Galapagos Photography

I've been to the Galapagos twice: in July 2008 on a great tour led by Etienne and Elizabeth De Backer, and in July 2014 on an even better tour chartered by Galapagos Travel and led by naturalist Martin Loyola and photographer Tui de Roy. I hope this trip report can help you understand what Galapagos is like and get the shots you want.

Results: My Galapagos Pictures

See my gallery (try the "slideshow" button) or click on these thumbnails:

The Routine

You live aboard a ship. A typical day: 5:30 breakfast, 6:00 load into 17-foot inflatable boats called pangas (elsewhere called zodiac boats) for a shore landing. Stay until maybe 10:00; then back aboard to change into your wet suit, back into the boats for a short trip to a snorkeling destination for an hour or a bit more; back on board for lunch at noon. Then a break, followed by a second landing from around 2:00 to 6:00. Back on board for dinner and a short presentation by the naturalist and/or photographer. Landings are either wet—the boat lands on a beach and you step into calf-high water or dry—you step off the boat onto rocks which are usually wet and slippery, but not actually submerged. The ship usually departs for the next island sometime around midnight; you will likely feel the waves when it is underway. Most passengers wore a scopolamine patch to ward off motion sickness; nobody who used medication had any discomfort on our trips.

Having done one tour with a photographer guide and one without, I definitely recommend the photographic tour. First, because Tui de Roy was fantastic—she moved to Galapagos at the age of two and spent most of her life exploring, playing, understanding, and photographing the islands. Her multiple books establish her as the premier Galapagos photographer. It's like taking a tour of Yosemite with Ansel Adams. Furthermore, she is very willing, capable, and friendly in sharing her knowledge with you. And second, because you just see more on a photographic tour. The naturalist doesn't want to bore the tour group, and keeps things moving. The photographer slows things down, allowing you to spend more time at each site with each animal. Overall you spend at least an hour longer in each landing with the photographic tour, so I would recommend it, even if you are not a serious photographer.

We were on the 16-passenger Tip Top IV. My friend Corey went on The Beagle, a similarly-sized sailboat (which mostly travels by motor) and got a great set of photos himself. A sailboat is much more hip, but the Tip Top IV has the speed advantage, 12 knots to 9, which means I spent less time in potentially seasickness-inducing open waters. There are larger ships but I would recommend against them, because the landings would be too crowded.

Here's our ship, a room, and a panga:

Our Route

Ships in Galapagos are assigned a route by the Galapagos National Parks Service. Each route is two weeks long and visits the same locations in the same order each two-week cycle. Tour providers can package this as one two-week tour, two one-week tours, an 11 day plus a 3 day, etc. Here is our route according to Galapagos Travel and my camera's GPS tracks (you can see 4 places where the battery was out of my camera and tracks are incomplete). The route starts in Baltra in the center, goes north to Tower island first, then goes mostly counterclockwise around the islands. Click through on either image for more info:

Island by Island Highlights

How many days should you spend? That's up to you. To help, I'll list my favorite islands and what you see there; you can choose a tour that includes the islands you most want (see Galapagos Travel's full itinerary as an example).

North Seymour: Best colonies of frigate birds and blue-footed boobies. Marine and land iguanas; sea lions, sally lightfoot crabs.
South Plaza: Land iguanas, scenic landscapes, a cliff from which you can catch tropic birds, gulls, boobies, and other birds flying below.
Espanola: Your only chance to see albatross.
Santa Cruz: Black turtle cove is your best chance to see diving pelicans and boobies.
Santiago: Best collection of marine iguanas on lava (often with Sally lightfoot crabs); best ghost crabs on sand; sea lions and sea turtles; landscape.
Tower (or Genovesa): Best chance for red-footed boobies; frigate and other birds.
Fernandina: Marine iguanas, lava, landscape, lava cactus.

What Equipment to Bring?

I suggest: My choices for my two trips were:

Category2008 Trip2014 Trip
DSLR:Canon 5DCanon 6D
Ultrawide lens:Canon 17-40mm f/4Canon 16-35mm f/4
Long lens:Canon 100-400mmTamron 150-600mm
Underwater:Canon G9 w/housingSony RX 100 w/housing
Backup Camera:Canon G9Canon 7D
Backup lenses:24-105mm, 70-200mm f/424-70mm, 70-300mm L (backup for both me and my wife)

What Focal Lengths Did I Shoot?

