How to Plan Your Own Photo Tour

Photography tours and workshops sound exciting and even romantic to amateur photographers looking to get away and come home with some fantastic pictures. The concept is appealing: travel around with a pro photographer who can show you all the great places to shoot. Tours can certainly be beneficial, fun, and provide good instruction, but one other option you may consider is planning your own photography tour and saving possibly ten thousand dollars or more.

My wife and I are planning our second Iceland tour, have been to different parts of Norway three times, Hawaii, London, and many other common workshop destinations. Planning these trips was not as difficult as you might think, and from a cost perspective, night and day. We also found many great benefits to doing it this way.

Pro’s and Cons of Planning Your Own Photo Tour

In short, you’ll save a lot of money and you’ll have a lot more freedom, but also a lot more responsibility:

Pro: Cost

To give you an example of the difference in cost, our next Iceland trip follows the same southern Iceland “photog trail” as many workshops: Gulfoss, Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Vik, Hofn, along with the glacial caves, volcanic beach hikes, Aurora hunting, and other fun you’d expect. The week will cost us around $4000 including airfare, accommodations, rental car, meals, and local tours. Several nearly identical photography workshops charge $6,000 per person, and don’t include airfare, bringing the total to around $14,000. Same scenery. Better hotels. up to $10,000 less.

Pro: Freedom

One of the best things about being on your own is that you have the freedom to explore anything you desire, and forge your own schedule. Find something different you want to do? Sure!  Have an amazing night Aurora hunting and want to sleep in? No problem. Being on your own means you have the freedom to decide what sights and activities interest you the most. If shooting birds at sunrise doesn’t strike you as interesting, you may opt to do something else, whereas you’d have to follow the class around otherwise.

Pro: Originality

Many photography workshops take you to the most beautiful, but most overshot places in the country, meaning you’ll bring back the same photos that most other people who visit the country bring back. By booking your own tour, you have the freedom to find your own unique attractions, or even hire a local photographer to take you around (more on that later).

Tip: If there’s something amazing you want to do (such as a glacier hike), there are many local tours in most places that you can hire for cheap. These are usually the same tour companies that workshops will use.

Pro: Romance

Being just yourself and your significant other, of course, can make the entire trip much more enjoyable. Unless you’re a strong extrovert, you might not appreciate being surrounded by 10-20 strangers for most of the day, all wanting to talk shop, being forced to make travel-buddies, or if you travel alone, sharing a hotel room with a stranger. Doing your own trip allows you to slow the page down (if you like) and gives you some great special moments to share.

Pro: Upgrades

Custom-tailoring your own trip also means that you can choose better hotels than typical workshop hotels (which are sometimes not the best), or eat at better restaurants. Find a nice kaffebar or restaurant you want to try? That’s really easy when your meals aren’t already planned for you. Some local tours are also better than others, or if you find the perfect shooting location, you can always just go out on your own.

Con: Lack of Instruction and Classroom Experience

Being on your own also means that you’ll be responsible for your own photography, and unless you’re an experienced photographer, this means you run the risk of missing important shots. There won’t be anyone there to tell you the best time to shoot, what f-stop to use or what shutter speed might work best. Nobody to remind you to expose for the sky, or to make sure you wipe down your lens from the waterfall’s mist – all the time. In other words: you need to be an experienced photographer to make the most of your photography. The good news is that it’s very hard to take a bad picture in places like Iceland (unless your lens is covered in water)… but it may be worth investing in some good books and practicing your technique so that you feel confident.

There’s a lot to be said for the classroom experience, and comparing photographs and workflows with a bunch of others. It can often be fun and a great way to learn. If you book a workshop, just be sure you’re prepared for a week or two of that.

Tip: Having good composition skills is critical when on your own, as you’ll be the one choosing the shooting location and framing your shots without any hand-holding.

Funny story, one of the hotels in Iceland actually gave photography advice for shooting the Aurora. Apparently so many people go Aurora hunting in the area, they’ve just become accustomed to giving photographers advice.

