Yellowstone National Park bison provide excellent opportunities to hone wildlife photography skills. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

There are probably as many different reasons to travel as there are people traveling, but some common motives include getting away for a while from a normal routine, to relax, or to see a place you’ve always felt a connection to or dreamed about.

There are also more provoking purposes for your travels: to challenge your physical abilities, to shake up your long-held views, to scare yourself or to learn something new. My most recent trip falls into the last category.

First and foremost, I consider myself a writer. My photography skills have usually been limited to what could be described as “automatic”: point the Canon DSLR in one beautiful direction, dial it into landscape mode, shoot away and hope for the best.

It used to be that writers write; photographers take photos. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

So, when I recently signed up for my first Natural Habitat Adventures photography tour, I knew I would be challenged. I was fearful of long discussions about f-stops (what the heck are they?), people with lenses so big that I wouldn’t have been able to lift them and a veiled dismissal from guides who would think I wasn’t a “serious photographer.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

We all need to become one-man bands

As recently as just a decade ago, the expectation in travel journalism was that writers write and photographers take photos. However, in today’s print and online media landscape, most publishers are looking for ways to trim expenses. If you have the ability to write compelling copy and take forceful photographs, your attractiveness to accounting departments skyrockets, since paying the travel expenses of one versus two people makes you highly desirable. Today, putting a text/photo package on an editor’s real or virtual desk enhances your chances for publication.

Let go of your preconceived notions about photo tours. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Hoping to strengthen what for me was the weaker of the two disciplines, I signed up for the Yellowstone Wolf Quest Photo Adventure. I was worried that the “real” photographers on the trip would soon find out that I was only a pretender to the art.

To my surprise, I learned that not everyone who takes a photography tour is a semiamateur/professional photographer. On our adventure, there were those with the expected, gigantic 800 lenses; but there were also those who didn’t carry a camera at all. They came on the trip simply for its timing or perhaps to see the beauty of Yellowstone in winter through a photographer’s eyes. I soon began to let go of my preconceived notions of what a photography tour had to be like. It can, apparently, be anything you want it to be.

Our guides for the trip were NatHab’s head naturalist and esteemed photographer Eric Rock and premier wolf interpreter and accomplished nature photographer Paul Brown. Under their tutelage, I learned how to stop depending on the automatic modes of my camera for every shot, how to experiment with the creative modes, how to meter and how to adjust the aperture, shutter speed and ISO (light sensitivity of the image sensor) to meet the environmental conditions. I learned all of this without sitting through a single hotel-conference-room lecture. I absorbed it all out in the field, where lessons tend to “stick.” When you have a snow-encrusted bison standing right in front of you, there is great motivation to learn pretty quickly how to capture the moment.

In 2014, I encourage you to try a different kind of trip. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Take the 2014 challenge

Whether you write or take photographs for a living or just for your friends and social media, today’s forms of communication ask that we all do a little of both. Writers can no longer rely solely on auto-everything digital cameras and Photoshop to save poor images, while photographers need to learn how to accompany their pictures with well-crafted text. Word processing and spell-and-grammar checks won’t make a photographer into a writer without his or her having a focus on being engaged in the moment—from out behind the lens—and having an observant spirit.

For 2014, I encourage you to try a different kind of trip. If you have never taken a photography tour before, go on one. If you always take photo trips, sign up for one that doesn’t have photography as its focus.

Then, ask yourself what have been the motivations for your travels lately. Have you ever opted to go on a tour just for the challenge it personally presents for you?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,