Here's a table of the percent of shots I took with each lens on my 2014 trip, out of all shots in my library, and out of just my self-ranked "top" shots. The last column gives the "hit ratio", for example, 1 out of every 12 shots taken with the 150-600 was a top shot, but only 1 out of every 33 underwater shots (I'm really bad at underwater shots).

LensTypeAll shotsTop shotsHit Ratio
16-35mm f/4 ultrawide 8% 6% 1/20
24-70mm f/2.8 wide 5% 4% 1/20
70-300mm L f/5.6 long 36% 33% 1/16
150-600mm f/6.3 long 43% 53% 1/12
Sony RX 100 underwater 7% 3% 1/33

In 2014 I took about 800 shots a day, and when I had some down time, I would put them on my laptop, quickly scroll through, and delete about 3/4 of them, leaving about 200 per day. In 2008 I wasn't nearly as trigger-happy: I took about 250 a day and deleted about 2/3 of them. (I understand that some photographers have a policy of never deleting anything.)

Here's a histogram of focal lengths for my 277 best shots over both trips:

I see three things in this histogram:

Lens Selection: Long Lens

The animals in Galapagos are famously tame; you can walk right up to them. Indeed, at times you have to be careful not to step on them. So why do you need a long lens? Couldn't an 18-200mm superzoom do it all? Well, as Thom Hogan points out, "It's not a matter of not being able to get close to the animals. Instead, it's a matter of getting close to the animals when they're doing something you want to capture." Since you're not allowed to go off the trail, and since the interesting action might be farther away and fleeting, you need a long lens to capture it. Also, if you want a nice portrait of an animal you'll want a long focal length to eliminate distracting elements (brush, sky, other animals, tourists), and a wide aperture to blur out the background. The superzoom is not ideal for this. On the other hand, you will be walking around for hours, so you want a lens that is not too big and heavy.

The following table compares five choices. I give the lens, its maximum aperture, minimum focus distance, DxO Mark overall image quality score, retail price, and weight:

Tamron 150-600mm f/6.38 ft 19 $1,100 2.0 kg (4.3 lbs)
Canon 100-400mm IIf/5.6 3 ft 26 $2,100 1.6 kg (3.5 lb)
Canon 100-400mm I f/5.6 6 ft 19 $1,300 1.4 kg (3.0 lbs)
Canon 70-300 L f/5.64 ft 25 $1,600 1.0 kg (2.3 lbs)
Canon 70-200 f/2.8 II f/2.84 ft 33 $2,500 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs)

All of these lens are very good. If you have any one of these (or the equivalent in another camera system), don't worry, you will have a succesful trip to Galapagos. But if you are looking to buy or rent one of them, or choose between two that you already own, here are my thoughts in more detail:

Tamron 150-600mm: a new lens in 2014 with reviews that rate it as slightly better image quality than the popular Canon 100-400mm (version I) at their common focal lengths. I found that it delivers on the promise: equal to or better than the 100-400mm in every way except that focus is a bit slower. The real issue is not so much that the Tamron lens is poor at focusing or is soft beyond 500mm (as some reviews claim), but rather that focusing at 600mm without solid support is inherently very difficult—much more difficult than at 300mm. Another big consideration is the weight. If you're used to a kit zoom you will find this lens quite heavy. If you're used to a supertelephoto, you will find it quite light. For me, I had no problem at all carrying it from a shoulder sling strap and hand-holding it all day. Tamron has updated this lens in 2016, and Sigma has two versions that I have not had a chance to investigate. Some sample images from this lens, all at 600mm (you can click through for a bigger version, and you can mouse over for the shooting data):

Canon 100-400mm II: This lens was not yet released when I was in Galapagos. It improves image quality, build, stabilization, and minimum focus distance over the 100-400 I, and I think it would be the best choice for anyone who can afford it.

Canon 100-400mm I: has less range and perhaps slightly worse image quality than the 150-600mm. George Lepp calls it his favorite wildlife lens, but others complain it is old, with outdated autofocus and image stabilization. The 150-600mm or the 100-400mm II are better choices. Samples from the 100-400mm I (also see Corey's album):

Canon 70-300mm L IS: faster focusing and higher optical quality than either the 100-400 I or the 150-600, and lighter, but of course it has a shorter reach. In 2014 I carried the 70-300mm when I knew subjects would be close or large (like sea lions) or when we would be shooting from a crowded boat and I didn't want to be swinging a larger lens around. I carried the 150-600mm when I expected subjects would be small or farther away (e.g. ghost crabs).

