Sunday, February 12, 2023

Photographing the Galapagos from the Celebrity Flora

This guide is intended for the amateur/hobbyist photographer who has questions about what gear to bring, how to protect your equipment, what type of shooting conditions you may encounter, and even what to wear while shooting in the Galapagos.  While this guide is not specifically intended for the casual point-and-shoot or cell phone photographer, some of the tips about terrain and conditions may come in helpful. 

This guide is also written from the perspective of cruising on the Celebrity Flora, but apart from getting on and off the Zodiac boats used by the Flora, much of this guide will be applicable to any cruise.

As you read the forums, inevitably you'll come across a post where someone asks the question "What camera or lens should I bring to the Galapagos?", and among the responses you'll see answers like, "I took my cell phone and it was fine", or "I had my DSLR with my 24-70 kit lens and I got great pictures".

What I'd have you consider is, what are you expecting and what type of photos are you hoping to capture.  That is the main consideration of what type of gear and lenses you'll need to bring. I'm certainly not saying that you won't enjoy cell phone or point-n-shoot photos if that's your expectation.  This guide is only attempting to help people struggling with what zoom lenses and other larger camera gear to bring.  I took many photos with my iPhone and loved them just as much.  That's just a different guide :-)

This guide will assume you are hoping to capture photos above the casual snapshot from a cell phone or point-n-shoot camera. So photos potentially suitable for something like a stock photography site (note the Galapagos National Park has restrictions on Commercial photography) and not snapshots for Facebook to document what you saw.

On my trip I came across mostly 4 shooting scenarios. Many of you may be able to read this section alone and be able to decide what gear you need to bring.

1.    Slow or still wildlife that you could get as close at 6 feet (the minimum distance required by the Galapagos National Park) to about 15 feet, which is basically next to the trail.  Speaking of trails, that is the primary factor determining the distance between you and the flora and fauna.  In the Galapagos National Park, visitors must stay on the designated trails.  On or next to the trails, you'll be able to see tortoises, iguanas, sea lions (not seals), nesting birds, crabs, lava lizards and more.

300mm 1/1250 sec f/8 ISO 3200

600mm 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 500

600mm 1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

600mm 1/1250 sec f/9 ISO 640

353mm 1/1250 sec f/8 ISO 1600

470mm 1/1250 sec f/8 ISO 800

2.    Fast moving wildlife that you could get as close at 6 feet (the minimum distance required by the Galapagos National Park) to about 15 feet.  While there are some opportunities for this scenario on the islands, I mostly encountered this when we went on a tour of the Cloud Forest outside of Quito and visited a hummingbird sanctuary.  In this case, while the humming birds were within arms reach, I still used very long focal lengths to separate the subject from the background.  In this case, my relatively slow 5.6/6.3 lens was very slow, so to achieve fast shutter speeds, I bumped up the ISO significantly to compensate.  Later I used Topaz Labs DeNoise AI to reduce or remove the high ISO noise.

353mm f/6.3 1/3200 sec ISO 5000
391mm f/6.3 1/3200 sec ISO 4000

359mm f/8.0 1/3200 sec ISO 6400

452mm f/8.0 1/3200 sec ISO 6400

388mm f/6.3 1/3200 sec ISO 4000

3.    Slow moving or relatively still wildlife (sometimes taken from a slow moving or rocking zodiac) that is farther than 15'.  This includes wildlife in the distance where you just need a long reach but for the most part subject motion blur is not an issue or minor camera shake can be handled by most optical stabilization systems.  This includes seabirds on shore while you're in a zodiac, or wildlife in general that is farther from the trail where you are not permitted to walk.

404mm f/9.0 1/1250 sec ISO 1000

379mm f/8.0 1/2500 sec ISO 1250

600mm f/6.3 1/1250 sec ISO 400

600mm f/8.0 1/1250 sec ISO 1250

600mm f/6.3 1/2500 sec ISO 1600

4.    Fast moving wildlife that is farther than 15'.  For me this was mainly birds in flight.  For these shots, I wanted a fast shutter speed and with such a slow lens (5.6/6.3) I had to really push the ISO to get the shutter speed I wanted.  Again, I wasn't afraid to do that since I knew I could reduce the noise in post.  Honestly, the hardest part of these shots is finding the subject as it was flying.  I zoomed out to 200mm to get a better field of view, and once I found the birds in flight, zoomed in and took the shot.  These were by far the most challenging shots of my trip.  You'll notice several photos at the ~200mm ish focal length.  The birds were moving so fast the only way I could acquire them was to zoom out to 200, then once acquired attempt to zoom back in, but by that time the birds may be landing or doing other things I wanted to capture and I was not quick enough to zoom in so I just took the shot.  For these examples below, they are significantly cropped.  I had focus on "continuous".

