Shooting the Boobies
Photography in the Galapagos

Three Friends
Talk about your exposure problems. Black rocks with black lizards on them, bright skies. Still, this is one of my favorite shots, which the JPEG doesn't do justice. N90s, 70-300mm, Kodachrome 64.


[Digital users should still read the following section, as it'll tell you something about quantity and security. The big issue for digital users is backing up images while on-shore. My suggestion: don't. Instead, bring enough storage cards so that you can simply keep shooting. On the boat you'll have access to AC power and your laptop and plenty of time to download the cards.]

However much film you bring to the Galapagos, you’ll end up shooting it all. Really. If you only have one roll of film left when you hit the last beach, you’ll find yourself selecting just the perfect marine iguana to take a picture of. If you land with a dozen rolls, you’ll leave the decision of what’s the best picture to later—you’ll shoot all the marine iguanas with all your lenses and all the possible backgrounds. You’ll shoot shots of single iguanas, groups of iguanas, iguanas sunbathing versus iguanas eating, and so on. What I’m trying to point out is that there is no limit to photo opportunities on the islands. I can’t think of a landing or panga ride where I didn’t shoot every roll I brought with me. And since many of the animals are somewhat unpredictable—you never know when that iguana is going to snort or head bob next—you’ll be tempted to fire off one shot after another. “Gee, was that head bob better than the last one? I’d better take a picture just in case.”

On the last tour of Galapagos I made, after the first couple of days all 12 of us were saying the same thing: “I’m going to have to start rationing my film if I’m going to have any left for the last few days.” This despite the fact that we’d barely spent four hours ashore at that point.

Part of the problem is that you’ve probably never been in a place where nature and animals are so easy to photograph, and so photogenic, to boot. Good pictures are everywhere, and you’ll probably overindulge at the beginning of your trip. As the trip progresses, you’ll get better at conserving your film for the really great pictures.Here’s my recommendation for the minimum amount of film to bring:

Thus, 40 rolls of film for a two-week trip is a comfortable amount; 50 will give you some extra breathing room (I shot 70 on my last two-week trip). There are times, albeit rare, when you’ll want to shoot your film as if you’re manning a machine gun. Mating lizards or birds, for instance, really require you to set your motor drive on its fastest speed and hold down the shutter release. If you’re lucky, you’ll get that perfect shot. But your chances of getting it are less if you’re using 12 or 24 exposure rolls. And everything is happening so fast you won’t want to be worrying about how much film you’ve got left.

So make all your film 36 exposure rolls. The reason: you don’t want to be constantly changing film when you’re shooting—the picture you’re trying to get might go away by the time you do. I also try to make sure that I hit every new landing sight with a full roll of film in the camera—you don’t want to be distracted with having to load film or change rolls when you’re still trying to get the lay of the land and listening to the guide tell you what you’re seeing. And many of the better picture opportunities are going to occur when you first hit land—after 12 photographers stick their lenses in an animal's face, even the low-key Galapagos natives will wander away to someplace more private. At the same time, etiquette requires that you don’t elbow your way to the front of the pack, camera firing away. The others on your trip should have an equal opportunity to see and photograph the animals. If you’re smart, you’ll work out an arrangement with the others in your group that allows one or two of you to get into the best viewing/shooting position at a time. After you’ve gotten your shots, quietly move away so that someone else has a chance. If you run out of film, move aside. If your group is really good at this, everyone will get the shot and the animals will be far less likely to bolt. Even the relatively implacable boobies will scatter if a dozen people run up firing off cameras and flash simultaneously.

