Galapagos Photography and Travel Tips

Having just returned from an epic workshop to The Galapagos Islands with 18 guests, I thought it would be good to jot down my feelings regarding how to get the most out of your Galapagos photography trip, photo ops, camera and lens choices, and other gear you're considering for your Galapagos trip. Oh, don't worry that you missed this trip, we're going back, first week or so of May, 2014. (Want to get in early? Contact us). There are plenty of options for The Galapagos - but if you're serious about photography, I really recommend a photo specific trip! The reason for this is that every island visit is geared around photography - you'll be first on the islands, and last to leave, maximizing the potential to capture great wildlife in great light. You'll be among a group that is like-minded, and not "rushed along" to the next spot on the itinerary. We work hard to make sure this happens on our workshops. Some small travel details: avoid Quito, it's further away and everything involved is just more of your precious time taken away from you. Rather, fly through Guayaquil, enjoy a 15-minute ride from the airport to your hotel, and also the very cool Malacon (waterfront) and  the 400 steps up to Cerro Santa Ana.

Seeing

P1020875.jpg

Yep - as trite as it sounds - ANYone can take a photo of a Sea Lion, Blue Footed Booby or Sally Lightfoot Crab - but the key to amazing photos is how you see and compose the shot! Lazing Sea Lions on the beach? Get down low (belly on the sand) and have some birds or cool crashing waves in the background. Blue Footed Boobies? You'll see them aplenty. Create interesting images by showing their interaction, beaks, preening, foot-lifting, etc. Sally Lightfoot? Get her at EYE LEVEL! Yeah, you'll probably want kneepads for these shots. Bring them. Stay away from "clinical" shots that you'd find in a textbook and strive for something way more interesting! There are so many opportunities for creative compositions with the wildlife in The Galapagos - and this is something we teach every day and night on our workshops.

P1020750.jpg

Cameras and Lenses

If you're serious about your photography, you're going to agonize about gear for this trip, that's understandable! I can make it easy. You'll of course need two cameras (in case of failure). You will be VERY close to many animals, and then of course there are some you'll need "reach" for. My recommended kit is as follows:

  • High megapixel, fast focusing and responsive DSLR: Full-frame Canon or Nikon recommended - sure, a 1Dx or a D4 is going to help with birds in flight but most subjects in Galapagos (even some birds in flight) are quite cooperative and the super fast frame rate of the 1Dx or D4 isn't necessary. And yes, you can do just fine with a crop body such as the Canon 7D or Nikon D7100 etc. 
  • Lenses for your DSLR: Nikon, 80-400 (the new version); Canon, 100-400; For both systems, the 70-200 f/2.8. Yup, they are expensive. Rent from Borrowlenses.com and use our discount. Or think about the very excellent Nikkor 28-300 as well.
  • ANY of the high quality mirrorless systems as your 2nd body. I love the Panasonic GH3 but the Olympus OMD-5 is equally good and so are plenty of others. Bonus if you can get an underwater housing for same (more on that later). 
  • Lenses for the mirrorless system: 24-70 equivalent (Panasonic has an awesome f/2.8 version of this); something really LONG (like Panasonic's 200-600 equivalent).

If you carry the mirrorless with 24-70 equivalent and the DSLR with 80 or 100 to 400mm equivalent you'll never miss a shot. Keep in mind, the island visits are sort of "scheduled" so you'll have to be able to keep up with your Naturalist Guide. Of course, on our workshops in Galapagos, we're all photographers, so we get on shore first in the morning, stay as long as possible at great sightings, and we're the last to leave in the evenings. This is an important factor to consider when planning your Galapagos photography trip - you can't do this when you're part of a general "tour". 

There's one more important piece of lens kit: for the mirrorless system, bring along a 600mm equivalent. Panasonic makes one (the 100-300) that is 200-600mm equivalent! It's extremely useful for small lizards, Sally Lightfoot Crabs and also birds. Remember, in The Galapagos, you can't venture off the trail so sometimes the extra reach comes in super handy. Some of you are thinking: Andy, why not a 200-400mm Nikkor or the new 200-400 Canon? Simply put: they are way too ungainly to handle and use on the Islands in Galapagos. One needs to be light, nimble and quick - and so that's why I recommend the 70-200 for both Canon and Nikon, and the 80-400 Nikkor and 100-400 Canon.  And for far-off wildlife, that 600 reach on the mirrorless system is pretty handy to have! To be clear: I'm not saying that you can't use the super long Canon or Nikon Teles - I am saying that there are really good alternatives and you'll be happier with something easier to handle.

So there you have it, as far as camera systems. Focals from 24mm to 400mm (even 600) in two bodies. And backup! Oh, you're asking about other lenses, eh? Let me tell you: I did not use a macro lens. A fast prime (like 35mm f/1.4) could come in handy for fun shots on the yacht, but isn't totally necessary when you can shoot f/2.8 on your mirrorless system or DSLR at ISO 1600 or 3200. Other lens options I would consider, but not say are critical, are something really really wide. Like a fisheye, or the Canon 16-35, 17-40, or Nikkor 17-35. Or, you can get the equivalent super wide for your mirrorless system.

