Are you a photographer considering a trip to Galapagos and wondering what it will be like? This page is for you; I've been three times and am sharing my experiences here. I've taken photos like the ones in the (clickable) thumbnails below, or see my gallery (or the slideshow version).
|5:30||breakfast on ship|
|6:00-10:00||a shore landing for animal/landscape viewing|
|10:30-11:30||snorkeling or panga ride or kayaking|
|12:30||lunch, then a break; ship may travel to nearby destination|
|14:00-18:00||another shore landing (and maybe snorkling)|
|18:30||dinner aboard ship, followed by a presentation by the naturalist or photographer|
|24:00||ship starts cruising to the next island|
There are naturalist tours and photographic tours. If you're on this page, you're probably a serious photographer, but even if you are not, I definitely recommend the photographic tour. First, because you just see more on a photographic tour. The photographer will have you out on the island at 6:00 AM to catch the first attractive morning light; the naturalist will assume you would prefer to sleep later, and thus spend less time on shore with the animals. Once on land, the naturalist guide wants to keep things moving, while a photographer guide slows things down, allowing you to spend more time at each site. And second, because our photographer guide, Tui de Roy, was fantastic! Tui (pictured at right with a tour member) arrived in Galapagos at the age of two when her parents decided to homestead there; she has 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. I would avoid the large 100-passenger cruise ships. Here's our ship and a panga (aka zodiac boat) used to transport us to shore:
What will you see, and where? Check out this map, or a similar one at the bottom of my gallery:
|Equipment||2008 Trip||2014 Trip||2019 Trip|
|Camera:||Canon 5D||Canon 6D||Canon R|
|Wide lens:||17-40mm f/4||16-35mm f/4||16-35mm f/4|
|Long lens:||100-400mm I||Tamron 150-600mm||100-400mm II|
|Underwater:||Canon G9 w/housing||Sony RX 100 w/housing||GoPro|
|Backup Camera:||Canon G9||Canon 7D, Sony RX 100||Canon 7D, Pixel 3 phone|
|Shared lenses:||24-105mm||24-70mm, 70-300mm L||70-200mm f/2.8, 400mm f/4|
I never carried two cameras at a time with lenses attached; I felt that would be cumbersome with all the scrambling over rocks. I generally 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 shot I would change lenses, get the shot(s), 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).
Below are charts of the focal lengths of all my best shots from each trip, broken out by lens and sorted by 35mm-equivalent focal length after cropping. By that I mean, if the focal length on the lens is set at 200mm, but I crop the photo down to half the size in both vertical and horizontal directions, then the equivalent focal length is 400mm. This tells me what focal length I wanted to have when I was getting the shot, not what lens I happened to have in hand.
In the first three charts below, each mark corresponds to one of my best shots: the x-axis position gives the focal length, and the color gives the lens, as defined in the legend. For example, the 14 blue dash-marks in the lower left corner of the first chart (2008) correspond to shots taken with the 17-40mm lens; 9 of them are at 17mm, and then 5 at longer focal lengths. There are just 3 orange marks for the 24-105mm lens (the backup that I used just one day), and 57 green marks for the workhorse 100-400mm lens; we see that many of the shots are right at the 400mm long end of the lens, but many more are beyond that length, because of cropping.
For the 2014 trip, each day I would carry one long lens (70-300 or 150-600) and one wide (16-35 or 24-70).
On the 2019 trip some days I would have the 100-400mm II and my wife would have the 70-200mm, other days we would swap. I had the option of also bringing the 400mm f/4; the 16-35mm was my only wide lens (except for my cell phone).
The last of the four charts is a histogram of all shots over all three trips. Note the two peaks at the very wide end (up to 25mm) and at 400mm. For me, a 24-70mm and 70-300mm alone would not be enough; 2/3 of my shots are either wider than 24mm or longer than 300mm.