Your tour guides, if they’re doing their job, won’t let things get this bad, but in my experience they’ll often tolerate situations where one or two people hog the show or slightly intimidate the animals. You’re going to be living in close quarters with your tourmates, so it’s best not to jump in and start arguments, especially during valuable land time. Move on and find something else to shoot. Then, when you’re on the boat sipping beer before dinner, bring up the subject politely, but firmly. “You know, I wanted to get a shot of that rare vermillion-footed boobie, but you set yourself up in the crevice so no one else could see or get through. I would have appreciated it if you’d taken a few shots, then moved away so that others could get a chance.” If the civilized approach doesn’t work, try mentioning the problem to your tour leader. They’re used to dealing with overzealous tourists and will usually try to help. And, god forbid, if someone comes up to you and tells you that you’re always getting in the way and hogging the show, calm down, move aside, and let others have a chance. I’ve never been in a situation in the Galapagos where looking another direction or moving a few feet further didn’t reveal something else to take a picture of. Indeed, while several of us were photographing a mating pair of tortoises, another photographer concentrated on what was going on behind the couple. He got pictures of males fighting for the right to be next. I didn’t get that shot.

But let’s get back to film choices. Shorter 24-exposure rolls are all right for specialty films—like high ISO films, infrared, or other novelty film you want to try out—but you’ll appreciate those extra 12 exposures when you’re in the midst of a heated shooting session. Autoloading cameras are a help, too. But make sure that you know how to get your camera to grab the film on the first try before you get to the islands. Every autoload camera I’ve tried has a different tolerance to how much leader needs to be pulled across; make sure you know those tolerances well before your trip and you’ll spend less time staring at the innards of your camera and more time looking through the lens. You’ll also find that you aren’t always on flat terrain when you need to reload—I’ve had to reload with one hand a few times while I used the other hand to brace me in a crevice.Let’s make sure you got the message: bring lots of film in 36-exposure rolls. If you take shorter exposure rolls, bring more film!

Now you have to get your horde of film to the Galapagos.

Forget lead-lined bags packed in your suitcase. The latest baggage surveillance equipment is quite powerful, and when the checker sees a solid black blob—your lead-lined film bag looks that way in x-rays—he or she is likely to crank up the power to see if they can see through the lead. Bye bye boobie shots.

Instead, go to your local REI or camping equipment supplier and buy a mesh (see-through) stuff sack large enough to hold all your film. Just before your trip, take all your film out of the box and plastic containers they come in and dump the rolls into your stuff sack. What you end up with is a bag full of film cartridges, but the special thing is that because the bag is mesh, anyone can see that it's full of film just by holding it up. Also, when you’re traveling make sure that none of your cameras have any film in them (waste the last few pictures, if necessary). Therefore, at each security checkpoint in your trip that has an x-ray machine (a few in South America still use hand-checks), take out your stuff sack of film and hand it to the security guard while putting your camera equipment through the machine. Ask politely that they hand check the film. In the United States every security guard should do this without question. Even in Ecuador the security personnel were obviously used to the request and complied every time I asked. It wouldn’t hurt to learn the words “can you please hand inspect my film” in Spanish (“Puedo darme mi rollo controlar, por favor?” [okay, my Spanish is a bit pidgin, but it seems to work]). Ecuadorians are generally impressed and pleased when Americans make the effort to speak to them in their native language, even if you do slaughter a few words here and there.

I’ve never been denied a hand check of my film in Ecuador using this method. In fact, I’ve never had any try to open the stuff sack and look at the cartridges individually. It’s clear to security that I have a lot of film, that I’ve made it as easy as possible for them to check it all, and that I’m asking politely. If you also keep film in your camera and ask for the camera to be hand-checked too, you complicate things for the guard. They’ll usually comply, but things won’t be as simple as the method I’ve outlined, so you’re likely to encounter a guard that balks once in awhile. Hand too many things to the security person to check and they’ll make you wish you hadn’t. One bag of film is easy for them to deal with. A bag and a couple of cameras is work.Recently, the delay scam has made its way to South America, so partner up with another person on your trip. The delay scam works like this:

  1. Someone puts a piece of metal in your pocket, enough to set off the detector.
  2. You put your camera bag on the X-ray machine conveyer belt.
  3. You hand your film to the security guard and walk through the detector. It beeps.
  4. The security guard now stops you and you're distracted.
  5. Someone grabs your camera bag from the other end of the X-ray machine and disappears.
  6. By the time you figure out why you're not getting through the detector, your camera and other goods are long gone.
I'd seen this scam pulled with laptops in the busy US airports (usually by accomplice #1 trying to walk through the detector with you, setting it off; accomplice #2 has already gone through), though not since the TSA changes after 9/11. The nature of the South American airports (the detectors are usually quite near the gates, and the gates lead to the tarmac and have alarms on them) makes it difficult to pull off. Nevertheless, they've figured it out. Your camera bag disappears into a duffel or is otherwise concealed, and eventually makes its way out of the gate area. The only way to defeat the delay scam is to travel in pairs, and make sure that one person is safely through the detector and waiting at the other end before putting your (and their) bags on the X-ray conveyer.

