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Should You Hire A Photography Guide?

May 19, 2010

There are two types of outdoor photographers: those who need help getting to the right place at the right time and those who don’t.  If you are of the latter persuasion, you can stop reading now.  Really, I mean it…stop reading.  Okay, that’s better.  For the rest of you, let’s spend some time discussing just what to expect when you hire a photography guide.

The business of guiding outdoor photographers isn’t new.  However, in the past few years guiding has experienced significant growth.  I blame it on the digital revolution – everyone has a camera and almost everyone is a photographer.  I have seen guides advertised in Outdoor Photographer and all over the internet who are available to lead you on a private photo tour in just about every state.  But what can they do for you?

What Do Photo Guides Do and How Much Do They Charge?

What a guide does and how much they charge for their services varies tremendously.  One thing almost all of them have in common is that you can usually depend on them to lead you to the right place at the right time.  Some guides service only iconic locations while others will spend several days backpacking with you in remote and forbidding territory.  Some guides offer personal instruction, image critiques, portfolio reviews, digital darkroom tutorials, and more.  Guide fees are all over the board and may range from $150/day to more than $2,500/day with a prominent photographer.  Surely the more you pay the better the guide, right?  Nope.  Not even close.  In my research it seems that $300 to $500/day is the average going rate.  Generally speaking, paying more than that buys you the opportunity to rub shoulders with a heavy hitter.

How Do I Know What I’m Getting For My Money?

This is easy – just ask ’em.  It’s your money and you deserve to know what you’re paying for.  Check out their websites for details about their services.  If you don’t find what you’re looking for there don’t hesitate to send an email or give them a call.  Ask questions.  What does the guide fee cover?  Park entry fees, transportation, meals/snacks?  Will they be available to answer your questions or will they show you where to set up your tripod and then disappear to make their own images?  It isn’t necessarily a bad thing if they plan to break out their camera.  I’ve often had clients tell me that they learned a lot watching me work.  But, I think it’s important for you, the client, to know what to expect on your guided tour.  Perhaps even more important, if you expect your guide to never leave your side you should tell them so.  Successful guides have mastered the art of managing expectations.

How Do I Know If The Guide I’d Like To Hire Is Any Good?

Check their website for testimonials.  Sure, they could be faked but at least it’s a good start.  If you’re still not convinced, ask the guide if you can contact a prior customer or two.  If he balks at that idea I’d have to wonder why.  Perhaps a phone conversation with the guide may help to ease your mind.  Spending all day with someone with whom you have a major personality clash pretty much sucks.  It sucks even more when you’re paying them.

What Will The Schedule Be Like?

Excellent question!  Most guides offer full or half day tours.  Find out what that means.  Does a full day tour mean you’re in the field from sunrise to sunset?  Will there be a break during mid-day?  I always build in a break to allow us both to recharge batteries (both literally and metaphorically), download images, eat and relax.  Not all guides do this.  If you need or want a break, be sure to relay that information to your guide.  On the other hand, if you expect to be in the field the entire day, be sure to tell your guide that, too.

Does “Private” Mean It’s Just Me?

Don’t automatically assume it’ll just be you and your guide.  Some guides only do small group tours.  It would suck to show up thinking you will have the guide’s undivided attention only to discover there are 2 or 3 strangers tagging along.  Often this information can be obtained on their website.  When it isn’t spelled out there, call or email them.

Is My Guide Legit?

This is a big one, in my opinion.  The Feds require that anyone operating commercially on their property do so with a permit in hand.  National parks, BLM, Forest Service or national monument – they are all regulated to some degree.  Find out if your guide has the proper permits.  Being permitted also means that he will be carrying liability insurance and most likely, a first aid and CPR certification.

While we’re on the topic, help your guide plan a productive and fun trip by telling him if you have any medical issues or physical limitations.  You don’t want your guide planning a lengthy hike if you aren’t capable of completing it.  A good guide can and will customize the tour to your interests and abilities.

Why Should I Hire A Guide?

I’m a pretty independent dude.  When I’m traveling somewhere new I research the living daylights out of the place until I have a pretty firm grasp on how to photograph the area.  It’s a time intensive process and I’m not always successful.  Usually, but not always.  I’ll be posting an article soon on what I do to prepare for a trip, so check back often so you don’t miss that post.

