Photography Guide

The following photography guide is reproduced with kind permission from the authors of the Collins Traveller’s Guide Wildlife of Galapagos.

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 Pre-Planning  Technique   Batteries
 Cameras  Camera Bags  Care and Maintenance
 Lenses  Camera Supports  Notes
 Memory  Flash  Code of Conduct
 Shooting Raw or Jpeg  Camera Accessories  



Pre Planning

You will have given a lot of thought to your Galapagos holiday, so it is well worth spending a little time considering how to record what you see. There are bound to be some memorable moments that you will want to share with family and friends on your return home. You need to consider whether you want still images and/or video and how you will transfer and edit this data.

Make sure you have adequate insurance cover for all your equipment. Ensure that your policy fully covers equipment for loss or damage and travel in South America. Keep a checklist of all the equipment you are taking and remember most cameras and lenses have serial numbers and these will be required should you have to make a claim. If any of your equipment is stolen you should report it to the local police and obtain a statement confirming the report of the theft, as some insurance companies will not settle any claim without such confirmation.




The choice of modern day cameras is vast, but, when buying you can begin to narrow down the search by deciding how much you want to spend and whether your interest is in ‘stills’ or ‘video’. If it is to be ‘stills’ then you have to decide between an Single Lens Reflex (SLR), a camera that has interchangeable lens or a Compact, which does not. A common option that now applies to many Compacts and some SLR’s is where the conventional viewfinder and mirror are replaced by a, LED eyepiece viewfinder, and or monitor screen, making for a much smaller camera.

Most top brands have two or three levels of SLR which are usually price and function related. Pay particular attention to the sensor that is used to record the image, its size and the number of pixels and whether the camera automatically cleans the sensor. This aspect is so important as dust can get to the sensor each time you change a lens and any dust that enters and settles on the sensor will show on every image until the sensor is cleaned. Top of the range SLR cameras use a full frame sensor similar in size to 35mm film, other sensor sizes are smaller 1.6, 1.3, or the Micro Four Thirds. While the smaller sensors have the advantage of the subject size being bigger in the recording area, the disadvantage is cramming lots of pixels in to a smaller area. Entry and mid level SLR cameras are likely to have 12 to 20 million pixel sensors, while the top level full frame sensor may have 35 million pixels. If you are interested in underwater photography check that an underwater housing is available for the SLR model you choose.

Entry level SLR cameras can still offer an impressive array of options, they are priced competitively and are often cheaper than many top end compact cameras. Camera body construction is usually plastic which is fine provided you do not throw them around, and they are usually smaller than the mid level models. The sensor size is generally 1.6.

The mid level SLR’s are the most popular, with a mix of basic and advanced options in a more robust body construction.

Top level models are expensive but offer outstanding performance and quality. They are usually water and dust resistant with a full frame or 1.3 sensor and have the very best auto focus and metering technology. The down side is the size and weight, which can be double that of the entry level models.

When it comes to Compact cameras the choice is vast they almost always come with some form of zoom lens, which is ideal for composition where you can make your subject bigger or smaller. This change in subject size is normally achieved ‘optically’ by the lens increasing or decreasing in size. However some compact cameras achieve this ‘digitally’ by cropping of the sensor, this does not produce the best results, so look for a compact that uses an optical zoom. Increasingly popular are bridge cameras which handle like an SLR but have a 24x or even 50x fixed superzoom lens.

Other considerations are battery life the cost of a spare batteries and what type of memory cards it uses. Some compacts have image stabilisation, which is a great way of reducing image blur, particularly in low light. For those who may want to take their compact swimming, look for one that is waterproof, these come in different levels from shower proof, to light submersion, to full underwater capabilities. Underwater housings are also available for some compact models and these are very popular with divers.

Supplementary lenses can be added to some compact cameras and camcorders, these either magnify faraway action or widen the image. They are fitted by screwing onto the built in lens.

Most mobile phones now come with a built in camera. Some are very basic in quality but can be fine for sending images to another mobile device, whilst many smart phones can record good quality images that can be downloaded at home and printed. Similarly, most tablets have built in cameras and these are great fun to use but their screens can be difficult to manipulate in the bright Galapagos sunlight. It could be worth investing in a mobile or tablet-specific tripod or stand if you are planning on taking a significant amount of images on these devices to minimise camera shake. A good quality case is also essential to protect from volcanic dust and the salt environment. You should ensure that the device’s internal memory is sufficient to hold enough images. If you don’t have a laptop with you the opportunity to transfer images to your cloud account will be limited as internet and wifi service is confined to the three main towns. Some mobile phone signal is available in many locations – apart from the far west and some distant islands. However, aside from the cost, 3G signal is erratic and has low capacity, so it is best to plan that you won’t have any access. When out of range, its worth putting your phone onto flight mode to save battery usage.

