Photo tours and workshops - getting a local’s perspective

First off, I can’t claim a lot of expertise on this subject. I have been on exactly two photographers’ workshops/tours. That isn't a lot. Obviously. But I can say a few things even so. My two experiences have been with local, home grown enterprises. There is another type, the celebrity photographer tour, led by someone well known, usually to great exotic locations. These offer customers hope that the celebrity’s recognized status and high quality of published work will rub off on them. But I haven’t done one of these. They are probably great. And regardless of why people might do them, I bet the leaders do a ton of hard work to ensure everyone has a good experience. But I write this to encourage would-be photo tour customers to give the local guy an equal shot. Here’s why.

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And this

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Those photographs (as well as the cover shot for this post) were taken near Upper Antelope Canyon in northern Arizona. The upper and lower canyons there have become iconic photographers’ destinations. I say “near” however because these weren’t taken in either of them. They were taken on a photographer’s tour run by the Navajo, who run all tours in those canyons since they sit on their reservation.

Some background. Well over 99.99% of people taking tours in the Antelope Canyons are rushed through either upper or lower in about half an hour. Tripods are not allowed. Crowds are so large and moving so fast that you simply cannot get a good shot. It is possible that a few thousand people were in those canyons that day. And that was midweek, offseason!

There is however another option, the photo tour. At this point only the upper canyon has a photo tour available. And one can book from one to up to four different canyons. One of these is Upper Antelope, the other three are apart from it, but reasonably close by, by jeep, way off road.

The power of marketing and the crowd-following, bucket-list-checking nature of the tourist industry is such that these three other canyons are almost entirely ignored.

On a perfectly clear day in mid-April I booked a photo tour beginning at a very chilly 730 am to last until around 2 or 3 pm that would visit all four canyons. For all but Antelope itself I had each canyon entirely to myself, with my Navajo photo guide. Hype and marketing sent the crowds elsewhere and left me to do most of my shooting this day entirely alone. I hadn’t booked a private tour but the public’s laser-focused desire to do Antelope, which is what everyone has heard of, had rendered it one.

My guide was a local kid from the reservation who knew where to go, pointed out good spots to consider setting up, had helpful suggestions on exposures and composition and taught me how to shoot in these exceptionally difficult light conditions. He knew his canyons. He also helped me and my old legs to get up and around tight spots and difficult passages. I didn’t have to worry about slowing anyone else down. We took our time and I learned a ton that day. I never felt like the shots weren’t mine, but helpful guidance was always there if I asked.

We eventually also went to Upper Antelope where only the photo tour customers are able to carry and use tripods (needed for the long exposures in near dark conditions; in fact if you don’t have a tripod they won’t let you on this tour) and the crowds are held back for us to allow for great shots. What I learned there was that you don’t want to do Antelope Canyon unless you ARE on a photo tour. I got this shot because of that.

Imagine however that immediately behind me, and shortly to be in the field of the picture once let go, there are 30 or 40 non-photographers waiting to move on, and multitudes behind them. It’s not a stress-free situation. Nor were they overjoyed to be waiting on me and my tripod.  Oh well

Imagine however that immediately behind me, and shortly to be in the field of the picture once let go, there are 30 or 40 non-photographers waiting to move on, and multitudes behind them. It’s not a stress-free situation. Nor were they overjoyed to be waiting on me and my tripod.  Oh well

But whether I enjoyed some elevated status over other tour crowds, I wasn't rubbing shoulders and sharing shots with a well known photographer. No celebrity cred came my way. No bragging rights or bucket lists were checked. I was walking through slot canyons with a local Navajo photographer who knew what he was doing to enhance my experience and teach me something along the way.  Celebrities don’t have a monopoly on talent and experience.

 

My second photo tour/workshop was in an entirely different environment, on the Isle of Arran in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Conditions different from the arid deserts of northern Arizona could not be imagined while still being in the mid-latitudes. But once again the local photographer who took me around provided not only a good experience but taught me a lot about composition and capturing a mood. The Hebrides can be chock full of mood, especially with winter closing in. She did not have to be among the very few well known photographers to give me a great day.  

As I was planning this Scottish trip it had occurred to me that there might be a local photographer on one of the islands with whom I could make arrangements for a workshop or tour. This was especially interesting because this trip was in November and though the Hebrides are very well served by busses and ferries, at that late season there weren’t as many each day to head out into the country. I hoped a guide or tour would come with wheels, as well as advice. An internet search found a workshop photographer on Arran, already one of my planned island stops for a few days. Emails to Jackie at Arran in Focus confirmed she was available. 

I will admit that I think my most dramatic shots on Arran were taken when on my own, for example on this morning when I got up for sunrise over Goat Fell.

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By the time that day arrived when I had arranged the workshop, the weather was decidedly less clear.

But in a way, that worked out just as well. Most any jackass with a decent camera and the will to get out of bed can probably get a great shot of sunrise on a mountain which has a body of water in front that has a swan or two swimming around. This workshop was able to focus on photography when it isn't as obvious there is a shot there at all.   

We met at Jackie’s studio which was just past the pretty seaside village of Lamlash, by a stone bridge over an inlet and a sharp turn which served as a marker for where the bus driver was to stop and let me out on the side of the road. I walked up a stone path to behind a farm house where she had instructed I would find her in a small cottage turned photographer’s studio.  

We sat for awhile as she asked questions about me and the types of photography I liked. Landscape. Then we tucked into her car and she drove us around to various locations. Some were on the water and some up in the hills. All the while she talked about compositions and texture and various other things that were sometimes familiar and sometimes new to me.  

When the sun had pretty much been spent we returned to her studio and she downloaded my shots and then put me in front of a computer and we went through a selection process. When I go somewhere now I take about 100 shots a day and by the time I get home I desperately need an organized selection process. That part of her workshop really helped.  

Her goal was for me to select one out of all I had shot that I liked the best. This is very hard. And a very useful skill. In today’s Facebook world people will often just post 20 or 30 shots a day. Choosing one or at most two really will make your readers focus and appreciate what you’ve done better. But it’s hard; for me at least.

Here is the photo I chose that day.

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It isn’t dramatic. It’s pretty muted in fact. But for me it best captured what we did and what my options were. And I learned a lot taking it and then working my way through my shots to see what worked and what didn’t.  If I weren’t writing about photo tours and workshops I might not have posted this at all, but I wanted to give an idea of how even a wash-out day can move you forwards with some help. You can certainly feel the mood of a Scottish landscape in November here. 

 

Now having encouraged the reader to give a local, unknown photographer a shot at your photo workshop dollars, I want to make sure I don’t so some very deserving and talented photographer bloggers/vloggers a disservice. There are a lot of people I follow on You Tube that provide excellent content and valuable education. They are hardworking and relentless in putting out free content that will help make you a better photographer. They also are trying to make what they love into a career that will pay their families’ bills, and they have a lot of competition so that is hard, very hard I suspect. One in particular I follow is Thomas Heaton. You can find him by searching You Tube or at his own blog site. He clearly puts a lot of effort into his craft.

As these bloggers/vloggers get a following one of the avenues for them to supplement their professional income is to offer photo tours. They are to some extent trading off the celebrity reputations they have achieved on their You Tube channels.  But to the extent they are doing well executed tours while staying in budget places and spending your money on photography rather than merely on an exotic location, then I have no issues there. In fact I would like to do one sometime. I expect they are great experiences.

But all of that does not nullify what I am trying to point out, that a local person has an equally good chance if not better of giving you a great experience, and probably for less money. They may not be on your radar screen or highly visible online. But give them a try. 

 

 

 ©️ D ABBOTT 2019