Con: You’re the Driver

Being on your own also means you’ll need to be resourceful and know where you’re going, how to find your next meal, where the hotels are, etc. You’ll need to be sure to either rent a vehicle with GPS or download the maps for your area. (NOTE: TomTom does not presently have an Iceland map, however Garmin includes Iceland with the Nordic Maps set). You’re responsible for yourself and your traveling companion, and ensuring your own safety and transportation. This means you’ll need to be prepared for inclement weather (snow in the fall) and being able to drive in the country you’re in.

Tip: In spite of what the flyers suggest, you won’t need a super jeep to drive around places like Iceland unless you plan to drive on top of glaciers or other crazy stuff. The roads in most countries are just as nice (and just as terrible, in some parts) as they are here in the states. During the fall/winter in Scandinavian countries, your wheels will come spiked, making it much easier to drive on snow and ice. If you really want to go somewhere off the beaten path, you can always rent some ATVs.

Pro: The People

Typically when you’re on a photography tour, you don’t usually get a chance to meet and talk to the locals. On our first Iceland trip, my wife and I got to meet the grandchildren of the owners of the land that Kirkjufellsfoss is situated on and buy some local sweaters that she knit from her own sheep’s wool. They were wonderful folks, let us come to their farm and see their sheep and horses, and spent some time talking with them. That kind of interaction usually just doesn’t happen on photography tours. Some tours even advertise that you “won’t have to deal with the locals”. How sad!

The kind of people you avoid on photography tours can also be a pro. Imagine 20 photographers cramming in for the best shot – sometimes with other tours visiting the same spot. There have been more than a few accounts of rudeness and even a fight breaking out over shooting spots! There have also been some cases where photography gear has been stolen by other photographers. While most of us would like to think all photographers are polite and creative people, this isn’t always the case. It is fun to network with other photographers (and with the locals), of course, however you have the option of doing that at your own level of comfort when you’re on your own.

Pro: Going in the Off-Season

Although you don’t have to travel in the off-season, there are many reasons to consider it. Discounts are usually deeper on airfare, the best hotels usually have occupancy, and the weather presents for some really unique photography. Our first trip to the Lofoten Islands in Norway was a late November, long after all the tourists had cleared out. There were a couple really bad nights of snowstorms, and the entire town was covered in the white stuff.. on the other hand, it was wildly fun and romantic, and some of the best photographs I got were gorgeous wintry scenes that very few others have. We also got the chance to enjoy the Jultree Lighting, a beautiful local custom on the first Sunday of Advent, where people march around the town Christmas tree and a local band plays. We also got to make some friends and join them for Julbørd (Christmas table), a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner involving lots of alcohol. The off-season provides a lot of opportunities for great photography, and a personal experience when there are no tourists around putting demands on the town. We made some great friends too.

Planning a Photo Tour

If you’re convinced that planning your own photo tour is worth a go, here are some great tips and a workflow to get started:

  1. Plan your destinations
  2. Plan your route
  3. Schedule your vacation
  4. Book accommodations first
  5. Book any tours
  6. Book your airfare and transportation
  7. Plan your shooting locations
  8. Plan for your trip
  9. Go!

Plan your destinations

Before you book anything, the first step is to figure out what cities you want to visit. If you need some ideas, simply grab the online flyers for some of the popular photography workshops; google something like “Iceland photography workshop”. Many flyers will list all of the destinations, and even hotels, that are included in the tour. Photography workshops typically visit the same towns because they’re the most picturesque in the country, however feel free to change it up a bit. As I mentioned, these will likely also be some of the most overshot places, and so you may opt for some cities off the beaten path. Flyers are the best source of destinations and activities, but you can also get more information about a particular destination from these places:

  • Travel sites like TripAdvisor
  • Photo sharing sites like searching Flickr and 500px
  • Social media sites like searching Twitter
  • Travel websites for the country and/or city
  • Travel apps like Triposo

DO: Read as many reviews as you can for attractions, restaurants, and hotels in the cities you’re interested in.

DO: Search around and see what cities movies have been shot in; those towns are usually worth visiting.