Could I have used the 70-300mm as my only long lens? Yes, but it would have meant changing my style and altering or foregoing the 53% of my shots that were longer than 300mm. What would I have done when I wanted to frame a 600mm shot, if I were only carrying a 300mm? Four choices: (1) Enjoy the scene with your eyes, not your camera. (2) Crop the shot: this can work if you don't want to print too large. If I crop to 1/4 of the frame, I end up with 5MP instead of 20MP; this should be fine for an 11x14 inch print, but not a 20x30 inch poster that will be viewed close up. (3) Walk forward to frame the subject: works well sometimes because animals are tame. Sometimes does not work, because you can't walk off the path, or because the behavior you want to capture is fleeting, or because you want a very tight angle to eliminate the background. (4) Switch to an environmental portrait rather than a close-up portrait. Personally, I really like the close portrait style, so I like 400mm or 600mm lenses, but many people might have a style that doesn't need anything beyond 300mm.

Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II: a superb lens in its focal range; the f/2.8 will give you beautiful subject isolation from the background. Also an excellent 100-280 f/4 when used with a teleconverter.

Mind the Gap

What about the gap between your wide and long lens? If you are bringing the 17-40mm and 70-300mm, don't worry about it. The 40-70mm gap is not worth filling with another lens; just take a few steps forward or back. If you are bringing the 16-35mm and 150-600mm then you might want to consider something in the 35-150mm gap (perhaps a 24-105mm or 70-200mm, or a quality compact or mirrorless camera).

Lens Selection: Wide Angle

I used the Canon 17-40mm f/4 for the first trip, and the new Canon 16-35mm f/4 on the second trip. Both performed well, both have similar focal range. Roger Cicala ran a test showing the 16-35mm f/4 is Canon's best wide angle, even better (especially in the corners) than the more-expensive 16-35 f/2.8 II. But let's not argue about small differences between these lenses, but rather discuss the types of shots you can get with whatever lenses you have.

Shots: Open Landscape

We can show the expanse of the landscape at a 16mm or 17mm focal length. (A 24-70mm zoom would have cut off 1/3 of these shots.)

Shots: Landscape with Foreground Element

Capture the landscape in the background, and feature some flora, fauna, or mineral in the very near foreground:

The cactus shot is cropped very slightly; the marine iguana is a significant crop to about 20% of the frame (so although it is shot at 16mm, it is more like a 40mm field of view). You are not allowed to stick a camera right in an animal's face (National Park rules say everyone is supposed to keep a 2 meter radius away from animals, except for Americans, who are allowed 0.17 meters closer with only a six foot radius), so I couldn't get that shot at 16mm. However, you are allowed to sit in place and wait for a curious bird to approach your camera:

You can sometimes get a humorous effect with the right juxtaposition of foreground and background—forced perspective makes the juvenile frigate bird look like a giant, and the fuzzy white frigate bird chick looks goofy from any angle, but this one accentuates it:

Or you can just show that the animals are in an environment that includes people in close proximity:

Homo sapiens (and their cameras) have become part of the Galapagos environment; don't be afraid to feature them. The Galapagos Mockingbird posing for his closeup clearly does not understand the minimum focus distance of the 70-200mm:

Shots: Eye Level

Most animals in the Galapagos are small (ok, not the whale shark); they look better if you get down to eye level. This can be done with either a wide angle lens (shoot the marine iguana with camera perched on the sand; crawl on your belly or use live view to compose the image on the LCD) or a long lens (adopt a sitting position 30 feet from the tortoise and you will still be at grass level). Tui de Roy brought knee pads, but I found myself either sitting or lying down, not kneeling, so my knees were not my main stress point.

Shots: Portraits

Using a longer lens you can isolate an animal, with a blurred background serving as a colorful backdrop rather than detailing the animal's environment:

Shots: Behavior

Sometimes you catch the decisive moment, like the Noddy landing on the pelican's head to hunt for the small fish that the pelican stirs up, or these two sea lions playing.

Shots: Birds in Flight

Capturing birds in flight requires good equipment, good technique, and lots of practice. Use continuous autofocus (Cannon calls it "AI Servo"), and depending on the camera, you probably want to enable multiple autofocus assist points (so that the bird stays in focus if the central autofocus point slips off the bird) and set a low focus sensitivity, so that focus does not easily jump from the bird to the background. Start with large, slow-moving birds like pelicans and frigate birds. It is easier against a blank sky than against a busy background.