But, what if you don’t have the time or interest in doing all that research?  Hiring a guide can be a great way to ensure that you are maximizing your time on the ground at a new location.  Guides should be intimately familiar with the areas in which they operate.  This is important because as the seasons change, so do the photo opportunities.  For example, if you come to Arches in April to photograph the Three Gossips you might be really disappointed to find them completely in the shadow of The Organ until well after sunrise.  A knowledgeable guide would know this and be able to steer you in the right direction.

Although not a critical point, it’s always nice to work with a guide who is, on some level, a naturalist.  If he knows a little bit about the flora, fauna, history and geology of the area it will certainly make your trip more enjoyable.

A guided photo tour can be an excellent way to best experience a new area through your camera’s viewfinder.  With these tips in mind I’m confident you’re fully prepared to make the most of your private guided photo tour.  If you’re interested in learning more about my services, I invite you to visit the Moab Photo Workshops website.  Here you will also find a directory of reputable guides throughout North America.  Please note that I have not updated the directory recently and rates as quoted may have changed.

I love reading your comments!  If you’ve got something to add please take a moment to leave a comment.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe Rogers permalink
    May 19, 2010 10:20 am

    Thanks Bret,
    Good info on guides. Many of us do not do landscape work full time, live long distances away from areas we photograph and do not have the outdoor expertise to safely strike out to some locals alone. I like to photograph in the Southwest as well and in Arkansas and you can get yourself in a whole lot of trouble fast going off unprepared in both places. When on location, I do not want to spend my time scouting. I want to cover as much ground as possible and a good guide is sometimes the best answer. Joe Rogers

    • May 20, 2010 5:03 pm

      Glad you found the information useful, Joe. There is no doubt that using a guide can allow you to maximize your time on-location as it eliminates the need to scout the area. Also a very valid point that in such wild and extreme locations as the Southwest it’s easy to get yourself in trouble while wandering alone in unfamiliar terrain. I hadn’t even considered that but it’s a super valid point. Thanks for bringing it up!

  2. May 19, 2010 1:20 pm

    Excellent info Bret! You covered nearly everything. I’m surprised that I’ve never seen anyone else write an article on this important topic. I’ve been guiding for a couple of years but am taking this year off to spend more time doing my own shooting. One of the things that I would emphasize is how important it is to be very honest and realistic about your physical condition, this will make it a better trip for both of you. Also, I would encourage you to communicate with your guide before you come, clearly expressing your interests and expectations so the right trip can be planned by the guide. Local knowledge can make all the difference in getting the types of photos you are after. I often can wake up, look at the sky and know where I need to be that morning for sunrise because I’m so familiar with my area and how the different weather conditions will affect my options.

    • May 20, 2010 4:51 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Erik. Really good points, especially the one about being honest with your guide about your physical capabilities. I didn’t know you weren’t guiding this year but it sounds like you’ve got plenty of projects to keep you busy. Really looking forward to seeing some new work from you in 2010!

  3. May 19, 2010 1:33 pm

    Hey Bret

    Excellent topic, and a timely one. A useful post for a lot of people, I’m sure.



  4. May 19, 2010 3:39 pm


    Knowledge about guide services is a great topic. Having taken advantage of your services twice, and for very different shoots, I have to say I made an excellent decision. In both situations, you listened to my desires, provided excellent tips, and structured our limited time together to take advantage of the available light. Best of all, when the situation changed due to weather, your local knowledge provided options I would have missed.

    When it came time to choose a guide for a recent Oregon trip I used everything I’d learned from you to help make my decision. I consider myself an avid amateur with some opportunity to profit from my work if I do it right so I have added incentive to make good choices. Without question, my choosing to use a guide has quickened my learning curve as well as provided me with the opportunity to “bag” significantly acceptable images. Would I have been able to do this alone? Eventually. I may have reached the level I’m at today, but to me, the question is better asked … “How long would it have taken me to even get started?”

    To anyone needing to make the most of limited time, a guide can be a terrific investment, and from experience, I’d also point out you are likely to get much more for your investment than you expect.

    • May 20, 2010 4:55 pm

      Thoughtful response, Ray. It’s great to hear the feedback of a client in addition to the responses from guides. Glad you had a great time in Oregon. Killer images from the trip, too!

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