Lenses

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You’re going to be standing right next to those fearless Galapagos animals, so you won’t need any special lenses, right?

Wrong.

In the Galapagos you’ll find animals to photograph that range from finger-sized (finches and lava lizards) to boat-sized (whales). Some will be sitting dead square in the middle of the path you’re walking and won’t budge even when you trip over them, while others will see you a hundred yards away and start running. If you bring one normal lens you’ll immediately limit what you can take pictures of.

Well how about a mid-range zoom with a modest range, say 24-120mm?

No. I think that’s probably the wrong approach. After examining all the shots I’ve taken of animals, both in the Galapagos and elsewhere, I’ve come to an interesting conclusion: it’s rare that I like any shot I’ve taken with anything in the middle range of focal lengths. I don’t think it’s that I’m jaded about shots taken with normal lenses at normal distances, either. It’s more the fact that there are really only two things you’re trying to get when you take wildlife shots: environment or detail.

One of my favorite shots taken in the Galapagos by another photographer shows a blue-footed boobie nesting on the edge of a cliff. It was taken with a 24mm lens from a photographer-to-boobie distance of maybe one foot. The thing I like about that picture is that it shows me not only the bird, but something about its environs, and from that we can conclude a few things about what the bird’s life might be like (near the sea, so it probably feeds there; on a cliff, perhaps because it needs wind to take off; and so on).

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Taking good animal photos is like taking a good portrait—you learn things about the subject not just from the look on their face, but their clothing and the place in which they’re posing. Taking a picture of Liberace, for example, didn’t work without a candelabra somewhere in the frame; that silly prop was part of who he was. Okay, that cultural reference needs some updating. Think Lady Gaga. Without a prop of some sort, she's just another female singer. 

One of the reasons you’re traveling to the Galapagos is that it is one of the very few places in the world where many of the animals don’t mind your traipsing around in their home. Some, like the boobies, almost seem as if they want to show off their humble little nests (usually no more than a rock or a piece of otherwise unclaimed dirt with a few sticks). Obviously I think that you should try to capture some of that with your camera, and to do so you’re going to need to get closer with a wide angle lens.

A 28mm focal length (FX, or full frame equivalent; all of the focal lengths I mention here will be specified as FX or full frame equivalent) will work for some of the animals and is a good lens for reversing the view: how about a picture of all those photographers circling the poor creature? That, after all, is part of what the Galapagos is all about. Personally, however, I don’t think the 28mm length is quite dramatic enough. While you might get the shots you want, you’ll have a harder time lining up animal with environment with a feeling of depth than the person who brings a 24mm lens. On a recent trip I took the 14-24mm zoom and a 24mm. The 14-24mm lens can create some impressive (and quite different!) views of the Galapagos world. The zooming ability of the wide zoom gave me the flexibility to try alternate angles and areas of view. Several manufacturers now make similar lenses, and I heartily recommend you investigate them. My wide angle zoom fast became my favorite lens. Also, remember that you’re on a cramped boat a lot of the time, and a wide angle comes in handy there, too.

Of course, a wide angle lens isn’t the lens of choice for taking pictures of some of the island natives. I challenge anyone to get a real good shot of a Darwin finch with an 24mm lens—It’ll certainly take more patience and skill than I’m capable of, if it is possible at all. These little birds flit from branch to branch, and rarely sit still long enough to even focus on, let alone get close with a wide angle lens.

So, while I strongly suggest you bring a very wide angle lens or two with you, it’s time to talk about the other end of the spectrum: getting close and isolating detail.

One thing I’d heard from other photographers (who I used to trust) before I went to the Galapagos was that a long telephoto would probably be too cumbersome and not very useful. The usual suggestion is that a 70-200mm zoom will work just fine to get detailed shots of the animals. Hah! Not for me, it won’t. I don’t even bring my short zoom to the Galapagos anymore. Instead, I usually carry at least an 80-400mm zoom, and if I’m using a crop sensor camera, I’m really shooting at 600mm equivalent! 

It’s not a matter of not being able to get close to the animals. Instead, it’s a matter of getting close to the animals when they’re doing something you want to capture. If all you want are pictures of iguanas sitting on rocks, or tortoises sitting under trees, a 70-200mm will probably get you by just fine, though the 6’ (2m) park rule will make that problematic for some of the smaller animals (mostly birds). But here’s one for you: you’re walking down the trail and see two iguanas mating. Do you think you can get close enough before the action has finished? Not likely. The female equine doesn’t exactly like the fact that a much larger lizard is jumping on top of her, biting her neck to try to hold her in place, and wrapping his powerful tail around her hind end. I can’t say that I’d like that, either. So the usual scenario goes like this:

  1. You spot the mating iguanas from a couple hundred feet and remember that you’ve got your 200mm lens on your camera.
  2. You rush up the trail to get close enough to capture the action (or alternatively, try to take the picture from where you are, which with a 200mm lens is guaranteed to produce two little blurry brown spots in the middle of a field as the result).
  3. The female manages to get free of the male, and dashes off into the bushes.
  4. You arrive within shooting distance.