If for some reason your request for a hand check of film is denied, one pass through the typical x-ray machine in both American and Ecuadorian airports is not going to significantly affect any film of 400 ISO or under. But it’s clear to me that the Ecuadorian security folk have seen a lot of professional and amateur photographers pass through their gates, and are quite used to the request to handcheck film. I suppose if you had a giant sack of 500 rolls they might take the time to make sure that you’re not smuggling something unusual into the country (they may even attempt to make sure that you don’t resell the film in their country by making you officially declare it), but for 20-50 rolls, you’re not going to raise their eyebrows, especially if you tell them you’re going to or coming from the Galapagos.

Besides keeping your film safe from extraneous x-rays, this method also keeps your film with you at all times. Since you’re not allowed to take anything from the Galapagos Islands other than photographs, you wouldn’t want an airline to lose your precious shots when they accidentally route your baggage to Borneo, would you? Considering that 50 rolls of film can cost as much as $500, even just the monetary loss would be difficult to absorb (baggage claims for international flights are paid by the pound, and poorly at that!). Okay, you know how much film and how to get into and out of the country, but I haven’t told you what film to get. I’m not going to get into a Kodak versus Fuji versus Agfa argument here—everyone has their own personal preferences as regards color fidelity, grain, and so on. My personal favorites are Ektachrome 100VS and Provia F 100. I’m sure you’ve got your own preferences. But much of what you’ve heard or assumed about speed of the film you’ll want to bring to the islands is probably wrong.

Let’s start with what you’re probably thinking: the islands are on the equator, it’s hot and sunny there, I’d better bring ISO 50 or 64 film, maybe even some ISO 25 stuff for really fine grain in the bright sun.

Sorry, but it isn’t that easy. First, while the islands are on the equator and it does often feel quite hot, the actual temperatures aren’t all that high, and sun is not guaranteed any time of year. Yes, the islands are relatively dry and it doesn’t rain that much, but overcast skies are not unusual, especially in the wet/warm season. Early morning fog or late afternoon clouds are also not unusual.

But that’s not all. Many of the animals you’re going to be photographing are dark colored. Worse still, many of them will often be found in the shade. Imagine what kind of exposure you’re going to get for a dark gray tortoise sitting in the shade of a lush, heavily leafed tree? As a matter of fact, exposure setting is a real trick in the Galapagos, as you'll soon see (black iguanas sitting on black lava rocks on a sunny day is a really tricky one, for example). Next, consider that some of things you want to shoot will be moving quickly—flying birds, running lizards, frolicking sea lions, etc. You’ll need fast shutter speeds to capture these folk in action. If all you take is ISO 50/64 film, you’re setting yourself up for problems.That’s not to say you shouldn’t take a good supply of slow, fine-grained film. There are many things you can photograph well with a film like Fuji Velvia. Island scenics are best done with slow film, for example. Sea lions lounging, shots of your boat or panga, scenes in the sun of your fellow tour members, and many of the birds can be comfortably shot using slow film, even on slightly overcast days. Indeed, just about anything you can shoot with a wide-angle or normal lens will work fine with slow ISO film.

It’s those close ups, fast-moving and hiding animals that are the problem (I ran out of breath trying to chase a snake across the lava fields). Consider too that your telephoto lens is likely to be two or three f-stops slower than your normal and wide-angle lenses, and you’ll see that ISO 100 and 200 film is probably more the norm for your shooting on the islands. This especially applies to taking pictures of the tortoises in the highlands, turtles, geckos, flying birds, birds in trees, and birds in the crevices along the ocean (penguins and herons, for example). And shooting from the boat or the panga you’ll want the highest shutter speeds you can achieve, which means faster film.

