Galapagos trip and photography equipment

Frédo Durand

The corresponding photos are here.

I have similar notes about Tanzania and Alaska.


We traveled with Mountain Travel Sobek, on the boat Reina Silvia. We were extremely happy with both. The boat is comfortable, the crew is great. Avoid smaller boats, they increase your chances of being sea-sick. Big boats are more stable but more impersonal and crowded.

Our guide was Greg Estes who is just awesome. If you have an opportunity to take a tour with Greg, just don't miss it. He's fantastic, a great communicator, he knows the island left and right and has a communicative love for them.

August is great to see bird chicks.

Our jungle extension was at Sacha lodge, which is a great place, and our two guides Seth and Adelmo were great. Getting there was a painful adventure due to social movements that shut the airport down, but I assume that when things are normal, the trip is acceptable.

Cameras and other toys

The Galapagos are frustrating for an equipment-bulimic geek because the animals are so unafraid that even a disposable camera will give you decent pictures.But an SLR with good lenses will allow you to take way better pictures (duh!), so I still had an excuse to carry way too much equipment. I am not a great photographer, just an amateur with pro equipment. The text below just gives you my thoughts in case they might help you select your photography equipment for a Galapagos trip. The links below contain advice pages by professionals who know way more than me about the subject.

What all books and web sites say is true: a telephoto zoom is your best friend in the Galapagos. Most of my pictures were taken with the Canon 100-400 IS L. Before going to the Galapagos, I had almost always used this zoom at 400. But during this trip, I have used it at all focal lengths, it was great to be able to compose using the zoom.The minimum focusing distance is the main problem you'll have (together with metering, see below). Some animals appear to tease you by coming closer than the 1.8m minimum distance of this lens. At the end of the day around 5:30-6, I often wished the 100-400 were more luminous, and sometimes I switched to the 70-200 F/2.8 IS L. A good wide angle is your second best buddy, because you can get so close to the animals and because the landscape is often breathtaking. I rarely used my standard 24-70, but it was good to have it. I almost never used my macro lens, I would often use my compact digital camera instead. But if you like macro photography, there will be opportunities.

Most people advise you against a long lens. I am a brat and never listen to advice, so I brought a big 500mm f/4.0 (plus I had noted that Arthur Morris had taken his to his Galapagos trip). This lens allowed me to take some of my best pictures. Sure, it was a pain to carry, but not all the animals come two feet from you. I used it most of the time with the 1.4x teleconverter, and sometimes with the 2x. I was hand-holding more than half of the time, which might not have been the smartest thing I have ever done in my life. The main disadvantage of carrying the 500mm is that it limited my mobility. Often I wanted to get a lower viewpoint, but I was not too sure how to lie down without damaging or wetting the big thing. I should have gotten a long-lens bag and carried it on my back.

I had a monopod with me, which I should have used more often. At the end of the day (5:20pm and later), you get the best light, but you don't get that much of it. Despite Image Stabilization, some of my shots could be crisper. Once in a while, I wished I had a tripod, for sunset landscape shots. On the other hand, a typical visit is fairly high-paced, so setting up a tripod might be too time-consuming.

My bodies included a Canon 1D Mark II and a Canon 20D. I was carrying the two cameras most of the in order to limit lens changes. I really noticed the difference between the two bodies when shooting birds in flight: the AF of the 1DMkII is so much better than the 20D. The environment seals of the big body also felt good in this sea-water environment.

Metering is challenging in the Galapagos. Do learn how to use exposure compensation and the histogram feature of your camera (most compact cameras also provide this feature). The landscape is made of black lava and shiny sea water, which really tricks your metering system. Do check the photos you are taking, use the histogram. I did not do it enough and was frustrated by the outcome of some pictures.

I was also really glad I had my little Canon SD500 compact camera, in particular for its video and underwater capabilities. Snorkeling is also amazing in the Galapagos, and you'll want a camera for this too. If you don't have a huge and expensive housing for your SLR, just get one of these compact cameras and it housing, the results are really not bad at all. I just wished I had been smarter and more systematically tried to hold a rock to stabilize myself when taking pictures. There is not so much light underwater, and the shutter speed is often slow. Also, the slowness of the autofocus of compact cameras is a frustrating factor.

If you're serious about video, you must bring a tripod.

The Rain Forest

In the rain forest, I mostly used the 500mm f/4.0, often with the 1.4x teleconverter. I always had a fill-in flash (with better beamer), and a good portion of my images only used flash illumination. Fill in flash is really necessary because light is so uneven and animals are backlit more often than not.

My macro lens was quite useful, and I wish I had taken a ring flash.Lots of spiders and weird (not so) small critters.

The rain forest is such a tough photography environment. There is little light, and the little there is is usually back-lighting. It is super wet (no kidding!) and you walk a lot. My worse-ever shooting conditions were for the monkey images at the end. It was around 6pm, it was raining, I had pure back lighting and really dark conditions. My glasses were wet and fogged, the autofocus was hunting like crazy because those little critters offered no contrast (back lighting). They were jumping super fast, and I had no time to set up the tripod because I had to change viewpoint all the time, so I had to hand-hold the big gun. Oh, and I forgot, tons of branches between you and the subject never help.


Arthur Morris's newsletter 180 & 181

Tui De Roy

Tom Hogan's advice

Philip Greenspun

Mountain travel Sobek

Greg Estes

Sacha Lodge on the Galapagos

A photo blog by Murali

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