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  Shooting the Boobies -- Cameras

A once in a lifetime trip requires some careful thought about which camera(s) to bring.

  Version Info:
2/11/04: digital body info added, minor reformatting
No, I’m not going to tell you which model of camera to buy (see my recommendations if you're a Nikon 35mm user, or comparison if you're a Nikon DSLR user). But you do need good camera equipment if you’re going to take great pictures, and, as you’ll soon see, the plural in the section heading is intentional: you’ll need more than one camera.

Early One Morning
I came across this giant tortoise heading through the fog for the mud holes in the caldera of Alcedo. At f/2.8, I had a shutter speed of 1/4, so I decided to underexpose a bit, a good decision in retrospect. Nikon N90s, 70-300mm, Kodachrome 64.

Here’s what I brought with me on my first Galapagos trip (1990):

  • Minolta Maxxum 7000i. This was my primary camera and I took most of my pictures with it.
  • Minolta Maxxum 5000i. This was my backup camera. I used it in situations where I thought the camera might be in jeopardy.
  • Olympus InfinityZoom 200. When I wanted to travel light or in situations where I knew I might get wet, this is what I carried with me. I considered this my “disposable” camera.
  • Nikonos II. This was my underwater camera. Used much less than the others, it still proved useful while snorkeling.

On my next trips to the Galapagos, here’s what I took:

  • Nikon N90s. My primary camera
  • Nikon FM2n. My backup camera.
  • Olympus Stylus. My “disposable” camera.
  • Minolta Weathermatic. My underwater camera.

If I were to go again tomorrow and were shooting film, I’d take:

  • Nikon F5 or F100. Primary camera.
  • Nikon N80. Secondary camera.
  • Nikon Coolpix 990. Not really disposable, but I’d use it that way.
  • Nikonos IV or V. Underwater camera.

And if I were going again tomorrow and were shooting digital, I'd take:

  • Nikon D1x or Kodak Pro 14n. Primary camera.
  • Nikon D100 or D70. Secondary camera.
  • Coolpix 5400. Not really disposable, but I'd use it that way.
  • Underwater housing for the Coolpix 5400 or D100.

Three or four cameras on every trip. That may seem like a lot, but when you compare that to the amount you’ll spend getting to the Galapagos, you’ll notice that your camera body investment still may only represent only a fraction of the travel expense. Besides, I’ll bet that you probably have most, if not all, the camera equipment you’ll be taking. Use my comments here to round out your shooting arsenal, if necessary.


What Else?
The camera question taken care of by the info in the left-hand column, you’ll need a few other items to keep those cameras going:
  • Batteries. Take lots of extra batteries. Even AA and AAA batteries can sometimes be hard to find in the islands, and expensive when you do (not to mention the fact that you can’t just tell the Captain of your boat to take a run downtown for you—you’re likely to be miles from the nearest store). These days, I like to take rechargeable Nimh batteries and a small solar panel (you’ll get plenty of sun for recharging, though most of the boats can also supply AC).
  • Cleaning equipment. Soft rags for wiping salt air off the camera body are a must. I also take Q-tips for cleaning crevices. Digital camera users need to bring sensor cleaning tools.

(continues, below)


Auto and Manual

A pro-level autofocus camera is useful in the Galapagos. You’ll be surprised at how fast iguanas move when they want to, and along the cliffs you’ll want autofocus for the birds. The five-spot autofocus on recent Nikon bodies is quite useful. You’ll want spot metering, exposure compensation, and exposure bracketing (ever tried to take a picture of a black lizard on black rock or a near white sea lion on near white sand?).

Manual override is a virtual necessity if your camera has any automation. Take those black iguanas on black lava. I’ve tried spot metering them, letting the camera pick an exposure, and bracketing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. One thing that I know that will work is the old f/16 rule: with the sun over your shoulder your subject will require an exposure of f/16 with a shutter speed of 1/ISO. For ISO 100 film or digital sensors, that means a shutter speed of 125 and an aperture a third stop wider than f/16. You might not like the picture that results, but I can assure you that you’ll get black iguanas on black lava if you use that technique. Of course, if your camera doesn’t have a manual override, you won’t be able to even try such things.

