Wanted: Photographers to shoot in exotic, sometimes inaccessible places. Wanted: Photographer to set up shop and work with clients among the icebergs and penguins of Antarctica, the bears and frozen tundra of Hudson’s Bay, the top predators of the open velds of the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara. If that sounds like something you aspire to, what do you think of the position of the photography guide?
I had the chance to talk to three industry-leading operators about what it takes to land a job with them as a photography guide. I spoke with Susan Adie of G Adventures, who leads the MS expedition in Antarctica and around Svalbard; Jessica Burtnick of Frontiers North, which organizes tours year-round in polar bear country, Churchill Manitoba; and Marius Coetzee of Oryx Photo Tours, leaders in African wildlife adventures.
All three shops offer travelers the option of signing up for adventures that are guided or completed by expert photographers. Photography guides are primarily on hand to help customers take the best photos possible. For photographers, it’s a busy job: educating, photographing, reviewing client images, managing logistics, guiding, enriching and entertaining. The rewards for photographers are, at least in my opinion, worth it: a chance to nurture up-and-coming photographers, create new champions for habitats that need more and more supporters to stay ahead of the overwhelming environmental changes, and, of course, the benefit of being able to take photos in the most magical places on earth.
So how do you enter this world?
Passion for more than photography
Adie, Burtnick and Coetzee all came back to the same important trait they look for in photographers: passion. Adie of G Adventures emphasized that the purpose of their tours isn’t just to help passengers tick a box on their to-do list. Adie explained that it is essential that their photographers in residence care about the product and the spirit that G Adventures promotes. For G Adventures, photographers in residence must want to create a change of perspective in guests, to create ambassadors for Antarctica and the Arctic.
Burtnick explained that Frontiers North is always on the lookout for photographers who have demonstrated a commitment not only to photography, but also to the habitats their expeditions showcase. Being a great photographer is not enough, photographers must have a passion to inspire guests to stand up for the fragile places they visit.
Coetzee noted that anyone interested in becoming a photography guide should ask themselves two questions. First of all, do I like the habitats in which I will guide? Second, do I enjoy working with people to encourage their love of the same habitats?
It might seem obvious that wildlife photographers love wildlife and landscape photographers are passionate about the environment. All three vendors I spoke with insisted that a demonstrated commitment to wildlife and the environment is one of the most important criteria for onboarding photography guides.
A portfolio for traveling
Of course, you will need to be an expert to take pictures in the places where you want to work. Oryx, G Adventures and Frontiers North all explained to me that they only bring experienced photographers. To be frank, they are businesses. We can’t blame them for trying to make a profit. Photographers should expect their portfolio and experience to be used to help sell the adventures they will guide. The photographer guides will probably have spent a lot of time on site. Even for residency programs designed to help photographers in residence grow, solid evidence of successful wildlife and landscape photography is the starting point.
Frontiers North hires experienced photographer guides in a wide range of fields. Not only do they hire experienced wildlife photographers, but they hire astrophotographers, northern lights photographers, photojournalists, and landscape photographers. If you are looking to apply, make sure you have the images that might entice a passenger to join the trip.
Both Oryx and G Adventures agreed that recognition through awards is a nice addition to a photographer’s biography and can help sell some trips, but both suppliers explained that a photographer’s work must above all to inspire the guests. As Burtnick said, a photographer’s work should intrigue guests, it should make guests curious. After all, isn’t that really what these adventure providers all hope to spark in their guests, curiosity?
As every vendor says, photographers’ portfolios should inspire potential guests.
Those who can teach, do
All three vendors also highlighted the need for their photography guides to be teachers. Coetzee was clear that his photography guides had to be experts not only in taking pictures, but also in teaching beginners and advanced amateurs alike. For Oryx, their guides should be able to help clients develop their photography skills. For example, they must be able to teach guests the application of panning, slow motion, and backlighting to dynamic wildlife situations. Oryx’s goal is to help customers take home “the” photo they came from halfway around the world for.
Many adventure travel guests are not expert photographers. Clients will often take these trips to learn more about photography. Adie pointed out that the photographer guides are with their guests almost 24/7; therefore, photography guides should be patient and understanding when guests are having difficulty growing up in photography. Guides should be able to help guests learn and work with almost any brand of camera. Burtnick noted that customers will often bring upgraded rental gear, having very little knowledge of how the new gear works. Here, guides must be able to step in and help customers learn.
Anyone who has been on an expedition or safari knows that there is a lot of down time as the animals sleep until noon or the expeditions cover long distances. Here, G Adventures photography guides are to lead small workshops or ship-wide seminars. Likewise, Frontiers North expects its photographer guides to be knowledgeable about the history and ecology of Hudson’s Bay to enrich passenger downtime, providing lectures for the whole group. Coetzee expects its photography guides to review images with their guests and conduct one-on-one seminars to help guests take their photography to the next level.
It would be tempting to sit in the middle of Ngorongoro Crater about to watch a cheetah hunt, while a male bear chases a female in Wapusk National Park, or a young elephant seal rears up to hitting a towering beach master, only to grab your camera and answer a guest’s shutter speed questions with only half your attention. But, as Coetzee says, guides must be present for the guest. Building your portfolio should come far behind a guest’s needs. The best photography guides know this.
There was a time when renowned photographers took guests on safari, took their pictures and helped guests after the fact. In a competitive world, customer needs must come first. How a guide helps shape a client’s experience will be fundamental in shaping their view of the trip as a whole. A good experience means a repeat guest, it means more money flowing into local economies and helping local environments.
By the way, guides who spend so much time on social media, sharing their experience with a wider audience instead of working with their guests, are very similar to guides who work on their portfolio first. If I walk into any type of retail or service storefront and the staff is more interested in their phone than helping out, I’m not going to have a good experience. If you want your customers to have a good experience, stop focusing on yourself. You certainly won’t win a job contest with a reputable supplier if your feed is full of reels or stories of your guests hanging around in the background while you pump your tires.
Adie explained that G Adventures guides must be able to inspire guests to become Antarctic or Arctic ambassadors. Through their photography and their workshops, the photographers must help the guests to see the fragility of the environments in which they find themselves, to see how much the environments need help to survive. We are on the verge of losing some of the planet’s most iconic habitats and wildlife. If a photographer guide can’t encourage their guests to defend these places when they return home, what good are they?
Burtnick used an interesting word when we talked about the soft skills a guide needs: improve. For Frontiers North, a guide must be able to do more than show some pretty pictures and teach a new technique, they must be able to do more than fill in the dead time, they must be able to provide a deep and extensive experience, to help customers feel connected to a place.
There are a few other skills that will likely be of interest to travel suppliers looking for photography guides. As you probably know, no safari or expedition is without a hitch. A permit is revoked, a border crossing is closed, the weather delays the schedule, a passport is misplaced, a flat tire, a road is washed away, etc. Knowing the local logistics can save you the day. Understanding the language and culture of a particular place can go a long way in solving many problems. As Coetzee says, being able to help the provider holistically, on the ground, makes you not just a guide, but a partner.
It might also be useful to learn a few skills that tour operators are always looking for. Learn to drive a rigid hull inflatable boat (zodiac), take advanced first aid courses, maybe acquire your firearms license so you can do a polar bear patrol. All of these are useful extras that can help you land a position.
Getting there from here
But, of course, COVID. The past two years have decimated the travel industry. Most providers are in rebuild mode. My suggestion is to reach out, but be patient. These days, skeletal staff are struggling to keep up with the growing demand.
Build your portfolio. Find a way to demonstrate your passion for the places you want to work, get involved with relevant charities or NGOs. Build a solid resume of successful teaching experiences and take the time to take a few courses that might make you a more attractive photographer.
I’m glad to see more suggestions in the comments section below.
All images used with permission from the photographers as credited.