209mm f/7.1 1/1250 sec ISO 3200 - Significantly cropped

379mm f/7.1 1/2500 sec ISO 800

368mm f./6.3 1/2500 sec ISO 800

600mm f/6.3 1/1600 sec ISO 640

200mm f/5.6 1/2500 sec ISO 800 - Significantly cropped

600mm f/8.0 1/1250 sec ISO 500

268mm f/7.1 1/2500 sec ISO 10,000 - Significantly cropped

318mm f/6.3 1/1250 sec ISO 1250

Above are the 4 general scenarios that I encountered during my visit.  Of course, the other factor to consider is the amount of light.  I have seen YouTube videos that say the Galapagos in on the Equator and there is always a lot of light... that's just not true - well the part about always having lots of light.  Even at mid-day, there can be cases where on the trail there are a lot of bushes or the wildlife is hiding in the bushes. The other time I encountered low light during mid-day was when shooting birds in flight that nested on cliffs that were in the shade.  You can see in some of the pictures above that some of those cliffs can be black lava rock making it challenging for the camera metering system to capture a small white bird against a mostly black background.  The final low-light condition I encountered was during a late afternoon zodiac tour against the cliffs of one of the volcanos where the boat driver stayed in the shadow of the volcano the entire time.  So just some things to consider as you decide what gear to bring.  That said, I'd say 70-80% of the shooting conditions there is plenty of daylight.

LENSES and specifically focal length.
The most common question I see on the forums is what lens to bring. Consider everything above with respect to the distance and movement of your subjects and also what I mentioned about lighting and how much separation you want between your subject and the background to make your decision on what gear to bring.

While it is true that the wildlife can be close, in my opinion a 24-70mm zoom should not even be considered if you want any of the types of shots in the examples above..  On a pre-cruise day trip in Quito, I had my 24-70 on a FF body and I could barely get pictures of a hummingbird I saw at the Equator Museum that was 15' away.  Speaking of Hummingbirds... if you are a bird photographer and you are content with your gear for bird photography, then most likely you will be happy with that same gear for Galapagos wildlife in all of the 4 scenarios I mentioned above.

So what about a 70-200mm on a FF body.  I'd say that if that's all you have, then you might get some of the shots you want, but I expect that you'll be zoomed to 200mm for the majority of your photos.  I met someone on our trip who owned both the 70-200 and also a 100-400, but he only brought the 70-200 to the Galapagos and told me he wished he brought the 100-400mm. 

I brought a Sony 200-600mm 5.6/6.3 and I was able to get every shot I attempted to get.  That said, I think if you brought a 100-400mm on a FF body, you'd also get most of what you wanted to capture.  Even though I had a  200-600mm lens, there were times when even the 600mm was not long enough so I had to crop heavily, but fortunately I have a Sony A7R3 with a 42.2MP sensor.  If you look at the focal length of the photos I show above, you'll see that I was rarely at 200mm.  The only time I went that wide was on occasion to get a field of view wide enough to find a very fast bird in flight and in that instance, I had to take the shot before I could zoom in once I got the bird in my viewfinder.  Most of the shots in the category of "far away and fast moving" I wished I could have zoomed in more, but juggling being able to acquire a very fast moving bird (zoomed out) then zooming in to get closer was a bit challenging for me, hence I took the shot when zoomed out more than I wished and cropped in later.  If you have mastered this skill, I think a 100-400mm would work for you.

So what about taking a 24-70 for shots where wildlife is close up.  At the shorter focal lengths, unless you've got a really fast lens like an f/2.8 or faster, you just won't get the separation between the subject and the background that makes the background drop off so you can can focus on the subject.  For example, I did take a few hummingbird pictures with my iPhone using the lens that has an equivalent focal length on a 35mm full-frame of 52mm f/2, and while I was able to get up close and get a fairly clear picture of the hummingbird, but the entire background is also in focus.  Compare that to the photo taken at 388mm even at f/6.3, the background just fades away.