There have been times when I’ve suddenly mistrusted the exposure settings my automatic camera suggested. Having used cameras most of my life, I have a second sense about exposure. I once owned a camera that suggested what I knew to be an incorrect exposure, so I switched to manual and guessed at exposures. Fortunately, my guesses were pretty good. When I removed the film from the camera I found that it had a defective DX code—the camera hadn’t been able to set the ISO automatically, so it had switched to ISO 100 by default (the film was actually ISO 400).

If I thought about it long enough, I could probably come up with a dozen more stories whose conclusion was “make sure you have manual settings on your camera.”

Second in my required feature list is a plethora of information in the viewfinder. If you’re really taking pictures, you’re looking through the lens most of the time. You will absolutely miss any picture opportunity that occurs when you’re not looking through the camera. Thus, any camera that forces you to take it away from your eye to see what f/stop or shutter speed it set is not good enough in my book.

Fortunately, most of the newer cameras, especially Nikons, are pretty good in this respect. The more information you can see in the viewfinder, the better. I think that all viewfinders should include a Frames Remaining indicator, for example.


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  • Instruction manuals. Keep ‘em on the boat, but bring them. If you’ve ever had one of the newer cameras flash one of their cryptic error messages on the LCD you’ll know why—you’re not likely to figure out the problem without the manual or a hell of a lot of experience with the camera. Better yet, if your equipment is Nikon, may I be so humble as to suggest that you carry the Nikon Field Guide or the Complete Guide for your camera?
  • Carrying equipment. Since most site landings in the Galapagos have the element of water involved, I now use a LowePro waterproof pack in the islands. This lets me carry all my cameras and lenses, an indecent amount of film, and all kinds of accessories like polarizing filters and the like.



Metering and Backups

Finally, a word about metering, since you'll be thoroughly tested on setting exposures in the Galapagos due to the extreme conditions. When I’m taking my time and setting my own exposures, I use a simplified zone system to set exposures (see page 23 of Nikon Field Guide). When I shoot slide film, I concentrate on three values: absolute white (overexposure=clear acetate!), absolute black (underexposure=no shadow detail), and 13% gray (what the standard meter exposes for). Having shot so many exposures of nature and wildlife, I also realize that what the meter in the average camera sees is none of those things.

Take the typical Galapagos penguin, for example. He’s black with white markings. If your meter mostly sees his black body markings (and he'll usually be standing against a black lava flow), the exposure the camera suggests will generally make him come out as some form of gray (no matter what you point the camera at, it assumes it is 13% gray, so that the resulting shot ends up overexposed). If you’re lucky enough to get a real close up of an adult penguin’s face, the meter will see all that white and try to make it gray (underexposure). My solution in such circumstances is use the spot metering capabilities of my camera to find and set the exposure for something that’s about 13% gray and is in the same light as the subject I’m shooting. Sometimes I get lucky and the rock the animal is sitting on will be about the right gray, sometimes I have to fake it and take an exposure reading off my hand (it’s about 15% gray when it is isn’t too tan).

Digital users have a slight advantage in that they can examine the histogram for an exposure and evaluate whether they need to make adjustments. One thing, though: you're on the equator and the sun is bright! If the LCD on your digital camera isn't easily readable in bright sunlight, get a Hoodman or other shield so that you can see it. On many of the islands, there won't be a place you go to "get in the shade" if you need help seeing the LCD.

For what it’s worth, very few of the animals and plants in the Galapagos are anywhere near 13% gray (the land iguanas and Galapagos Hawk qualify), so carry a small gray card with you. Most of the birds are either white or black. Most of the reptiles are dark or light tan colored. The turtles and tortoises are dark. Most of the water-going animals, like the sea lions and turtles, are also quite dark (a few of the sea lions are light tan, which poses another problem on the sand). The settings you’ll find the animals in ranges from black lava to white sand, with very little middle values in between. The sky ranges from foggy white to bright, but still quite light, blue. The ocean is generally darkly colored.

You should get the idea that you’re not shooting in a studio or a controlled situation. Spot metering, used correctly and judiciously, will get you better exposures than virtually any automatic mode of any camera I know. Of course, used incorrectly, you’ll end up with some pretty awful shots, so make sure you have some experience at using your spot meter before you travel. Nikon matrix metering does okay, but tends towards underexposure in my experience on the islands.