All the new camcorders shoot in high definition HD, some video is saved in ‘advanced video coding high definition AVCHD, which is used by many professional film makers but may not be compatible with some cheaper computer software programs. The other commonly used method is H.264 often known as Mpeg4, which saves footage more efficiently, thereby using less memory. Check what memory cards are available, what the battery life is and the cost of spare batteries. Look at what optics are available, 5x or 10x zoom are normal but some go up to 35x which is great for capturing faraway wildlife action.

There is a lot of cross over technology between SLR’s, compacts and camcorders. It is quite common for the latest SLR’s to also take HD video, which is great if you mainly want stills but also want to record action and the same is possible with compacts, tablets and mobile phone recorders. Many camcorder also have the option to record still images and some of the very latest cameras allow photo quality freeze framing, with pre 10 second record memory, so you will never miss the action.




If you choose the SLR option you will need to think about what interchangeable lenses to take with you. To some extent this will be dictated by which manufacturer made your camera, although there are some very good independent manufacturers who make lens to fit most makes and also produce some unique lens designs

Your lens options can be broken down into three areas, short, medium and long. There are zoom or fixed focal length lenses to fit all three categories. Zoom lenses have many advantages, one lens can cover many different situations. While for the very best optical results a fixed focal length is considered the best but may involve carrying many more lenses. Lens with Image stabilisation (IS) are worth that extra cost. The most commonly used lens combination for a Galapagos visit, is made up of just two lenses, from the short and medium category.

Short – There are many combinations to choose from with zoom lenses between 8-16mm to 18-270mm but something between 18mm and 70mm being the most useful. It worth remembering that some of these lens are not compatible with full frame sensor cameras.

Medium – These lenses tend to be 70-300mm to 100-400mm in range. Some lenses have wide apertures such as f2.8 and are compatible with converters which increase the effective focal length by a factor or either 1.4x or 2x, so a 70-200mm f2.8 with a 2x converter becomes a 140-400mm f5.6.

Large – Most of the wildlife in Galapagos is very tame, so very long fixed focal length lenses are not necessary. There are some very good own brand 200-400mm, often combined with 1.4 or 2x converters. If your budget does not stretch to these expensive lenses, look at the long zoom lenses made by some of the independent manufactures such as the 150-600mm or even the 50-500mm.

If you are interested in photographing the world in close up, look at the shorter 70mm macro lens for plants and the longer 180mm for subjects that move such as insects.

Professional photographers do need to buy a permit from The Galapagos National Park, if you are using professional looking equipment be prepared to explain yourself to officials. For more details visit




The camera’s memory cards come in a number of different kinds Compact Flash CF, Secure Digital SD, SDHC, SDXC, Smart Media and the memory stick. The card capacity is measured in Gigabytes Gb, the more Gb you have the more images can be stored. These memory cards come in different speeds, this is the time it takes to transfer the picture information onto the card and from the card to your computer. This is known as ‘read’ ‘write’ and is measured in Kb/sec or Mb/sec. The main advantage of the faster Mb cards is the speed at which this information is moved around. If you are taking lots of pictures in quick succession, you don’t want to be held up by a slow transfer rate. Don’t forget your card reader or transfer lead if you plan to download or back-up. Some modern cameras are wifi or bluetooth enabled, which can save the need for leads and card readers.

Treat the card with care do not squash or drop it and keep the connecting terminals free from dust. Its a good idea to store these cards in purpose made cases which will protect them from damp and dust. Take plenty of memory cards, you will take many more pictures than you expect.



Raw or Jpeg

The most common formats for recording your images are Jpeg or Raw. You will have the option to select the one you prefer in your camera set up. Jpeg is very popular because it is a very space efficient way of recording your images, however it does this by using varying degrees of compression to reduce the file sizes at the expense of fine image detail. Raw files contain all the data collected by the sensor and gives more flexibility for post correction of exposure, colour and sharpening. Raw is the preferred shooting format of most professional photographers.




