Galapagos Photography

Peter Norvig, 2015

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 to understand what Galapagos is like and to get the shots you want.

You can see galleries for my 2014 and 2008 trips (try the "slideshow" button) or click on these thumbnails:

The Routine

You live aboard a ship. A typical day on my 2014 photographic tour:

5:30 breakfast on ship
6:00-10:00 load into inflatable boats called pangas for a shore landing
10:00-11:00 back to ship, change into wet suit, snorkeling
12:30 lunch, then a break; ship may travel to nearby destination
14:00-18:00 another shore landing
18:30 dinner aboard ship, and a presentation by the naturalist or photographer
24:00 ship starts cruising to the next island

Having done one tour with a photographer guide and one without, I definitely recommend the photographic tour, even if you are not a serious photographer. First, because you just see more on a photographic tour. The naturalist guide will let you sleep an hour or two later, but the photographer will have you out on the island in the attractive morning light. Once there, the naturalist guide wants to keep things moving, while a photographer guide slows things down, allowing you to spend more time at each site with each animal. And second, because Tui de Roy was fantastic! Tui (pictured at right with a tour member) 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.

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'm concerned that the landings would be too crowded (although I heard one good argument for a larger ship: if you have kids, and think they would enjoy having other kids around).

Here's our ship and a panga (aka zodiac boat):

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 (there are 4 places where GPS was turned off). The route starts in Baltra in the center, goes north to Genovesa island first, then goes mostly counterclockwise around the islands. Click through on either image for more info:

Island by Island Highlights

What will you see where? Here are my highlights: You can see geotagged photos at the bottom of my 2014 photo gallery, or on this map::

What Photo Equipment to Bring?

I suggest you cover the following categories; there are many good choices in each category, from all the major camera manufacturers. Here's what I happened to bring:

2008 Trip2014 Trip

Camera:Canon 5DCanon 6D
Wide 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, Sony RX 100
Backup lenses:24-105mm, 70-200mm f/424-70mm, 70-300mm L

For me, 24mm was not wide enough; 300mm not long enough. You may find advice saying that a 70-200mm lens is all you need; that may be true for some people, but if, like me, you want portraits that isolate animals, you will appreciate the reach at 400mm or 600mm. I never carried two cameras at a time; I felt that would be cumbersome with all the scrambling over rocks. I kept the long lens on the camera (just in case there was some action in the distance I wanted to quickly capture) and when it was time for a wide angle landscape shot I would change lenses, get the shots, then change back. I was very glad to have backup equipment (shared between me and my wife) back in the cabin for variety's sake, and in case anything broke (even though nothing did).

What Focal Lengths Did I Shoot?

To the left below is a histogram of the focal lengths of my 277 (self-ranked) best shots. To the right is a table of the percent of overall shots I took with each lens. The last column gives the ratio of shots that I ranked "best", for example, 1 out of every 12 shots taken with the 150-600 lens I self-rated as a best shot, but only 1 out of every 33 underwater shots (I'm really bad at underwater photography).

16-35mmwider 8% 1/20
24-70mmwide 5% 1/20
70-300mmlong 36% 1/16
150-600mmlonger 43% 1/12
RX 100 underwater 7% 1/33

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? 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. 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 four choices for the Canon system (other brands have similar offerings). I give the lens, its maximum aperture, minimum focus distance, DxO Mark overall image quality score (which is suggestive, not definitive), retail price, weight, and appropriateness for use in Galapagos (in my opinion):

Canon 100-400mm IIf/5.6 3 ft 26 $2,100 1.6 kg (3.5 lb)The best overall option.
Canon 70-300 L f/5.64 ft 25 $1,300 1.0 kg (2.3 lbs)High image quality, relatively light weight, may not be long enough.
Tamron 150-600mm f/6.38 ft 19 $1,100 2.0 kg (4.3 lbs)Good but not perfect image quality, longer range, heavier.
Canon 100-400mm I f/5.6 6 ft 19 $1,300 1.4 kg (3.0 lbs)Outdated but still good.

All of these lens are good. If you have any one of these (or the equivalent in another camera system), don't worry, you will have a successful trip to Galapagos. Don't obsess over lens reviews: I never once said to myself "I wish I had a lens that was one point sharper on the DxO benchmark." But when I was carrying the 300mm I sometimes said "I wish I could reach to 400mm or 600mm." I think the 100-400mm II is the best option for the Galapagos, but it was not yet out when I was on my trips. (Note the 100-400mm lenses accept an optional 1.4x teleconverter.) For comparison, here are some samples photos from the lenses I've used:

Canon 70-300mm L IS: In 2014 I carried the 70-300mm when I knew subjects would be close and large (like sea lions) or when I wanted to be more agile (like when we were in a crowded panga trying to track diving pelicans). Samples below (you can click through for a bigger version, and you can mouse over for the shooting data):

Tamron 150-600mm: In 2014 I carried this when I knew subjects would be small or far away. This lens gets mixed reviews; I think the real issue is that focusing at 600mm without solid support is inherently difficult—much more difficult than at 300mm. This lens is heavy, but I had no problem at all carrying it from a shoulder sling strap and hand-holding it all day. Note: Tamron has updated this lens in 2016, Sigma has two similar lenses, and Nikon has a 200-500. Samples:

Canon 100-400mm I: George Lepp calls it his favorite wildlife lens, but others complain it is outdated. See Corey's album or my 2008 samples:

Mind the Gap?