One closing note on big heavy lenses.  I have read comments where some people are reluctant to bring 400mm or 600mm zoom lenses because of weight.  Yep, they are heavy, and I struggled with this decision too, but.. a good wide strap can mitigate that feeling of being heavy.  I definitely felt the weight when using my stock Sony strap because it was so thin and I wore it around my neck. But then I bought a Peak Design "Slide" strap and wore it cross-body as it is designed to do and the perception of weight was like night and day.  So if you are struggling with a decision based on weight, there are ways to mitigate that concern.  Some people even had chest harnesses for their 100-400mm lens and camera.  Once you distribute the weight (think a backpack with 6 lbs), those big and heavy lenses just don't feel heavy anymore. This is a once in a lifetime trip and you will see this wildlife once. Walks are usually no more than 2 miles tops.  Get a good weight mitigation strap, wear it properly, and you won't regret bringing the big heavy lenses.

iPhone 11 Pro Max

Sony 200-600 - 388mm f/6.3 1/3200 sec ISO 4000

We went to the Galapagos during the first two weeks of January which is the beginning of their rainy season.  Fortunately for us we did not encounter much rain if any while on tour on the islands.  We did get a small amount of rain in Quito and Mindo.  The biggest concern I had about protecting my gear was during the zodiac rides from the ship to shore, not from any rain.  If you go during the rainy season, protect your gear for rain accordingly.

On the Celebrity Flora, there are a few things to know.
  • When getting on and off the Zodiac from the Flora, you are required to have both hands free to hold the rails.  If you have your gear in a backpack, then you can wear that while you get on and off the Zodiac.  If you are holding your camera bag/backpack in one or both hands when attempting to get on or off the Zodiac, the crew will ask you to hand them your bag and they will hand it to another crewmember on the Zodiac (when getting on) or a crew member on the Flora when getting off. When getting on, that crew member on the Zodiac will often just set your backpack on a bench in the middle of the Zodiac or when getting off the Zodiac, they just put all bags on the ground at the "marina".  The point is, if you don't want anyone handling your gear, make sure however you are carrying it, you can have both hands free. A backpack works as they will allow you to get on and off the Zodiacs while wearing a backpack as long as your hands are free.
  • The second concern about protecting my gear was how much water I might get on my bag during the transit from the ship to shore and vice versa.  I'd say for the most part, depending on where you sit and the conditions of the sea, gear in even something like a backpack alone or camera bag won't get wet.  Your bag may get some splashes, but that's about it... most of the time.  That said, there were two times during our trip that during transit, everyone on the Zodiac got completely wet from wave splashes due to the wind and the condition of the seas.  The video below didn't capture the worst of it. By the time I got my phone out to take the video, the worst of it had passed.  But you'll notice, the guide is completely soaked. So my advice is to find a way to protect your bag or gear from what can be significant water splash.  I'll tell you my solution shortly.
  • The third concern I had about protecting my gear was from what they call a "wet landing" where you literally have to get your feet wet to get ashore.  For the most part, the wet landings are not rough but again, conditions can vary significantly from day to day.  It also depends on how ambulatory and stable you can be when exiting a Zodiac that is bobbing up and down due to waves.  If you think that situation may challenge your balance, then you may want to take extra caution to protect your gear. The example below was one of the easiest wet landings we experienced, and many were like that.  But... one or two were worse.
  • While not a concern about getting my gear wet, sometimes "dry landings" can pose challenges from a stability standpoint.  During a dry landing, in many cases you are exiting a Zodiac up the stairs on to a very jagged lava rock ledge.  The crew will have towels on the ground to help minimize slipping and falling but sometimes if the towels get bunched up they can also become a trip hazard.  Point is, dry landings pose their own challenge from the standpoint of you falling and damaging your gear if you've got it in an nonpadded backpack.  This is a time when there is a case for a good padded camera bag.  I'm not trying to scare you, just inform you of the conditions.  For me, I felt confident that such landings were not a stability challenge for me. Thus, having my camera in the solution I came upon below was not a concern for me.  If you feel like this type of landing could cause you to fall, then take more precaution to protect your gear from falling.  The dry landing in the video below was by far the easiest one we experienced. There were several others where we are attempting to come ashore on jagged lava rocks and the sea is causing the Zodiac to bob up and down. 

