Galápagos Photography

Tom Davis

Last updated: July 1, 2001

I have been to the Galápagos Islands three times since 1994, and each time I took a lot of photos. Here are links to the 1994 and 1997 trip photos:

1994 Galápagos Trip
1997 Galápagos Trip

and here is an index to the photos from 2001:

2001 Galápagos Trip

As a result, I've made all sorts of mistakes, and here are some recommendations for any photographer who is planning to make the trip. I used only 35mm SLR cameras (and a video camera on the most recent trip), so the advice here is limited to that.

Now, if I could only learn to follow my own advice ...

I have some pages of general advice for beginners with SLR cameras at:

Advice for SLR Beginners

and I have some comments on photography in the tropics in general at:

Neotropical Photography Advice.

Finally, here are a couple of other pages with advice specifically for photographers who plan to visit the Galápagos Islands:

Mark Graf's Galápagos advice page (Including advice for underwater photographers, of which I am ignorant.)
Thom Hogan's Galápagos advice page

(Including advice for underwater photographers, of which I am ignorant.)


I happen to use Nikon equipment so any specific recommendations are for that, but you can almost surely find equivalent items made by any of the major SLR manufacturers.

It's a pain to get to Ecuador and to the islands, so do try to keep your equipment load to a minimum. I try to do this, but still wind up with far too many kilos of gear.

Camera Bodies

Out of paranoia, I always carry two camera bodies. I would really hate to have my only body fail with so many thousands of wonderful things to photograph. On the other hand, the islands are quite dry so you're unlikely to have major problems with moisture condensation that you would in the rainforest. Besides, if you have two bodies and somebody on your trip has a camera failure, you can probably make a friend for life by loaning them your extra body.

It is hot, however, so be careful not to let your film fry in the sun. Only carry what you'll be using for that particular day and keep the rest of the rolls in the shade on your boat or whereever you're staying.

Also, every time you visit an island, you'll do so in a rubber Zodiac or Panga, and it's easy to get splashed with seawater which is one of the worst things you can do to your camera. Either keep it in a backpack or wrapped in a plastic bag while you're moving. I take a trash compactor bag (2.5 or 3 mils) to wrap the camera and lens in. These bags are big and tough, so you're unlikely to rip holes in them, even with the corners of your camera.

I happen to have an F100 and an N90 body, but I think it's more important to have good lenses than good bodies. I do like the autofocus and the auto-exposure availability, but there are some problems; see the section on technique, below.

A totally paranoid person would bring one completely manual camera body along. I used to do this with the FM2n, but I've never had even one body crap out, so I don't do so any more.


You cannot use flash on the islands, so unless you're planning to take lots of people photos on the boat, don't even bother to bring one.

One year I tried taking one of those circular reflectors that fold up into something a third of the diameter to shine light on my subjects, but I almost never used it. I think what you need is an assistant to carry all your stuff and to shine lights on your subjects---sort of like a golf caddy. I tried using my wife for this, but it doesn't work very well for a number of reasons.


Many of the animals are completely tame so you don't need a telephoto lens at all. If you just want lots of shots of boobies and marine iguanas, a 50mm lens will do everything.

But if you want the little birds or hawks or other things, you'll need a longer lens. I always take the biggest lens I can stand to carry, and figure that if I'm too close to the subject, I can almost always back up. For the Galápagos, I take a 300mm f/4 lens. More would be better, except that you've got to carry it. Other people like the zooms that go to 300 or 400 mm. I don't own one, so I've never tried it. There is a lot of light, generally, so an f/5.6 is probably sufficient. Remember that if you have a lens that's marked 50-300mm, f/4-6.3, that means that at 50mm it is f/4, and at 300mm it is f/6.3.

I shot probably 80 percent of my photos with the 300/4. I also take a macro lens (I like the 105mm, but the 60mm would also be fine). I take a wide-angle lens for scenery shots. I took the 20-35/2.8, but it's big. I think maybe a 24mm or 28mm fixed might be a better choice. There aren't that many uses for it.

I also took a 50mm f/1.4, but hardly used it at all.


Take a lot of film. On my first trip, when I thought it might be the only trip I'd ever take, I shot 55 rolls in 13 days. On the last trip I shot 15 rolls in 7 days, but since it was my third time, I could plan ahead better.

There is almost always a lot of light---ISO 100 or even 50 works fine almost all the time. I take about 20 rolls of ISO 100 and 20 of ISO 50, but also about 5 of ISO 400 in case it's gloomy, or in case I want to shoot at sunset.

I shoot slide film. I like Fuji Velvia for the ISO 50, Kodak E100VS for the ISO 100, and Fuji Provia for the 400. Your tastes in film may be different, so be sure to take film you know. If you're thinking of using a different film type than what you're used to, be sure to shoot and develop a couple of rolls at home so you know what you're getting into.

And for God's sake, don't suddenly switch to slide film for the trip when all you've ever used before is print film without shooting and developing some test rolls. The exposure on slides is a lot more important.

I carried 3 rolls of 50, 3 of 100, and 1 of 400 in the camera bag I carried with me. Whenever I got back to the boat, I'd put the exposed rolls in my duffel bag and replaced the ones that got used. If you tend to shoot more, take 4 and 4, et cetera.


Almost all the time I carried a tripod with a ball-head and the 300/4 lens mounted on it. With just a 300, a fairly lightweight tripod is fine, but larger lenses need larger tripods.

I use the Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod in the 200 series with 4 leg segments so it folds up small. I use the Arca B1 head and plates from Really Right Stuff to hook the cameras and lenses to the tripod. If you price the items above, you'll see that they are insanely expensive. You can certainly get by with less, but I do recommend a ball head for wildlife shots.

As soon as I landed on each island, I'd open up the legs, mount the camera, et cetera, so I was always ready for a shot. In order not to make too many enemies of the other folks in your group, pay constant attention to where the ends of the tripod's legs are so you don't turn around and slam them into somebody. I carry them with the legs forward so I can always see them as I walk.

Remember that video is also much better from a tripod, so make sure that if you do have a video camera that it can be mounted on your tripod in exactly the same way as your 35mm camera.

Other Stuff

Be sure to take your favorite lens cleaner and filters (a polarizer is nice sometimes).

I also found a pair of binoculars extremely useful. With the camera on a tripod, I could have the binoculars hanging around my neck and they didn't get in the way much. If you're carrying the camera around your neck, however, it's a whole different story ...


Watch your exposure! I had gotten in the habit of using the automatic exposure mode on my camera since it works pretty well at home, and I just got lazy. The next time I go, I'm tempted to tape a little note that says "exposure" to the back of my camera body so I'll see it every time I pick up the camera. I suppose this is always good advice; it's simply that I seem to have been burned by this much more often in the Galápagos islands than I do normally.

But in the islands, there is a ton of black lava, so it's really easy to over-expose your shots. Remember that if you're shooting really dark things, under-expose them, and vice-versa. (If you don't understand why this is true, read the first couple of sections on this page regarding exposure and exposure compensation.) Be sure to figure out ahead of time how to do this on your particular camera. On the little point-and-shoots, it may be impossible.

Even though there's usually a lot of light, consider using your high speed film on flying birds, moving animals, et cetera. This is especially true if your lens has a fairly small maximum aperture.

If your camera has various metering options, consider using spot metering or at least metering a small area around the center of the film, and learn to use the exposure lock.

Transporting Your Stuff

I would never check anything valuable on an airline, especially if it stops in places like Guayaquil, so I wind up taking all my camera gear as carry-on.

I take all the film out of the cardboard boxes and put it in plastic zip-lock bags so that it can be hand-checked at the x-ray machines. If it comes in the black plastic containers (not much film does nowadays, but some does), I move it to the clear plastic containers so the guy who's hand-checking the film can easily see everything. Do keep it in the airtight containers to keep the moisture out.

Being totally paranoid, I wait until the person in front of me has cleared the x-ray before I even put my stuff on the belt. If the guy in front has to make eight passes through to get all the coins out of his pocket and your stuff is just lying at the opposite end of the machine, it's easy for somebody to pick it up and run, and it's hard to see what's going on. If I'm with a friend, I have them go through, and when they're through, I put their stuff and mine on the x-ray belt, then go through myself.

If I'm carrying three types of film, I carry four bags. One for each film type, and the fourth for the exposed rolls. As soon as I finish a roll, I write on the film can a sequence number, the date, and the island. I use a Sanford "Sharpie" to do this. It writes on the cans or on either side of the film.

Showing Your Photos to Friends

Edit mercilessly! You know what a nightmare it is to watch somebody's slide show with every shot of an animal's retreating rear end and every under-exposed blurred image. Don't inflict this on your friends. I restrict myself to the 80-slot slide trays, and try to keep the number closer to 50 or fewer.

Similarly, if you take video tape, edit it drastically before you show it to anyone. Think about how much you enjoy seeing 3 minutes of the inside of a lens cap, or of the ground swinging back and forth when the photographer forgot to turn off the camera.

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