How to get awesome photos on holiday!

If you are anything like me your holiday photos simply never do the destination justice. My husband, who takes pretty decent photos will look at a monument, take a photo and voila, he has a beautiful photo. I stand in the exact same place (albeit a foot shorter) take the same photo, and it just looks like a boring building with no meaning to it.

And that’s with subjects that are still! Add in an unfolding event and well, I have no hope! Put me in the middle of a fire dancing African tribe and all your will see is a blur. No wonder I have no followers on Instagram! So how do the professionals capture it so well?

Want memorable photos?

In 2019 we were travelling to Cambodia, specifically to visit Angkor Wat. We knew seeing the temple complex would be amazing, however, we were both apprehensive about to our ability to document our visit through photos. I certainly had no hope, Doug had some, but would we really do it justice? That’s why I decided to book us on to a photography tour, something we had never done before. And oh boy, was it worth it!

In fact, Doug liked the idea so much that we also booked another tour in Vietnam so that we could test our street photography skills too.

Photo of a bicycle parked under a window in Hoi An
Putting our skills into practice in Hoi An

So what exactly do you get on a photography tour?

What you get will differ between companies so do have a good read of their websites to make sure they cater to your needs. We wanted instruction; we wanted to capture those amazing photos you see in magazines; we wanted to tell a story and to inspire others through our images and we wanted to step off the beaten path. We were not interested in being part of that story! However, if you basically want your own private photoshoot in your chosen destination then I’m sure that will be catered for too, however, that’s not what I will be writing about.

Based on the two tours we have been on here is what I would expect from future tours.

  • Professional and passionate photographers. When someone really knows their trade it is hard not to get swept up in their excitement. When we were in Angkor Wat we were treated to an impromptu visit of some young monks who had never been to this particular temple before. Although they were happy for us to photograph them there was no posing, this was real time! Darren’s excitement was palpable as he shoved us into the right positions and hissed some quick instructions whilst striking up conversation with said monks to gives us a fighting chance of getting a good photo.
  • Knowledge of cameras. Every photographer will have their preferred camera, however, that does not mean you do too and it is important that they can get the best out of whatever you are choosing to shoot with.
  • Local knowledge. Yes, you want to be able to capture the famous shots, but what about venturing into those areas you would otherwise never go to? In Vietnam we visited the hustle and bustle of a local market in the early hours of the morning whilst in Cambodia we got the chance to visit a monastery. Neither of these are on the tourist trail and we would never have had the experience had it not been as part of the photography tour.
  • Instruction. These tours aren’t about taking you to these amazing spots and them saying “there, take a photo”. If you book the right tour, the instructor will talk you through what settings to use at any given time, they will help you pick the right angle, they will help position you and they will point out things you would never even have thought to take a photo of.
  • A walking tour. You might be out taking photos, but you are still seeing what that location has to offer, albeit through a lens. And the guides will either be locals or expats who have been there a long time, with whom you can speak freely and ask probing questions to get a real sense of what life is really like. Our Russian guide in Hanoi was full of tales and we had some really in depth conversations over coffee about the struggles of the women fruit sellers who are forced to leave their families behind in their villages in order to come and earn money in the city. The pay is unsurprisingly low, the hours long and backbreaking and the chances of abuse extremely high.
  • A lot of fun. Yes, a photography tour is hard work. It takes a lot of concentration, and you will cover quite a few miles on foot, but you will also have a lot of fun and you will have memories that will last you a lifetime.
Photo of a man working in his workshop
You can also expect to grow with confidence and take photos of things as you see them!

An account of our tour with Vietnam in Focus

Bleary eyed at 5 am we set off on our photography tour. Accustomed to the surge of scooters and constant din of horns it felt surreal to cruise through the sleeping city of Hanoi. The peace didn’t last long though. Our destination? Long Biên Bridge, which overlooks the Long Biên Market. The market is the largest wet market in South East Asia, starting at midnight and closing its doors at sun rise. This is where all trade goods are purchased ahead of a busy trading day in the city. It was quite a spectacular sight and I’m so glad we made the effort to join the locals to watch them and photograph them going about their daily business. 

Photo of a lady pushing her bike taken directly from above
Photos taken from the bridge

We started off shooting from the bridge (not guns I must clarify!) before making our way into the market itself to take photos of traders as they started to wind down for the day. I was pretty apprehensive at first at the thought of taking photos of people. Would I be happy if someone took a photo of me? Very few seemed to mind though, specially when it was me taking the photos. As I had a small compact camera my big open smile was easy for them to see and they couldn’t help but smile back. Doug found it a little harder since he had a much bigger camera and let’s face it, his smile was never going to win over mine!