Manual cameras aren’t a bad choice. More often than not you’ll have time to set manual exposure, focus manually, and make any other adjustments you might need to with an older, mechanical SLR. You might miss a picture or two from time to time while you fiddle with dials, but those of us with the automatic cameras probably miss a shot or two when we trust the camera’s settings religiously.
But no matter what camera you choose as your main one, there are two absolute rules you should follow:
    1. If the camera is more than a few months old, have it professional cleaned and checked before you head to the islands. Why? Because this is a once-in-lifetime trip, for one. But you’re going to subject your camera to unrelentingly hot sun, high humidity, and blowing salt and sand. All of this conspires to push any lingering problems over the edge. Trust me on this. In three trips, I’ve seen four cameras die amongst 40 photographers (and yes, I loaned my backup body to the two who had Nikon lenses).
    2. If your camera is new (or after it has been cleaned), run some film through it (or shoot some memory cards) before you go. For example, stop by your local zoo and shoot a few rolls. Besides the camera testing, zoo shooting provides you practice shooting animals in reasonably close quarters. While you’re there, spend time making sure that you know how to quickly set exposure compensation, spot metering, and bracketing. Find some fast moving animals (or children) and practice focusing on their eyes.

Under no circumstances should you arrive in the Galapagos with a camera that is in questionable shape or is brand new out of the box. You won’t find professional camera repair shops in Quito that can work on your camera—especially newer autofocus or digital cameras—nor will you likely find any (affordable) cameras you can buy to replace the ones you brought. That’s especially true if you use anything other than Nikon or Canon equipment. What you bring is what you’re going to have to use. Make sure you know how to use it and it’s in the best possible shape before you get on the plane.

Worse still, when you get to the islands, you won’t find any camera shops at all. Indeed, during most of your stay, you probably won’t even be close to the few settlements that do exist in the islands. So even if they did have a camera shop, you wouldn’t be able to get there.

You’re probably starting to understand why I carry a backup camera body and suggest you do likewise: if your camera dies or falls in the water the first day, you’re going to spend the rest of your trip in a serious funk. (Then again, a trip to the Galapagos is an experience you won’t forget, even without photos. If for some reason you lose use of your equipment or run out of film, don’t get mad; enjoy the trip and take solace in the fact that you’re seeing sights and wild animals most people will never see. I also recommend that you spend at least one land visit sans camera—you’ll be amazed to notice things that you weren’t seeing while peering through the camera all day.)

If you’re taking a top-of-the-line body as your main camera, buy one of that manufacturer's lower-priced units as your backup. For example, if your main body is an F5 or F100, bring an F80/N80 or F90x/N90s as your backup. If the F80/N80 is your primary camera, bring a F60/N60 or F65/N65 as your backup. The key is to make sure that your backup can use the same lenses and accessories you bring for your main camera, and doesn’t change your shooting style or require refreshing your memory about controls. If you’re really price conscious—and who wouldn’t be after forking out as much as $5000 for airfare and boat accommodations—check the used department of your local professional camera shop. Not only will you find lower prices, but you might also be able to dicker the price down or get something extra (like a cleaning for your main camera) thrown in for free.

If you think relying on one camera body is a gamble you’re willing to take, think again. Your shore landings will be at the whim of the sea. Many require you to wade ashore, albeit usually through shallow, gentle waters. While there are precautions you can take, your equipment will be in constant peril during your stay. If you manage to keep your camera from getting dipped into the ocean, there’s sea mist in the air, bird droppings (they always seem to hit the pentaprism of cameras or your head, sometimes both), dust and volcanic ash, and dozens of other culprits all ready to sabotage your photo equipment. Heck, I once watched my N90s go flying across the dining room when the Captain suddenly decided to race another boat on a crossing.

I usually take only my main camera ashore with me. That’s assuming that the ocean is reasonably calm. On panga-only visits and in rough waters, I usually take my backup camera instead. The rationale here is that I’m more likely to lose the camera or damage it, and I’d rather have to replace my backup than my more expensive main body. I’ll gladly sacrifice a few features for knowing that my most expensive investment in camera bodies is still safe and usable.

