ORINDA -- Richard Westin has been to heaven five times and plans to go again, as soon as possible.
Heaven, according to the Orinda resident recently named 2012 Orinda Citizen of the Year, is where he has been every time he travels to far away lands with his camera. On each of his digital photography sojourns, Photo Quest Adventures has been his angelic host.
"It's a little bitty company with a warmhearted approach," Westin says. "Instead of going on a big bus and inundating a city, you go in a small bus and get into a culture. It's not intrusive, and that's important, when you visit tiny villages."
Offering specialized digital photography workshops, both internationally and in the United States, PQA's hobby-related travel has flown counter to the penny-pinching pullbacks of other tourist sectors. Avid shutterbugs -- with an interest in capturing, but not altering the beauty of unique locations -- are a big reason companies like PQA are thriving.
The company's approach, in partnership with Sustainable Travel International, is contributory. A percentage of PQA's revenue is donated to the communities they visit, and special attention is paid to preserving the environment of selected sites.
Altruism aside, Westin is primarily attracted to the company's artistic intent and top-flight professional teachers.
"In Paris, they don't tell you about the tourist highlights; they say, 'Let's shoot shadows of the statues in the Louvre
Tom Bol, an editorial and commercial photographer whose clients include National Geographic, Sunset Magazine and Nikon, is a popular master teacher.
"He's able to get into strange places and take unbelievable shots," Westin says.
Westin credits Najat Naba and Mirjam Evers, the two women who founded PQA.
"They've lived abroad and arrange everything: lodging, guides, itinerary, and they know remote places -- there's always a thrill associated with that," he says.
Prices vary, but a typical seven-to-10-day trip costs $5,000. Adding private flights and choosing certain locations can boost the figure to as much as $8,000.
Westin's photocentric travel has taken him to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Easter Island, Chile, and in April 2012, to Namibia.
"I had no preconceived notions about Namibia, except that I thought it would be wetter, and hotter and dirtier," he says. "Instead, it was dry, empty and immaculate. The 25-mile drive from the airport to the town? We didn't see one piece of trash."
What he did see were lions within arm's reach, as well as thousands of animals, gathered at watering holes. Zebras, a particular favorite, sauntered in clusters near their simple, elegant lodgings.
"They were this close," he exclaims, gesturing to a spot on the floor near his feet.
As evidence, he whips open his iPad and jokes, "This is the closest I get to publishing: showing people my photos."
The first image, two overlapping zebras, creates a humorous, two-headed striped beast. The next -- apricot-colored sand dunes under a powder-blue sky forming a backdrop behind the gnarly, black branches of a tree rising from the snowy-white sand of a dry river bed -- is breathtaking. A third, intimate portraits of the Hlmba people, leads to a discussion about culture and lifestyles.
"It was an arranged trip to a tribal community," Westin begins. "Their hair was filled with mud (to style it) and they were exceptionally accommodating. They live on the sand, in teeny huts, as plain as you can imagine. I'll always have images of them in my head."
Westin carries a Nikon D300S and five lenses -- a hefty pack that allows him to capture images less invasively. He returns from each journey with an average of 5,000 photos. During the long flights home, he edits his photos in an oddly energized state of exhaustion.
"I'm an emotional soul. I get tunnel focused and say, 'Look at that shot,' but there are things that look fine on the three inches of a camera, but not so great on a computer."
Westin, who admits he never took a lesson until he went on a PQA trip, says has learned that "light is all." He plans to remember that in October, when he is set to travel to Papua New Guinea.