The following table compares four choices for the Canon system (other brands have similar offerings). I give the lens, its maximum aperture (f), minimum focus distance (MFD), 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 II||f/5.6 || 3 ft ||26 ||$2,100|| 1.6 kg (3.5 lb)||The best overall option in the Canon system.
|| Canon 70-300 L || f/5.6||4 ft|| 25 || $1,300 || 1.0 kg (2.3 lbs)||High image quality, light weight, may not be long enough.
|| Tamron 150-600mm ||f/6.3||8 ft|| 19 || $1,100 || 2.0 kg (4.3 lbs)||Good but not perfect image quality, longer range, heavier.
|| Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II || f/2.8 || 4 ft || 33 || $1,900 || 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs)||Only 200mm (or 280mm with a 1.4x TC); great in that range.
All of these lens are very good. If you have any one of these (or the equivalent in another camera system), don't worry, you have all the tools for a successful photographic 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 70-200mm I sometimes said "I wish I could reach to 400mm or longer."
In more detail:
Canon 100-400mm II I think this is the best overall long lens option for Galapagos (in the Canon system; other systems offer similar lenses). Light enough to easily handhold, great focal range, excellent image quality except for a slight tendency towards fiddly backgrounds, as is expected for an f/5.6 lens. Samples:
(In photos throughout this page, you can hover to see the shooting data, and click through for a bigger version.)
Canon 70-300mm L IS: In 2014 I carried the small and lightweight 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:
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. As the focal length chart above shows, I certainly took good advantage of the 600mm range on this lens. However, I still think the 100-400mm is a better overall choice, because it (a) is smaller and lighter, (b) has better image quality in the 100-400mm range, and (c) paired with a good camera, it produces images that can stand cropping to the equivalent of a 600mm range, or more. (Note: The 100-400mm II was not out yet in 2014; that's why I used the 150-600mm. Tamron updated this lens in 2016, Sigma has two similar lenses, Nikon has a 200-500mm, Sony has a 200-600mm available for preorder, and Canon has rumors.) Samples:
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II: A fantastic portrait lens; the only f/2.8 lens among the options; has the capability to blur the background better than the f/5.6 lenses. Samples:
What about the gap between your wide and long lens? If you have 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 have 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).
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 those of us from the United States, who, in another example of US imperialism, are only required to keep 1.83 meters away (the signs call this "six feet".) However, you are allowed to sit in place and wait for a curious animal to approach:
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:
Some shots show what it is like to be there; there are animals in the shot, but they are not featured.
Next try smaller, faster, but still smooth flying birds like the swallowtail gull or albatross. I've used a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec to freeze any motion. Also work on more interesting backgrounds.
A real challenge: the small, fast, darting Tropic Bird (this one flew so close that I clipped a wing), and the Galapagos Shearwater, here shown banking frantically with its tail-feathers as it skirts the edge of the cliff:
Also challenging is getting the exact moment when a diving bird hits the water. Faster birds may need a shutter speed of 1/4000 second. Put the focus points on the bird as it cruises, then fire a continuous burst of shots as it dives, trying to keep the focus point on the bird. You may be used to panning on a constantly-moving subject (like a running person or animal), but the hard part here is that the bird is accelerating—because of gravity, and with the boobies, there is extra acceleration because they actively fly downward. It can be hard to keep your camera framed on the bird.
The pelicans were diving at about 20 to 30 ft/sec. They are about 4 feet long, so if your camera shoots 10 frames/sec and if you can hold focus, you'll be guaranteed to get one shot of the bird just above the water and the next splashing. If your camera only does 5 frames/sec you'll need some luck. Boobies are smaller and faster, and depending on how high up they start their dive, can reach 30 to 80 feet per second, so even at 10 frames/sec, you might miss the key moment. 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 told us that it would be difficult to get a good picture of a diving bird, so we didn't spend much time even trying. Tui de Roy 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.