The solution I ended up with was to use a Dry Bag.  With the 200-600 plus camera body being so large, I actually didn't use a dry bag over my camera bag (LowePro ProTactic 450 AW II).  If I did, I'd have to use a 65L (yes a 65L) dry bag to hold my very large camera bag.  Then I'd have to figure out where to put a a dry bag that potentially got wet in transit once I got on shore.  What I ended up doing was using a 35L dry bag and I placed my very large camera and lens directly in the drybag.  Now this dry bag (Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag) doesn't have backpack straps, so I just put the camera in the dry bag and then put the dry bag inside the back pack that Celebrity gave us for the cruise. If this sounds like a solution you may want, I'd recommend you get a backpack and drybag that fit before coming on the cruise to ensure the pair will work. I also rolled up a towel to put at the bottom of the dry bag to give my camera a little padding, but my backpack with cameras and lens rarely touched the ground so the towel was just a precaution.  I ended up working out a process where when I got on land, I could easily ask a friend (where there were lava rocks and I didn't want to put the backpack down, to hold the backpack, then I just unzipped the backpack, then opened the dry bag (while leaving it inside the backpack) and pulling my camera out.  Honestly, I think I got faster at getting my camera out than the folks I saw with camera bags who would look for something flat other than the sandy ground or lava rock to lay their camera bag flat to get their camera out.  That said, the only situation that could have been a problem with my solution is if I fell on lava rocks while wearing my backpack during a rough dry landing.  For me, that was a very low probability. Again, if you think that could be a challenge for you, consider a more padded solution.

If you are thinking of putting your camera bag inside a dry bag, consider if your dry bag got wet what would you do once on shore with a wet dry bag.  If you have somewhere to put a wet dry bag, or just wipe it off with a towel and you have somewhere to store the dry bag when on shore along with your camera bag, then that may work for you.  Honestly, even if your dry bag didn't get wet, if your configuration is to put your camera bag inside the dry bag, you still need a place to put the drybag once you get on land.  Oh, I didn't mention, on a few occasions when the transit was extremely wet, I had a towel to just cover my backpack that had the dry bag inside with my camera inside the dry bag.  I was never concerned about my gear getting wet.  And even if the backpack got soaked (which it never did) to the point where the dry bag inside got wet, it would have been easy enough to wipe of the exterior of the dry bag and clean it up before attempting to take my camera out.

What I would not do is to take a backpack or camera bag with no other protection.  While this solution is probably fine 90-95% if the time, what about that 1 in 10 times that your bag could get significantly wet or soaked.  Again, a dry bag is insurance. On this trip, there was only one time I came close to needing it when everyone got soaked in transit. Either figure out how to put your camera bag inside a dry bag or your camera in a dry bag directly, but have a way to carry it hands free or the crew will take it and you don't want them handling your gear.  Not that they will be malicious, but they are just loading or unloading a Zodiac with up to 10 people plus gear in sometimes very challenging situations.  Protecting your expensive camera is probably not their primary focus, but rather, how to get the people safely on and off the Zodiac when the swells can cause a differential of 8 feet (plus or minus 4 feet) when getting on and off the Zodiac. Once when my wife was entering the Zodiac from the Flora, the crew members were on both sides of her holding her arms and under her armpits.  The moment she stepped on the top step of the Zodiac and shifted her weight forward, the Zodiac dropped 4 feet.  Luckily the crew was holding her and she was literally suspended in the air for a few seconds till the top step came back to the level of the marina and she quickly made the transition. So, the point is, the crew is focused on people safety 100% of the time.  They have to be because things can happen very quickly.

Generally in the Galapagos, you'll encounter three types of terrain.  
  • Very jagged lava rocks or rocky "trails" which can be challenging for maintaining stability while walking.  

  • Dirt trails

  • Sandy beaches

There are several questions about what footwear to bring on this trip especially since Celebrity limits your luggage to 44 lbs.  I'd be cautious about posts that say "Oh, I just brought a pair of shoes with a hardy bottom and they were just fine.  What you don't know is how ambulatory or stable this person is and how much experience they have hiking on various types of terrain or how athletic they are. The could be a parkour champion for all you know.  Only you know best how well you can traverse these types or terrain.

