Wanted: Photographers to shoot in exotic, sometimes inaccessible locales. Needed: Photographer to set up shop and work with clients among the icebergs and penguins of Antarctica, the bears and icy tundra of Hudson Bay, the apex predators on the wide-open veldts of the Serengeti or Maasai Mara. If this sounds like something you yearn for, how does the position of photography guide sound?
I had a chance to talk to three industry-leading operators about what it takes to land a position working with them as a photographic guide. I spoke with Susan Adie of G Adventures, who operates the MS Expedition in Antarctica and around Svalbard; Jessica Burtnick of Frontiers North, who runs 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 chance to sign up for adventures guided or complimented by expert photographers. Photography guides are primarily on location to help clients take the best photographs possible. For the photographers, it's a busy job: educating, shooting, reviewing client images, dealing with logistics, guiding, enriching, and entertaining. The rewards for the photographers are, at least in my opinion, well worth it: a chance to nurture up-and-coming photographers, creating new champions for habitats that need more and more supporters to stay ahead of the crushing environmental changes, and, of course, the benefit of getting to take photographs in the most magical places on earth.
So, just how do you get into this world?
Passion for More Than Photography
Adie, Burtnick, and Coetzee all kept coming back to the same important trait that they look for in photographers: passion. Adie of G Adventures emphasized that the goal of their tours isn't just to help passengers tick off a box on their bucket list. Adie explained that it's critical that their photographers in residence care about the product and mindset that G Adventures are promoting. For G Adventures, the photographers in residence must want to encourage a change in perspective among the guests, to create ambassadors for the Antarctic and Arctic.
Burtnick explained that Frontiers North is always looking for photographers who have demonstrated commitment not just to photography, but to the habitats that their expeditions feature. Being a great photographer isn't enough, photographers have to have a passion for inspiring the guests to take up the defense of the fragile places they visit.
Coetzee noted that anyone looking to become a photography guide should ask themselves two questions. First, do I love the habitats I'll be guiding in? Second, do I love working with people to encourage their love of the same habitats?
It may seem like a given that wildlife photographers love wildlife and that landscape photographs are passionate about the environment. All three of the providers I talked with were emphatic that a demonstrated commitment to advocacy for the wildlife and the environment is one of the most important criteria for bringing photography guides onboard.
A Portfolio to Travel For
Of course, you're going to have to be an expert at taking images in the places you want to work. Oryx, G Adventures, and Frontiers North all explained to me that they only bring experienced photographers on board. To be frank, these are companies. We can't begrudge that they're looking to make a profit. Photographers should expect that their portfolio and experience will be used to help sell the adventures they'll guide on. Photography guides will likely have spent a significant amount of time on location. Even for residence programs that are designed to help the photographers in residence grow, strong evidence of successful wildlife and landscape photography is the starting point.
Frontiers North hires photography guides that are experienced in a broad range of fields. Not only do they hire photographers that are well experienced in wildlife, but they'll hire astrophotographers, aurora-photographers, photojournalists, and landscape photographers. If you're looking to apply, make sure you have the images that might tempt a passenger to join the trip.
Oryx and G Adventures both agreed that recognition through awards is a nice addition to a photographer's bio and may help to sell certain trips, but, both providers explained that primarily, a photographer's work has to inspire guests. As Burtnick put it, a photographer's work should be intriguing to guests, it should make guests curious. After all, isn't that really what these adventure providers are all hoping to encourage in their guests, curiosity?
As each and every provider put it, photographers' portfolios have to inspire potential guests.
Those Who Can Teach, Do
All three providers also emphasized the need for their photography guides to be teachers. Coetzee was clear that his photography guides must be experts not just at taking photographs, but in teaching beginners and advanced amateurs alike. For Oryx, their guides must be able to help guests expand their photographic skill set. For example, they must be able to teach guests about the application of panning, slow motion, and backlighting to dynamic wildlife situations. The goal for Oryx is to help guests take home "that" photo they came halfway around the world for.
