Sunday, May 14, 2023

Photographing the Galapagos with an iPhone

I visited the Galapagos on the Celebrity Flora in January 2023 and the opportunities for capturing the flora and fauna are endless.

I used two cameras to capture my trip - a Sony A7R3 Mirrorless with a 200-600mm zoom, and an iPhone 11 Pro Max.
On this vacation, I used both for different reasons. I use my Sony Mirrorless to capture the wildlife because I wanted “fine art” quality pictures, and I used my iPhone to capture more casual snapshots and landscapes. A link to my post about this can be found in the comments as well as a link to a video of the results.
That’s not to say that the iPhone (especially the newer iPhone 14 Pro Max) can’t do a good job of capturing everything, but when compared to something like a Mirrorless or DSLR with a long lens, the iPhone does have some limitations.
That said, here are some tips to get the most out of your iPhone when capturing the Galapagos (in no particular order, except for #1).
1. Under no circumstances use “pinch to zoom”
I put this tip first because if you only remember one thing, then remember this one. While much of the wildlife may be off in the distance, there is a temptation to zoom in using the pinch gesture. I recommend against doing this because what the iPhone is doing is digitally creating new pixels that simply aren’t there in real life. As a result, your photo will be filled with digital artifacts and look very unrealistic. Instead, select one of the optical zoom lenses and then edit the photo later to crop the image to “zoom” after you capture the image. I assure you, this will produce an image more clear than if you use pinch to zoom which digitally creates pixels. The optical zooms are the numbers right above the shutter button on the screen. You may see .5, 1, or 2, and if you have the iPhone 14 Pro/Max, then even a 3. You can try this at home before you go to experiment with it yourself. These numbers select the optical zoom lenses on your iPhone and no artificial pixels are created. The reason you want optical vs digital zoom is, the digital zoom will look pixelated and blocky and just not real.
2. Get to the camera app fast
Opportunities for pictures or video can happen very quickly in the Galapagos. If your phone is off (not already on with the camera app open), instead of pressing the power button or tapping the screen to wake up the phone and then waiting for face recognition to do its thing or entering your passcode, simply swipe left from the lock screen and the camera app will appear.
2a. This one is a little more advanced, but super cool. You can actually get to the camera app by double tapping the back of your phone. This is handy if you’re in the middle of another app and an animal appears unexpectedly and you want to bring up your camera app. Do the following to set this up:
  • Settings>Accessibility>Back Tap>On
  • Select “Double Tap”
  • Scroll down and select “Camera”
Now give it a try. Turn on your phone and open an app.. Any app, email… Facebook.. Whatever.. While in that app, double tap the back of your phone. The camera app should start.
3. Use the volume “UP” button to take a picture or video
Now that you quickly have your camera app open, instead of fumbling for the on-screen shutter button, or even swiping around on the camera interface to switch to video mode, try using the “volume up” button to take a picture or video. To take a still picture, a quick press, just like a regular camera button, of the volume up button will take a picture. If you press and hold the volume button, the iPhone will take a video for the length of time you are holding down the volume up button. A side note, I would not use this method to take a very long video since you’ll have to be pressing the volume up button for a long time. There is a setting change you may have to make to get this to work. Go to SETTINGS>CAMERA> then uncheck “Use Volume Up for Burst”. If later you decide you want to use the volume up for burst mode, then you know where to go to change that back.
4. Consider VIDEO mode over PHOTO mode
Many opportunities to capture wildlife in the Galapagos are more suited for video rather than photos. I would have you consider anything that is moving like flying birds, fighting iguanas, sneezing iguanas if you are so lucky to see that, swimming penguins, Nazca or Blue Footed Boobys doing a mating ritual… consider taking a video instead of a still photo. I would recommend that you do take video at 4K at 30fps for several reasons. (a) 4K gives you more resolution to work with. If you are so inclined, you can crop the video to 1080p to zoom in later and it will still look great (oh tip #1 applies to video as well. Never pinch to zoom. (b) I recommend 30fps mainly to manage the file size. 60fps will be a larger file and unless you plan to slow down your video later, most sites that you would post the video to will default to 30 fps like Facebook or YouTube. (c) You can still take a photo while taking a video. Yep, that’s right, you can take still photos while taking a video. As soon as you start taking a video you will see a still capture button (white circle) pop up on the screen. Just tap that button to take a still photo and it will be in your camera roll. There is a caveat, the still photo will be 7MP vs 12MP. To set your camera to 4K 30fps go to SETTINGS>CAMERA>RECORD VIDEO>4K at 30fps.
The one downside of 4K video is it does take quite a bit more memory storage so if you have limited memory storage, then you should opt for 1080p 30 fps (default setting).
5. Tap to focus and set exposure
The lighting conditions in the Galapagos can be challenging. You could be trying to take a photo of a tortoise deep under brush, or a mostly white red-billed Tropicbird in flight against a light blue sky. The iPhone does a great job at auto focus and exposure but sometimes it needs a little help figuring what you are trying to take a picture of and what to get in focus and properly exposed. If you find your subject out of focus or too dark or too light, simply tap the subject on your screen and the iPhone will focus and set proper exposure to your subject. This is also highly recommended for sunrise or sunsets. Have you ever noticed that the sunrise or sunsets never really look as colorful as you are seeing with your eyes. Simply tap the brightest part of the screen (usually the sun or surrounding clouds) and the iPhone will set the proper exposure for the sunset and immediately the contrast and details will pop. If you don’t like the exposure that the iPhone selected after you tapped, then immediately slide your finger up to brighten, or down to darken the exposure.
