How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat

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Here’s an alternative idea for you on how to create your own DIY photography retreat.

If you’re like me, the flood of emails about upcoming photography workshops that shows up in your inbox each morning sets you daydreaming about how great it would be to travel to Iceland, Cuba, New Zealand, Antarctica, or Patagonia. When you get to the time commitment involved – usually no less than two weeks including air travel – your excitement probably wanes a bit. Then you read about the costs for these workshops and your enthusiasm probably hits rock bottom. Some of these trips actually cost more than $10,000USD. That’s the point I usually reach total frustration and hit the delete button.

DIY Photography Retreat - Iceland image

Dyrhólaey in southern Iceland Canon 70D with 18-155mm lens @ 18mm, 8.0 seconds, f/13, ISO 200.

Expectations

For $10,000USD my expectations of a workshop are ridiculously high. Yours probably are too. It made me wonder how difficult it would be to create my own workshop. Or rather, my own DIY photography retreat, since there would be no official instructor? Is it possible to shoot in amazing locations, on a budget, in a limited time frame? The answer is yes and as I thought about it, I realized I’d actually been planning DIY (do-it-yourself) photography retreats for me and my friends for years. Read on to learn how to plan your own DIY photography retreat.

Advantages of a DIY Photography Retreat

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - Iceland

Skógafoss in southern Iceland Canon 70D with 18-155mm lens @ 18mm, 1/8th, f/18, ISO 100.

Here are the advantages of creating your own DIY photography retreat, rather than going on a photography workshop with an instructor. You get to:

  • Pick the dates you want to travel.
  • Decide how long your retreat will be.
  • Select your destination.
  • Determine the budget.
  • Book the accommodations that meet your budget.
  • Arrange the transportation that meets your budget.
  • Choose your travel mates – or choose to go it alone.
  • Learn the specific skills that are most important to you.
  • Photograph the people, places, and things that are the most meaningful to you.

Disadvantages of a DIY Photography Retreat

There are, of course, disadvantages to being a do-it-yourselfer. You’ll have to:

  • Plan out everything listed above, from accommodations to convenient restaurants, to transportation, to finding the best locations at the best time of day.
  • Be ultra organized and have a detailed, daily itinerary in order for your trip to be successful. If you’re not a Type A personality that might be harder for you than it’s worth.
  • Have backup plans for things that are out of your control, like weather issues and flight delays.
  • Be a self-starter by setting goals about what you want to learn and then practicing those new techniques on your own.
How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - Italy

Manarola at night Canon 70D with 24-105mm lens @ 24mm, 16.0 seconds, f/16, ISO 100.

If you stack the advantages up against the disadvantages, it’s clear that planning our own photography retreats is something we should all at least consider, so let’s do just that.

Instructors

Planning your own DIY photography retreat means there won’t be an instructor. This is actually an advantage because you’ll be completely in charge of what you’re going to photograph, and how you photograph it. You alone will determine what techniques you want to learn and practice while you’re on your retreat.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - Chicago

Chicago’s “The Bean” at night Canon T3i, Tokina 11-16mm lens @ 16mm, f/10, 30.0 seconds, ISO 100.

Teach yourself

If you plan to teach yourself, research the technique you want to learn before you go on your retreat. For example, if you want to practice night photography, you can search that term right here on dPS and start teaching yourself. As you plan your daily itinerary, you can select the locations that you want to visit that also lend themselves to night photography.

While you’re traveling, practice the techniques you’ve taught yourself. To evaluate whether you’ve accomplished your goals, review and compare your results against night photography images that you admire. Repeat until you’ve mastered night photography.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - Chicago

Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain at night Canon T3i with Tokina 11-16mm lens @ 12mm, 30.0 seconds, f10, ISO 100.

Teach each other

Another option would be to go through all the same steps described above, about teaching yourself and selecting locations, but to also bring along a travel mate who has already mastered night photography. Your travel mate can teach you night photography and in return, you can teach her something in your wheelhouse.

