What to look for in a photography tour

There are lots of professional photographers out there – including me – offering some great photography tours to the keen enthusiast, promising to lead the way to some pretty exotic and sometimes remote destinations. So I thought I’d put together a few words on what I – as a tour provider – think the ingredients are for a successful photography tour. After all, they’re not cheap, and so anyone considering signing up for one wants to be sure that their money is going to be well spent.

Fjord and mountain scenery around Berserkjahraun lava field, near Stykkisholmur, Snaefellsnes peninsula, Iceland.

Looking for the right ingredients

Naturally, different types of tours will appeal to different types of photography enthusiasts, but here are a couple of things to bear in mind with any tour:

  • Select the right subject matter. Make sure that the tour(s) you’re looking at cover(s) the subject matter that’s of interest to you. It’s no good signing up for a tour that will concentrate on photography of people if it’s landscapes that you’re into.
  • Get the right destination. Ensure that the offered destination(s) are right for you, whether that means the climate, the food or the general environment. This is important not just for your interest as a photographer but also for any health issues you might have.
  • Get the travelling right. Is there the right balance between time spent travelling from place to place and time spent photographing? You really don’t want to spend hours travelling in a minibus, or indeed hiking over rough terrain, to get to a photo location and then be told that you’ve only got 10 minutes there. Travel times should be relatively short and not arduous, allowing plenty of time and energy for photography.
  • Check the time of year. Has the tour been arranged to happen at the right time of year? You don’t really want to visit a tropical country at the height of the rainy season, for example, or go photographing wildlife when the animals have all migrated away.
  • Is the accommodation all right? This is a pretty difficult one to be sure of until you’ve done the tour, even for those arranging the trips, but do your best in advance to check that the accommodation being offered is of the standard you’d like.
  • Is the photographer/group leader up to the task? I’ve saved this one for last, but for a photography tour it’s obviously of huge importance. If the photography tour includes photography tuition then is the leader sufficiently knowledgeable about photographic techniques to be able to teach? And more than this, is he/she able to give leadership, companionship and encouragement in unfamiliar environments in a foreign country? This issue goes well beyond their ability to take photographs and/or teach photography, but is about their people skills.
Northern Lights over Kirkjufell, near Grundarfjordur, Snaefellsnes peninsula, Iceland.

What I offer on my tours

My two 2017 photography tours to Ladakh (Tibetan India) and Iceland have both been put together with all the above points closely in mind. Here are a few pointers to my thought processes in designing both tours:

Ladakh; 1-11 July 2017

  • Subject matter. This tour is a very varied mix of both landscape and cultural/people photography, covering both the rugged Himalayan landscapes and the unique Buddhist culture of the region’s Tibetan peoples. There may also be some wildlife photography, but that is likely to be a secondary feature of the tour.
  • Time of year. Although most of India will be deluged with heavy rain during July, Ladakh is shut off from this by the Himalayas, ensuring clear, dry weather, and hence maximising photographic opportunities.
  • Local travelling. Although overnight stops will often be several hours’ drive apart, there will be plenty of photography stops along the way, each with more or less open-ended amounts of time to shoot. There will be little or no hiking between sites – a vehicle will be used at all times, at least in part due to the high altitude that will make walking quite tiring.
  • Accommodation. Hotels are quite thinly spread in Ladakh, but what there is are largely of a high standard. Everywhere we stay will be 3-4 stars on an international scale, so comfort will be assured.

To find out more about the Ladakh tour click here.

Changla Pass, Ladakh, India.

Iceland; 21-26 Sept 2017

  • Subject matter. This will be largely about the rugged volcanic landscapes of the west coast of Iceland, including some dramatic lava fields, coastal cliffs and the Snaefellsjokull volcanic ice-cap, as well as numerous waterfalls and lakes. The Northern Lights will also be a significant feature, assuming that we have clear night skies and some activity. There will also be architectural photography around some of the stunning buildings in Reykjavik.
  • Time of year. I’ve opted to run the tour during the autumn, around the Equinox, largely to ensure a reasonable chance of seeing the Northern Lights while at the same time not risking really cold or extreme weather. The downside of this time of year is that we won’t see a great deal of wildlife, the huge flocks of breeding seabirds that nest on Iceland’s coast in the summer having already departed by this time.
  • Local travelling. Iceland’s main roads are very good, helping to keep travel times down. In this year’s tour I’ve opted to spend most of our time concentrating on photography in the Snaefellsnes peninsula, ensuring that distances between photo locations are really quite short.
  • Accommodation. Hotels in Iceland are generally rather expensive, making Icelandic tours quite costly. However, I always want to make sure that everyone is comfortable, so we don’t skimp on quality in order to save a few Pounds. Hotels are generally of at least 3-star quality even in the remotest areas.