Next try smaller, faster, but smooth flying birds like the swallowtail gull. I've used a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec to freeze any motion. Try to get an interesting background, like the rocks or sea below when shooting from a cliff, or at least an interesting cloud formation.

A real challenge: the small, fast, darting birds like the Tropic Bird (this one flew so close that I clipped a wing), and especially the Galapagos Shearwater:

The biggest challenge of all is getting the exact moment when a diving bird hits the water. This requires, skill, perseverance, and luck. Put the focus point on the bird as it circles. Then fire a burst of shots as it dives, trying to keep the focus point on the bird. The pelicans are larger and slower and thus easier than the blue-footed boobies.

Frame rate: The Canon 6D shoots at a rate of only 4.5 frames per second; for diving birds I found myself wanting a faster rate, like the 10 fps of the 7D II (this was the only situation in Galapagos where I felt the 6D limited me in any way). Wikipedia says a booby can dive at 60 mph, which is 88 ft/sec. But most of the boobies and pelicans we saw started from relatively low heights and never reached such speeds; I would estimate (from studying successive frames) a range of 5 to 10 feet per frame (which is 22 to 45 ft/sec). With a 7D II, that would be only 2 to 4 feet between frames. A pelican is 3 or 4 feet long, so I'd be almost guaranteed of seeing some part entering the water. But even at 4.5 fps, with enough repetition over many dives, I was able to get a half dozen really nice water-entry shots. Below are four examples; I won't show the many, many shots that were too early, too late, had the bird partially out of the frame (even in this "good" example the tip of the blue-footed booby's tail is out of the frame), or were completely out of focus.

Lens Selection: Supertelephoto?

Many pro photographers (including Tui de Roy, Frans Lanting, Tim Laman, and Art Morris) lug heavy, expensive supertelephoto lenses in Galapagos. But I agree with Tim Laman and Andy Williams, who says "the 200-400mm is way too ungainly to handle and use on the Islands in Galapagos."

For the record, here are four choices in the supertelephoto category, compared to the five "non-super" lens discussed previously:

Canon 500mm f/4 II f/412 ft 31 $10,000 3.2 kg (7 lbs)
Canon 200-400mm f/4 f/4 6.5 ft 30 $11,000 3.6 kg (8 lbs) (280-560mm f/5.6, DxO=21 with built-in 1.4x TC on)
Canon 400mm f/4 DO f/410 ft30 $7.0002.1 kg (4.6 lbs)
Canon 300mm f/2.8 II f/2.86.5 ft 37 $7,000 2.3 kg (5 lbs)

Tamron 150-600mm f/6.38 ft 19 $1,100 2.0 kg (4.3 lbs)
Canon 100-400mm IIf/5.6 3 ft 26 $2,100 1.6 kg (3.5 lb)
Canon 100-400mm I f/5.6 6 ft 19 $1,300 1.4 kg (3.0 lbs)
Canon 70-300 L f/5.64 ft 25 $1,600 1.0 kg (2.3 lbs)
Canon 70-200 f/2.8 II f/2.84 ft 33 $2,500 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs)

We see that the supertelephotos cost 5 or 10 times as much, weigh around twice as much, and have image quality that is maybe 15% better. (Although I do not consider the DxO scores to be definitive.) The only supertelephotos I could possibly see using for Galapagos are the lightest ones: the 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/4. But to me, neither is worth the extra 1.5 lbs over the 100-400mm II, which is so much easier to handle, and has image quality that is nearly as good. But you should judge for yourself: would you be comfortable shooting like Art Morris (below left) or Tim Laman (below right)? Or would you prefer a lighter load? (Note: Art has been know to carry the 200-400mm, the 400mm DO, the 500mm, the 600mm, and even the 10 pound 800mm in Galapagos. It seems he can make fantastic photos with just about any lens that is big and white and has an affiliate link.)

Frank Sulloway

Lens Selection: Even Wider?

