Galapagos Photography

I went to the Galapagos with some friends and family in July 2008 on a great tour run by Etienne and Ely De Backer. This is a report on what worked for me in terms of photography gear. If you're going and you're interested in Galapagos photography, maybe this can help.

The Results: Galapagos Pictures

The most important thing: here's how the pictures came out, separated into three galleries of about 30 photos each. Click to see each one, or see all the pictures together.

Galapagos: Birds

Galapagos: On Land

Galapagos: In the Sea

Lens Selection

What lenses to bring? For my full-frame Canon 5D, I brought my 17-40, 24-105, 70-200 f4 IS, and 100-400mm lenses. All four of these had been recommended in different forums as the "perfect lens for Galapagos" or "the one I used for 95% of my shots." How did it work for me? Well, here's a histogram of the percentage of my photos at different focal lengths and the lenses that cover those lengths (not necessarily the lenses actually used for the shots):


Quick summary: take one long lens like the 100-400mm and one wide lens, like the 17-40mm for full-frame, or 10-22mm for crop sensor:

100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS
+ (
17-40mm f/4 L
(for 1.6 crop)

For those with more patience or interest, details follow.

Long Range Shots: 100-400mm (84% of my shots)

The 100-400mm lens is light enough to carry around all day and has an excellent range. At f/5.6 it is somewhat slow, and past 300mm is best used stopped down to 7.1, making it even slower. But our schedule rarely had us out shooting at dawn and dusk, so lack of light was not a problem. Possible alternatives: If you can handle the weight, the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 with a teleconverter and a monopod might be ideal: sharper and faster (but no IS). Or the 70-300mm IS if you are on a budget (or the new 70-300 IS L if you aren't). A 300mm or 400mm prime lens with teleconverters would also be great--superb image quality and not too heavy to carry. Here's a nice nice gallery by Paul Tuttle taken with a 300mm f/4, some with a 1.4x teleconverter. Renowned bird photographer Arthur Morris went to Galapagos about the same time as me, and took the 400mm f/4 DO. He got great results as he always does, but the close focus distance of 3.5 meters meant he had to fuss with extension tubes when he wanted to get closer (and of course teleconverters when he wanted more zoom). And he didn't have the 100-399mm range. (And he had to lay out $6000 for it.) On his previous trip he lugged the 500mm f/4 and the 70-200 f/2.8 IS on separate cameras; this covers everything but the wide angles; however it is a lot of weight (and money). On his 2010 trip he took the 800mm; even heavier and more expensive. The Nikon 200-400mm f/4 (or the Canon version if/when it is ever sold) would be a great choice (for the wealthy).

Yes, you can get close to lots of iguanas, but the odds are the ones near you will be doing mundane things, while the interesting poses or behaviors will be farther away (400mm here).

The ghost crabs are skittish; you'll need a long lens (400mm here). On the other hand, the colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs are more tolerant of your advances; a 200mm or 300mm would do.

The Waved Albatross is a rather large bird, and you'll get lots of chances to fill the frame with one at 100mm, but again, chances are the more interesting courtship behavior will be farther away (400mm in this case).

100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS

400mm f/4 DO

70-300 IS L

70-300 IS

Wide angle: 17-40mm (14%)

The 17-40mm f/4 was the wide-angle lens I had, and it worked fine. I didn't need the speed of the 16-35mm f/2.8, although that would have been fine too, if I had one. Between the 100-400 and the 17-40, I've got 98% of my shots covered; I could have traveled with just those two lenses. On a crop sensor camera (anything except the 1D and 5D) you'd need something wider, like the Canon EF-S 10-22mm or the equivalent from Sigma or Tamron.

A curious Nazca booby juvenile comes right up to the lens (set at 17mm).

Capture the wide expanse of an empty beach (17mm).

Use perspective to reveal the rare seven-foot-tall Giant Frigate Bird (40mm).