Take a look at the pictures above and judge for yourself.  Yes, people wore all sorts of footwear from sneakers to hiking boots on the jagged lava rocks, to Tevas and the guides even wore closed toe Crocs for wet landings and subsequent walks.  

In the Facebook Group, I have seen recommendations for Tevas for wet landings.  I'll just say, if you plan to do this, do yourself a favor and before you come on the trip, put on your Tevas, then get them wet and even sprinkle a little sand on your feet if you can, then walk a mile or two and see if you get blisters or rubs.  If they work for you, good.  But many people who brought Tevas also mentioned that they got blisters after a wet landing and subsequent walk.

I'd always pay attention to what the guides were wearing.  Most guides wore some type of hiking shoe on dry landings.  One guide even wore full leather sneakers that didn't have a particularly "grippy" bottom.  I asked her why she wore that and she said that the lava rocks easily tore up the canvas or nylon sides of her hiking shoes where the full leather lasted longer.  She is also an experienced guide and is use to walking on all the terrain the Galapagos has to offer. I could see where if you stepped wrong the jagged lava rocks could tear a gash in the side of a nylon hiking shoe or sneakers.  I wore such shoes, but I was careful how I stepped and my shoes made it through the week unscathed.

On sandy beach walks, the guides generally want you to wear closed toe shoes during embarking and disembarking from the Zodiac, but once ashore you can take off your shoes to walk on the beaches if you want. Depending on how strict your guide is, some even let me walk off the Zodiac on a wet landing barefoot.  But that depends on the guide.

My guidance is to look at the terrain in the pictures above, understand your own skill level and bring footwear accordingly.

You'll be on the Equator.  The Sun is a factor.  the good news is the temperature is fairly constant so it's not like you have to pack for a range of temperatures from very cold to very hot.  You can search the internet for average temperatures for the time of your visit.

You will see that in the pictures people wear everything from shorts and sleeveless tops to full length shirts and long pants.  I'm almost certain that everyone was wearing sunscreen and applied it several times per day before an excursion.  I always like to look at what the guides are wearing to get a gauge.  That said, the guides spend many, many, many days outdoors so they tend to be more covered than not.  For example, the Zodiac drivers who don't do any walking and are on the relatively cooler water are completely covered.  I challenge you to see a patch of skin on them.  All wore long pants, long sleeve shirts, gloves, hats, sunglasses and even face gaiters.  Many of the guides wore long pants and long sleeve shirts.  I did that one day and personally I got too hot, so I converted my long pants to shorts and then rolled up my sleeves for several excursions.  Note that all the long pants and long sleeve shirts the guides wear are very lightweight.  I brought the same weight clothes, but even at that, there were days when I got too hot and opted to go with shorts and extra sun screen.

One of our guides on the beach,

Note what the Zodiac driver is wearing

Even when the guides are not on excursion but come to greet the Zodiac they are fully covered.

What a typical guide wears on excursions

On one of my first excursions I went full long sleeve and pants and I got too hot.  After that I went shorts and lots of sunscreen.

This was a morning excursion so I opted for shorts and a short sleeve shirt with lots of sunscreen.

On headgear, it's a good idea to wear a boonie hat, but not just any boonie hat.  The wider the brim the better.  Some even have a design where there is a cover for the back of your neck or the brim extends farther in the back.  Many people wore ball caps, but it's up to you on how much sun protection you want.  I'll say again, it's the equator and I can tell you, every guide was covered to the max.

I forgot to mention... all the above are comments about touring the islands.  Quito is a different story.  It's over 9000 feet in altitude and can get cold.  Check the internet for average temps and dress accordingly.  What worked for me is wearing what you see me wearing above with long pants and a long sleeve shirt (which are convertible and the sleeves roll up) and then in the morning when it was cold wear a rain layer which is dual purpose of keeping me warm and helping with the rain, and when it warmed up, I would just roll my sleeves up and convert my pants to shorts.

That's about all I can think of to help you to decide what's best for you to prepare for your trip to the Galapagos.  I hope this was helpful.

If you have any questions, just leave a comment on the Facebook page or send me an email from the link on the right.