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
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 like the
100-400mm and one wide lens, like the 17-40mm for
full-frame, or 10-22mm for crop sensor:
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).
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. 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).
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 (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:
(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)
Other camera systems
There are equivalents to all this gear for all major camera systems.
For Nikon crop sensor cameras Thom Hogan recommends:
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.
- Long: Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6 VR
- Wide: Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6
- Mid: Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 DX
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
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: