fountain with enchanting details, whose authorship is the architect Carlos Amarante.

I recommend climbing on foot, for the bravest it’s worth it, when we got there above we felt some conquerors.

There is the possibility of getting on the funicular (you have to try climbing or descending) which was inaugurated in 1882 and is the oldest in the world in activity. It is an extraordinary work of engineering of the Portuguese Raul Mesnier de Ponsard, moved by water by counterweight, constituted by two cabins, both with water deposits and connected by a cable. Truly ingenious.

The conquerors have arrived and will now feel these gardens that alone are worth the visit. Nature at its best, whatever the time of year.

To those who are believers, nature is indeed a gift from God and to me these gardens are proof of that. We are in a set of extensive gardens, lakes, grottos, rails and coretos, a true feast. It is worthwhile to let yourself to be inebriate  and envolved with nature, discover all the nooks that are always surprising. A very rich afternoon.

Let’s get down on this fantastic funicular that I told you about (yes, do not forget that the climb was on foot).

We had dinner in a restaurant in the historic area that I really like, both for its beauty and for the food it offers. Modern, but in an old building that has been recovered in the best way.

My heart is “running” fast, I see the entrance to Theatro Circo.

Take a deep breath, let’s get into one of the most beautiful theaters in the country and maybe in the world. The inauguration of this theater took place on April 21, 1915, a project by the architect João Moura Coutinho, because there was a need to provide the city with a large cultural space. After years of decline, it has been completely restored and today is a true cultural icon.

It is difficult for me to describe how much I am moved by all the place surroundings, it is really to go to tears. So beautiful that it hurts! (A good pain, of course.)

The piece lived up to expectations and all the palms they received were well deserved. Thanks.

The time has come for me to return to “my” sea, which is so dear to me. Even though it’s night, let it light up in a sweet moonlight, I see it greet me a warm welcome.

Until always Braga, I promise I’ll come back more often.


   Maria José Dias

Pictury Photo Tours