Final word on bodies and lenses: it is totally cool to bring two Canon or Nikon DSLRs, and do it that way. I mention the mirrorless systems because they are so light and the quality is so good!

Accessories

First, the obvious: plenty of batteries (at least two for each camera) and chargers; lots of SD/CF cards (I like to travel with enough SD/CF so that I don't have to format any cards while traveling); laptop with current software; external hard drive to back up your images (or enough disk space on the laptop). Lens cleaning cloths, a rocket blower.

Filters: you'll need Circular Polarizers for your main lenses, and contrary to my general beliefs, a UV filter for protection (water, sand and the big bugger is sea mist). ND filters if you intend to try for some slow shutter work on the waves / beachscapes.

Tripod: a tripod is difficult to deal with because of the lack of time at each sighting, but can be used at first landing or last light on some shore landings, and there will be some opportunities to do slow shutter work for beachscapes - but you can create amazing images in Galapagos without a tripod, especially with the high-ISO performance of today's cameras. If you bring one, make sure it is super light! If you want to do slow shutter work on the beach, then bring along a Lee Big Stopper or equivalent!

Gear Protection

i-QgF8jFW-X2.jpg

"Wet landings" are really easy for the most part. The panga lands on a beach, and you swivel out of the panga into typically at-most, knee deep water. There's always a crew member there to help you with your bag. Are dry bags necessary? That's really up to you. But the best thing I can imagine is one of these and just cover your whole backpack in it.  

Speaking of Backpacks

You'll likely travel from home to The Galapagos with some very large backpack (we love The Bataflae by Gura Gear), but for your island visits, you'll probably want something smaller. So plan on that - most any small bag will do! Questions or recommendations? Just contact us

Underwater Shooting

IMG_0449.jpg

You will have many opportunities to snorkel, take advantage of them! Even if you aren't a great swimmer, do it - the wetsuit you'll wear provides excellent buoyancy - and the guides and panga drivers are always close by. The snorkeling in Galapagos is excellent! You'll swim with Sea Lions, Galapagos Penguins, and Whitetip Reef Sharks (don't worry!), and multitudes of fish, sea stars, rays, and more. Truly a magical experience, and most any camera will do! There are essentially four choices for underwater shooting: 

  • Use an underwater P&S from Canon, Olympus, Panasonic - each about $250 to $350 and will give you good results.  Oh, you can also use a GoPro!
  • Use a housing for a higher-end P&S like a Canon G15 or Sony or other mirrorless. These housings can cost between $350 and $500. 
  • Get an Outex housing for your DSLR and wide-angle lens. 
  • Get or rent a full underwater housing for your DSLR system and wide-angle lens. 

Any of these will be fun and useful! Keep in mind you can rent the housings for your DSLR from Borrowlenses (use code muenchworkshop).  The point is, get something for underwater shooting - it's so cool to travel an island in the morning by foot, then shoot the same island underwater :)

Clothing, Etc.

Do not bring much cotton for wearing in Galapagos. Have quick-dry sport t-shirts and shorts, and maybe one pair of quick-dry longs ... you'll be glad you have them, the panga seats can be damp! Also, you can easily wash these items in your shower on board, and hang them out to dry. Footwear? You do NOT need hiking boots! Recommended: 1 pair of Merrill/Keen water shoes with closed toe area and heel strap, and a pair of Teva or similar sandals. That's really all you need, trust me. Bring a light rain jacket in case of foul weather. Add: bathing suit, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, a fleece pullover for cool nights and you're done.

Physical Fitness

P1030053.jpg

This isn't a week lounging on the beach in the Caribbean! Expect to work hard, every day. If you're on our photographic workshop, you'll be up at roughly 6am and we're on the islands as soon as the park allows at sunrise. Trails on the islands are fairly gentle and most anyone can handle them - there are walking sticks on our boats for those that might want a little more stability. Still, you'll want to be ready for two on-shore excursions each day, where you'll walk for a couple to three hours - nothing overly difficult! And then there are the opportunities for snorkeling and sea kayaking - don't miss out on these chances! We always have some downtime in the afternoons, then it's off to another island excursion, followed by dinner and then critiques or instruction.

The Food, and What About Sea Sickness?

Food on board is first-rate! There's always a choice of meat, fish and plenty of veggies. It's important to ease into the new cuisine when you arrive in Ecuador - let your system adjust in small steps. On arrival in Guayaquil, try to eat "familiar" foods and get into local Ecuadorian specialties gently - you'll have a day or two before you set sail to adjust. Many who go to Galapagos have never been on a boat before, much less for 7 days and nights.... if you are prone to motion sickness, don't let this stop you from a trip of a lifetime. The Transderm Scop patch is very effective, and I recommend talking to your doctor about it. On our yacht, we always inform you when we'll be navigating, so you can prepare - some folks like to take a Dramamine as well for the times the yacht is underway.

I hope this has been helpful, photographing in The Galapagos is truly a special thing to do!

Enjoy (Galapagos) photography, 

 - Andy