Shooting the Boobies
Photography in the Galapagos

A Walk on the Beach

A marine iguana takes a lonely stroll down to the water to begin his daily feeding in the ocean. Nikon N90s, 70-210mm lens, Kodachrome 64.

Lenses

[Digital photographers should read all the focal lengths mentioned as "35mm equivalent." If you use an APS-sized sensor DSLR, you need to factor these focal lengths by 1.5.]

Youíre going to be standing right in the face of those fearless Galapagos animals, so you wonít need any special lenses, right?

Wrong.

In the Galapagos youíll find animals to shoot that range from finger-sized (finches and lava lizards) to boat-sized (whales). Some will be sitting dead square in the middle of the path youíre walking and wonít budge even when you trip over them, while others will see you a hundred yards away and start running. If you bring one normal lens youíll immediately limit what you can take pictures of.

Well how about a zoom with a modest range, say 35-135mm?

No. I think thatís probably the wrong approach, as well. After examining all the shots Iíve taken of animals, both in the Galapagos and elsewhere, Iíve come to an interesting conclusion: itís rare that I like any shot Iíve taken with anything in the middle range of focal lengths. I donít think itís that Iím jaded about shots taken with normal lenses at normal distances, either. Itís more the fact that there are really only two things youíre trying to get when you take wildlife shots: environment or detail.

One of my favorite shots taken in the Galapagos by another photographer shows a blue-footed boobie nesting on the edge of a cliff. It was taken with a 24mm lens from a photographer-to-boobie distance of maybe one foot. The thing I like about that picture is that it shows me not only the bird, but something about its environs, and from that we can conclude a few things about what the birdís life might be like (near the sea, so it probably feeds there; on a cliff, perhaps because it needs wind to take off; and so on).

Taking good animal photos is like taking a good portraitóyou learn things about the subject not just from the look on their face, but their clothing and the place in which theyíre posing. Taking a picture of Liberace, for example, didnít work without a candelabra somewhere in the frameóthat silly prop was part of who he was.

And one of the reasons youíre traveling to the Galapagos is that it is one of the very few places in the world where many of the animals donít mind your traipsing around in their home. Some, like the boobies, almost seem as if they want to show off their humble little nests (usually no more than a rock or a piece of otherwise unclaimed dirt). Obviously I think that you should try to capture some of this on film, and to do so youíre going to need to get close with a wide angle lens.

A 28mm focal length will work for some of the animals and is a good lens for reversing the view: how about a picture of all those photographers circling the poor creature? That, after all, is part of what the Galapagos is all about. Personally, however, I donít think the 28mm length is quite enough. While you might get the shots you want, youíll have a harder time lining it up than the person who brings a 24mm lens. On a recent trip I took the 20-35mm zoom and an 18mm. The 18mm lens can create some impressive (and quite different!) views of the Galapagos world. The zooming ability of the wide zoom gave me the flexibility to try alternate angles and areas of view. Several manufacturers now make similar lenses, and I heartily recommend you investigate them. My wide angle zoom fast became my favorite lens.

Of course, a wide angle lens isnít the lens of choice for taking pictures of some of the island natives. I challenge anyone to get a real good shot of a Darwin finch with an 18mm lens!Itíll certainly take more patience and skill than Iím capable of, if itís possible at all. These little birds flit from branch to branch, and rarely sit still long enough to even focus on, let alone get close with a wide angle lens.

So, while I strongly suggest you bring a very wide angle lens or two with you, itís time to talk about the other end of the spectrum: getting close and isolating detail.

One thing Iíd heard from other photographers (who I used to trust) before I went to the Galapagos was that a long telephoto would probably be too cumbersome and not very useful. The usual suggestion is that a 70-210mm zoom will work just fine to get detailed shots of the animals. Hah! Not for me, it wonít. I donít even bring my short zoom to the Galapagos anymore. Instead, I usually carry a 70-300mm zoom, and I still wish it had a 400mm top end.

Itís not a matter of not being able to get close to the animals. Instead, itís a matter of getting close to the animals when theyíre doing something you want to capture on film. If all you want are pictures of iguanas sitting on rocks, or tortoises sitting under trees, a 70-210mm will get you by just fine. But hereís one for you: youíre walking down the trail and see two iguanas mating. Do you think you can get close enough before the action has finished? Not likely. The female equine doesnít exactly like the fact that a much larger lizard is jumping on top of her, biting her neck to try to hold her in place, and wrapping his powerful tail around her hind end. I canít say that Iíd like that, either. So the usual scenario goes like this:

  1. You spot the mating iguanas from a couple hundred feet and remember that youíve got your 200mm lens on your camera.
  2. You rush up the trail to get close enough to capture the action (or alternatively, try to take the picture from where you are, which with a 200mm lens is guaranteed to produce two little blurry brown spots in the middle of a field as the result).
  3. The female manages to get free of the male, and dashes off into the bushes.
  4. You arrive within shooting distance.

In other words, the shots youíre likely to get without a serious telephoto lens are all going to be of one ilk: animals sitting and soaking up the rays. Itís as if the only photo you can take on your vacation is of you and your traveling companion sitting on the beach. It might make a good picture, but it isnít worth shooting 40 rolls of film on.

I find the 70-300mm I use to be a good compromise as the workhorse long zoom. But I find that Iím usually taking most of my shots at the 300mm end. If Nikon's 80-400mm VR lens had existed when I did my last trip, Iíd have taken it instead. Having said that, youíre probably wondering why I donít suggest a 70-200mm with a doubler (2x converter). The doubler is easy to carry and provides that extra reach when you need it (Iím assuming youíre going to be able to stick the doubler on in a few seconds or less when you need it).

