Picture Perfect Trips with Mike & Jenny

Mike and Jenny Hillman

Mike and Jenny Hillman

Mike and Jenny Hillman reveal to Val Baynton how they plan trips for fellow members of the Windlesham and Camberley Camera Club.

Mike and Jenny Hillman are joint organisers of holidays and day trips for the Surrey-based Windlesham and Camberley Camera Club (W&CCC). The club meets weekly between early September and late May, and the 70 members enjoy a programme of talks and demonstrations about photography, and thus it is usually during the summer months that an annual holiday and a series of day and evening trips to a variety of venues and attractions take place.

Mike has been a member of the club since the early 1970s and has taken his turn in all the committee roles, including that of Chairman, but since 2007, along with his wife Jenny, he has organised holidays and day trips for the members.

The first holiday, to Bulgaria, took place after Mike and Jenny showed pictures of two private holidays they had enjoyed in the country at one of the club meetings. The interest in their trips was so great that they were persuaded to organise a return visit to the country specifically for the members of the club.

The break was very much enjoyed and from then on they have organised an overseas holiday every year as well as day trips. Although membership of the club is capped at 70 people, the holidays and outings are open to spouses. Mike adds, ‘We welcome close friends of members along on the holidays but Jenny and I find there is a hard core of around 20 members who come along each year.’

Visiting the Chudnite Mostove in Bulgaria.

Visiting the Chudnite Mostove in Bulgaria.

Destination Planning

The destination for each year’s main holiday is jointly agreed by the club members although Mike adds, ‘Jenny and I make a suggestion of where we should go next, and it is this idea that, so far, has been taken up by the club. What influences our recommendation is that we are looking for a country or a region that members may not have visited and that’s off the normal tourist trail and, within that destination, we want subject matter to keep all photographers within our club happy.

‘We look for varied landscapes and striking views, unusual wildlife including birds and flowers, historic buildings and local culture. We are always very happy to have recommendations from others about where we go.’ You can find a list of countries the club has enjoyed visiting to date.

With the destination country in mind, Jenny takes to the library to borrow guide books, and researches ideas from tour operators’ itineraries and the internet to build up a programme for the seven-day trip.

With an idea of what is possible, Mike looks at the distances involved and creates a draft timetable, factoring in plenty of stops for photography. This proposal is discussed by fellow members and, if all are agreed, Jenny contacts a tour operator to get some dates and prices.

She notes, ‘I used to be happy to organise the trips totally myself, but now we always use an ATOL or ABTA-registered tour operator as they can supply the correct insurances and essential back up, should it be required.’

Mike Hillman

Mike HillmanMike enjoyed a long career working in Air Cargo operations, but his hobby has always been photography and he joined the Windlesham and Camberley Camera Club in the early 1970s. His favourite subjects are birds and wildlife, but he also covers local community events.

As well as organising outings and holidays for the club, Mike is Chairman of the Surrey Heath Museum Action Group, which has operated a Heritage Gallery in Camberley for the last nine years and Surrey Heath Museum has recently moved in to share the space.

Jenny Hillman

Jenny HillmanAfter many years of carrying Mike’s camera gear, in 2001 Jenny decided to join the Camera Club herself – Mike now has to carry his own bags!

Jenny jointly organises the trips for the Camera Club, spending many hours researching destinations in the quest for creating unusual itineraries for the members.

She is also treasurer of the Camberley Natural History Society, which has a programme combining monthly talks about the natural environment, with walks and outings to nearby reserves and other sites with a natural history connection. Unsurprisingly, Jenny loves to photograph natural history subjects!

For some holidays, such as a two city-centre holiday in 2014 to Prague and Vienna, Mike opted for the excursions as suggested by their tour operator, Riviera Travel, but usually Mike prefers to book a coach and guide for the group to follow a unique itinerary of their own.

Mike explains, ‘We do this so Jenny and I can be sure we go to a range of photogenic locations and we can also stop spontaneously en-route, do U-turns or otherwise take advantage of unexpected, passing scenery, wildlife or local culture!’

Jenny has found that most tour operators are happy to tailor a trip in this way, and some companies such as Saga, Jules Verne and Thompsons will assist with booking the local coaches and guides. Otherwise, Mike will pre-book a coach and guide himself – such as the Bechini Bus the group used on the trip to Tuscany in 2013, when they stayed in Montecatini. And Vorderegge Reisen for the tours around Zell am See in Austria in 2016.

They also like to use local buses or trains as this can provide many insights into the locality that might not otherwise be possible. Jenny adds, ‘We took good advantage of public transport on the trip to Slovenia in 2012, for example, including a local bus from Bled to Lake Bohini, a cable car to the Vogel Ski Centre and back, followed by a boat trip along Lake Bohini before returning to Bled by bus. On the same holiday we also visited the capital city, Ljubljana, by bus.’

