As high-end hotels and operators compete for Britain’s growing and high-spending army of serious photographers, Nathan Midgley puts his camera skills to the test in the Florida Keys

One of Nathans shots

The American painter Chuck Close once wrote: “While photography is the easiest medium in which to be competent, it’s probably the hardest in which to develop a personal vision.” I have my own, simplified version of this: photography might feel easy, but it isn’t.

Sometimes it doesn’t even feel easy. Case in point: I’m bobbing around in a floatation vest, mask and snorkel several miles off the coast in John Pennekamp State Park, one of the jewels of Florida dive capital Key Largo, and desperately trying to hold a camera steady.

Water has poured down my snorkel more than once – my fault, because in my enthusiasm for tracking fish I keep looking directly downwards so the pipe goes horizontal.

Every time something worth snapping emerges from the rocks and grasses – and something does, constantly, from knife-like young barracuda to fat, garish parrot fish – I gamely follow it, level my waterproof compact, and fire off a few blurry frames before my quarry darts off.

It’s far from my creative comfort zone, but that, of course, is the point: if you want to get the best out of that expensive camera equipment, you’ve got to stretch yourself.

There’s evidence more people want to do just that. The recession has given sales of serious DSLR camera equipment a knock – the chairman of Nikon has even stated that the market for digital cameras is now ‘saturated’ – but indicators suggest the commitment of existing photographers is stronger than ever.

Sales of photography magazines bucked a downward trend in 2010, with Digital SLR Photography sales increasing by 13% on 2009. And if there has been a fall-off in DSLR sales, it’s been picked up elsewhere in the market. Sales of compact system cameras – a new generation of small-but-mighty units encouraging casual point-and-clickers to trade up towards serious hobbyism – showed a 191% year-on-year rise in August 2010.

Exodus tour leader and wildlife photographer Paul Goldstein, who began running photography departures nine years ago, says the operator’s programme now does ‘well over £1.5 million a year’ in sales, thanks to ‘massive repeat business’.

Abercrombie & Kent has also moved in with a less rugged range of India and Asia-focused departures, led by pro Jon Nicholson. The programme is expanding following a pilot trip to Yunnan, China, in 2009, and 2011 will see departures to Burma, Jodphur and Varanasi, and two Bhutan trips for the Paro and Thimphu festivals.

According to Abercrombie & Kent, ages and sexes are mixed, but solo travellers predominate. The appeal of photography tours is to be among travellers with similar skills and interests, and it’s common for clients to have left a less camera-happy partner at home – which in itself suggests these products sit in a wholly different category to the annual family or Mr-and-Mrs leisure trip.

What’s important is that high-spending clients come as standard. A basic lens can cost hundreds of pounds, while the top-quality, long-range ones used by committed wildlife photographers command several thousand, so it’s little surprise Goldstein has had merchant bankers and senior IT professionals in his safari groups. He is quick to point out, though, that these wealthy enthusiasts aren’t humourless snappers.

“They take it seriously, and they spend obscene amounts on gear, but they want a laugh too,” he says. “You need that if you’ve just seen a cheetah take out a gazelle fawn.”

If that sounds rather intense, luxury hotels are getting in on the act too. This year Vanessa Branson’s boutique Marrakech property Riad el Fenn hosted its first photography course with travel and photojournalism specialist Karoki Lewis, who counts Abercrombie & Kent, Cox & Kings and Western & Oriental among his clients. Closer to Florida, Virgin Gorda property Rosewood Little Dix Bay ran a five-day course with underwater photographer Deborah Liljegren last month.

Back in the Florida Keys, we towel down after our own attempts at underwater work and take a short drive to hear how it’s really done from Stephen Frink, the only marine photographer to have been drafted into Canon’s elite ‘Explorers of Light’ group.

He’s the first of several radically different professionals we visit, but all have one thing in common: they relocated to this string of islands to pursue their craft, and the tourist board has enlisted them to help convince us that it is one of the best places in the world to bring a camera.

For Frink, who settled in the Keys in 1978, it’s the ultimate training ground for underwater photographers. “The fact it’s been a conservation area for so long means fish are happy to get close to you,” he says, alluding to the fact Pennekamp has been protected since the early 1960s.

“And there’s a wide range of environments, from shallow water for snorkelling to deeper waters for scuba.”

Based across the road from the park, he offers exclusive masterclasses for experienced clients. If you have Padi 2, two years’ experience with underwater housing for DSLRs, and $1,200 to cover tuition, he’ll take you on.

Next we trade the stealth and precision of marine shooting for colourful, from-the-hip street photography with Rob O’Neal, an all-rounder from Ohio whose work captures the famously free-spirited Key West.

We first meet him on a boat en route to dinner at Sunset Key, a privately-owned island home to a number of Westin guest cottages and the beachfront Latitudes restaurant.

Over the next few hours we enjoy a series of mouth-watering local fish dishes punctuated by impromptu sunset photography tutorials on the resort’s terrace and pier; and while “use trial and error, move around, and put something in the foreground” may not sound like a masterclass, Rob’s boundless enthusiasm breaks down a few inhibitions and leads to some great shots.

The next day I explore the town with more spontaneity and courage, revelling in its quirky shops and houses, wild-haired quayside stall holders and street musicians.

While the Keys isn’t a traditional luxury location, the variety it offers developing photographers makes it worthwhile hunting down the isolated gems that are about.

High on the list is The Moorings, a former coconut plantation that now comprises 18 elegant one to three-bedroom cottages spread across as many acres. It’s here, on the resort’s private white sand beach, that I take my best sunset photograph of the trip (above).

Faced with a burst of orange, red and pink bisected by a dramatic column of grey cloud, I remember Rob’s advice and keep adjusting my shutter speed downwards until the astonishing colours in the sky are coming through just right. The satisfaction when they do is immense.

I then treat myself to a margarita from the tiki bar of neighbouring Morada Bay Cafe, and wander over to enjoy a meal of tuna tartar and grilled mahi with my toes in the sand.

It proves something I suspect is true of every top-end photography trip, whether you’re capturing cheetahs in Kenya, Buddhist festivals in Bhutan or a fine sunset here in the Keys: the good things in life taste better when they come with a sense of achievement.

Fancy getting a high-spec waterproof camera for your own snorkelling trips? We’re giving away the 14-megapixel Olympus compact our writer used in Florida. As well as being waterproof to five metres, it features automatic underwater white balance and a three-inch Hypercrystal III LCD display that still looks sharp beneath the waves. There’s also a 3D mode and HD video capture. To enter, email your best travel photograph to Aspire chief writer Rupert Murray (rupert.murray@travelweekly.co.uk) explaining where you took it and when. Check the Aspire blog for the best entries. Remember to include your name, agency name and contact details.