For the most part, the secret to successful photography lies in the ability to master and control several major factors – those of exposure, lighting, depth of field, definition and composition. If all these factors are successfully mastered you will be producing many pleasing pictures.

ISO and Noise

ISO determines how sensitive the image sensor is to the amount of light present. It affects the shutter speed / aperture combinations you can use to obtain correct exposure. However the price you pay for using a high ISO is ‘Noise’. This is apparent by the presence of colour speckles where there should be none. For example, instead of a blue sky, you notice faint pink, purple and other colour speckles amongst the otherwise blue sky. Its worth doing some tests to see how high you can push the ISO before ‘Noise’ becomes noticeable. On most cameras this will be 400 ISO but some can be 3200 ISO or even 6400 ISO.


Your camera will have a mode dial, giving you lots of options to automate your exposure. It is worth remembering that obtaining the correct exposure is a combination of aperture and shutter speed settings. Aperture controls the depth of field by making the aperture of the lens iris larger or smaller and the shutter controls the length of time the light is allowed to pass through the aperture. If you set the mode dial to ‘Av’, you set the aperture and the camera works out how long to allow light through. Tv works in the opposite way, while ‘P’ allows the camera to work both settings out for you. ‘M’ is totally manual, so you have to determine both the shutter speed and the aperture. Some mode dial’s will have little symbols as well, select a flower or mountain symbol and the camera will give a small aperture, which will give great depth of field, use the running person symbol and the camera will use a faster shutter speed to stop the movement.

There are situations in Galapagos where even the most complex metering system is going to struggle. A good example would be a white bird like a Nazca Booby on very dark volcanic rock, the meter is likely to try and expose correctly for the rock, which will over exposure the bird. This is where a good understanding of your camera comes into play. Most SLR cameras will have a +/- (over/under exposure) override and, in the situation outlined above, you will need to under expose by about 1 to 2 stops to ensure correct exposure of the bird. The same effect can be obtained by doubling the (ISO) film speed i.e. 100 to 200 ISO, but remember to change these settings back before moving on.

Regularly check your results on the cameras LCD monitor, this will give an instant indication of what your pictures look like and badly exposed results can be deleted and retaken.


The Galapagos Islands are on the equator where the sun will rise quickly to a point directly overhead. This top lighting effect is not ideal for photographing wildlife or landscapes; low side lighting is better for showing detail in wildlife subjects and creates more interesting shadows in landscapes. So it’s important to get ashore at sunrise and again in the later afternoon. While most wildlife photographs are taken with the sunlight behind the photographer thereby fully lighting the subject, it should be remembered that some spectacular images can be taken using side or back lighting, particularly using the warm glow created at sunrise and sunset.

Depth of Field

The range of ‘f’ stops available on each individual lens determines depth of field. In most landscape pictures, taken with wide-angle or standard lenses, there is a necessity for maximum depth of field, to render as much of the foreground, middle and far distance as sharp as possible. To achieve this result, it is necessary to select a small aperture (‘f’ stop) of f16 or f22. This will consequently result in a slow shutter speed, so ensure you use a tripod or some other means of support, to reduce the risk of picture failure as a result of camera shake.

For individual images of birds or mammals, using longer lenses, it is often better to select a large aperture (‘f’ stop) of f5.6 or f4. This will result in the background being thrown well out of focus, which in turn will help to isolate your main centre of interest be it a bird or mammal.
Don’t forget that you can check the depth of field created by any given ‘f’ stop, by using the depth of field button on your SLR camera body. This button allows you to preview the finished image and to adjust it to your own satisfaction prior to making any exposure.


Unlike many elements of a photograph which are automatically undertaken by the camera itself, composition demands an active input from the photographer. It is therefore, in your own interest to be fully conversant with the factors relating to good composition.

Many newcomers to photography tend to produce all of their images in a horizontal format. Cameras work equally well when turned through 90 degrees! Do remember to fully utilise the possibilities of a vertical format.

Also remember to consider changing your viewpoint on occasions, don’t always photograph from a standing position, and explore the possibilities of photographing a subject by kneeling or even lying on the ground. When it comes to precise framing zoom lenses are very useful, allowing control over subject size and perspective. In some cases the size of the main subject can be quite small within the picture space, provided that the inclusion of more surroundings adds information or pictorial interest to the finished image. Any animal portrait will be greatly improved if you can make your exposure when a ‘highlight’ is visible in the eye.

Try to avoid placing your subject in the centre of the picture space, instead consciously divide the space into ‘thirds’, both vertically and horizontally and place your main point of interest where the lines cross. Do pay attention to the line of the horizon, particularly in landscapes and keep it along the ‘thirds’ and, at all costs keep it level. Computer programs make it easy to stitch together two or three images to make interesting panoramic landscapes.



Camera Bags

There are a large number of camera bags available and purchasing one is a matter of personal choice. However, it is worth considering one that doubles as a rucksack, which is a much more comfortable way of carrying equipment over rough ground. Some camera bags of this type also have a built in waterproof cover, which is useful extra protection for wet landings. In selecting a suitable bag, resist the temptation to purchase one that is too big – you will only feel obliged to fill it! Airlines are generally reducing hand luggage allowances so make sure that your bag size comes within recommended limits. A photographic waistcoat is a handy garment for keeping photographic accessories readily to hand. Waist-mounted camera and lens pouches can help to spread the load. Waterproof stuff bags, sold in most camping shops, in varying sizes, offer an additional form of equipment and bag protection. A supply of large plastic bags can be a useful way of sealing items of equipment or even your entire camera bag.



Camera Supports

The commonest cause of picture failure is lack of definition as a result of camera shake. The most effective way of over coming this is by using a good tripod; there are many light, yet sturdy models on the market, which will fit comfortably into the average suitcase. In the salty and sandy environment of Galapagos, any tripod is going to need extra care and maintenance. Keeping moving parts well oiled and wiping down the tripod each night will help to keep corrosion at bay. The delicate volcanic rock is easily damaged by the tripod legs which have metal spikes, so the use of rubber feet is preferable. Monopods are also a good means of steadying the camera, but they do require a little practice. Rifle stocks and pistol grips are another form of support and allow freedom of movement when attempting to photograph moving subjects.




The Galapagos National Park have a ‘no flash’ rule. With the light generally being very good and being able to push the ISO setting, it is easy to manage without flash. On cameras with built in flash these should be switched off.



Camera Accessories

A cable release is an excellent way of reducing camera shake and your camera should accept either an electronic or mechanical type. A wide camera strap with some degree of elasticity will help to distribute the weight of your camera and lens. A small hot shoe spirit level for checking straight horizons can be a great aid to landscape workers.




As most digital cameras use rechargeable batteries, don’t forget to pack chargers. Most boats and hotels use the US system of a two pin flat plug and are 110V. Another alternative would be to bring a solar charger. Remember to have enough spare rechargeable batteries to allow for those days when mains electricity may not be available. If you are using disposable batteries please don’t dump the old ones in Galapagos, take them home.



Care & Maintenance

As a general rule it is advisable to thoroughly check and clean all your camera bodies and lenses at the end of each day. All equipment is subject to the potentially damaging effects of sunlight, damp, rain, heat, salt water and dust. Do remember to keep camera bags out of direct sunlight whenever possible. Remember that a single peace of dust or grain of sand, on the image sensor will show as a dark speck on every image. A rubber blower brush or mini vac sucking device is ideal for keeping the inside of your camera clean, while lens elements and filters are best cleaned with specially purchased cleaning fluid and tissues, alcohol or even fresh water could be used as a last resort. The outer casings of both cameras and lenses can be cleaned using an ordinary paintbrush.




The identification of Galapagos species often depends upon which island the subject was photographed. If you have set the date and time correctly on your camera this information should be embedded in the background information stored on each image. Then, by keeping details notes of what you saw and which island you were on each day, you will then be able to sort out and identify species much more easily.
To make the most of your digital images why not take them to your local supermarket who can probably run a set of prints off from your memory cards. High quality display prints are easy to have made from your best images. Probably the nicest memento of your holiday would be to produce a photo-book, many online companies offer this service, it is easy to download the software, drop your pictures into pre-designed pages add captions and text and then you can have as many copies printed as you want and the cost is often less than a set of prints.



Code of Conduct

It should always be remembered that the welfare of the subject is more important the photograph.

  • Do not go too close, 2 meters is close enough.
  • Do not leave the trail. 
  • Do not use flash, make sure it’s turned off.
  • Do not make lots of noise. 
  • Do not discard any form of litter. Take only photos, leave only footprints. 
  • Do not smoke on the Islands. 
  • Do not step on the plants, watch where you step.
  • Do not rush to take your pictures, approach slowly, retreat slowly.