In other words, the shots you’re likely to get without a serious telephoto lens are all going to be of one ilk: animals sitting and soaking up the rays. It’s as if the only photo you can take on your vacation is of you and your traveling companion sitting on the beach. It might make a decent picture, but it isn’t worth shooting 40 rolls of film or filling gigabytes worth of cards on. Moreover, it's cliche and everyone has that shot.

I find the 70-300mm to be a reasonable compromise as a workhorse long zoom. But I find that I’m usually taking most of my shots at the 300mm end when I carry that. Nikon's 80-400mm VR lens is a better choice (the 200-500mm is a little heavy to carry around on hikes). Having said that, you’re probably wondering why I don’t suggest a 70-200mm with a doubler (2x converter). The doubler is easy to carry and provides that extra reach when you need it. Unfortunately, you either need to always run around with the doubler on or you’re going to need to be able to stick it on in a few seconds or less when you need it.

Another strategy is to bring the 70-200mm and supplement it with a 400 or 500mm lens. If you’re adept at changing lenses quickly and don’t mind carrying the extra weight, this works okay. These days, though, I just bring the 80-400mm VR (the 70-300mm VR is also a good choice for DX shooters).

Whatever telephoto lens strategy you pick, make sure that your telephoto focuses close (certainly less than 10’, preferably even closer). If you’re using an autofocus camera, telephoto lenses with focus range limiters are extremely useful in photographing flying birds, as you’ll be able to keep the lenses from having to go through its full focus extension when shooting fast action. Your telephoto lens should also be hand-holdable. As I note elsewhere, you’re not always going to be shooting with a tripod with you, so those 300mm f2.8 lenses that you see at virtually every sporting event are pretty much out of the question. Besides, who’d want to risk water landings with such an expensive lens?

What about fast lenses in other ranges? Well, I won’t discourage you from bringing such a lens, but large apertures are down on the list of usefulness in the Galapagos. In fact, here’s how I would rank the various factors for lenses you might want to bring:

  1. Close focusing ability
  2. Widest range of focal length (for zooms)
  3. Ruggedness
  4. Hand-holdability
  5. Fast aperture
  6. Constant aperture (for zooms)

I know, you’re saying “Jeez, Thom, you’ve got me buying expensive wide angle and telephoto zooms. I can’t afford that.”

Okay, for those of you who use fixed focal length lenses or are on a budget, there are alternatives. And you can always rent expensive lenses, by the way.

The fixed focal lengths (FX equivalents here) I’d absolutely have to bring with me would be 20mm (or 24mm) and 105mm (or something in the 135-180mm range), plus I’d strongly suggest adding something longer (like a 300mm or 400mm, even if it's a slower aperture lens, like the 300mm f/4E PF). If I had my full choice of fixed focal length lenses to bring, I’d pick a 20mm, 24mm, 105mm macro, 180mm, and 400mm. I’ve explained the wide angle and telephoto rationale; the macro would give me a chance to shoot some of the things that often get ignored by Galapagos visitors: plants, insects, small crabs, and perhaps even the geckos and lava lizards if you're lucky.

For the all-in-one approach, a superzoom (e.g. 24-200mm, 28-300mm) is probably the best choice. But note that most of those superzooms lose focal length when focused at anything less than infinity, so you're probably going to be feeling focal length challenged. A 35-135mm is too little at both ends, in my opinion. The 24-120 zoom is tempting because it gets you more into the wide extreme with decent quality at a reasonable price, and the VR is nice. But you'd absolutely need to supplement it with more telephoto options. 

Again, I need to state that I’m a bit at odds with the usual recommendations of other photographers here. A lot of tourists arrive in the Galapagos with nothing more than a 50mm and a 70-200 zoom, because they’re led to believe that’s all they’ll need. (Actually, that’s another reason to avoid these focal lengths: you’ll get the same shots everyone else does.) 

Most of these people are perfectly happy with the photos they get. I’m assuming, however, that you’re reading this because you’re serious about getting the very best results you can from your Galapagos photo expedition. Thus, I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning: you need a decent wide angle lens to help you shoot animals and their environment simultaneously, you need a reasonably long telephoto to bring you closer when the trail doesn’t take you close enough or the action is taking place too far from you for a modest length lens to capture.

Now I’ll add to that recommendation another that’s a bit in contradiction to what I’ve written so far: minimize the number of lenses you bring. Zooms are a big help here. You just don’t want to be wandering around the islands carrying a dozen lenses. First, you’ll spend too much time changing lenses and not enough clicking the shutter. Second, the weight and logistics will eventually wear you down. And the day you leave a lens behind on the boat will be the day you need it. Third, when shooting from the panga, you won't have room for extra lenses. Fourth, there's a real possibility that your equipment will take a salt water bath; if you've got your entire arsenal with you, I trust that you have a small fortune stashed away in the bank to replace it. Finally, minimize the number of lenses you bring and you’ll always take them ashore with you.

I think my choices are good ones. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve missed any pictures I wanted to take, even when I only brought the wide angle and the telephoto zooms with me.

Update: on my next trip I’ll be shooting with full frame Nikon Z’s. My lens set at the moment will be mostly 14-30mm f/4, 70-300mm AF-P (or 100-400mm if it's out), and maybe a 500mm PF. If I need something between 30-70mm, I’m likely to also be carrying a Nikon Z50 with the pancake 16-50mm zoom in a vest pocket.

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