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Travel photography gets an upgrade

Mark Edward Harris leads a photo workshop for Walk Japan in Tokyo.Raluca Boros

Widowed and with all three of her children off at college, Yonit Viner decided to leave her empty nest and travel the world. But not just with the smartphone she uses to photograph noteworthy sunsets over the Charles River when she walks her dog at home in Cambridge.

“The phones have gotten to be amazing. But they’re limited,” said Viner, who instead invested in a single-lens reflex camera and a bag of accessories for it to memorialize her trips to Cambodia, Myanmar, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Bali, and Botswana.

“I see my world through the camera lens,” the former real-estate broker said. “There was a time when I just didn’t bother with the SLR, but I realized that what you can do with a camera can’t be compared to what you can do with a phone. So now I am going back to it.”


So are legions of other travelers. Conventional cameras are on the rebound among vacationers — especially those bound for the world’s most picturesque destinations — and the travel industry is responding with special photo expeditions, photo workshops, and professional photographer guides on group tours, cruises, and safaris.

“As equipment has evolved and become more advanced and affordable, people are now going back to traveling with cameras” and not just smartphones, said Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, which operates safari vacations.

African Travel operates a photographic safari led by a professional photographer.handout

Among the hottest gifts during the holidays were digital SLRs, once used mainly by professionals, whose prices have fallen to as little as $450, and which make it easy to post high-quality photos on social media. Sales are also up of even pricier but more compact and portable new mirrorless cameras that capture ultra-high definition.

Small-ship cruise provider Lindblad Expeditions now includes a photo workshop on every trip. Uniworld, which runs river cruises, has photography-themed itineraries with travel photographer Marc Edward Harris. Globus added a photography tour to a Barcelona package last year for which there turned out to be so much demand, it’s looking at doing the same thing this year in other European cities.


“We’re seeing more requests for photography tours as an option,” said Steve Born, a vice president at Globus. “People appreciate the value of capturing these places that in a lot of cases they’ve waited their entire lives to see. And while there’s a place and a time for the phone camera, I think there’s more and more of a place and a time for what I’ll call a real camera.”

African Travel operates a “photographic safari” led by a professional photographer on an off-road vehicle bristling with stationary tripods. Alexander & Roberts has added a photo tour to Ethiopia. Avanti Destinations sells four-hour private walking tours with local professional photographers in Athens and Ho Chi Minh City as part of its escorted trips. And Abercrombie & Kent is offering photo expeditions to Iceland, Greenland, Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, and other destinations with professional wildlife photographers and photography coaches leading daily workshops.

“We see an increase of not just the number of people keenly interested in the photography, but the level of equipment they’re bringing,” said Bob Simpson, Abercrombie & Kent’s vice president of expedition cruising. “People recognize that in places where they’re trying to get good landscape photography, where they need the benefit of magnifying the shot, you just can’t do that with a smartphone.”


Larry Hobbs leads an Abercrombie & Kent photo expedition in Antarctica.Marco Favero

The travel arm of the company perhaps most closely associated with scenic photography, National Geographic, has added a series of destination photo workshops and photo expeditions so popular that almost all of this year’s expeditions are sold out, including the newest, to Cuba. The one- to seven-day destination photo workshops are being expanded from the current sessions in New York and San Francisco to Austin, Boulder, and Santa Fe.

“Any time we’re putting together a new program now, we build a photo program into it,” said Scott Kish, vice president of guest experiences for National Geographic Travel. “People enjoy photography like they enjoy cooking. It’s something they’re becoming more and more passionate about — capturing the moment, and remembering it.”

Much of the credit for the revival of interest in high-quality photography, say experts, goes to . . . the smartphone.

“Smartphones made photography ubiquitous,” said Harris, who will serve for part of this semester as a visiting scholar at Suffolk University. “And now that we’re all photographers all the time, some of us want to be better photographers. People think, ‘Wow, I can do this. I want to do more with it.’”

Steve Juba calls the camera phone a gateway to his customers’ resurgent interest in the photo tours he leads. The North Andover native and Northeastern grad, who got into photography himself as a student at what was then called Governor Dummer (now Governor’s) Academy, runs the PhotoFly Travel Club, which goes to places that are distinctly photogenic in Hawaii, Vietnam, Cambodia, Costa Rica, China, and elsewhere.


“It’s become a pretty decent-sized niche in the travel industry,” said Juba, whose guests have included Yonit Viner. “When I’m building these adventures, photography is one of the things that’s of utmost importance—where can we go, that even people who have been to these countries before may not have been, to get some really interesting and unique photographs.”

But not with smartphones.

“As good as the phones are, unless they morph into an SLR, they’re always going to be limited in zoom and quality,” Juba said.

More sophisticated cameras, by comparison, allow the user to better manage the aperture and focus, said Harris, who will lead a “floating photo workshop” in August and September off Burgundy and Bordeaux for Uniworld.

“I think the iPhone’s great, but there’s not the control,” he said. “If you really want to use F-stops effectively, you can’t do that with an iPhone.” Conventional cameras “are more about self expression. You can express yourself more. If you can create an original image from what’s out there that really is still beautiful and amazing, that’s the ideal.”

Especially for travelers. One of the comments he hears more and more from his safari guests, said Banda, “is, ‘Wow, I wish I had a real camera.’ You can’t really capture the essence of the animals and the detail of what you’re seeing with your eye on a smartphone. And it’s not every day that you can come face to face with an elephant or a lion. You do want to capture it in a really remarkable and memorable way.”


With an emphasis, said other experts, on “memorable.”

People are less willing to entrust their memories to smartphone photos, Banda said. “It’s like reliving this experience, every time you see this picture.” Added Kish: “In general it plays into the trend of, people are tired of collecting things other than memories. And photography can capture memories.”

Good photos have another advantage travelers have sought since the days they returned from their vacations and invited friends and relatives to endure their slides projected from a carousel: They make other people jealous.

“Social media has taken bragging rights to a whole new level,” said Dan Austin, president of Montana-based Austin Adventures, which operates “active adventure” and family vacations worldwide.

There’s increasing competition among travelers, too. When Abercrombie & Kent ran a photography contest for passengers on a Northwest Passage cruise last year, 80 percent of them entered, Simpson said.

John Nickerson, whose photos from Tanzania and South Africa won a photo competition run last year by the safari provider Lion World, lugged 40 pounds of camera gear with him. But the ends justify the means, he said. So good were his photos, they not only won the contest; he’s printed them on canvas and sells them in a gallery he co-owns, Courtyard Art Gallery, in Charleston, South Carolina

“Your smartphone is something that you use for pictures of your daily life,” Nickerson said. But “travel,” he said, “is something special.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jon@mysecretboston.com.