Photo of  a woman on a scooter handing over money whilst collecting a bag of produce
Market trade. Life revolves on scooters so I’d expect no less!

After an hour at the market we headed on to the train tracks to capture some photos of passing trains. Doug even managed to blag himself into the engine room! We meandered through the streets, taking shots of anything that looked interesting until ending up on “train street”, famous for the close proximity of the trains to the houses. With no imminent train on the horizon there was more going on than the previous night (which you can read about here) and we were able to interact with the locals a little more. 

Photo of a bride holding a bouquet getting ready for her big day!
Even weddings take place on the train tracks!

The tracks are essentially each household’s back yard, where they sit out to relax, cook their food, eat dinner, play, wash their clothes, and even brush their teeth! Essentially, these tracks are an extension of their home. And peeking in through their doorways you could see why they needed an extension, that first room served as sitting room, dining room, garage and bedroom and it was no bigger than my bathroom!

Photo of a lady street vendor pushing her large cart of durian
Street vendor selling durian – what a smile!

It was finally time to say goodbye to our incredibly interesting and charismatic Russian tour guide Boris. If you are in Hanoi definitely check out Vietnam in Focus, they offer a number of different tour options, and if Boris is still there then make sure you ask for him, he won’t disappoint!

An account of our tour with Darren from Cambodia Images

Angkor Archaeological Park is insane! WOW! I’m afraid not even the best photographers can do justice to the sheer magnitude and beauty of the complex, the level of detail is simply something else. However, under the watchful eye of Darren we definitely managed to get photos that we would otherwise never have captured. You can’t simply point and shoot in Angkor, it’s too big for that. It’s all about where the light is, what detail you want to focus on, what story you want to tell. I am so pleased we chose to visit Angkor on a photo tour, had we gone on our own we may have walked the same paths but we would have missed half the detail.

Photo of the reflection of Angkor Wat at sunrise
There were actually hundreds of people using the tiny pond to get a shot of the reflection!

We started off the tour at Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples and the one where all the tourists congregate. There was a small pond in front of the temple complex from where we attempted to shoot the sun rising over the temple reflected in the water. I wish I’d taken a photo of the scene as it evolved rather than of the sunrise. There is always a story behind the photo and reality is rarely what you see! In fact there were a couple of hundred people all fighting for space by the water to try and get that same exact shot! Definitely not the scene of calmness that the pictures depict!

Photo taken at Angkor Wat
It’s all about how you use light

We didn’t stay in Angkor Wat long, instead opting to move on to some of the other more famous temples before the hoards of people followed us. Our next stop? Ta Phrom, famous for appearing in Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider and characterised by the trees that have taken over. The level of detail in the buildings is insane. I can only describe them as a work of art, they truly are an architectural masterpiece.

Overall we visited 4 temples (which I talk about in detail here), however, they weren’t the highlight of our tour despite how impressive they were. The best part was actually a visit to a local monastery that’s completely off the tourist path. Life in all villages revolves around the pagoda and as such every village has a small monastery. Thanks to Darren’s contacts he is allowed to visit one of these monasteries with his photography clients, who get the opportunity at glimpse into the life of a monk. We had a wander around the little village and sat exchanging stories with three of the older monks before we got the chance to have a little “photo shoot” with some of the younger ones.

A photo of a young monk in his vibrant orange robes posing for a photo
One of the young monks posing for the photo

Some of the photos felt a little staged (one of the boys in particular fancied himself as a model), but we did also get some great shots of them just being themselves (I much prefer natural). We were also invited into their living quarters where we watched them prepare lunch before they sat down for prayer. Had we not been with Darren we would never have had the chance to witness the ceremony which was very special.

Photo of a monk sitting on the floor next to the fire where lunch is being prepared
Watching them cook their lunch inside their humble living quarters

It had been a long and exhausting day (not helped by 41 degree heat), however I can’t think of a better way to have experienced Angkor Wat than as part of a Cambodia Images photo tour. Do get in touch with Darren if you are heading to Siem Reap, you won’t regret it!

Is a photography tour for me?

Only you can answer that question. I hope the above gives you a good enough insight as to what to expect. If your main interest involves taking photos of yourself with a selfie stick then there will certainly be tours for you that will take you to the best spots to get those famous Instagram shots. I’m not sure the two tours I’ve described would be the best options for that though. However, if you want to get fantastic photos, learn something new and take home memories you can cherish for the rest of your life, then I would certainly book one. In fact, we will be adding photography tours to the “must do” of all our upcoming trips alongside our now customary food tours.

So if you were to ask me, then my answer is DO IT!

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