What about the gap between your wide and long lens? If you are bringing the 17-40mm and 70-300mm, then the 40-70mm gap is not worth covering 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 something in the 35-150mm gap (perhaps a 24-105mm or 70-200mm lens, 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 did fine. I would have felt constrained if my widest was 24mm. More important than the slight differences between lenses is 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. 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 only required to keep a six foot radius, which means they can get 0.17 meters closer.) 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 clearly does not understand the minimum focus distance of the lens he is posing for:

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 even 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 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. 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: Studying successive frames suggests that the boobies and pelicans were diving at about 20 to 40 ft/sec. The birds are 3 or 4 feet long, so if your camera shoots 10 frames/sec and if you can hold focus, you'll be guaranteed to get a shot of the bird splashing. If your camera only does 5 frames/sec you'll need some luck to get it right. Below are four examples that combined good luck with not making any big mistakes; I won't show the many, many shots that were too early, too late, out of focus, or mis-framed:

This is a great example of the advantage of the photographic tour: in 2008, the naturalist figured that it would be difficult for anybody to get a good picture of a diving bird, so we didn't spend much time in their vicinity. In 2014, Tui knew that all the photographers wanted to try, so she spent a lot of time getting us in just the right location to give us the best chance, and the results were demonstrably better.

Shots: Lighting

Much of the time the sun will be overhead. Try to avoid stark shadows (except for effect as in below bottom right). Look for subjects in shade, or under cloudy skies. Another advantage of the photographic tour is that you spend more time ashore near sunrise and sunset, when the light is more interesting. Do consider side or back lighting, which can either be used to highlight edges and shine through, as with the cactus and the pelican's pouch, or for a silhouette, as with the iguana:

Lens Selection: Supertelephoto?

Many pros (including Tui de Roy, Frans Lanting, Tim Laman, and Art Morris) lug heavy, expensive supertelephoto lenses in Galapagos. But even though he sometimes carries one, Laman advises that for you and me, "a good setup would be ... a 24-105mm, and ... a 100-400 f5.6." Andy Williams says supertelephotos "are way too heavy and difficult to handle and use on the Islands in Galapagos." I agree.

For the record, here are three choices in the supertelephoto category, compared to the four telephoto lens discussed previously:

Supertelephoto LensfMFDDxOPriceWeightComments
Canon 500mm f/4 II f/412 ft 31 $9,000 3.2 kg (7 lbs)Too heavy; not as versatile as a zoom.
Canon 200-400mm f/4 f/4 6.5 ft 30 $11,000 3.6 kg (8 lbs) Built-in 1.4x TC. Perfect coverage, but too heavy, expensive.
Canon 400mm f/4 DO f/410 ft30 $7.0002.1 kg (4.6 lbs)Light enough to hand-hold.

Telephoto LensfMFDDxOPriceWeightComments
Canon 100-400mm IIf/5.6 3 ft 26 $2,100 1.6 kg (3.5 lb)The best overall option.
Tamron 150-600mm f/6.38 ft 19 $1,100 2.0 kg (4.3 lbs)Inexpensive, good but not perfect quality, heavy.
Canon 70-300 L f/5.64 ft 25 $1,300 1.0 kg (2.3 lbs)High quality, relatively light weight, may not be long enough.
Canon 100-400mm I f/5.6 6 ft 19 $1,300 1.4 kg (3.0 lbs)Outdated but still good.

We see that the supertelephotos cost 5 or 10 times as much, weigh around twice as much, are a stop or two faster, and have image quality that is maybe 15% better. For Galapagos, I would only recommend a lens you would be comfortable carrying all day, and hand-holding for minutes at a time; for me that rules out anything heavier than the 400mm f/4. If you own a supertelephoto lens, you presumably know what you're doing and you don't need my advice on bringing it. But if you are considering something to rent, I would still recommend the 100-400mm II, which is easier to handle, covers a wider range, and has image quality that is nearly as good. But judge for yourself: would you be comfortable shooting like Art Morris (below left) or Tim Laman (below right), whose pack is about 15 pounds heavier, and wallet is $12,000 lighter? (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. He can make great 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 (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, Canon, Nikon, Sigma, and Rokinon offer several choices in the 11-24mm range. 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. Recent high-end phones have excellent capabilities for panoramic pictures.

Camera Selection

This section is easy: if you already have a recent interchangeable lens camera—DSLR or mirrorless, full-frame or crop or micro-4/3, any manufacturer—you'll be fine. Don't worry about it. (OK, I admit that there are three specific circumstances where a higher-end camera could give a slight advantage over an old or lower-end model: using a 1.4x teleconverter on an f5.6 lens, focusing on fast-moving bird in flight, and firing enough frames per second to catch a diving bird at just the right moment.)

How about a compact bridge camera (one without interchangeable lenses, but a long zoom)? Let's face it, if you've read this far through this techno-geeky page, you're probably not the kind of person to trust your photos to a camera like that. But if someone else in your party is that kind of person, I think they'll be happy with something like the Sony RX10. Here's a comparison of camera sizes, all with 100-400mm equivalent focal lengths (except the RX10 is 24-600mm equivalent):

You can also see a comparison of less expensive options.

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 (great for video); some brought a waterproof camera (the easiest-to-use option); some had an underwater housing.

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. 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, get your camera at the level of your subject, and stay there long enough to frame and take your shot. So don't spend time comparing underwater camera options; spend it practicing holding your breath and moving under water. You typically wear a wetsuit in Galapagos which makes you buoyant, so ask your tour operator ahead of time to stock a weight belt for you, to make you more neutrally buoyant. Bring your own wetsuit or ask to rent one (or, if you are hardy, you can get by without a wetsuit).

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