6. Turn on Smart HDR
As mentioned above, lighting conditions in the Galapagos can be challenging especially when on a trail with a lot of flora and the lava lizards, iguanas, and tortoises are hiding in the brush. I keep “Smart HDR” always on in my settings. HDR takes several shots of the same scene at different exposures and then blends them into a single photo. By setting this to always on, the iPhone will take HDR photos when it's the most effective and captures true-to-life colors and contrast. To turn this on, go to SETTINGS>CAMERA>SMART HDR.
7. When to use LIVE Photo and when not to
LIVE photos are essentially very short 3 second videos. The iPhone essentially takes 1.5 seconds of video before and after to press the shutter button. Many people have LIVE photo turned on and don’t even realize it. LIVE photos are good if you intend to apply one of the LIVE photo special effects such as Loop, Bounce, or Long Exposure. If that is not your intent, then I’d recommend you not take LIVE photos and turn that feature off. A quick Google search will show you how that is done.
8. Orient your camera based on your subject and how you intend to share your photos and videos
For some reason, the world has evolved to cell phone photos and videos all being taken in “portrait” orientation. If your goal is to have photos and videos for you to primarily remember your vacation or to post in a Facebook post (not a Facebook Story or Instagram Reel), then you should orient your phone depending on your subject and the composition. If you intend to post for Facebook Stories and Instagram Reels, then use portrait orientation. For example, if you are taking a photo of a flamingo fairly close up and you don’t necessarily care about the background, then portrait may be a good orientation. If you are taking a picture of an iguana laying on a rock, then landscape orientation may be better. Point is, please stop taking portrait only pictures just because that’s how you hold your phone.
9. Use the “Rule of Thirds”
There are many composition rules., but this is by far the simplest to learn and the most impactful given the effort in learning and applying it. The theory is, a centered image is boring because we tend to look at things symmetrically. The rule of thirds offsets the main subject to ⅓ of the screen and creates an uneasiness to the view, but it also creates interest. The mundaneness of the centered image is gone.
This concept is a little hard to describe in words only so before reading more, grab your iPhone and let’s turn on the rule of thirds grid on your phone. Go to SETTINGS>CAMERA>Turn on grid. Now open the camera app.
You should now see two lines running horizontally and two lines running vertically. Each line is ⅓ the way on the screen. So from the top, the first horizontal line is ⅓ the way down, and the second horizontal line is ⅔ the way down. Repeat this for the vertical lines and you end up with a grid of 9 rectangles.
In the rule of thirds, the 4 intersections you see on the screen are the most impactful places to focus your subject such as the eyes of an animal. Also, which intersection you pick matters given which way your subject is looking. For example, If you have a bird looking to the left of the screen, then place the subject on the intersections on the right side allowing the animal some “headroom” on the other ⅔ of the frame. If this is confusing, go back and watch the video I shared and it will become immediately obvious.
The rule of thirds is particularly impactful when there is a horizon involved, especially sunsets. Look at any movie where there is a sunset or a horizon and you’ll notice that they have the horizon on the button third of the frame. The Galapagos has many opportunities for horizons in your shots. It doesn’t mean the horizon is always at the bottom third. It can be either at the top or bottom depending on where your subject is. Oh and one pet peeve of mine, for the love of anything sacred, make sure your horizons are straight. If you didn't capture it straight, then edit your photo later and use the crop function to straighten the horizon. This alone will make that picture 10 times better.
The rule of thirds is just a rule, it’s not a law, so there are composition exceptions such as if your subject is staring straight at you and is perfectly symmetrical, then maybe a centered image may work too. It’s subjective.
10. Fill the frame
As a composition rule, the idea is to get rid of any other distractions so the viewer only focuses on the subject. When initially taking your photo, try to fill the frame as much as possible. If that means walking closer, then that’s what you have to do.
I know this will be challenging especially in the Galapagos when some of the animals are not next to the trail. This is where cropping comes in later when you’re sitting on the ship looking at your memories from the day and thinking about editing a few of your favorite ones to improve the composition. Remember rule #1 above… do not pinch to zoom. This is where this comes in handy. If you cropped in on an image where you used pinch to zoom, it will look beyond awful. But if you crop and adjust the composition to the rule of thirds while filling as much of the frame as possible with optical zoom, you will have as good of a photo as you can get.
11. Get down low or get up high
Interesting pictures are about seeing things from a perspective that people don’t normally see. As adults we see most things from the perspective of standing or walking around. That’s what they have become accustomed to so pictures taken from this perspective have become mundane.
If you see a tortoise walking on the trail, squat down or even sit on the trail (respecting distance rules) and try to get a picture eye level with the tortoise. In fact, whether it’s a tortoise on a trail, or an iguana on a rock, or a blue-footed booby on a ledge while you are in the zodiac, try to take all your images where you are eye level with their eye level.