On the left, the 100-400mm lens, stopped down slightly to f/6.3, produces a very sharp image of the iguana, contrasting nicely with the rock behind the head. But the background has various sticks that are not well-blurred; they produce a busy, unpleasing disruption. On the right, the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens produces a much smoother, more pleasing blur in the background. We call the quality of the blur bokeh. The background on the right is nicer in part because of the inherent properties of the lens, and in part because the background is farther away and consists of roundish rocks, not straight and narrow sticks.
Rocks can blur nicely, as we see below left, where I have used the trick of getting down low and using a rock in the foreground very near the camera to create a wash of grey in front of the iguana. Below right, I use a similar approach with a wash caused by vegetation very close to the camera; the vegetation on the left edge of the frame is closer to the frigate bird subject, and thus is not blurred.
Besides blurred backgrounds and foregrounds, another aspect of bokeh is specular highlights from reflections off of water or shiny material. Below left we see the backlit sun reflecting off the ocean; this adds interest to a photo that would be dull without the highlights. Below right we see reflections off of sparkly bits of sand and minerals in the rocks, making it look like a horde of dragon's gold (both photos are better viewed at larger size; click on them).
Below is Markus Fromherz's photo of the making of this iguana shot; I'm the one sitting with the greyish backpack; I'm composing on the fold-out screen, getting my lens close to the rock and sand in front of it. Rachel to my right doesn't have a fold-out screen, so she is lying on the ground.
For the record, here are three choices in the supertelephoto category, compared to three telephoto lens discussed previously:
|| Canon 500mm f/4 II ||f/4||12 ft || 31 || $9,000 ||3.2 kg (7 lbs)||Heavy; not as versatile as a zoom; expensive.
|| 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 heavy, expensive.
|| Canon 400mm f/4 DO II ||f/4||10 ft||30|| $7.000||2.1 kg (4.6 lbs)||Light enough to hand-hold; slightly less expensive.
|| Canon 100-400mm II||f/5.6 || 3 ft ||26 ||$2,100|| 1.6 kg (3.5 lb)||The best overall option.
|| Tamron 150-600mm ||f/6.3||8 ft|| 19 || $1,100 || 2.0 kg (4.3 lbs)||Inexpensive, good but not perfect quality, heavy.
|| Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II || f/2.8 || 4 ft || 33 || $1,900 || 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs)||Fantastic lens. 100-280mm f/4 with a 1.4x TC.
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. If you own a supertelephoto lens, you presumably know what you're doing and you don't need my advice. 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.)
For me, I only want a lens I can comfortably hand-hold, so that rules out the 7 and 8 pound lenses and leaves me with the 400mm f/4, which I did bring to Galapgos in 2019. And yes, it can blur the background better than the 400mm f/5.6, and yes it can be used with a 2x teleconverter to reach 800mm, and yes I can carry it comfortably; it is the same weight as the 150-600mm. The issue is not the weight of the lens itself, it is that if I carry it, I also need to carry two other lenses to fill the 16-399mm range, plus teleconvertor(s), which means I need a backback to carry everything, rather than just a belt pouch for one spare lens. So I ended up taking the 400mm lens only on days when I knew it would be especially useful. (One thing that discouraged me from using it more often is that on the first day I got a persistent spot of dust on my sensor; from then on I tried to minimize the number of times I changed lenses.) Below left, the 400mm f/4 nicely blurs the sand around this mockingbird; a much better performance than the f/5.6 lens used for the mockingbird on the right.
Below is a panoramic with Lightroom photo merge, a near-macro of a bee from the 100-400mm lens, and some diatoms in the microscope:
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 bridge camera. But if someone else in your party is that kind of person, show them this trip report from Point & Shoot Nature Photographer and see if they would be satified with the results. If you don't look too close, there's not all that much difference between bridge and full-frame:
But with the bridge camera, that's all the detail you get (at least from this particular shot), whereas the full-frame camera has a lot more detail:
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 or movie. 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 arrange ahead of time to rent one.