Of course, the best possible scenario is to use two camera bodies that are the same. If your budget allows this, why not? That way you won’t be sacrificing features and won’t have to adjust for differences in the way the cameras work. But I’m not rich, and I suspect you aren’t either, so don’t despair if you have to use a second, cheaper body.

I rarely take both cameras ashore with me. Again, the water landings are often dangerous to photo equipment, as are a few of the paths you’ll be walking. It’s easier than you think to drop your equipment bag (even your waterproof one) into the water, or to fall while crossing a rocky lava flow. I’d rather not have all my equipment with me when I do that. Besides, you’re not likely to have to switch lenses quickly, and you probably won’t be shooting two different film types simultaneously. You can only press one shutter release at a time, so I stick with a single camera at a time.



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Panga (PANG-guh) n A small, shallow keel boat used to ferry passengers between the main boat and landing sites in the Galapagos. Historically wooden and rowed, many are now metal, and have small outboard engines. Note that the panga will be filled with people most of the time, so you won't have room for big packs or extra bags. Keep your bag size to a minimum.


Backup to the Backup

Having said that, I should also point out that I usually carry a high-end point and shoot camera with me at all times. I consider this my “disposable” camera because I use it in any situation that warrants a photo opportunity, no matter what the risk. I’ve waded into the water holding my point-and-shooter above my head, I’ve stood on rocky windblown ridges with it, I’ve set it on the ground and used the remote shutter release when I didn’t want to stay close to the animals, I shoot with it on panga rides, and I’ve dragged it with me through the dustiest of trails. Someday your “disposable” will break. Actually, that someday was the next-to-the-last day of my first Galapagos trip, when I was wading in the water trying to line up a penguin and the famous Pinnacle rock in the same wide angle shot. I didn’t get upset, though, since I knew that I’d already taken dozens of other pictures I wouldn’t have otherwise dared try with my US$1000 camera body and US$500+ lenses.

There are lots of decent point-and-shoot cameras available these days. I chose my original Olympus because it had a fair lens that focused in 159 different zones (i.e., it did more than try to set a compromise hyperfocal distance). The 38 to 70mm zoom was a bit short on breadth, but allowed me to do some framing of shots when I got stuck in one position. I paid less than US$200 for it, and figure that works out to about US$1 a roll of film I managed to put through it before it died. I consider that an investment well recouped.

Of course, your point and shooter might die the first time you wade into the water with it or try to drag it up a lava ledge. As the EPA says, your mileage may vary. Still, I consider US$200 a reasonable insurance to pay on a US$5000 trip. Even if you end up never taking a picture with it, you’ll be glad you had the additional backup with you—the Galapagos can be that rough on equipment. Most point-and-shooters are compact, lightweight, and easy to stuff into a fanny pack or day pack with a few extra rolls of film. One final advantage is that you can use this camera (which is probably completely automatic and idiotproof) to hand to someone else, such as your trip leader, to get that shot of you sitting next to a tortoise or munching cactus with the iguanas.

An underwater camera is optional, but suggested. You’ll have a chance to do a lot of snorkeling in the Galapagos (bring your own mask, but most boats have an adequate supply of fins you can borrow; a lightweight wetsuit is a good option if you plan to spend a lot of time in the water, though I found I didn't need one for my typical one-hour swims). And the snorkeling is sometimes absurdly great. In one cove, we found ourselves swimming and playing with a half-dozen sea lions and literally hundreds of green turtles. I'll never forget the seeing a sea turtle suddenly swoop up out of the murky water to investigate what was making all that splashing commotion. Another time, I found myself staring at dozens of hammerhead sharks (only to be stung by a school of small jellyfish, dramatically shortening that dip!).

If you don’t want to spring for an underwater camera, do rush down to your local film proprietor and pick up one or two of those disposable waterproof camera+film things Kodak sells. They really work quite well. For US$20 you just might be able to get a few shots you otherwise wouldn’t.

To summarize, I believe that you’ll take better pictures if you bring the right equipment with you to the Galapagos. To my way of thinking that means multiple cameras, one of which is an autofocus camera of serious amateur or semiprofessional caliber. You’re free to disagree, but if you do, make sure you know why you’re disagreeing before you jump to the conclusion that what you want to bring will do the job.


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