DO: Look at travel books and magazines.

Plan your route

Get on Google Maps and actually map out the drive between your destinations so that you can put them in order, and draft a simple schedule. Keep in mind that certain countries have dramatically varying degrees of daylight during the autumn and winter, so make sure you’re not driving in the dark. Ideally, 3-5 hours of drive time between destinations will give you an enjoyable drive with plenty of time to stop and take pictures on the way. If you’re cramming your trip into a short time frame, think 2-4 hours so you don’t spend the whole time driving.

Hint: Be aware that some seasonal roads can be closed during the off-season. Make sure you’re not relying on these unless you’re sure they’ll be available.

DO: Try and plan fun routes. Look for other attractions on your routes, to help break up the driving. There’s almost always something fun to stop and check out.

DO: Be aware that back roads may be closed during the off-season.

DO: Be aware that some routes may involve a ferry (we hit six ferries on our trip up southern Norway, and our GPS was a little too matter-of-fact about it).

DON’T: Try to cram too much driving into one day. Exhausting yourself with driving will only leave you exhausted that night, so you may end up opting to miss sunset or night shooting because you’re so tired. This always tends to snowball into the next day, too. Even if tempted, try to keep your day trips on the short side. You don’t want the driving to get in your way of enjoying yourself, or in the way of making great photography at the right times of day.

Schedule your vacation

Because much of your trip will likely be non-refundable, make sure you have vacation approved, child care set up, and any other necessities at home taken care of first.

DO: Have a backup plan for child-care (or even plan C). You’re traveling far, so use only people you trust in the event of an emergency (broken arm, illness, etc). Even if something dramatic happens at home, it’ll take you a day or two to get back in an emergency, so make sure you trust the people caring for them.

DO: Allow for a lot of buffer time if you have a sick or injured child or relative

DON’T: Rely on school hours to cover child care during the day. Kids get sick and snow days happen.

Book accommodations first

While you should check the airline arrival and departure times at this time, book the accommodations for each of your destinations first, through a site like booking.com, so that you can cancel them easily. You also want to make sure all of your rooms are confirmed before booking your flight. Many hotels can be reached by email, however online hotel booking sites make it very easy to view at a glance, change or cancel reservations, and ensure you get the room you want. You also get a help line if something gets messed up.

DON’T: Use hotel prepay pricing. When you book online, I recommend not using the prepay option, but spend the extra $20 or so on refundable reservations. Hotels are very cheap in many countries, anyway, so an extra few bucks is worth it for the peace of mind.

DO: Preprogram your GPS

If you’re going to be gone for at least a week, it’s cheaper to just buy your own GPS than it is to rent one. The benefit to this is also that you can preprogram all of the hotels into it before you even leave home. The last thing you want is to be in the middle of a foreign country and have your GPS not be able to find the address you’re looking for.

DON’T: Rely on your cellphone

Your mobile phone’s maps app won’t work if you find yourself in a place where you have no coverage. It also costs extra for data. Buying a portable automotive GPS will work without a cellphone signal, and is much more reliable.

Book any tours

Use sites like tripadvisor.com to find any local tours you might be interested in, for example my wife and I booked a crazy fun arctic dogsledding tour in Tromsø, Norway one year. You can also book Aurora excursions, or other tours.

Hint: Some hotels have a preferred touring company that picks up at the hotel. Make sure that whomever you book with can either pick you up, or that you can get to them easily. The preferred hotel company is not always the best, but the hotel does talk to them directly… if you ask at the front desk, they can usually tell you if there’s going to be a good Aurora that night.

DO: Contact (or even hire) a local photographer. For the best bang for your buck, consider hiring a local guide or photographer to take you around for a day. These folks are usually much less expensive than workshop photographers, and know all the off-the-beaten-path shooting locations. If you do hire one, make sure they know exactly what you’re looking for. Oh, and tip them well. Some take time off work just to accommodate you.

DON’T: Plan to ask everyone you meet what the best scenery around is. This never leads anywhere good. If you ask where the best sunrise or sunset is, you’re likely to end up in a place with nothing but water to look at, when what you really wanted were some gorgeous backlit mountains. Use your photography skills and a compass here, instead, and try to be creative.