17-40mm f/4 L

16-35mm f/2.8 L

(for 1.6 crop)

Ultra wide angle: (0%)

Frank Sulloway
I didn't have anything wider than 17mm, but right before I left, my friend and Galapagos expert Frank Sulloway recommended a 15mm fisheye (he says the Sigma is better than the Canon). Fisheyes had never appealed to me before, and I didn't have time to get one, but in retrospect I really think Frank was right. 9% of my pictures were at 17mm; for some of them I wanted to go wider. If I could do it over and bring just three lenses, the third would be something even wider than 17mm on a full-frame. Either a 15mm fisheye or the Sigma 12-24mm (the widest lens you can get on a full-frame SLR with a standard mount) or the Samyang/Bower/ProOptic/Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (a manual focus/manual aperture lens, but easy enough to use for daytime landscape photography (the level of distortion limits its usefulness for architectural work, but that is not a concern in Galapagos)). Frank Sulloway also gave good advice with "I probably use my 16-35 mm lens and my 70-300 mm lens more than any of the other lenses"; my top two lenses are similar to his except that I spent more money on the long end; he spent more money on the wide.

If you don't have an ultra-wide-angle lens, you can still make landscape photos by stiching together two or more images in Photoshop (or equivalent). It won't work if there are moving animals in the picture, and you have to be careful about exposure (this one is too dark on the left and too light on the right), but it can work:

Sigma 15mm f/2.8 fisheye

Sigma 12-24mm

Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

(Optional) Mid telephoto: 70-200mm f/4 (21%)

Yes, 21% of my shots fell into the range of the 70-200mm lens, but most of those were actually taken with the 100-400; only 4% were actually taken with the 70-200. On those days that I did carry it, I did appreciate that it was lighter, but I could easily have done with just the 100-400. But if you go with a prime (300mm or 400mm or 500mm) for your long lens, then this zoom would be ideal as a complement. Alternatively, the new 70-200mm f/2.8 IS L II takes the 2x teleconvertor very well, and so it can serve as both a 70-200 and a 140-400.

Albatross and chick (130mm)

Iguana love (135mm)

Tortoises (105mm)

70-200mm f4 L IS

70-200mm f/2.8 IS L II


Other camera systems

There are equivalents to all this gear for all major camera systems. For Nikon crop sensor cameras Thom Hogan recommends:

  1. Long: Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6 VR
  2. Wide: Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6
  3. Mid: Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 DX
His recommendations were made before Nikon came out with the excellent 14-24 4/2.8 and the 200-400 f/4, which would be ideal lenses for Galapagos with a D700 or full-frame pro camera.

Other Equipment

Every day (usually twice a day) you transfer to shore in dinghys. Nobody had any mishaps getting gear wet, but I still think it is a good idea to pack gear in a dry sack. I also felt that a photo vest makes more sense than a camera bag; easier access to equipment in your front pocket rather than on your back. Others agree. So leave your bag on the boat, wrap your gear in your vest, put it in your dry sack, and when you are safely and dryly on shore, put on the vest.

Leave your tripod home; the few who brought tripods on our trip abandoned them after the first day. Several people used monopods to good effect, both as a camera support and as a walking stick.

Don't forget to bring something to clean your sensor. If you change lenses you will get spots on your sensor.

Flash photography of animals is not allowed, so don't bother with a flash.

You'll probably want something for underwater pictures while snorkeling. I used the underwater housing for the Canon G9; several people used waterproof cameras such as the Pentax W60 or the Canon D10. I'm not an expert on this, but the consensus on the trip seemed to be that the people with housings got better pictures. (We don't know if that's because the housings are actually better for snorkel-based photography, or because the type of people who buy housings are better photographers.)


Dry Sack

Photographer's Vest


Sensor cleaner

Underwater housing

Waterproof camera

Other Sources of Equipment Advice

Other Galapagos Photo Collections

Collections of photos across many photographers, with my ratings for each site:

Peter Norvig