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Of Photo Tours and Mentors

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Off late, way too many wildlife photography “mentors” have come up, touting their “one-of-a-kind” workshops or “unique” tour that takes you to the pristine/untouched/wild/insert-other-superlative-here forest of India. While the marketing material does sound like something out of incredible India campaign, my observations in last few years have been slightly different.

Most of the time, what you get is a run-of-the-mill experience, where the mentor is just much enjoying a free safari without adding value. General justifications given by such “mentors” for their tours are:

1. I made some good images so I must be a good mentor and worth the money
It is really hard to not fall for this one. I mean look at that stunning image of two tigers doing the samba. Most of us amateurs go like “If I go with this mentor, may be I will also make an image like this”. News flash: Photography is a skill. Like all skills, you will make it better only by working on it. There are very few mentors out there who can translate the art of photography into a few bullet points that you will learn in a 4 day workshop. There is a reason why these fly-by-night operators rarely (if ever) showcase images made by the workshop participants. If you want to know actual worth of a mentor, talk to participants and understand what they learned, see the images they made with help of the mentor (and without).

Most of what is taught in these typical workshops (technical bits) can be learned by reading from books like “Understanding Exposure” and practicing the concepts. Keep practicing in your backyard/local park/lake etc till you get proficient in getting the exposure to “your liking”. For post processing, there are some great resources out there that can give you a basic understanding of levels, curves, whitebalance, histogram etc. Practice those concepts at your own pace and ask around when you are stuck. Photographers are generally a helpful bunch, you will find.

This is not to say that all photo mentors are a waste of time. For eg. I had never used the back-button focus method ever, till a mentor demonstrated the benefits. It improved my keeper rate dramatically. Another mentor taught me to underexpose slightly when there is not enough light. I still use that technique when needed.

2. Impart professional expertise on the tour
No. Nyet. A lot of time, such mentors will try to justify the cost by saying things like: “this is a professional tour designed by professionals for enhancing your photography skills by virtue of being in my awesome presence. You photographs will be 100% by mere touch by me…. yada yada”. My bullshit radar starts beeping with every such claim. While learning a skill is a big effort, efficiently imparting that skill is 100 times that effort and imparting that skill in a 3-4 days period is a feat mastered by very few.

Reality is, as soon as a good photo op lines up, most mentors will swing their long lenses and get into getting that shot that will help them market their next tour, participants be damned. Ideally, I would prefer that a mentor would observe the subject and guide me towards making an image rather than taking a snap.

Also remember, it’s generally disease that spreads with touch. Don’t get Herpes.

3. Image critique session in the evening
Do you really need it? I have not seen anyone giving a “honest” critique of their images on their tours. That would be unwise for the business. I do see a lot of sugar coated suggestions. How about taking up your image and listing 3 things you did not like about it? I am sure you will come up with it. Be merciless to your own images and you will have no need for anyone’s critique. Look at what type of composition and exposure you prefer and see if you keep that in mind while shooting?

If a mentor tells your how horrible or mediocre your images are, go with him (my personal opinion). Let him mentor you, for one honest critique is worth all sugar coated suggestions. A critique session should not turn into a mutual appreciation session.

4. We create best wildlife viewing opportunities
No. Nyet. Always read it as: “We announce our tours based on general wildlife viewing season and availability of accommodation, permits and naturalists.” None of these are state secrets shared with chosen few. C’mon. In this age of instant gratification via internet, you can sort most of these via connecting with independent travelers on various forums.

It’s not as if mentor’s wildlife viewing luck with rub off on your shoulder if you go with them. I believe a good mentor would be able to conduct a workshop and help participant visualize mundane subject from a photographers eye. Most wildlife would not really care if you are traveling with a mentor or not. They will show up as and when they see fit.

    Some of these mentors would like to say things like “We have to work the system/take people on-board/partner with offcials etc..”. I read it as bribe. I have no views on bribing (do you know how much that ranger entrusted with safeguarding that precious tiger is paid?) but I would try to avoid all practices that would be considered to be unethical. I am not going to fuel a business whose business model depends on bribing officials for personal gain.

Reality is, it’s your guide/naturalist who will make or break your trip. Your mentor most probably is just another tourist with a few more safari’s under his/her belt. It will be your naturalist & driver who will call the shot. Your mentor will just try to act all clued-in, while actually taking the hints from the naturalist/driver. Most will try to concentrate on trying to locate “the call”. In most cases, they would not be able to locate the direction of the call. That’s just how the forest is.

At this point think of your mentor as a logistic planner; who insists on being on tour with you with more equipment than most of the participants. If you have planned your tour and have per-visualized your shots, you will probably not need your mentor prodding you for a shot.

5. We get you the best accommodation/vehicle etc
Banta goes to jungle. Banta plans his trip. Banta does his research on internet and select the most suitable accommodation. Banta enjoys longer trips in wilderness saving money on middleman fee. Banta is smart. Be like Banta (or Santa if you are inclined). Seriously, if you really need someone to spoon feed you, plan your own trip. After all you are going for an adventure trip. Take control.

Some of the new-age mentors expect participants to bear the expense for liquid entertainment. Overheard in Bharatpur “What a bunch of boy scouts, no one even drinks a beer. Looks like I will have to buy my own drinks!!” This is utter horsesith (I would have used bull but not sure if that is banned or not). All successful mentors I have seen are more than capable of procuring their own hooch and then some.

You can look around and ask like minded people for pointers on selecting vehicle/guide/naturalist. People on forums like INW, SA, Safarist etc are more than willing to share good info. Without a fee. Hawww

6. Free display of “selected” images on mentor’s website
As opposed to what? Ultimately it’s a mentor that will gain more tours out of it, without paying anything for the image made by the participants. Ask yourself, do you ever remember a participant’s name  whose image has been displayed on a mentor’s site? You made the image, you should use it as you see fit. A mentor is not doing you any favor by pretending to bear cost by showcasing your work to the world. Check NatGeo Your Shot and ton load of other sites that will make an image popular under categories such as “pic of the day” or “what a creative genius” or “let’s have babies” etc.


Mentoring is not easy. It takes a lot of patience, discipline, humility, skill and “the right attitude”. There are very few good mentors out there, unfortunately. Remember any idiot with a cache of photography equipment is not necessarily a good mentor. Be wise about where you spend your hard earned money. If you think your trips are too expensive to do alone, or just want the company of like minded people try organizing trip via Safarist or other similar travel forums.

2 Comments

  1. Raghunath Singh · February 2, 2016 Reply

    A very honest and brave attempt Kartik bhai, I’m in complete agreement to what you have written. There are people who started photography 1- 2 years back and now they are leading photo tours. Sadly there are enthusiasts who fall prey to this.

    • kartik · February 3, 2016 Reply

      Thanks Raghunath ji. Unfortunately a lot of emphasis is put on what equipment does a mentor carry instead of what he has achieved with whatever he carries. A lot of these “mentors” would use the equipment card to trap their victims. “Mentor has to invest into professional equipment…”. How does that convert into a benefit for anyone else but them? Sigh.. as you mentioned, poor enthusiast will keep falling prey for these tricks.

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