Photography in the Galapagos Islands

by Jon Huyer
April 19, 2011



Bartolome island at sunset by Jon Huyer ©

Bartolome Island at sunset

The Galapagos Islands have long held a status as a dream destination for photographers, and I recently had the good fortune of being able to verify that fact for myself. The landscapes are stunning, and not only is the wildlife abundant and unique but also almost completely tame. The animals have never had a reason to be fearful of people, so you will frequently find yourself having to step around (or over) them on the trails.

sea lion on walkway by Jon Huyer ©

A sea lion resting on a walkway

Most voyages to the Galapagos are ship-based, and for photography this is really the best way to go. The majority of tours last one week, which I found to be just long enough to give a very good overview. Much of the traveling is done at night, and at daybreak you are well positioned to go on shore when the light is better and the temperature is milder. Ship based tours typically provide two landings a day, with opportunity for snorkeling in the early afternoon. I found the snorkeling to be a wonderful experience, with incredible opportunities to swim with playful sea lions, turtles, and even penguins. I brought a Canon G12 with a waterproof housing, and although I had zero prior experience in using it underwater, I found it fairly easy to get very decent results.

Fish by John Huyer ©

The major decisions involved in traveling to the Galapagos Islands include choosing which ship to take, deciding what time of year to go, and what gear to bring. The ships are almost as plentiful and varied as the wildlife, and picking one can be a daunting task. We went with a reliable tour company that had chartered a 48-passenger vessel, and ended up very satisfied with our decision. This ship is larger than the average Galapagos cruiser, which typically carries 16 passengers. However there are also a few ships in the 100+ passenger range. The smaller ships will give you a more intimate journey, while the larger ships will be more comfortable and stable.

MV Eclipse and Blue-footed Boobies by Jon Huyer ©

The M/V Eclipse, and Blue-footed Boobies

Any time of year is a good time to go to the Galapagos, but be sure to do some research to pick the time that best matches your objectives. The animals all nest at different times throughout the year, and the water temperature and cloud cover varies significantly throughout the year. If you search for “Galapagos Islands calendar” you will get a list of interesting web sites with good information.

For camera equipment, you will need at least a couple of lenses and one or more SLR bodies. A wide angle lens is a must, to not only capture the wonderful landscapes but also to take advantage of the close-up wildlife shooting that is unique to the Galapagos. I found that my 24-70 mm zoom lens was very useful on my full-frame SLR. For a crop sensor camera, I would recommend a wider angle (for example, 16 mm). A telephoto lens in the range of 70-300 mm would also be ideal for the majority of small animal and bird encounters that you will have. Fast lenses (i.e., f/2.8) are not essential in the Galapagos since lighting is usually ample for fast shutter speeds even at f/5.6, especially when image stabilization is used.

Sea lion with pup by Jon Huyer ©

Sea lion with pup, Canon 5DII with 24-70 mm lens

I carried two SLR bodies with me at all times, using a Black Rapid dual strap system. This arrangement worked very well because I could switch from wide angle to telephoto quickly if a bird happened to appear. I also carried my Canon G12 in a pouch, so I could pull it out for a quick snapshot, video, or macro opportunity. My wife kindly carried a Gitzo traveler tripod for me, which I used frequently for telephoto shots and landscapes.

Galapagos Dove by Jon Huyer ©

Galapagos Dove, Canon 1DIII with 300 mm lens

Getting to shore with your equipment can be tricky at times, since many landings involve stepping out of a zodiac into the surf. Even the dry landings on shore require some good balance, since the lava rock is uneven and slippery. Carrying your equipment in a good backpack or dry bag would be a smart idea. You can then leave the bag at the landing site and pick it up when you return to the zodiac.

If you’re traveling at a sunny time of year like we did (in March), then you are definitely going to want to have a polarizing filter. I also brought a small laptop and backup drive, a full cleaning kit for lenses and sensor, and desiccant beads to protect against humidity. Note that a flash is not permitted on shore. Ships are generally air conditioned, which is very nice, but it also means you will need to ‘preheat’ your camera outdoors before opening the lens cap, in order to avoid condensation.

Sally Lightfoot Crab by Jon Huyer ©

Sally Lightfoot Crab with caterpillar, Canon 5DII with 70-200 mm lens

With all the natural wonders of the Galapagos, you are virtually guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime. You will encounter photo opportunities that do not exist anywhere else on earth, and you will definitely come away with many “keepers” for your collection.

Galapagos Hawk by Jon Huyer ©

Galapagos Hawk, Canon 5DII with 70-200 mm lens


Bio: Jon Huyer is an engineer by day, and has been happily obsessed with nature and wildlife photography for over 20 years.

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