Do you really need to hire a photography guide when you travel? After all, you know how to do the research. You use Google Earth, Flickr, 500px, Photographer’s Ephemeris, PhotoPills, and rGPS (Really Good Photo Spots—an app with a curated list of great photo locations and directions for finding them). You leave home with a plan and a shot list. Is there a compelling reason to hire a photo guide?
There sure is, particularly if you have limited time, are traveling with your family, it’s your first time at a location, or you are not intimately familiar with the area.
I’m talking specifically about a photography guide. There are plenty of local guides who do a fine job of taking you around, translating, arranging visits to locations, transportation, meals and the like. A photography guide takes you to photographic locations at the best times of day and concentrates his or her efforts on helping you get the most keeper shots in the limited time you have.
Like any local guide, a photography guide can help you navigate the local culture, laws and customs. That’s as true in Maine as it is in Myanmar. While that is most obvious in foreign countries, every part of your own country has different cultural norms, slang, idioms and behavioral expectations.
Any local guide can take you to the famous locations. But you could manage that yourself. Then why hire a photography guide?
I recently spend a few days in Bar Harbor, Maine, visiting Acadia National Park with several family members. I’d been there before, for a weekend photo workshop with Vincent Lawrence of Acadia Images. So, I knew the standard photographic icons: Boulder Beach and Otter Cliffs at sunrise, Jordan Pond, Cadillac Mountain, and so forth. One of my brothers was in Bar Harbor with us, and he is also into photography. Because we were there with our wives, we could only take so much time away for photography. I thought it would be nice to hire a photography guide to take us out for a sunrise and a sunset shoot. I booked Vincent.
I learned that, while you can get by, and even have a great photo trip without one, there are several things a photography guide can do that you probably can’t do on your own. If you can afford it, hiring a photography guide can make a lot of sense. Here are five reasons why.
A photo guide has intimate photographic knowledge of the area.
Photography guides really know the locale and all of the nearby spots that are photogenic. They know where the fall leaves are peaking that week and where owls, or bears, or moose have been seen lately. They know where and under what conditions the fog rolls in. They know where and when the waves will crash into a cliff and where and when to explore gentle tidal pools. They know where the owls hunt, the young fox play, and where the buffalo usually graze in the morning. Even if you knew all the locations, can you find the unmarked parking spot and the trail (that’s really more of a trace) in the pre-dawn dark?
During our trip, we could have gone to Boulder Beach for sunrise, jockeyed for position with dozens of other photographers, had a nice time, and come away with some fine images. However, the orientation of that day’s sunrise meant there was an even better location. Vincent took us to a spot a half a mile up the coast where we could shoot the sunrise in one direction, with its brilliant display of colors in the clouds, and then we could turn around and shoot the golden light painting the cliffs behind us with golden tones. That was a twofer! And we were the only photographers there.
No matter how much research you do, you won’t have that intimate, detailed knowledge. That might not matter if you’re spending a fair amount of time at your destination, and can wander around scouting for the best locations. Many of us, however, will only be there for a limited amount of time and want to make the most of it.
Then there’s the question of what happens when the spot you’ve picked doesn’t work out. All too often, Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. Maybe the clouds aren’t there as sunset approaches. Perhaps the buffalos have already come and gone. Do you know a dozen alternate locations so you can still have a productive shoot? A local photography guide will recognize when conditions aren’t shaping up and will move on to Plan B or Plan C.
While we were out with Vincent, we asked him about a couple of locations we’d read about and he suggested a couple of others. For example, everybody goes to Jordan Pond. There’s a big parking lot, a restaurant, and several trail heads. You have to navigate around a lot of families with kids and wait for people to get out of your shot. But you can get the same kind of photographs from nearby Eagle Lake, without the crowds. Can you tell the difference between the two photos? Number 2 is Jordan Pond, but both locations have similar features.
A photo guide knows the local road conditions and short cuts.
When you have to go with Plan B or Plan C, do you know how to get to the new location? When you’re chasing light, do you know the shortest, fastest way to get where you want to go?
With all the apps and Google Maps, you’d think you could figure out the best routes, but that’s not always the case. On Mount Desert Island, home to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, one of the main roads is being rebuilt and an important section is one-way only. I knew about that before I arrived, and planned accordingly. What I didn’t know about were several other construction zones where a key road was down to one lane, with traffic going through in one direction first, and then the other. Those areas caused delays of only a couple of minutes, but minutes matter when the sky is ablaze with color!