The teach-each-other option is really fun if you invite three photographers along, each with different specialties. On your retreat, you can teach your specialties to each other. A three-day weekend in the Tonto National Forest near Mesa, Arizona could be split into wildlife, landscape, macro, and astrophotography shoots. Each of you would take a turn leading, and teaching, the group during one of those shoots.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat -

Tonto National Forest at dusk Canon 7DII with 70-200mm lens @ 70mm, 1/50th, f/9, ISO 1250.

Find a local photographer to teach you

A third option would be to connect with a photographer that lives in the area that you’re visiting. First, research 500px or Flickr to find images of your destination. Make sure those images show mastery of the skills you want to learn. Read the profiles and blogs of the photographers who made those images to find one that’s local to that area. Then, reach out to your own photography community to see if anyone can introduce you to that photographer.

Don’t be nervous

Connecting with someone you’ve never met might seem daunting at first but if you send direct messages and emails, many photographers on Facebook and Instagram will talk to you simply because they love to share their work. They’re often more than happy to share their expertise too.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat -

Beautiful tree in Tonto National Forest at sunrise Canon 5DIII with 100-400mm lens @ 100mm, 1/60th, f/16, ISO 500.

Hiring that local photographer

If you’re going to the Tonto National Forest, find someone local to Mesa that knows “the” places to shoot and ask them to instruct you for a day. Tell the local photographer what you want to learn and the sorts of pictures you want to make. If they’re interested, together you can figure out what that arrangement looks like.

Will you pay a fee for their time? What will that fee include? Will they drive? Pay for gas? Provide lunch? If you’re not paying them a daily fee, will you provide the car, gas, and food in exchange for their time and expertise? As long as both of you are clear on what the arrangement is and feel that it’s fair, this is an excellent way to meet other photographers and to become a better photographer yourself.

Safety Tip: Share the name and contact information of the local person you are meeting with your family at home and also with the desk clerk at your hotel or your Airbnb host.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat -

Tonto National Forest silhouetted saguaro Canon 5DIII with 70-200 @ 200mm, 1/90th, f/8, ISO 1000

Time Frame

As much as I’d love to spend a month traveling in Antarctica, that sort of time away from my desk isn’t in the cards for me – or for most of us, probably. Americans have an average of 10 paid vacation days; Europeans average a bit more than 20. When you add in other responsibilities, like those of your family, a month-long workshop is probably out. However, a three or four-day weekend is ideal for a photography retreat. It gives you plenty of time to shoot while not eating up too many vacation days.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - Salt River stallion

Salt River wild stallion in the Tonto National Forest at sunrise Canon 5DIII with 100-400 @ 135mm, 1/350th, f/8 ISO 500

Proposed Itinerary

Here’s a proposed retreat itinerary for you, to maximize your shooting time:

Day 1

  • Have your clothes, camera gear, and cooler already packed up when you drive to your office so that you can leave right after you finish work.
  • During summer months, plan a sunset shoot en route to your hotel. In the winter you’ll be driving mostly in the dark so plan to stop for a good dinner. If you’re with friends this will be a good way to get yourself into photography-retreat-mode. When you arrive at your hotel, lay out your clothes and prep your camera gear for the next day.

Sunlit white wild mare in the Tonto National Forest at dawn Canon 5DIII with 70-200mm lens @ 124mm, 1/750th, f/5.6, ISO 500.

