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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.
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.
Here are the advantages of creating your own DIY photography retreat, rather than going on a photography workshop with an instructor. You get to:
There are, of course, disadvantages to being a do-it-yourselfer. You’ll have to:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a proposed retreat itinerary for you, to maximize your shooting time:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.