Tour Group vs. Photo Tour Group
In an ideal world, you would be able to hop on a plane, be met at your destination by a private guide, and be whisked off in a private safari vehicle for your own personal tour. If you can afford that, great; quit reading this book and hire me as your personal instructor. If not, you are probably like the rest of us who sometimes take a trip on their own and sometimes travel with a group of like-minded strangers. There are pros and cons to both types of travel for someone interested in taking serious photos.
I want to dispel the myth that you cannot take good photos while traveling with a group. The advantage of traveling by yourself is making all the decisions of where, when, and how you photograph; but it is possible to achieve good results on a tour. If you are new to photographing wildlife, there are big advantages of going with a tour company familiar with the area and wildlife. A seasoned and respected tour operator gives you confidence that you will probably not be stranded in a foreign country. It should also mean that the tour operator has knowledge to bring you to a destination at the optimal time and has taken care of logistical worries. This enables you to concentrate on photography. They will tell you what to pack, feed you, and make sure you have necessary permits and licenses. In some cases, the only way to get to a certain destination is with a tour operator.
A major reason for traveling with an organized group is that an experienced guide will always accompany you. It is the guide who can make or break a trip. Many lodges in premier locations are booked years in advance, so without a pre-arranged tour you will not gain access when you want to go. Once you decide to sign on with a tour, you can choose a regular natural history tour or a photo tour, and there are advantages to each.
A Photo Tour
On a photo tour, the primary advantage is that you have a professional photographer as a guide. This is especially helpful if he or she is also a biologist or is accompanied by a local guide with knowledge of the local natural history to augment the photographer's knowledge. The more information you have about the subject, the better your chances are of getting good photos. The photographer/guide will give suggestions and information as well as help with special problems, such as properly adjusting for tricky exposures. Evenings are often spent discussing photo issues with other photographers, and their camaraderie is not to be underestimated. Photo tours let you see and talk about other equipment and gadgets, and an itinerary may be changed to take advantage of photographic opportunities.
The down side is that most people on a photo tour are photographers. There are lots of big lenses and everyone has their own agenda in terms of what they want to photograph. Although most of your fellow travelers will be good sports, there are times when you may find fierce competition from other participants who feel they and their photos are all that matter.
On a photo tour, plan to be a photographer, not someone whose only interest is seeing one animal after another, ticking off the species as you go. The guide may decide to wait at a watering hole for an extended period of time in order to maximize the chances for good shots. This is a tried and true method of getting the best results. Participants, however, may become impatient from sitting and waiting. Patience should be on the packing list. If you become anxious about what you are not seeing, you will not be able to enjoy what you have at hand. You cannot get everything on a single tour. There will be aspects of the wildlife that you simply will not see. Some professional photographers spend their career photographing a single subject and still do not have it all documented. Be open to what presents itself and take advantage of it.
A Natural History Tour
A natural history tour that is not specifically geared to photographers may present some advantages to someone who wants good photos. The only difference between natural history and photo tours is the emphasis placed on photography. Don't think that photo tours will bring you to places any different than a natural history tour, everyone wants to see the same things. As a matter of fact, a natural history tour may cover more ground, since less time might be spent at a single site. If getting the most diversity is what you are after, a natural history tour might better suit your needs.
Another plus on a natural history tour is that you may be the only one who is serious about photography. If you are polite, you may find that other members of the group get excited about you being the photographer. I have often seen non-photographers tell photographers in the group to get in front of them, since they have the equipment to get better results. If you explain to everyone that you are interested in photography and add in a little "but I don't want to get in anyone else's way," you may find others helpful to your needs. This works especially well if you volunteer to be the group's photographer and make copies or a CD of some of your work for the group. Speak to the guide and explain what you are hoping to accomplish, they will often let you know when you can lag behind to take extra shots. They may even seek out extra opportunities for you or bring you to a special place they know. The key is to be nice; making friends with the guide and other participants can open doors for you along the way.
The down side of a natural history tour is that your photography will come second to the needs of the tour. If it is getting close to lunchtime, the group may decide to head back to the lodge to eat rather than wait for the sleeping lions to awaken. Also, there may be a limit to the group's patience when it comes to hanging around while you take pictures.
Either tour can give you wonderful results; base your decision on your desires. Ask your tour operator about your options and if they can refer you to others who have already traveled on the tour. Be as well informed about the tour as you can be before you make your decision. One last thing to remember about traveling with a tour, whether it is a photo or natural history tour, is that you are on a tour. The guide will always make decisions based on the group, not the individual. If the majority of the tour wants to photograph mammals and you want to photograph birds, don't expect to stop at every little bird you see. If you let your interests be known to the guide, they will sometimes try to give you get the opportunities you want.
On a photo tour, everyone is there to photograph as well as learn, however sometimes there are times for photography and other times for learning. If you need help with specific areas of photography, a better time for asking your photographer/guide may be while you are at the lodge, not during a photo session. This is especially true if you are photographing wildlife, which may be sensitive to noise or motion. Your photographer/guide may not be able to talk to you when you are close to the animals, for fear of disturbing them. Many photographer/guides lead trips so they to have an opportunity to get images themselves. As a paying client, your needs should come first, but sometimes it is simply not possible at that time. Ask questions about your equipment or technique at camp before you head into the bush. Your photographer/guide should be happy then to give you all the time and attention you need.