Iíve got several problems with that suggestion, however. While 1.4x and 2x converters are much better these days than they used to be, even the best seem to have corner sharpness problems. Youíll lose 2 f/stops (and the lens youíre doubling may not be that fast to start with), and because of that youíll often find yourself using the widest aperture of the lens, even though thatís normally also the worst resolutionwise. Worse still, the resultant mid-range aperture makes focusing real tough, perhaps impossible with some autofocus cameras. Now couple that with the fact that most telephoto zooms are significantly soft in the edges and have low contrast at the extreme telephoto end, and you've got a prescription for blur-o-vision. But the big problem is that you don't want to be taking the time to put the converter on and off. When you need 400mm on the islands, you need it now, not in 20 seconds.

Sure, if youíve got a doubler, bring it along. Thereís bound to be a shot you wonít get without it. Iím just warning you that itís best not to rely on it or to assume that you can use it all the time.

Another strategy is to bring the 70-210mm and supplement it with a 400 or 500mm lens. If youíre adept at changing lenses quickly and donít mind carrying the extra weight, this works well. These days, I bring the 80-400mm VR.

Whatever telephoto lens strategy you pick, make sure that your telephoto focuses close (certainly less than 10í, preferably even closer). If youíre using an autofocus camera, telephoto lenses with focus range limiters are extremely useful in photographing flying birds, as youíll be able to keep the lenses from having to go through its full focus extension when shooting fast action. Your telephoto lens should also be hand-holdable. As I note elsewhere, youíre not always going to be shooting with a tripod with you, so those 300mm f2.8 lenses that you see at virtually every sporting event are pretty much out of the question. Besides, whoíd want to risk water landings with such an expensive lens?

What about fast lenses in other ranges? Well, I wonít discourage you from bringing such a lens, but large apertures are down on the list of usefulness in the Galapagos. In fact, hereís how I would rank the various factors for lenses you might want to bring:
  1. Close focusing ability
  2. Widest range of focal length (for zooms)
  3. Ruggedness
  4. Hand-holdability
  5. Fast aperture
  6. Constant aperture (for zooms)

On my next trip to the Galapagos, I'd bring the following three lenses for a film camera:

My rationale was as follows: the wide Nikkor gives me a perspective I likeóshoot close and concentrate on using the wide angle to capture background and environment. It also gives me a good lens for shooting landscapes. The two VR lenses cover all but the widest range. The tele-zoom is my fast action and detail lens. It gets me close enough when I canít do it with my feet (though I also keep a PK-11a handy to extend it's close focusing).

Nikon digital users get a little adjustment to the above:

  • Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6
  • Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 DX (or other mid-range zoom; the 18-200mm VR is versatile)
  • Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6 VR

I know, youíre saying ďJeez, Thom, youíve got me buying expensive wide angle and telephoto zooms. I canít afford that.Ē

Okay, for those of you who use fixed focal length lenses or are on a budget, there are alternatives.

The fixed focal lengths Iíd absolutely have to bring with me would be 20mm (or 24mm) and 105mm (or 135-180mm), and Iíd strongly suggest adding something longer (like 300mm or 400mm, even if it's a low-cost manual lens). If I had my full choice of fixed focal length lenses, Iíd pick a 20mm, 24mm, 60mm macro, 105mm, 180mm, and 400mm. Iíve explained the wide angle and telephoto rationale; the macro would give me a chance to shoot some of the things that often get ignored by Galapagos visitors: plants, insects, small crabs, and perhaps even the geckos and lava lizards if youíre lucky.

For the all-in-one approach, a 28-200mm zoom is probably the best choice (the 18-200mm VR for digital users). A 35-135mm is too little at both ends, in my opinion. The 24-120 zoom is tempting because it gets you into the extremes with decent quality at a reasonable price, and the VR is nice. If you decide to go that route, promise me that youíll supplement that lens with a good wide angle lens and a longer telephoto lens, though, as I did above.

Again, I need to state that Iím at odds with the usual recommendations of other photographers here. A lot of tourists arrive in the Galapagos with nothing more than a 50mm and a 70-210 zoom, because theyíre led to believe thatís all theyíll need. (Actually, thatís another reason to avoid these focal lengths: youíll get the same shots everyone else does.) Most of these people are perfectly happy with the photos they get. Iím assuming, however, that youíre reading this because youíre serious about getting the very best results you can from your Galapagos photo expedition. Thus, Iíll repeat what I said at the beginning: you need a decent wide angle lens to help you shoot animals and their environment simultaneously, you need a reasonably long telephoto to bring you closer when the trail doesnít take you close enough or the action is taking place too far from you for a modest length lens to capture.

Now Iíll add to that recommendation another: minimize the number of lenses you bring. Zooms are a big help here. You just donít want to be wandering around the islands carrying a dozen lenses. First, youíll spend too much time changing lenses and not enough clicking the shutter. Second, the weight and logistics will eventually wear you down. And the day you leave a lens behind on the boat will be the day you need it. Third, when shooting from the panga, you won't have room for extra lenses. Fourth, there's a real possibility that your equipment will take a salt water bath; if you've got your entire arsenal with you, I trust that you have a small fortune stashed away in the bank to replace it. Finally, minimize the number of lenses you bring and youíll always take them ashore with you.

I think my choices are good ones. I certainly donít feel like Iíve missed any pictures I wanted to take, even when I only brought the wide angle and the telephoto zooms with me.

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