Photographers in action in Prague!

Photographers in action in Prague!

Time for photography has, of course, to be built in to each day’s itinerary – whether its to access a specific place, or for members to set up equipment and prepare their shot. The time has to be flexible, as the group may stop to take in a view and then find pictureworthy flowers or an insect in the grass!

Importantly, Jenny also checks in advance whether any special permissions are required. For example during this year’s holiday to Montenegro, the group visited Lipa Cave, which has striking formations of stalactite and stalagmite in the undergound network of tunnels. Jenny ensured that the booking team there knew that the group would be taking pictures, but she agreed that flash would not be used.

As far as accommodation is concerned, Mike says, ‘Nowadays, our members prefer to stay in one hotel for the whole holiday, so our base needs to be central to the area we are exploring. We opt for at least half board as we prefer to eat together in the evening.’

He adds, ‘ Free time is built into the itinerary as well, so members can go off and explore the local town or relax by a pool or on the beach.’

Other elements Jenny includes in the itineraries are wine tastings such as on this year’s holiday to Montenegro, where the group enjoyed learning about and sampling the wines in Šipcanic Wine Cellar – which is 30 metres underground in a former secret aircraft hangar operated by the Yugoslav People’s Army.

Sampling the wine in Šipcanic Wine Cellar in Montenegro.

Sampling the wine in Šipcanic Wine Cellar in Montenegro.

Single rooms for some members are a factor Jenny considers at the planning stage, and she adds, ‘Since these can be in short supply it pays to book up early – for this reason we are already planning our holiday for 2019. Some members have mobility problems and I will therefore book assisted service at the airports for them.’

To ensure all members know the programme, Mike prepares a laminated pocket size itinerary for each person and books minibuses to transfer everyone to and from the airport.

Over the years, Mike and Jenny have found it is useful to network with other GTOs and so do attend some familiarisation trips, but they are selective in the ones they go on. Mike says, ‘we appreciate the generosity of the destination, attraction or tour operator who is running the trip, so we will only go on ones we really think we might offer to the group.’

A recent visit to Switzerland run by Travel Editions was very helpful, Mike noted, ‘It allowed us to explore the Bern region and we got some helpful tips from the other GTOs. One was to ask each traveller to make a list of their medicines for use in an emergency – this is a good idea especially for single travellers, but even for couples as one partner might not be totally aware of all the medication and dosages the other takes.’

He would also recommend attending events like the annual British Bird Fair held at Rutland Water (this year from 17th to 19th August) as an excellent place to learn about wildlife holidays all around the world.

Camera Club Log Book

2007 Bulgaria with Balkania Travel
2008 Keszthela on Lake Balaton, Hungary with Jules Verne
2009 Bulgaria with Balkania Travel
2010 Dénia, Spain with Saga
2011 Istria, Croatia with Thompsons
2012 Bled, Slovenia with Inghams
2013 Montecatini, Italy with Thomas Cook
2014 Prague & Vienna with Riviera Travel
2015 Kyrenia, North Cyprus with Jules Verne
2015 French Battlefields Tour with help of The Western Front Society
2016 Zell am See, Austria with Thompsons
2017 Almeria, Spain with Saga
2018 Petrovac, Montenegro with Saga

Three Top Trips

As members of the British-Bulgarian Society, Mike and Jenny have been to Bulgaria several times. Their interest in the country began on a holiday to see autumn bird migration and they followed this by joining another tour to Bulgaria organised by the Camberley Natural History Society in 2004.

Both trips were organised through the BBS and Balkania Travel. Jenny adds, ‘On these trips we met excellent local wildlife and cultural guides and we thought the organisation was superb, so when we were asked to plan a trip for the W&CCC in 2007, and again in 2009, we had no hesitation in contacting both the BBS and Balkania Travel and requesting our own coach, guides and a tailored itinerary.’

Just before the very first holiday, Mike suffered a heart attack, which meant it was up to Jenny to lead the trip. ‘I asked a friend to come along to help in Mike’s absence and she has been on every trip since,’ Jenny adds.

The Fallas Festival in Denia provided rich inspiration for the photographers.

The Fallas Festival in Denia provided rich inspiration for the photographers.

The Hillmans would highly recommend Bulgaria to groups, ‘There is so much to see – whether you have a particular photographic interest or not – and to cover as much as possible we would suggest staying in at least two different places.’

