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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Once Is Not Enough

The pluses and pleasures of backtracking

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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Granted, the hotel hadn’t seen an upgrade since the Soviet era, but it was clean and safe and had a great view of the Neva River—plus, I was theonly American in the joint! I got two extra full days of glorious sunshine, and when the tour began and I moved to my luxury digs, it started raining nonstop for the next three days! I don’t care how expensive your hotel is, it still can’t fix the weather. So, thanks to a small investment of time and money, I got some updated keepers of this fascinating city that I ordinarily wouldn’t have captured.

I try to identify the key sites at a place and plan to shoot them at least two different times of day. In St. Petersburg, the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood is one of the city’s icons, with colorful onion domes that just say “Russia.” I went during the afternoon and got it with a nice blue sky background, but I also went back at twilight to catch the beautifully lit towers against a rich twilight sky.

Going back to identified high-quality targets in different light and weather is a staple of shooting alone on assignment, and if you’re willing to leave a meal early or arrive at breakfast a little late, you can pull the same thing off on a group tour. But that’s not the only tough decision that you may face during a group tour; sometimes you have to let something go in order to have the time to visually explore something else.

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On this same tour, we were brought into Bilbao, Spain, to visit the fantastic Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. You’ve seen the pictures of this free-form titanium structure I’m sure. Well, the tour was going to last two hours—two hours for the exterior and the interior! There’s no question about what’s more interesting; it’s the exterior. It’s a huge rambling place on a river, so getting a good overview of the place meant crossing the river on a nearby bridge.

As much as I wanted to see the exhibits, I knew I’d need the time for the exterior so I skipped the interior tour and did all my exploration from the outside. I shot color and black-and-white infrared, and had time to go clear across the river for overviews and different angles. I was ruing the fact that I had missed the interior when I hooked up again with the group, only to find that interior photography wasn’t allowed! Even if it were, my choice to bypass it would have been the right choice (for photography, maybe not for art appreciation!), but, boy, did I feel better about my decision after getting that news from my fellow tour members.

Even though I have a thirst for visiting new places, I’ll never turn down an opportunity to go back to a particularly interesting place, especially in a different season. One of my first jobs for the then-new National Geographic Traveler magazine back in the ’80s was to shoot a city profile of Salzburg, Austria, during the summer festival. Twenty years later, I was offered the same assignment, this time in winter. I jumped at the chance, of course, and I was amazed at how different, and even more beautiful, the city was in the dead of winter—fewer tourists, more hotel availability and postcard-pretty snowscapes.

Winter, or off-season travel in general, is a great way to revisit a place. It’s cheaper and less crowded, which means your chances of getting pictures that aren’t loaded with other tourists are greater, and you’ll have more of a chance to slow down and relate with the locals instead of fellow tourists. So try a little “slow travel” instead of “fast tourism” on your next trip, and watch how your photography improves.

Photo Tours
One way around the tour group photo dilemma is to take a photo tour. While a photo tour is still a group tour, it’s usually led by a professional photographer, and the itinerary is optimized to put you in the right place at the right time. One of the corollaries to the digital photography boom is the resultant boom in workshop and photo tour organizers. Running photo tours used to be a niche business, but now the field is getting crowded, with tours sometimes led by those with a workshop or two under their belts (as students) and a website. So, buyer beware. Here are a few key things to look for when considering a photo tour or photo tour operator.

Group Size. The larger the group, the less customizable and flexible your itinerary becomes. Six to eight participants is ideal—for some places you can go up to 12 to 14—but if the number gets above that, you’ve lost the ability to react spontaneously to lighting and weather conditions (due to the exigencies of housing, feeding and transporting large groups of people, especially in the developing world).

Leader Qualification. Is your leader an experienced and published pro? Does he or she have a photo career outside of tour leading? These are questions that you’ll want to ask, as many photo tour leaders these days are veritable tyros themselves, organizing tours to subsidize their own travel. That’s not to say that a beginner may not be a good photo tour leader, but experience is essential.

Company History. How long has your tour operator been in business? Can you get a list of references from past tour members? What’s the company’s track record? These are key considerations when choosing a photo-tour provider.

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the “Teach and Talk” heading.

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