Hardship tours are worth it
From standing knee-deep in snow with the wind howling at -40 deg C in Inner Mongolia to trekking up craggy mountains in the dead of night to capture the sunrise, some hobbyist photographers in Singapore are going above and beyond just to get that perfect shot.
The number of photography expeditions - organised tours with photography-focused itineraries - is on the rise here thanks to the growing number of photography enthusiasts who seek the road less travelled and the opportunity to learn new camera skills along the way.
Hobbyist photographers say there are about 10 camera companies and travel agencies now organising photography expeditions, up from three just a couple of years ago.
Canon Imaging Academy, which runs photography courses, workshops and outings, offered its first overseas photography expedition to Bali in 2008, but did not start holding regular expedition tours until 2011.
Meals, travel time and sleeping hours all revolve around shooting schedules. This often means early morning starts and some late nights when the sky is clear and the stars are bright.
It has since conducted 23 trips with more than 270 participants, running an average of six tours a year to destinations such as Penang, Myanmar and Inner Mongolia.
National Geographic and Sony run similar tours, as do travel agencies and tour operators such as Insight Vacations. The latter launched its 18-day Picture Perfect Italy itinerary a couple of years ago.
Chan Brothers Travel agency will host its first photography-focused tours to Lapland and the backwaters of Kerala later this year.
A spokesperson for Insight Vacations says there has been about a 20 per cent increase in interest in photography trips since its launch: "Whether you are holding a DSLR, pocket camera or smartphone, travellers who enjoy taking nice pictures are booking experiences where they will be taught perspective and composition skills and have on-the-spot practical sessions to test their skills during the trip."
Such photography tours are helmed by knowledgeable local guides and professional photographers from Singapore who lead five to 20 participants on each tour.
Itineraries are developed through scouting trips with help from local guides and photographers on the ground, so tour leaders know the best vantage points and times to shoot.
Meals, travel time and sleeping hours all revolve around shooting schedules.
This often means early morning starts and some late nights when the sky is clear and the stars are bright.
While some tours - such as those to nearby destinations such as Mount Bromo or Kuala Lumpur - may last only a few days, others can take more than two weeks as photographers venture deep into the wilderness.
Mr Joseph Mak, 37, who founded Unusual Expedition photography travel agency last year, leads an average of 20 trips a year to destinations such as Jordan, Namibia, Kamchatka, Iceland, Norway and Romania with travel photographer and tour director David Lawrence Lim.
People who go on these trips don't expect luxury so no one complains.''
MR GAN CHONG BIN, who went on photography trips to Myanmar and Guilin, China earlier this year, on how the trips can be strenuous
Mr Mak says that even when they go to more familiar countries, such as China and Malaysia, the photography tours' approach to the destination and its highlights is different from the that of the typical sightseeing tour.
"We gear the itinerary around special festivals or events, to see remote tribes and unique landscapes that are not on the normal tourist trail. We're not going shopping," he says.
In Romania, his tour group attended a local wedding, helped out at a farm, shared drinks with a shepherd tending his flock and spent the night in villagers' homes.
These experiences provided photographers not only an insight into daily Romanian life, but also a unique perspective for their lenses.
And on trips to Kamchatka, a 270,000 sq km peninsula in the Russian Far East, Mr Mak has led groups to active volcanoes, a petrified forest, ice caves and a brown bear habitat so remote that it could be accessed only by helicopter.
Mr Adrian Loh, 39, director and principal photographer of Singapore Trekker, which runs overseas adventure- and photography- focused tours at least once a month, says the stylistic and technical expertise provided by the professional photographers who lead the tours is what photography enthusiasts are looking for.
"Our tours are more like educational workshops. You get to learn how to manipulate your camera settings to achieve certain creative effects, you learn about composition, thematic shooting and technical aspects such as slow shutter, hyperfocal and astrophotography," he says.
Most tours maintain a ratio of one instructor to six to eight participants, so everyone has individualised attention, and groups often get together a few weeks after the tour to reconnect and share their best photos.
Semi-retired engineer Wong Toon Suan, 61, has been on 10 photography expeditions and says his photography has greatly improved since his first trip in 2012.
"When you are around professionals and other enthusiasts for five to 10 days or more, you will share techniques, tips and critiques with one another while on location or during meals.
"We can all be lined up for the same sunrise, but we are looking at different things, will have different framing and a different zoom, and it is interesting to see what other people saw that you did not."
Anyone can join the trips, regardless of prior photography experience or equipment.
Most instructors advise photographers to bring their camera body of choice with a wide angle, utility and telephoto lens.
Instructors on trips organised by Canon carry extra lenses for participants to borrow if needed.
The only pre-requisite for the trips is that you have to be fit, and organisers make known the physical requirements and anticipated weather conditions well before people sign up. While some trips may include four- or five-star accommodation and transport from location to location, others may include long treks, hours in sub-zero temperatures and nights spent in mountain villages or tents.
Mr Gan Chong Bin, 59, who attended Canon-led trips to Myanmar and Guilin, China, earlier this year, says the strenuous nature of some of the trips is part-and-parcel of the experience.
"Trekking 3.5km up and down mountainous tracks can be tough, and getting up early to catch the sunrise or staying up late can be quite tiring, but people who go on these trips don't expect luxury so no one complains," he says.
Depending on the destination, length of trip and whether airfare is included (it often is not), the expeditions can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
An 11-day trip to Western Mongolia with Singapore Trekker costs $3,899 a person, based on double occupancy and excluding airfare, while a three-day Angkor Wat experience with the same company costs $400.
Mr Lau Eng Seng, 59, who works in finance and went on 12 photography trips last year, says you get what you pay for in accommodation, transport and technical know-how.
"Everything is taken care of, so I don't need to spend time planning the itinerary and figuring out what are the best photography spots and how to get there.
"Going with a group of like-minded people who are passionate about photography also makes a difference," he says.
His favourite trip to date has been to Iceland, for its peaceful and stunning scenery.
He stood in -15 deg C weather for three hours to photograph the Northern Lights, but it was all worth it.
"Yes, you can see it on the Internet or buy a postcard, but it's not the same.
"When the photograph is taken from my camera, from my point of view, with my effort, deep in my heart I know the image is mine.
"To know that you've been there and captured that shot, you can't take that away from someone who cares about photography.
"So the cold doesn't matter, not when it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."