Writer Peter Shawn Taylor and his son walking on the street by the Colosseum in Rome

Peter Shawn Taylor, left, and his son in Rome. (Photo by Francesca Vitulano)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

No more thumbs and foreheads

Vacation photos are often disappointing. A B.C. start-up has a unique solution. It’s a good gig for photographers. Is it worth it for you?

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“The light is fabulous right now,” Francesca eagerly informs us. So my son Daniel and I quickly hoist ourselves up onto a massive stone ledge in front of a statue of emperor Marcus Aurelius and gaze out at the innumerable visual pleasures of Rome. “But remember,” she advises, “don’t look at the camera.”

Later, Francesca wants us to walk along the ancient flagstones of the Via Sacra, one of the most storied roads in Rome, which connects the famous Colosseum with the equally famous Forum. “Nice,” she says in that gentle tone photographers use when the results really aren’t that nice. “But let’s do it again slower.” We do it again. Slower.

After that, there’s a water fight at one of the ubiquitous Roman drinking fountains, a trot down some massive steps, a stroll along another ancient street and plenty more gazing at the remains of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. All as Francesca’s camera clicks incessantly.

Couple in front of red phone booth and man proposing to woman(Photos courtesy of Flytographer) 

My 22-year-old son and I are definitely not models, judging by looks or talent. Neither is this a magazine photo shoot. Rather, we’re on a father-son trip to Rome to indulge in a shared passion for ancient history. And to make sure we bring home photographs equal to the experience, we’re having our pictures taken by a real photographer.

We met Francesca through Flytographer, a Canadian company that connects travellers with professional photographers in tourist destinations around the world. The company’s founder is Nicole Smith, a former Microsoft marketing manager, and her origin story speaks to the concept’s broad and intuitive appeal. “I was in Paris with my best friend,” Smith recalls. “It was a glorious two days and I wanted to remember it with something other than selfies and terrible pictures taken by strangers. So I gave my iPhone to another friend and he spent 20 minutes shooting pictures of us walking through the streets of Paris. When I saw the pictures afterwards, I got goosebumps— they just totally captured the spirit of the holiday I wanted to remember.”

Founded in 2013 and based in Victoria, B.C., Flytographer has garnered plenty of recognition for its innovative online business model and high-flying growth. The company is currently part of the prestigious Lazaridis Scale-Up Program, a sort of gifted class for entrepreneurs run by the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., that selects 10 promising Canadian technology start-ups every year and provides them with expert advice, mentorship and other support in hopes of helping them become global high-tech superpowers.

man with motorcycle sitting with local in vietnam(Photo courtesy of Flytographer) 

But as an upstart seeking to create an entirely new business niche, Flytographer faces some significant challenges. Smith needs to convince tourists this is a service they want to pay for, and growing as fast as possible is vital. The company is now building relationships with hotel chains and travel agencies, trying to create brand recognition and establish market dominance. “We’re out in front right now, and I want to take advantage of that before a big gorilla gets into our marketplace,” Smith says. “We want to change the way the world remembers their vacations.”

Of course, a professional photo shoot really can change the way you look at take-home souvenirs. The photos Francesca took during our session are properly lit, brilliantly arranged and always in focus. Plus, she knew the best nooks and crannies for pictures that showed off the glories of ancient Rome without any annoying strangers crowding the shot. There’s one of us dwarfed by a colossal statue of the Roman god Tiberinus that I know I’ll treasure. (On the same trip, Daniel and I were sitting in an ancient church and happened to look over the shoulder of a couple as they scrolled through pictures on their tablet. Among the countless selfies, the most prominent feature was nearly always someone’s dome-shaped forehead blocking the view. Or a thumb. The rest were mostly out of focus. It seems a sad way to remember the trip of a lifetime.)

Growth is vital. “We’re out front right now, and I want to take advantage before a big gorilla gets in to our marketplace.”

Flytographer offers connections with hundreds of photographers in more than 200 tourist-friendly locations worldwide. Booking is a simple process: a couple of weeks prior to departure, you select the destination and your preferred local photographer (based on portfolios posted on the website), then pick a package. An online concierge team helps with the arrangements. The cheapest package, at US$250, provides half an hour with the photographer at one location and 15 pictures, delivered by email. More expensive packages offer more time, multiple locations and more shots to keep.

A few words of advice, though. If you are self-conscious in front of the camera, or if you like vacation pictures that are a bit grainy and off-centre— that look like you took them yourself, in other words—this is not for you. And many Flytographers are also wedding photographers—proposals and honeymoons are a big part of the company’s business—so if you don’t want glossy, wedding-album-type pictures, don’t be afraid to make that clear. Oh, and if you want to look at the camera, go ahead. They’re your memories.