Day 2

  • This is all about photography so you’re not surprised that I’m going to tell you to get your butt out there before dawn, are you? Right then, get out there for your morning shoot at Location #1.
  • If you need coffee to wake up, keep a few bottles of iced coffee in your cooler. Fruit and granola bars can stand in for breakfast.
  • Remember your goals for what you want to learn on this retreat and practice them. Push yourself to learn rather than sticking to what you already know how to do well.
  • If one of your friends is the “expert” for this shoot, honor their efforts to teach you. If a local photographer is helping you, absorb every bit of knowledge they share.
  • By 10:30 or 11:00AM, your light will have shifted. This is your chance to eat lunch, review images on your LCD and talk about what you learned with your travel mates.
  • At 1:00PM get yourself to Location #2. If this involves driving and hiking, be sure to have plenty of snacks and water. In the fall or winter, this shoot will be early since you lose the light by 6:00PM. If it’s in the spring or summer you can shoot later and have a longer review session during the mid-day. Remember to keep your learning goals top-of-mind.
  • After you lose the light (remember to keep shooting past dusk), get gas if the tank is low, eat a hearty dinner, relax with your friends, upload your images, prep your clothes and gear, then head to bed.

Day 3

  • Repeat Day 2 with Locations #3 and #4.

Portrait of a white wild mare in the Tonto National Forest at sunrise Canon 5DIII with 70-200mm lens plus 1.4x extender @ 280mm, 1/750th, f/5.6, ISO 200.

Day 4

  • Repeat the 1st half of Day 2 with Location #5.
  • Pack up and head home.

If you’re flying to your destination, rather than driving, early morning and red-eye flights will help you maximize your time spent shooting while sticking to a three- or four-day itinerary. You may want to consider direct flights over connecting flights, even though they might be more expensive, which brings us to figuring out the budget for your retreat.

Budget

If you’ve researched photography workshops, you’ve probably seen that the starting price point for an all-inclusive 8-day trip (accommodations, transportation, most meals and a full-time instructor) is about $3,000 USD, not including your flights. For a DIY retreat that’s half as long, $1500 USD is a very generous budget. As a matter of fact, I think you can plan it for far less. Here’s the breakdown of my last 5-day trip to the Tonto National Forest in Mesa, Arizona, to photograph the Salt River wild horses:

Grey stallion in the Tonto National Forest at sunset Canon 5DIII with 100-400mm lens @ 4000mm, 1/180th, f/5.6, ISO 12,800.

  • Flights: $150
  • Accommodations for four nights: $450
  • Rental Car: $0 (I used points)
  • Gas: $75
  • Food: $125
  • TOTAL: $800

Why it was so cheap

For this trip, direct flights cost $400 USD more so it made sense to book the cheaper ticket, even though I normally hate to waste time on layovers. Using credit card points for my rental car trimmed the budget by about $250. It was a very little car – no 4WD needed for this area – so gas was cheap too. The ranch where I stay served a hearty breakfast (and even held a plate until I got back from my morning shoot) so that was another money-saver. I hit the local market for lunch supplies (and snacks) and only ate out at dinner. With restaurants serving such huge portions these days, I even ate leftovers one night on the patio of my “cabinette” at the ranch.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - ranch

My cabinette at the ranch Canon 5DIII with 24-105 @ 24mm,1/250th, f/11, ISO 400

I could have cut the budget on this trip even more by sharing a cabinette with my travel mate, instead of each booking our own. I could also have skipped all restaurant meals, instead of eating dinner out. Those little luxuries make my photo trips more enjoyable, so for me, they are worth the money. Your priorities on where to spend and where to scrimp may be different, depending on your priorities.

Budget caveats

Not all trips can be planned as cheaply as $800, of course. My last trip to Nevada required a 4WD (four wheel drive) vehicle and even splitting that with my travel mate, we each shelled out over $400USD for the car rental. That would have been half my budget for Arizona! Speaking of Nevada versus Arizona, let’s talk about where you should go on your DIY photography retreat.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - Nevada

Road conditions in Nevada were rough. Canon 7DII with 100-400 @ 140mm, 1/3200th, f/8, ISO 1000

Location, Location, Location

Part of the appeal of a photography workshop is that most workshops are in exotic locations that you might not be willing to travel to without a guide or turnkey travel company. A trip to Antarctica, for example, requires a lot of personnel and services to make it safe. Organizing that on your own might be daunting and heading out with a workshop would probably be the best way to go.