Thus, if you take a telephoto lens or plan on shooting any of the shyer animals, take a ready supply of slightly faster film. High ISOs—400 or more—really aren’t necessary unless you want to take flash pictures at night on the boat or spend overnight on one of the islands (not allowed anymore except in the established cities). Land visits are not allowed by the park earlier than 6 am or later than 6 pm without special permission. So you won’t find yourself shooting animals under dawn, dusk, or night conditions (most of the animals aren’t active then, anyway). Even if you get permission to hike Alcedo or similar volcano and spend the night, you’ll find that most of the animals are late risers and early sleepers. You might get some dawn and dusk shots of the landscape, but any animal is likely to be in bed (aside from a few birds). If you bring an underwater camera, you probably will want some ISO 400 film. The waters in Galapagos are relatively cold and clear, but the underwater terrain is mostly black (lava) or in shadow (mangrove swamps). Even taking pictures snorkeling you’ll find a significant drop in exposure compared to above ground. In most cases I found a two to three f-stop difference; much more than you’d find in the relatively bright waters of the Caribbean or corral reefs, for example. It doesn’t help that many of the things you’ll want to take pictures of underwater—sea lions and turtles, for example—are dark colored and absorb what light there is. If you’ve got a flash for your underwater camera, that’ll help some, but flash is rapidly absorbed by water and not as effective as it is on land. Moreover, if it’s an external flash to a camera like a Nikonos, you might find it cumbersome to deal with while snorkeling—things move fast in the Galapagos waters; penguins zip by at what seem to be unbelievable speeds. Dragging your external flash around will slow you down.Here’s what I’d take on my next two-week trip to the Galapagos:

If I were to play it safe, I would skip the Velvia and replace it with more Provia. Fortunately, you’ll pretty much know what you’re going to be shooting before you go ashore, so its rare that you’ll end up loading your camera with the wrong type film. Of course, if you’re out of the film you really need, you’ll have to make do. On my last trip I took too many rolls of Velvia and ending up with nothing but that left on the last four days of the trip. Luckily, I didn’t really need faster film and was able to squeak by, but I wouldn’t count on such luck again. (Note: Velvia produces wonderfully rich blacks, but is a real pain to get the right exposures in this environment.)

You’ll notice that I choose to shoot all slide film. If you’re an amateur and haven’t mastered the art of exposure, I’d suggest that you use negative film instead. Indeed, if you’re the type that relies on the autoexposure settings of your camera and never overrides it, I’d avoid slides. Negative film has the distinct advantage of having a much greater exposure latitude. And you’ll need that latitude if you just point and shoot. Your subjects will range from black on black (Aquinas on lava) to white on white (boobies on a beach). Exposure bracketing is recommended with slide film. Negative films have enough latitude that you won’t have to bracket except in extreme situations.

The main reason to use slide film is that it is a better choice if you think that you’re ever going to sell or commercially market your work. Most magazines and printers are set up to handle transparencies, and anything else requires them to do additional work to get the color balance right. Most image banks and stock photo agencies standardize on slides, as well, as they’re easier to duplicate, and sending an evaluation slide is easier than sending a negative.The real choice of slides or negatives should be dictated by what you intend to do with your photos once you get home. If what you want are pictures you can hand to friends at parties and say “see, this is me with a blue-footed boobie,” then print film is the better choice. If you’re the type who likes to put together slide shows or wants to sell your work, slides are probably the better choice. Nothing’s stopping you from bringing some of both, of course, although I generally don’t recommend it. Murphy’s law predicts that you’ll have print film in the camera when you come across the perfect cover for National Geographic, and slide film when you want to take next year’s Christmas card photo. Stick with one and suffer the consequences, whatever they may be. Heaven knows you’ll be facing enough choices trying to figure out which lens, which camera, and which film to take on each island visit. Don’t make life tougher than it need be. You can always sell a great picture, no matter what film it was taken with, and you can always get prints of a slide, albeit at a slightly higher cost.

[Back to Galapagos]