Jenny says. Hotels vary in style from an old converted prison in Melnik to a modern five star hotel in Plovdiv. Highlights of their trips there included beautiful landscapes such as the Rodope and Pirin Mountains or the Trigad Gorge; heritage listed buildings in Plovdiv and Shiroka Lanka village; a spectacular Monastery in Rila and experiencing local culture from folk dancing and singing to wine tasting.

Jenny adds, ‘An outstanding natural landscape is the Chudnite Mostove – a wonderful series of natural arches and bridges formed from rock – about 50 miles from Plovdiv.’

Tips for taking great pictures of your group

We asked Roger and Jean Hoyle, members of the Windlesham and Camberley Camera Club to share five ideas on how to take good pictures on your trips.

  • Include elements that give a sense of the place, e.g. plants, mountains, cityscape background, lake.
  • Include something to identify the group interest, e.g. cameras (!), hiking boots, skis, etc.
  • Arrange people in as compact a group as possible, using any available steps, park bench etc. with some kneeling, and others sitting and standing.
  • Try to get people to look natural and not posed (difficult!) – ask people to stand a little sideways and turn towards the camera. Get them relaxed by making a joke.
  • Always take at least two pictures – someone will always be blinking or pulling a face.

Another favourite trip was in 2010 to Dénia in Spain. Although the club normally goes on holiday in May, for this they travelled in March so that they could attend the Fallas Festival. ‘This is a definite must see.’ Jenny says, ‘The effigies prepared by all generations from young children upwards are extremely lifelike and usually depict bawdy, satirical scenes and current events. The traditional Spanish costumes worn during the festival are spectacular.’

Colourful and musical parades take place over two days culminating with the judging of the effigies and the award of prizes to the best. ‘The most surprising thing then,’ Jenny adds, ‘is that the effigies, many of which have taken months to make, and can be up to 40 foot in height, are then burnt in the streets after sunset – a ceremony that continues into the early hours of the morning, with the winning one being burnt last.’

Many Spanish towns hold similar fiestas, with the principal one being in nearby Valencia, but Mike and Jenny choose Dénia because it was smaller and less busy giving many more opportunities for photography.

Snapping mountain and valley views in Austria.

Snapping mountain and valley views in Austria.

This year’s trip to Montenegro has been very successful. Mike says, ‘It was a destination that was not well known by our members, but its geographical mix of coast and inland mountains made it an attractive proposition.’

Staying in the seaside village of Petrovac at the Hotel Palas, the trip was organised through Saga Holidays, but Mike arranged for a coach on three days with a dedicated guide and special itinerary.

This included many unusual elements such as a drive along a remote mountain road from Kotor to the village of Njegusi via the Loveen National Park and Lipa Cave, as well as a two-hour bird watching and photographic trip on Lake Skadar. There was also a trip to Ostrog Monastery (of the Serbian Orthodox Church).

Two free days were welcomed by the group who enjoyed swimming in the pool, sampling the local restaurants and walking along the sea front. Jenny adds, ‘An unexpected highlight was the Niagara Falls at Cijevna. These were off the beaten track and the last place we visited. Much to our surprise it proved to be spectacular with the river in full spate providing great photo opportunities.’

Happy Memories

Following each holiday Mike and Jenny organise a get-together, and everyone selects their favourite pictures to put up on screen. There’s also the result of a secret project, as Mike explains, ‘Each member takes a few candid (unposed) shots of other people on the trip, and these can be quite humorous especially if they have been cleverly manipulated in Photoshop!’

Finally, Mike also compiles an AV presentation of the holiday using a selection of picture, which is shown at the meeting with a copy going to each person on a DVD.

A visit to Melk Abbey in Vienna was one of the trips organised by Riviera Travel for the group’s holiday in 2014.

A visit to Melk Abbey in Vienna was one of the trips organised by Riviera Travel for the group’s holiday in 2014.

Coming up

Mike and Jenny are currently planning the holiday for 2019. Albania is under consideration, but Mike’s initial feeling is that it may be difficult to find a central base using one hotel for the week.

Closer to home, this summer’s activities include trips to Andwell’s Brewery in Hook and a tour around the nearby village of Hartley Wintney, visiting its churches and pub, organised with help from another club member.

British-Bulgarian Society

The British-Bulgarian Society, founded in 1952, has been running tours and exchanges since the 1970s.

Its programme of special interest tours, with a focus on bird watching and natural history, produces an income that is donated to a variety of conservation and educational causes. Tours are organised in partnership with Balkania Travel Ltd, an ATOL bonded tour operator, and these can be tailored to the precise requirements of a group.

Themes can include birdwatching, wild flowers, insects, painting, gardening, roses, wine-tasting, folk music and dancing, archaeology and geology.