If you are taking a picture of a single animal, the best picture will be them looking right into your camera. If you can't get that shot, then get at least both their eyes. If you can't get both eyes, get at least one eye. If you can't get any eyes, keep trying. A picture of the back of a frigate bird flying away from you might be good to prove you saw one, but it's not as interesting as one where you can see their eyes.
Side note, this works great for your grandkid and dog pictures. Get down on the ground to get pictures of your grandkids playing. They’ll look so much better.
12. Don’t forget to use the Panorama setting
The iPhone has a great setting for taking Panoramas. The Galapagos affords many opportunities for taking panos, but don’t go crazy and take a long 180 degree pano (unless you intend to post it as a 360 later)
Use the Panorama setting when you can’t quite get what you want in a 4:3 or even a 16:9 aspect ratio. But don’t take an excessively long panorama. What happens is the photo’s height to width ratio becomes too wide and it makes it unusable to view. Sure you can scroll back and forth on your phone to see it, but if you post it on Facebook, it will look very small because Facebook is trying to fit the width into the viewable area for the post so it looks tiny. The only exception to this is if you capture a wide enough panorama and you figured out how to post a 360 degree photo in Facebook.
Most people take horizontal panoramas, but a cool trick is to use it to take vertical panoramas. This takes a little more practice especially to keep the lines straight because we’re just not used to that motion with the phone. Here is an example of how you could use it. We were at the Darwin Research Station and this gentleman next to me was trying to take a picture of a very tall tree that he was standing next to. He was leaning as far back as he could while trying to take a picture of this tree from top to bottom. I showed him how to turn on Panorama mode then change the orientation of how he held the camera to take the panorama from bottom to top vs left to right so he could get a picture of the entire tree in one photo. It works great for tall buildings too.
Lighting plays a key role in photography. In fact, my view is that observing how light affects a scene or how it’s bouncing around is key to better photographs. There are numerous elements about light, but for simplicity sake, I’ll mention a few that make a big impact.
13. Be aware of the direction of the light.
We all remember being told, “have people look into the sun to take a picture”. I don’t know if I agree with that, but I will say that the more light you have on your subject, the more contrast you will get and therefore more clarity and definition. For wildlife photography that’s ok. Not so much for family portraits. Try this small experiment. About late afternoon, when the sun is out (not on a cloudy day), go outside and find an object like a mailbox or something you can walk completely around. Walk around the object taking 8 pictures. 0 degrees, 45 degrees, 90, degrees, 135 degrees, 180 degrees, 225 degrees, 270 degrees, and 315 degrees. Now look at how all those pictures of the very same object look very different. The one directly facing the sun will have the most color, contrast, and clarity. The one opposite that angle will have almost no color, contrast or clarity. The rest are between those two views. So when taking pictures of the animals, try as much to get as much direct light on them as possible and the only thing you can really move is yourself. Feel free to move around within the guidelines set forth by the naturalists, but don’t just take the picture because that’s where you were standing in the group. Move around, the group won’t mind if you politely ask to move to get a better shot.
14. Light has color and can add or take away depth,
I put these two concepts together because they are very related to the time of day.
From sunrise to sunset, the color of the sunlight changes from a warm and soft golden hue in the morning and later afternoon to a cool and harsh blue to white color when the sun is directly overhead. I know you can’t control when you go on excursions, but just something to be aware of.
Morning and afternoon light will give your picture warmth and the long shadows being cast give your photo depth.
Mid-day light will make your pictures very clear, but it will look flat and harsh.
Again, not much you can do, but thought you should be aware.
15. Don’t forget the selfies!
I know you are there to get tons of pictures of what you are seeing, but don’t forget to get pictures of you and your family seeing what you are seeing. And not just the ubiquitous arms out posed selfie even with an animal in the background, but take pictures of your family interacting with their surroundings. Take pictures of them hiking across the lava field, or pointing at a bird in the distance. I think you’ll find that the non-posed pictures are the ones you’ll enjoy the most.
16. Don’t put the horizon through their head.
You will be on a ship, and on beaches, there will be tons of pictures with the horizon in it. Try to compose your shot where the horizon is not horizontally right through the middle of their head. This usually means holding the camera slightly higher and pointing down where their head is below the horizon or holding the camera lower pointing up where their head is above the horizon. BTW - No one will want the latter so it’s usually holding the camera slightly higher pointing down.
I covered a lot. If anything is unclear, I’d be more than happy to answer any questions. I would recommend trying out all these things and practicing before you go. Some of it does take getting used to to become second nature and trust me, when the wildlife is moving fast, it will need to be second nature.
I also have one other posts here that may help. It is called "Photographing the Galapagos from the Celebrity Flora". While that focuses more on DSLR and Mirrorless cameras with big lenses, it has a ton of information about what type of animals you will see and at what distances and under what conditions. It also talks about the terrain, and other non-camera topics. 
I also have a YouTube video of many of the pictures I took. After reading this post, you can see much of the concepts I talk about in the pictures in the video.

Hope this helps.