To find out more about the Iceland tour click here.

Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss Falls, seen in early morning, near Grundarfjordur, Snaefellsnes peninsula, Iceland.

About me as a tutor and leader

Obviously, the question about me as a tutor and leader applies to both tours, so I’ve left this part to last.

I have been working as a professional photographer for over 25 years, I am a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP), the highest qualification in one of the UK’s leading professional photography bodies, and I shoot for the USA’s prestigious National Geographic Creative. So, I’m hoping that these qualifications confirm me as a very skilful and knowledgeable photographer.

In terms of my ability to teach photography, I have been running my own photography workshops for over 10 years and overseas tours for about five years. So I believe I’ve learned what it is that most photography enthusiasts struggle with or want to improve in their photography, and have worked out a number of successful ways to put over a wide variety of techniques and skills. Although during my one-day workshops the tuition I deliver is by necessity quite intensive, during the tours I tend to take things more slowly and drip-feed information, giving everyone in my group time and space to simply enjoy their photography while at the same time learning.

As for my ability to lead a group in overseas locations, I’ve worked in a huge range of environments – some of them quite hostile – in a large number of countries, and have spent plenty of time interacting with a wide variety of people in those countries. As a result, I’m comfortable working in a great many places, and so am able to help those in my groups feel at ease and confident in unfamiliar environments.

A final word

A photography tour overseas is a fantastic way for a photography enthusiast to get to practise and enjoy their photography away from home, provided of course they choose the right tour for them.

Needless to say, I’d love to hear from anyone that feels my tours are just what they’re looking for. I believe I offer some great photography in fantastic locations, with plenty of expert guidance and tuition, all for a reasonable cost.

To see galleries of my photography go to www.nigelhicks.com

To see specifically our photography tours section click here.


Wild Southwest prize draw no 1

Some time ago I promised to run a prize draw, with the prize being a signed copy of my latest book, Wild Southwest, with entrants consisting of everyone who had either entered a photography course in 2016, or the Iceland tour, or who had signed up for a 2017 course before the end of 2016.

Well, half way through January and that prize draw is finally done. The lucky winner is Richard Lawrence, who came on the Dartmoor in Autumn course last October, our very last course of the year. So congratulations to Richard. A copy of Wild Southwest will be on its way to him shortly.

Wild Southwest on sale

Don’t forget that Wild Southwest is still on sale (just because Christmas is gone doesn’t mean we stop selling). It’s available (price £14.99) from all good book shops, and is in stock in all branches of Waterstones and WH Smith in southwest England. Online it can be bought from Amazon and from our own publishing site at www.aquaterrapublishing.co.uk.

One more prize draw to go

There’s still one more Wild Southwest prize draw to come, and that’s for everyone that is following me on Twitter or Facebook. That’s not a small list, so it could take me a while to compile all the names. Bear with me! The draw will be made in the next week or so.

Getting the most out of winter coastal photography

Though it’s true that you need to be a little hardy to do it, the winter months can be one of the best times to photograph Devon’s coasts. Not only are they much less crowded than in the summer, but the low sun (when you can see it at all), gives great lighting angles and a rich golden hue. What’s more, frequent storms ensure that the sea is constantly in a rolling, roaring state, which – along with some ragged, wind-blown clouds – lend an appropriately wild and rugged feel to the scene and your final images.

Using the winter light

All too often in winter there simply isn’t any worthwhile light to use. I wouldn’t recommend coastal photography on one of those flat, lifeless days when the sky is a uniform, almost smooth grey sheet. Grey sky, grey cliffs, grey beach and grey water generally aren’t a good look! Strangely enough, even the opposite extreme can be problematic – a completely clear blue sky can in itself make for some surprisingly monotonous landscape photos. But definitely much better than the flat grey days!