Book your airfare and transportation

Once you’ve got your hotels and any tours booked, and everything programmed into your GPS, it’s time to book your airfare. While sites like Expedia or Google usually do a decent job, compare rates with those on the airline’s website. Often times you’ll get a decent deal with a flight and rental car bundle, but not always.

DO: Buy the damage collision insurance if you’re leaving the country. Outside of your home country, your own insurance probably won’t cover damage to a rental car. The extra $100-$200 for a damage waiver may be worth the peace of mind, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the country you’re visiting or if you’re anticipating inclement weather.

DON’T: Rent a GPS. It’s much cheaper in the long run to just buy a GPS. Often times, your first trip will pay for it.

DON’T: Get any plane tickets for which you cannot select seats up front. The last thing you need is to find that for your 10 hour flight, you won’t be able to sit with your significant other. Some regional flights may not allow seat selection, but make sure you assign seats for the long flights.

DO: Enter your passport and other extra information when you book. This will ensure you have your boarding passes and will make things go much smoother on travel day.

DO: Try and schedule an overnight flight, so that you have the entire day when you arrive to get situated and explore. There are a number of good sleep aids for night flying.

Plan your shooting locations

You’ve likely never been to where you’re going, so you want to have some idea of what you want to shoot when you get there. The best way to get inspired is to look at some of the other photography for that location. Sites like 500px.com have a search option you can use. On 500px, sort by “Pulse” or “Max Pulse” and you’ll get the most popular photos ever taken there. Many photos will have keywords or a description explaining where (in general) the location is. You’ll also get some great ideas about the best time of day to shoot.

Hiring a local photographer to take you around for a day can also help greatly, if you’re really unfamiliar with the area.

Any specific attractions you want to see, you can program directly into your GPS. As always, when you get there, scout them out first.

A good in-between is to book a local photo tour; these usually run a few days, and are much cheaper because they are done by local photographers, rather than international ones. For example, there are a few tours of Lofoten, Norway by locals for only around $1000. With all the money you save on travel and accommodations, this is a good alternative for someone who doesn’t yet feel comfortable enough to go it alone, but doesn’t want to burn $10K.

Plan for your trip

At this point, you’re ready to start planning and packing. Remember:

  • Weather appropriate clothing
  • Cramp-ons (in the autumn or winter) for even short hikes / shooting
  • Heated vest / jacket / insoles (in winter)
  • Beach shoes (in the summer) for water shooting
  • International power plug adapters
  • Medications
  • Photocopies of your passports

DO: Plan redundancy for your photography gear. Bring an extra charger, batteries, filters, and an extra camera body if possible. There likely won’t be a camera store anywhere near you, so if something breaks, you need to have a contingency.

DO: Consider a carbon-fiber tripod if you’re traveling in the cold season. Aluminum tripods react very poorly in extreme cold weather conditions, and I’ve seen some completely snap in two. Cabon-fiber not only performs better in extreme temperatures, but is much lighter.

DON’T: Bring a wool coat. If it rains or snows, you’re going to wish you’d had a nylon jacket. Nylon jackets are also much lighter and give you a wider range of motion when working with photography gear. Ideally, bring a ski jacket.

Tip: Take a photo of your passport with your camera every morning and leave it on there. This ensures two things: 1. if your camera gear is lost, whoever finds it might be able to return it. 2. it ensures your camera is in good working order, you have a card, the iso isn’t still at 3200 from the night before, etc.

Go!

Remember to have fun. Make special memories first, and let the photography simply tell the story.

Tip: Don’t pass up an opportunity for a great photo, or a great moment. Remind yourself that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and you’ll likely never visit that exact location again.

Tip: Traveling can be stressful. If you’re looking for a good way to relax, try scheduling a couple’s massage for when you arrive. If you’re staying somewhere like the Blue Lagoon, soaking in a hot volcanic lake can also help reduce stress. Don’t ever let stress ruin a trip.