Travel, but stay close to home

But if you don’t have the time off work to spend a month in Antarctica, that doesn’t mean all is lost. The key is to pick a location that gives you some of what you’d get in Antarctica without having to spend nearly as much money or redeeming all your vacation days in one go. Iceland in winter is one possibility. It’s easier to reach with many international airports flying there directly. It’s also possible to rent a car and travel there independently, though in some cases, like ice caving and glacier hiking, you do need to hire a guide. Overall, it’s definitely a cheaper and shorter trip than Antarctica but what if you want to skip the international flight altogether?

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - Iceland Crystal Cave

Iceland’s Crystal Caves inside the Vatnajokull Glacier Canon 70D with Tokina 11-16mm lens @ 16mm, 0.5 seconds, f/6, ISO 800, HDR.

The American midwest

One place to get awesome, icy winter images is right here in the American Midwest. In northwestern Wisconsin you can head to a little town called Bayfield, which is right off of Lake Superior. It’s about a 6-hour drive from Chicago. The Bayfield Inn is open year-round. It’s inexpensive and it’s clean. You can eat at Maggie’s, which is pretty much the only restaurant in town that stays open in the winter months. It’s good so don’t worry, you’ll love it.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Bayfield is famous because of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It’s a beautiful series of caves that in the summer are accessible only by boat or by kayak. In the winter, if you’re lucky, sometimes the caves freeze over. You can hike on Lake Superior to reach the caves, photographing as you go. Sometimes the lake freezes solidly enough that you can drive on it. The ice road runs from Bayfield over to Madeline Island, another wonderfully icy place to photograph.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat -Apostle Islands

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore icicles Canon 70D with 24-105mm lens @ 24mm, f/16, ISO 100.

More location options

While Bayfield, Wisconsin isn’t Antarctica, it’s accessible, photogenic, and budget friendly. In other words, it’s absolutely perfect for a DIY photography retreat. Some parts of Florida might be a good swap for Cuba. Mexico might be a good swap for Patagonia. Yellowstone National Park in Montana/Wyoming or Antelope Island in Utah are certainly both excellent swaps for expensive wildlife safaris.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - winter, ice, snow, cliff, Lake Superior, clouds, blue, sky, Wisconsin, retreat, Apostle Islands National Lake Shore

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Left: Canon 70D with 24-105 @ 50mm, 1/125th, f/16 ISO 100.
Right: Canon 70D with 24-105 @ 24mm, 1/100th, f/16 ISO 100.

Clearly, there are many alternate locations that can become DIY photography retreats in lieu of an expensive workshop. You just need to do a little research to find them. Once you do, you’ll probably be surprised at how many opportunities there are to shoot in your own state, or perhaps even just a state away.

How to Plan a DIY Photography Retreat - Utah

Buffalo running in the snow at Antelope Island State Park in Utah Canon 7DII with 100-400mm lens @ 348mm, 1/2000th, f/8, ISO 640.

Over to you

What do you think? Is a DIY photography retreat right for you? Can you teach yourself new techniques? Or learn from a friend? Are you comfortable reaching out to a local photographer to teach you?

What tips do you have for planning a budget-friendly and fulfilling DIY photography retreat? The dPS community would love to hear from you. Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lara Joy Brynildssen

is an avid equine, wildlife, nature and travel photographer. She is crazy about her two cats, loves her new Canon 5D Mark IV, and never refuses a sip of limoncello.
Follow her at www.LaraJoy.us.

  • Laura

    I would love to do something like this with my friends!!!! Thanks for the great idea!

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    You are welcome! It is truly a blast to travel and shoot with your friends using a DIY plan. You will make great images and learn a lot with minimal time and expense.

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    You do realize that Chicago photographers have a strictly enforced “One Bean Shot Per Year” rule? You’re done for the year. 😉

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