Right before my first trip to Galapagos, my friend and Galapagos expert Frank Sulloway recommended a fisheye lens. Fisheyes had never appealed to me before, and I didn't have time to get one, but in retrospect Frank had a good point. 5% of my pictures were right at the widest possible focal length I had; why not go wider? Choices include the Canon 15mm fisheye or the Sigma version that Frank says is cheaper and better, or the even cheaper (but manual) Rokinon fisheye (Rokinon products are also sold under the names Samyang and Bower), or the new (and expensive) Canon 8-15mm zoom fisheye. Tui de Roy often used a fisheye to good effect on our trip and in her books. I had the Rokinon ready to go for my 2014 trip, but in the end my bag was completely full and I chose to leave it behind. For rectilinear lenses, there is the Sigma 12-24mm (the widest lens you can get on a full-frame SLR) or the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (manual). Frank Sulloway also gave good advice with "I probably use my 16-35mm lens and my 70-300mm lens more than any of the other lenses"; my experience is the same except that I appreciate being able to go beyond 300mm.

You can also make panoramic landscape photos by stitching two or more images together. The first image below was stitched in Photoshop; someone more skilled than me could do a better job of balancing the light levels from left to right. The second was made in-camera with the Sony RX 100's panorama feature:

Camera Selection

This section is easy: if you already have a DSLR that is less than six years old, you will be fine. Don't worry about it.

If you really want to use this trip as an excuse to upgrade (or to buy your first "good" camera), be my guest, but choose the new camera for your future shooting needs; there are no special demands on the camera made by Galapagos. If this is you, here are some options to consider:

Full-frame sensor DSLR: I chose full-frame (a 5D first trip, then a 6D). There are more options for wide-angle lenses. I didn't really need the high-ISO capabilities that full-frame offers in Galapagos, because you're not allowed on the islands when it is dark.

Crop sensor DSLR: I brought a 7D as a backup and used it a few times; I couldn't tell the difference in image quality between it and the 6D. A crop camera will work fine in Galapagos, and since crop cameras usually have greater pixel density, that will help for telephoto shots.

Mirorless system camera:I think a Sony or Fuji or micro-4/3 camera would be excellent for wide and medium range shots, but these systems historically have not had great long telephoto lenses, although in 2016 that changed: Olympus released a 300mm f/4 professional-level lens that might be perfect for locations like Galapagos, and both Fuji and Panasonic released 100-400mm lenses that year. Two people on our trip did use mirrorless cameras and came away with strong portfolios (with more emphasis on wider shots).

Compact camera: Let's face it: if you've gotten this far reading this very nerdy guide, you're probably not the kind of person to bring only a non-interchangeable-lens compact camera. But a few readers are (I've heard from some), and maybe you have a friend or family member who is exactly that kind of person. They could do very well with one of the new 1" sensor compact cameras like the 24-200mm equivalent Sony RX10 or the 25-400mm equivalent Panasonic FZ-1000 or the Nikon DL 24-500 or the 24-600mm equivalent Canon G3X or Sony RX10 III.

Second camera: Should you carry two cameras at all times, one with a long lens and one with a wide? Maybe. I wouldn't recommend dangling two cameras on straps though, because you don't want the second camera banging into the rocks or dirt when you are getting into low positions. Keep the second camera tucked away until you need it. A mirrorless camera with a wide-angle lens would be an excellent light-weight complement to a long lens on a DSLR. For me, I carried one camera and stopped to change lenses. I felt that I missed very few shots while changing lenses; maybe one every few days.

Should you have a backup camera back on the boat as insurance against equipment failure? Definitely! It would be best to have a second DSLR, but you might be satisfied with a compact or mirrorless camera for backup (perhaps one that you use for underwater). You should also have a backup strategy in case of lens failure. If you are travelling as a couple or group, you can share a backup between you.

Underwater Camera Selection

About once a day you will have a snorkeling opportunity. You will see many fish, playful sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, and probably penguins and marine iguanas in the water. People on our trip had different approaches. Some chose to enjoy the experience without bothering with pictures; some brought a GoPro; some brought a waterproof camera; and some brought a camera in an underwater housing. Those with housings got better pictures, partly because their equipment was better, but mostly because the type of people who invest in housings are more serious and experienced underwater photographers.

I have two suggestions for underwater: first, shoot mostly video, not stills. Video is more forgiving of bubbles or particles in the water and of slightly blurred subjects. The GoPro is designed for video. Second, the most important thing for good underwater pictures is not the choice of camera, but the ability to dive down 5 to 15 feet and get your camera at the level of your subject. You typically wear a wetsuit in Galapagos which makes you buoyant, so to dive down, ask your tour operator ahead of time to stock a weight belt for you. Bring your own wetsuit or ask to rent one.

Other Equipment

Other Sources of Advice

Other Galapagos Photo Collections

Collections of photos across many photographers with the keyword #galapagos, with my ratings for each site:

Peter Norvig