A lot of guests on adventure trips are not expert photographers. Guests will often take these trips to learn about photography. Adie pointed out that photography guides are with their guests almost 24/7; therefore, the photography guides must be patient and understanding when guests experience photography growing pains. Guides must be able to help guests learn and work with almost any brand of camera. Burtnick noted that guests will often bring upgraded rental gear, having very little knowledge of how the new gear works. Here, guides have to be able to step in and help guests learn.
Anyone who has been on an expedition or safari knows that there is a lot of downtimes while animals sleep through midday or the expeditions cover long distances. Here, photography guides with G Adventures are expected to run small workshops or ship-wide seminars. Similarly, Frontiers North expects their photography guides to be knowledgeable about Hudson Bay's history and ecology to enrich passengers' downtime, providing lectures for the entire group. Coetzee expects his photography guides to review images with their guests and to provide one-on-one seminars to help the guests push their photography to the next level.
It would be tempting when you're sitting in the middle of the Ngorongoro Crater about to watch a cheetah hunt, while a male bear pursues a female in Wapusk National Park, or while a young elephant seal bull rears up to strike at a dominant beachmaster, to pick up your camera and answer the questions about shutter speed from a guest with only half your attention. But, as Coetzee puts it, guides have to be present for the guest. Building your portfolio must come a distant second to the needs of a guest. The best photographic guides know this.
There was a time when big-name photographers took guests out on safari, shot their images, and helped the guests as an afterthought. In a competitive world, guests' needs have to come first. How a guide helps to shape a guest's experience will be fundamental in shaping their perspective of the trip overall. A good experience means a repeat guest, it means more money flowing into local economies and helping local environments.
As a side note, guides who spend as much time on social media, sharing their experience with a broader audience instead of working with their guests, are very similar to those guides who work on their portfolio first. If I walk into any kind of retail or service storefront and the staff are more interested in their phones than helping me, I'm not going to have a good experience. If you want your clients to have a good experience, stop focussing on yourself. You certainly won't win a job competition with a reputable provider if your feed is full of reels or stories of your guests standing around in the background while you pump your tires.
Adie explained that G Adventures' guides must be able to inspire guests to become ambassadors for the Antarctic or Arctic. Through their photography and their workshops, photographers must help guests see the fragility of the environments they're in, to see how much help the environments need to survive. We're on the cusp of losing some of the most iconic habitats and wildlife on earth. If a photographic guide can't encourage their guests to stand up for 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: enhance. For Frontiers North a guide must be able to do more than show off a few pretty photographs and teach a new technique, they must be able to do more than fill downtime, they must be able to provide an experience of depth and breadth, to help guests feel like they've connected to a place.
There are a few other skills that will likely interest travel providers who are looking for photography guides. As you probably know, no safari or expedition is without its hiccups. A permit is revoked, a border crossing is closed, the weather sets the schedule behind, a passport is misplaced, a flat tire, a road is washed out, et cetera. Being familiar with the local logistics can save the day. Understanding the language and the culture of a particular place can go a long way to solving many a problem. As Coetzee puts it, being able to help out the provider in a holistic way, on the ground, makes you not just a guide, but a partner.
Perhaps as well, it would be useful to pick up a few skills that tour providers are always looking for. Learn to drive a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (zodiac), pick up some advanced first aid courses, perhaps acquire your gun license so you can run 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 last two years have decimated the travel industry. Most providers are in rebuilding mode. My suggestion is to reach out, but be patient. These days, skeleton staffs are struggling to keep up with returning demand.
Build your portfolio. Find a way to demonstrate your passion for the locations you want to work in, get involved with relevant charities or NGOs. Build a strong resume of successful teaching experiences and take time to complete a few courses that might make you a more attractive photographer.
I'm excited to see any other suggestions in the comment section below.
All images used with permission of the photographers as credited.