Many of the areas photographers like to frequent are remote or rural and sometimes don’t have cell service. Some of your apps won’t work! Then what? The local photography guide knows all the road conditions, the short cuts, and the most efficient routes.
During our sunset shoot in Acadia, the sky wasn’t cooperating at our first planned location, but clouds were building on the other side of the island. Vincent whisked us across the island, using short cuts down residential streets and some roads that weren’t on the map. I’m still not sure exactly what route we took, but we got there in time to get some color in the clouds and reflected in the water.
A photo guide knows the local property owners.
Want to shoot that cool barn, a ruined house, or a dock stacked with fishing gear? Heard about an eagle nest or a den of foxes? If you go there, will you need to enter private property? Is the landowner cool with that, or will he come out with his shotgun?
Guides typically know the landowners, often for years. They sometimes have standing permission to shoot there, and to bring other photographers. Occasionally, they even have special access. I went on a photo workshop in West Virginia a few years ago. There was a beautiful old barn we went to photograph. While we were there, the owner drove up on an ATV. When he recognized the workshop leader, he offered to open up the barn and let us shoot inside. It pays to know someone who knows someone!
In the working harbors on Mount Desert Island, Vincent knew which pier owners didn’t mind photographers shooting stacks of lobster traps, buoys, or coils of colorful ropes and which ones did.
And then there are rights. What if you walk away with a great image, but can’t use it without a property release. Your photography guide might be able to help you with that, too.
A photo guide knows what works in each location.
Because he or she has been shooting there for years, your photography guide will know what kinds of shots work and what gear you’ll need. Knowing I wouldn’t need to use a super telephoto lens meant not having to lug a 200-500mm lens (weighing in at over 5 pounds) around all morning. That’s gotta be worth something!
Your photography guide can suggest approaches that might work for you. Vincent suggested shooting panoramas in a couple of locations. I was grateful for the advice, as I tend to forget about doing panos when I’m caught up in the excitement of the moment.
The guide can be as helpful as you want, assisting you with composition, camera settings, and more. Or she can let you shoot, but tell you about the natural history and culture of the area you’re visiting while you’re driving from place to place. Or he could just take you to locations based on your interests and needs. How involved your guide is in your photography is entirely up to you. Vincent made some really smart suggestions while we were in the field. He’d point out where the sun would be and where the light would fall. That helped us anticipate the light and find our compositions before the sun got there. When we were driving, he told us a lot about Mount Desert Island. He grew up on the island and has a deep appreciation of and love for it that really came through.
A photo guide provides some motivation.
I don’t know very many people who want to get up at 4 AM. Paying for a guide who is meeting you at 4:30 can motivate me to get out of bed, even during a relaxing vacation. Having already paid for a guide is a definite incentive to get up and go!
It can also be motivating just to be with another photographer for a few hours. He or she is a kindred spirit, someone who appreciates a sunrise, or the special way that the morning light illuminates a brown bear fishing for salmon. We speak the same language. We’re with our people!
When you’re with another photographer who shares your passion for the art, well, there’s a special bond you share. Talking composition, technique, gear or post processing with another photographer is always fun for me and a reason to look forward to an early morning shoot. Or to a sunset shoot that will make me miss dinner!
The camaraderie can be really nice as you’re standing in the cool, pre-dawn light, waiting for color in the sky, as you hike to a location, or as you drive from place to place. I can happily be on my own, doing photography in the still and quiet of a soft morning. But I also like the company of other photographers.
In the end . . .
It comes down to what you want in your travels, what you’re able to do for yourself, and what your budget is. Depending on location, you might be surprised at how reasonable a photography guide can be.
For me, it was totally worth it. We really optimized our limited photography time. We went a couple of places we wouldn’t have found on our own. We arrived in time for good light because Vincent knew the short cuts. We got some tips about other good locations and the best time of day to go there. And we learned more about living on Mount Desert Island.
Your mileage may vary but, as you start planning your next adventure and thinking about what kinds of photography you want to do there, take a look at a couple of local photography guides. Google “photography guide” or “photography tours” + the location. Also check photographer + location. You might find they offer a pretty compelling set of knowledge and skills for a pretty reasonable price.