Sunset view on the beach at Rockham Bay, nr Morte, nr Woolacombe, Devon, Great Britain.

The best kind of winter light, for landscape photography at least, is what follows a storm. The wind is still strong, but not too strong, the clouds are stormy, but broken and ragged, allowing plenty of sunshine through, and together they provide the suitable rugged, wintery conditions that go so well in coastal photography. This does mean risking the occasional shower, but the reward is the potential for some wonderful rainbows, the icing on the cake for some excellent coastal scenes.

Particularly if you’re photographing cliffs, it is generally easier to shoot when the sun is out over the sea, illuminating the cliffs with its golden light. If you photograph when the sun is over the land, the cliffs are likely to be in shadow, which is not always a great look. So, if you’re on Devon’s south coast that usually means shooting in the morning, reverting to the north coast for the afternoon. If you’re photographing a beach or dunes, this is less of an issue, of course, but it’s still worth bearing in mind.

A quick word on filters

A keen photographer will want to know about neutral density graduated filters, mercifully shortened usually to ND grads. These are a rectangular filter, with one half completely clear and the other darkened. Placed in front of the lens it allows you to darken an area of the scene that is much brighter than the rest. It’s a common problem in landscape photography, usually due to the sky being much brighter than the land or seascape. In coastal photography, the sea will always be much darker than the sky, and although it’s no problem for the human eye, it can be for a camera sensor, frequently exposing the sea correctly, but leaving parts of the sky too pale or even burned out. An ND grad filter will fix that problem. On top of that it can also make an already dramatic scene look even more so in the final pictures, darkening clouds and making them appear really threatening and stormy. It is one technique commonly used to enhance the mood in a coastal photo, helping to compensate for the loss of the three dimensions and all that wind, noise and spray that help create mood in real life.

When light levels are low

You don’t have to shoot only when the sun is above the horizon. Before sunrise and after sunset can be fantastic times to get really moody images. You will need to put the camera on a tripod (and it will need to be a fairly sturdy one to avoid vibration in the wind) because exposure times will be long, but the rewards will be great.

A slow shutter speed will of course blur the movement of the water, enhancing the sense of energy and movement in the final photos. The exact kind of effect will depend on just how long your exposure time is: something of about 1/8 to 1/15 of a second will blur rolling waves and flying spray to give the appearance of shards of flying glass, creating images with a very agitated, fast-moving, energetic mood.

With an exposure time of anything over, say, five seconds, the sea will completely blur out into a lovely silky smooth finish, all sense of the waves lost, the sea topped instead by what appears to be mist, wrapping itself around rocks like some ethereal gossamer blanket. Quite surreal and perhaps not terribly realistic, but highly atmospheric nonetheless.

The former exposure time is the type you might get on a very dull day or just before sunset, while the latter is what you can expect to achieve before sunrise or after sunset but while there is still some daylight.

This is the one technique that can lead to great photos even on one of those flat dull grey days. By homing in on the waves crashing over rocks and having little, if any, sky visible in the frame, you can use long exposures to produce fantastic shots of the water swirling around and flying across the rocks.

A word on safety

The coast is never a wholly safe place, especially in winter. Coast paths can be slippery, the waves (particularly following a storm) powerful and not always predictable. Take huge amounts of care. Check tide times before you head out, and use them to your advantage and to keep you safe. Avoid clifftops and shoreline rocks at the height of a storm – no photo is worth your life, no matter how stunning it is.

After any coastal photo shoot, and esecially if it has been windy, your gear will probably be caked in a layer of salt. So wipe off your camera and lens bodies as soon as you can. Lens faces and filters can be tricky to clean as the salty water just smears as soon as you try to wipe it. Careful use of warm soapy water will shift it. Wash off your tripod to get salt and grit/sand out of the joints and locking nuts.

Ready for the winter coastal photography challenge? Get shooting!!

Wild Southwest, a new book

The photographs used to illustrate this blog all appear in Nigel’s latest book, Wild Southwest, about the landscapes and wildlife of southwest England, published in October.

You can find out more about Nigel’s Wild Southwest, and buy online at http://www.nigelhicks.com/WildSouthwest.html and at www.aquaterrapublishing.co.uk/WildSouthwest.html.

Wild Southwest is also available at all Waterstones and many WH Smith stores in the southwest, and online at Amazon.