We were in France on a summer vacation and everything was going wrong—really, really wrong.
One of my daughters, who had broken her ankle just before the trip, was using a rental wheelchair that had fallen into a canal (long story) and sunk to the bottom, never to be seen again, along with our €600 deposit. I was squabbling with my other daughter. And the taxi company that was supposed to take us to our vacation photo shoot in 15 minutes had called to report that our driver was running late by more than an hour.
This was the only taxi company in town, by the way, and the region didn't have Uber or Lyft. And oh yeah, it was 106 degrees Fahrenheit.
I was sure we’d have to cancel the long-scheduled photo shoot. But when I called our photographer, Camila Garcia, she solved all our problems.
Well, okay, she wasn’t able to retrieve the wheelchair from the depths. But she did drive her own car to pick up all six people in my party and get us to the medieval fortified city where we’d be shooting, roughly a mile and a half away.
Garcia made the shoot so much fun, the argument I was having with my eldest evaporated. The photographer even found shady places for us to rest in between poses so that the unprecedented heat wave of August 2023 remained endurable.
Garcia also managed to remove the doubts I’d been having about this vacation activity—currently one of the top new trends in travel. Visit any travel website that sells attractions and tours, and you’ll find dozens of listings for "travel photographers," local pros who do one- or two-hour sessions with visitors in front of noteworthy sights: lavender fields in France, the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China, you name it.
As a result, vacationers end up with frame-worthy portraits. Garcia took the photo at the top of this page in Carcassonne, France, capturing the family and friends with whom I shared a recent barging vacation. I will cherish the photo forever, along with the other superb images Garcia shot of our group and of us individually.
Why hire a travel photographer?
As I mentioned, I was initially skeptical about this whole thing. After all, every smartphone has a built-in camera, many of which have gotten pretty high-tech. Most travelers seem to have no trouble getting vacation pics for free, as evidenced by the hordes of selfie snappers blocking views of tourist attractions in every corner of the globe.
But unless you want to rely on those long-armed selfie shots for every photo or are fine with repeatedly bugging strangers to take pics of your crew (always a gamble), someone in your travel entourage will inevitably get left out of the snap.
"Our largest audience is moms," Nicole Smith, the founder of the longest-established travel photography marketplace site, Flytographer, told me. “Some 40% of our bookings are families and it's mostly moms who book because they're the ones always chronicling the memories but never get to be in the photos.”
With a pro taking the shots, everyone gets to share the spotlight.
A photo shoot can also be a fun way to get to know a local. Valerie Lopez, of rival photography site Angle Platform, thinks it’s this person-to-person touch that makes the experience special.
"Connecting with a local who’s going to share what’s the best coffee shop or what it’s like to live in Paris or why there’s a protest going on—that’s gold for the traveler," Lopez told me. "That human connection is what makes people want to [hire a travel photographer] over and over in every place they go. Right now, 50% of our business is repeat customers."
How to find the right photographer
Of course, not every photographer will be worth the session cost—as many a disappointed bride and groom have discovered after their wedding day. So how do you find the right photog?
There are dozens of online platforms advertising the service, including Airbnb Experiences, Viator, and Tiqets. At these general travel sites, though, it's not clear how or whether photographers have been vetted.
But with Flytographer (where we found Garcia), Angle, Local Lens, and TravelShoot—four major marketplaces for this type of service—all of the photographers go through an extensive vetting process before being allowed to advertise on these sites.
"We only accept 2%–3% of the photographers who apply to work with us,” according to Flygotgrapher's Smith. “They have to be a seasoned photographer with at least 2 years in the business. We look at their portfolios and we do a Zoom interview, so we not only assess how they work, but what their personality is like. We try to find people who truly love hosting visitors in their hometown, who will share tips, who have pride in their home city. We made some mistakes early on, but after 10 years of doing this we now have the process down.”
Looking through portfolios on these sites, you should be able to get a feel for the different vibes of each photographer and what kind of pics you can expect.
“I have some photographers who are more focused on style and fashion, others more oriented to families, others who are great for solo travelers,” said Lopez of Angle.
Many of those who specialize in family photography will bring toys to the shoot and have other methods of guaranteeing smiles from kids.
"I don't want to give all of the tricks away, but sometimes a photographer will put a small stuffed animal on top of the camera," Smith explained. "Or she’ll pull the child aside and give him a secret to whisper in his father’s ear—a secret sure to lead to giggles. If people want a holiday card photo with everyone smiling and looking forward, the photographer will try to get that out of the way first, before moving on to more spontaneous photos."
(Flytographer's home page)
Picking the date and place
It’s possible to get appointments with photographers within 24 hours of a shoot, but to guarantee you get the artist whose portfolio you like best—or to get a shoot at all in smaller cities—booking several weeks in advance is the smarter strategy.
Of course, the earlier you book the less you'll know what the weather has in store. But all of the organizations featured here will do what they can to reschedule the shoot or give you a refund if storms or other kinds of inclement weather disrupt your plans. Photo shoots can cost between $90 and $450, depending on the destination and the amount of time requested.
Most visitors want photographs at iconic sites, so the four online platforms I've highlighed have each put together strolls that place visitors in front of the marquee attractions—but in a way designed to leave the customer with unique photos that don't have randos crowding the frame.
“[Photographers] try to stay away from the most crowded and touristy locations,” Lopez said. “If you wanted a great Paris shot, you wouldn’t go to Trocadéro for the photos but to another place that only the locals know about where you can see the Eiffel Tower but won’t have 10,000 people around.”
If the traveler wants to shoot somewhere other than one of the usual spots, that can be done too, as I know from personal experience. Because I was unable to find travel photographers available in the small city of Carcassonne, Garcia graciously agreed to come in from nearby Toulouse.
Ultimately, what surprised me about our photo shoot was how meaningful it felt to be saving memories of this trip in an intentional way.
Smith of Flytographer told me a story that goes to the heart of what this experience can be.
“We worked with Melanie, who was a 57-year-old widow,” Smith recounted. “She'd been widowed for 5 years and was tired of waiting for someone to be ready and free to go travel with her. So she decided to go alone, and she went to Amsterdam and had the best holiday of her life. She couldn't stop smiling, looking at the windmills and the tulips, and she was captured doing many of those things by a Flytographer.
"[Melanie] wrote to us afterwards and said, ‘When I'm an old woman in a nursing home I'll look back at these photos and I'll remember my bliss.’”