Taking a guided tour in a foreign land can be an excellent way to see a new country. Hotels and transportation are often taken care of for you and a day’s worth of entertainment is already prepared before you land at the airport. They are certainly fun and relaxing endeavors.
But they don’t always lends themselves well to photography. Some tour companies will arrange their events to line up with ‘good light’, but often by accident, such as placing time to watch the sunrise from a particularly beautiful vista. But for the most part, sites are thought of as a list to be checked off and not so much for their photographic ‘best light’.
Here then are some tips to help you get the most out of your next non-photography tour. I would love to hear your suggestions from past experiences at in the comments section below.
Get Up Early
It’s no secret that the one of the best times for photography is around sunrise. Getting up early has other advantages as well. It’s likely your tour group doesn’t meant until breakfast, with some time to pack (if you are changing locations), this means you have time on your own to see the area close to your hotel at your own pace.
Face it, photographers are slow walkers, if we are walking at all. We wander and we like to go where inspiration takes us. Often while on the guided part of a tour is scripted with a meandering path meant to show all the highlights of a location. You will likely have to stick with the group or face the wrath of the tour guide (who does have your safety and best interest in mind).
The best way to avoid this confrontation and to still whet your need for free time is to get up early. This may mean an early night as well, missing out on a potentially good party. But for me, I’d rather be awake at sunrise with a camera in hand than waste it the night before and wake with a hangover.
The image at right was shot at 6:11am, 30 minutes before sunrise.
Use The Photographer’s Ephemeris or LightTrac
I’ve espoused the benefits of these two tools before and they can be very useful when traveling abroad or just outside your hometown. LightTrac and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are both great tools for figuring out a multitude of on-location lighting situations. They both work on iOS and Android devices so you can take them with you and The Photographer’s Ephemeris also has a free desktop app to help model situations before you are on the road.
What both of these programs do is all you to zero in on a location and see the sunrise and sunset angles. They also allow you to see the location of the sun in the sky at any point in time on the face of the Earth. Which is pretty cool in itself, but they also allow you to see shadow lengths and angle so you can get an idea of what you will encounter. Thrown in for fun, the path of the moon is also available.
Research Before You Leave
Chances are you know where you’re going on this tour. You’ve done some research before sending hundreds or thousands of dollars/euros/dinars to the tour company. Now take it a step further.
First, request as close to a final agenda as you can get. It need not be step by step, but the highlights and the order. You may have to make some assumptions, such as a start time each day around 8-9am unless the situation warrants a super early start (think: trekking the Inca Trail).
Now use the desktop or mobile version of the The Photographer’s Ephemeris or LightTrac to plot out the main attractions important to you. I think here of ruins in Rome or temples in Nepal. Find out if the sun will be favorable to you on that day and where you might want to wander for a good picture. Either make a written list or a mental note so you are not left guessing when you arrive and can make a bee-line for the location you know will afford you the best images.
Remember Key Locations For Later Return
As you pass by sights on your tour and notice pictures are not turning out how you like, make a mental note to return. This may be during your particular tour during ‘down time’ if the location is close or it may be on another trip. The time to take notes is when you find yourself saying, “Oh, this would be perfect in morning light!”
You might not get it all in one trip, but there is rarely a rule saying you can’t return some day!
Go For Details
When the sun is high and the grand views you see on postcards are all but lacking, go for the details. Details are a saving grace of less than optimal light. That big cathedral that will be washed out in noon-day sun? Zoom in to the relief and statuary on the outside. Duck in and hit the light coming in the stained glass.
The colors in the Grand Canyon are washed out, you say? What about the plant life at the edge? No luck at Machu Picchu because of harsh sun? Show me the details in how the stones are formed together or the steepness of the steps.
The key here is there is always a photo to be had from almost any situation. You may be forced into light that you don’t particularly like, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find something interesting to shoot.
Wander When They Aren’t Looking
This last tip will likely happen on its own. I am not telling you to be discourteous to your host or guide. If you are in a large tour group, you will have opportunity to wander while the group has stopped. If you are with a spouse or a friend, have them listen to the information while you take off.
I realize this tip may be like telling cats to chase mice, but some people think they are absolutely locked into the path and timing the guide takes. Sure, you need to be courteous to other guests and not hold things up, but if a particularly beautiful image presents itself, go for it. If they other guests grumble, send them a copy.
What suggestions do you have for someone locked into a package tour’s schedule, but with a lust for photography? Have you ever f yourself in this situation?