Shooting the Boobies
Photography in the Galapagos

Galapagos Hawk

I figured out where he was going to go by looking for the dung, and set up my tripod in wait. Sure enough, he flew from perch to perch, eventually ending up right where I thought he might. N90s, 70-300mm lens at 300mm, Fuji Sensia.


Let me state right off that while you should bring a tripod to the Galapagos, you won't always be able to use it. There are a number of reasons for this, but the real problem is that your land time is generally only a small fraction of the day—using a tripod on a boat doesn't always work, and you don't want to be grappling with your tripod if your tour group is moving on.

The animals don’t make using a tripod easy, either. While some, like the blue-footed boobies and the marine iguanas, will seemingly sit forever in one position with little concern about what you’re up to, others aren’t likely to stay put for long. Some, like the lava lizards, snakes, and finches, may have moved even before you can raise your camera to your eyes.

Moreover, the terrain often gets in your way. On the rocky shores of most islands—where the marine iguanas, sea lions, and many birds are found—you’ll find yourself spending extra time trying to position and level a tripod. Heck, in some spots, you’ll have a tough time trying to figure out where to put your feet, let alone three tripod legs. Thus, make sure your tripod is one that you can set up very quickly in uneven terrain (a built-in level on the head helps immensely). Also make sure that your tripod has tips that convert from gripping (rubber) to spiking (metal points) quickly.

Finally, there’s the issue of carrying the tripod. Getting in and out of the panga with equipment is tough enough as it is without another thing to carry. If, as I suggest elsewhere, you’re carrying a camera body, three lenses, water, film/cards, and other support items, you’ll find the weight and bulk of a tripod to be a nuisance.

If you do elect to carry a tripod, consider these things:

Okay, so you're not always going to be using a tripod, how about a monopod? Actually, monopods are an excellent compromise in Galapagos. There will be times when your shutter speed is slower than you can comfortably handhold. After all, you will sometimes be shooting dark animals in dark places (tortoises under trees, marine iguanas in the cracks of black rocks, and so on). A monopod can be set up quickly and provide adequate support for most shutter speeds down to 1/8th of second, assuming of course that you don’t have the jitters and aren’t shooting in 50 mph winds.

The same precautions apply with monopods as with tripods: water-resistant components are best, rubber tips and metal spikes are both useful, and the head should be adjustable for fast action.

Your biggest problem with monopods will be carrying them. If you strap them to the back of your day pack they’re prone to catch on tree branches and rocks on some of the trails. Worse still, despite my care, mine would occasionally poke another tour member. Mount the monopod (or tripod) vertically on your daypack to avoid the biggest scrapes, and watch carefully when you’re in tight or narrow quarters. I saw one member of another tour leave his monopod permanently attached (and extended!) on his camera—he simply carried his camera upside down, leaving the monopod to poke into the sky like an oversized radio antennae. Needless to say, this looked cumbersome, and the frown on his face showed he wasn’t enjoying himself.

A better solution would have been to get a monopod with a quick-release head. Thus, the camera remains permanently attached to the mounting bracket, but the monopod pole can be removed and mounted on your pack or used as a walking stick (quite useful at times!). The better quick-release units take less than a second to reattach, making it more likely you’ll get the shot with the support you desire.

You can get by without any camera support. For low-lying shots lay prone on the ground and use your elbows and the camera body as the three points of a tripod—i.e., rest each on nonmoving surface and you have get a tripod-like steadying effect. You won’t want to set your camera directly on the surface of most of the islands, by the way, so carry a small towel, beanbag, or remove your T-shirt temporarily to keep the camera body from contacting the lava flows directly. I’ve found this technique quite effective for shooting marine iguanas and some of the ground-sitting birds.

If you’re standing up, you’ll have to try using trees and rocks to help steady you. Instead of bracing the camera against the object being used, I tend to back up into the tree or rock and brace myself against it with my two legs spread in front of me. This allows me to rotate to follow action while still giving me added support (my legs and the object again form a crude tripod, with my upper body and arms becoming the fluid head). I’ll often use this stance when photographing birds flying overhead.

Fortunately, the islands are loaded with things to brace yourself and your camera against. Just remember that many of the rocks and lava formations near the water are covered with sea spray, so you’ll want to be careful about setting your camera directly on them (and lava scrapes the heck out of plastic camera bodies). Likewise, some of the trees, like the Sancto Paulo, have sap that you’ll want to keep off you and your equipment. Sure, the Sancto Paulo doesn’t smell bad, but it’s still sticky and gummy, and, if left on your camera body, will eventually attract dust and grit that are even more of a threat to your equipment.

Finally, a word about shooting from a panga.

At some of the visitor “sites” you’ll be taken on panga rides around interesting rock outcroppings or through mangrove swamps. You won’t be getting out of the panga, at least not intentionally! You’ll still want to take your camera (the spare, remember?), because some of the things you’ll see will be quite unique and photogenic. Getting shots from a panga carrying 12 passengers and two guides can be a bit problematic, however. From the sitting position most of your field of vision will consist of other humans, not the animals you want to shoot.

You’ll be tempted to stand up. That’s okay if you follow a few basic rules:

Fortunately, most tour guides and pangamen are used to the camera-carrying tourist who wants that “great” shot. All will help you if you ask, and many will even keep the panga coming back to one spot so that everyone who wants to can get the shot. Your tour leaders will also tell you when you’re going too far and suggest that you cool it, but don’t let it come to that. If there’s a shot you want to try to get, let the guide know and ask him or her if they can help you get it. Maybe they can line the panga up so that you don’t have to stand, or sometimes they’ll help steady you or hold your equipment while you get situated.  

Before closing out this section, I’d be remiss if I forgot to remind of the alternatives to using camera supports: