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):

TL;DR

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 be:


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

(for full-frame)
OR
10-18mm f/4-5.6

(for crop)
)

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)

The 100-400mm 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.)

Comparable Alternatives:

Expensive, Big, Heavy Alternatives:

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:

 ScoreLensPriceWeight
  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%)

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. 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%)

  
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. 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)

Tortoises (105mm)

Other Equipment

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

Other Galapagos Photo Collections

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


Peter Norvig