Safaris Where the Hunt Is for the Perfect Picture
THE golden light was falling on the Mojave Desert, but no matter where Alberto Zanella pointed his fancy new camera, the rusting chemical tanks looked like an orange blur. He tried steadying the camera by kneeling on the sand, to no avail. Then he tried fidgeting with the autofocus mode, but wasn’t sure how — the manual was back at the hotel.
Happily, a photography teacher was by his side. “He told me to lower my aperture,” said Dr. Zanella, 30, from Bethesda, Md., who was using a Nikon D80, a digital single-lens-reflex camera he bought over the holidays. To learn how to operate it, he flew cross-country to join other amateur photographers for a weekend class. “This gives me an excuse to shoot.”
Taking photos while traveling used to be an afterthought, like airport souvenirs. But thanks to the boom in digital cameras, vacation photos have proliferated like spam. There’s no film to waste, no Fotomats to visit and oodles more pictures to clog e-mail inboxes. But are those pictures any good?
A growing number of shutterbugs seem to think not, and that has given rise to a popular new trend in travel: photography safaris. Combining guided tours to exotic locales with hands-on instruction, photo safaris seek to turn the everyday Ofoto user into a budding Ansel Adams.
“They are a huge and growing market,” said Reid Callanan, the director of Sante Fe Workshops (www.santafeworkshops.com), a photography school that offers dozens of tours every year, including a seven-day workshop in Tuscany with National Geographic photographers. “Everybody and their brother, most major photo magazines and many photographers are doing them.”
Workshop regulars rave about the camaraderie. Everybody is there to take pictures and talk shop. And thanks to the immediacy of digital photography, there are daily critique sessions, giving students instant feedback on their work. Students are not only escorted to postcard-ready spots, but are taught how to take postcard-perfect shots.
That was the idea anyway last January, when about 30 amateur photographers gathered near Barstow, Calif., along a tumbledown stretch of Route 66 in the Mojave Desert. Unlike most photo safaris, which are held in conventionally photogenic places like Paris or Bhutan, the focus was the rotting architecture, corroded salt flats and black volcanic craters that litter this desert landscape. “We are photographing the disappearance of the industrial age,” said Dave Wyman, a freelance photographer who ran the three-day safari.
Friday began at Tom’s, a welding and machine shop with a surrounding junkyard, on the north fringes of town. Arriving in a caravan of SUVs and minivans, the students fanned out like wolves under the low desert sun, poking their lenses into rusty antique cars, spying shadows on scrap metal and sniffing through detritus for photo ops. The students came prepared. Camera bags were stuffed with lenses, memory cards, assorted filters and spare batteries. Many brought along tripods, including one gentleman who flew all the way from England to photograph what he called the “real America.” A few wore flak jackets, as if on assignment.
And unlike so many snap-happy tourists, no one was in a rush to leave. They took their sweet time, calibrating their angles and peeling back the visual layers like an onion. “Turn everything into an abstract,” said Richard Nolthenius, an astronomer from Santa Cruz, Calif., as he studied a pile of rusty metal parts.
As the sun straddled the horizon, the class moved to the old Barstow train station, clicking away as freight trains screeched by on the steel tracks. Blurry shots became even blurrier as the sun went down and the moon rose.
It wasn’t until dinner, at a scrappy Mexican restaurant in town, that the group began to socialize and explain why they came. “I bought a camera two years ago, but I don’t know how to use it,” said Charlene Gerrish, 61, a painter from Carmel, Calif. “I normally use a point-and-shoot, but I’m trying to graduate to this camera — a Canon D20 or something."
Others were technically proficient, even nerdy. “You can learn through a book, but here you can share ideas,” said Kevin Burke, 56, a retired government employee from Las Vegas. “I shoot every day, but I wanted to go out with like-minded photogeeks.”
He had plenty of company. Dinner conversation revolved around such topics as shooting in JPEG or RAW, when to use a polarizing filter, whether Canon is superior to Nikon and, the perennial favorite, PC versus Mac. The art of photography, “when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality,” as Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, seemed to be beside the point.
After dinner, the group retired to the Holiday Inn Express, which is about as nice as hotels get in Barstow. Not that students expected much. The cost of the photo safari — including tuition, lodging, dinner and a guest lecturer, Ken Rockwell, who runs a popular photography Web site — was only $375.
There are, of course, much fancier photo safaris out there. National Geographic Expeditions, for example, runs a seven-day workshop in Venice that costs $4,870, and Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, based in Vashon Island, Wash., has a photography workshop in Antarctica that starts at $11,795 and includes a crew of 10 nature photographers, naturalists and wildlife biologists.
But picking a photo safari is not just about price. There’s a difference between photo workshops, which are structured around formal lessons, and photo tours, where the teacher basically chaperones tourists around to various Kodak Moments. The Mojave safari fell into the latter category.
SATURDAY was another picture-perfect day, with an eerie morning fog hugging the barren desert. Much of the afternoon was spent darting from one quirky attraction to the next: a town cemetery, the Baghdad Cafe, an abandoned gas station, the Pisgah Volcano, a pigeon-infested motel and a mom-and-pop chemical factory. It was a journey back in time, somewhere between the industrial and atomic ages.
After a dinner of burgers and beer, the class reconvened at the Holiday Inn Express, turning the lobby into a makeshift classroom. Computer displays were hooked up. Laptops were plugged in. Despite having no time to edit the day’s shoot, several people volunteered to show their work.
Some were quite good, eliciting oohs and aahs from envious students. What lens did you use? Where was that taken? How did you do that? But most were unremarkable — a pretty sunset, a cute dog — and illustrated the enormous gap between a snapshot and a photograph.
Still, the students were eager to see more, perhaps to feel better about their own pictures. But no one else was offering. “I don’t think so,” said Marcee Chipman, 59, a lawyer from San Diego. “Not unless you want to see all 500 of mine.”
Photo safaris combine picturesque guided tours and in-the-field camera lessons. Fees usually include intuition, lodging and some meals.
National Geographic Expeditions (www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com; 866-797-4686) has a 10-day tour of the Galápagos islands starting at $4,150.
Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks (www.digitaldaysphoto.com/mentorseries; 888-676-6468) offers a three-day shoot of cowboys in Rothbury, Mich., for $899.