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.
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 (to about 400mm long) and one
ultra-wide lens (to about 17mm wide). For Canon, a good choice would
For me, the gap between 40-100mm only accounted for 3% of my shots,
so, whereas it won't hurt to have a third middle-length zoom, like the
24-105, it is not necessary. (There are similar lenses available for
all the other brands besides Canon.)
For those with more patience or interest, details follow.
Long: 100-400mm (84% of my shots)
lens is light enough (3 lbs or 1.4 kg) to carry around all day and has
an excellent range. At f/5.6 it is somewhat slow, and past 300mm to
it is best used stopped down to 7.1, making it even slower. At that
aperture it is fairly sharp, but not perfect. George Lepp says it is his
favorite wildlife lens, but others say that other choices are sharper,
faster, and have better, more modern image stabilization and focus. In
Galapagos, our schedule rarely had us out shooting at dawn and dusk,
so lack of light was not a problem. (I'm told that the current Nikon
version of this lens, the 80-400, has somewhat better image quality than the Canon,
but that the first version of the Nikon lens was not good.)
150-600mm: a new lens with reviews that rate it as better image
quality than the 100-400 at the common focal lengths; it also is
good up to 500mm and decent at 600mm. It is heavier at 4.3lbs or
L IS: higher optical quality than either the 100-400 or the
150-600, and lighter at 2.3lbs or 1kg, but of course it has a shorter
reach. It would work very well with a crop-sensor camera. For a
full-frame camera, you would have to move closer more often to fill
the frame with your subject. Sometimes you would be able to do this
easily; sometimes you might miss a shot.
f/2.8 L IS II: a superb lens in its focal range; the f/2.8 will
give you better subject isolation from the background. Also an
excellent 100-280 f/4 when used with a teleconvertor, and a decent
140-400 with the 2x teleconverter (about the same image quality as the
100-400). But you have to take time to swap the teleconverters in and out. Total weight with both teleconverters is 4.5 lbs or 2 kg (slightly more than the 150-600).
f/4 L IS: a high-quality prime lens. You lose the ability to
zoom, but have top quality at the 300mm focal length. (Maybe
use this along with a 70-200 f/4 or f/2.8.) Weighs 2.5 lbs or 1.2
kg. Here's a nice gallery
by Paul Tuttle taken with a 300mm f/4, some with a 1.4x
Expensive, Big, Heavy Alternatives:
f/2.8 or 400mm
f/4: Excellent image quality and subject isolation, but no zoom,
and expensive and heavy at 5.5 lbs (or 2.4 kg) and 4.3 lbs (or 2 kg)
respectively. Can be used with teleconverters.
f/4: If you've got $12,000 to spend (or around $600 to rent
for 10 days) and you're willing to lug an 8 lb (3.6 kg) lens around,
this will give you fantastic image quality over all the long focal
lengths you'll need. This lens has a built-in 1.4x teleconverter that
can be switched in or out in under a second. (The Nikon version
"only" costs $7,000, weight almost the same, and does not have the
DxOMark Optical Metric Scores:
The metrics from DxO Labs show that the very expensive professional lens are better than the
less expensive but still high-end and expensive lenses, but not by all that much:
| || 22 || 300mm f/2.8 II || $7000 ||2.3 kg
| || 21 || 70-200 f/2.8 II || $2500 || 1.5 kg
| || 20 || 600mm f/4 II || $13000 || 3.9 kg
| || 19 || 200-400mm f/4 || $11000 || 3.6 kg
| || 19 || 500mm f/4 II || $10000 ||3.2 kg
| || 15 || 300mm f/4 II || $1400 || 1.2 kg
| || 15 || 70-300 L || $1600 || 1.0 kg
| || 14 || 150-600mm || $1100 || 2.0 kg
| || 13 || 100-400mm || $1700 || 1.4 kg
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 no longer had $6000. 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, and in 2013 he used the 200-400 along with other lenses, including the 600. It seems that Morris can make great bird photos with just about any lens that has an affiliate link.
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), as Thom Hogan points out.
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).
Wide angle: 17-40mm (14%)
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. Likewise the new 16-35 f/4. 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 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 Giant Frigate Bird (40mm).
Ultra wide angle: (0%)
didn't have anything wider than 17mm, but right before I left, my
friend and Galapagos expert Frank
Sulloway recommended a 15mm fisheye. 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. For fisheye, I could get the Canon
15mm, 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. For
rectilinear lenses, there is the Sigma 12-24mm (the widest lens you
can get on a full-frame SLR with a standard mount) or the 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:
(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, so I consider it optional
But if you go with a prime (300mm or 400mm or 500mm)
for your long lens, then a 70-200 zoom would be ideal as a complement.
Albatross and chick (130mm)
Iguana love (135mm)
Every day (usually twice a day) you transfer to shore in small boats called pangas.
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 or a belt system
makes more sense than a camera bag; easier access to equipment in your
front pocket rather than on your back. 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.
Several people used monopods to good effect, both as a camera
support and as a walking stick. Leave your tripod home; the few
who brought tripods on our trip abandoned them after the first
day. (If you brought a 500mm or heavier lens, then by all means
bring a monopod or tripod. But not for the 100-400.)
Don't forget to bring something to clean 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. There are updated models these days.
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 invest in underwater housings are
better underwater photographers.)
Other Sources of Equipment Advice
- Art Morris (famous bird photographer) has trip reports from 2005 (part 2), 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010 along with an excellent gallery.
- A Traveler's Guide to the Galapagos Islands: this book is by the owner of the tour company we went with, but it is objective and informative.
- Ecuador, there and back again: great photos, along with commentary on the trip.
- A Guide to the Galapagos by Phil Greenspun, founder of photo.net.
- Shooting the Boobies and What lenses to bring by Thom Hogan, famous nature photographer. Conclusion for Nikon: 80-400, 24-120, 17-35. Best rational for a longer lens than 70-200: "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 on film."
- Galapagos trip and photography equipment by Fredo Durand, MIT professor and computational photographer. With extensive gallery. Brought 500 f/4 and 100-400.
- Large gallery at Galapagos Conservancy. Very nice, but at one point they had mis-labeled a red-footed booby as a blue-footed (in a picture that does not show the feet, obviously) and a hybrid iguana as a land iguana. A month ago I would have had no clue as to the differences, and now I am outraged at the error!
Other Galapagos Photo Collections
Collections of photos across many photographers, with my ratings for each site: