GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS — These islands are among the world’s great treasures. With an abundance of wildlife, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, wild and scenic landscapes, and friendly people they present tremendous opportunities for photographers of all abilities to bring home wonderful images.
The islands were named a national park in 1958 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. In pursuit of its mission to protect the wildlife and environment, Ecuador’s National Park Service restricts the areas that can be visited on each island, designating defined trails and requiring that a naturalist guide accompany visitors.
Because of the geographic dispersion of the islands, the best way to do a photographic tour is to join a ship-based expedition. They range from 5 to 15 days and are offered by many organizations.
The Galápagos are located in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador and sit astride the equator. The sun rises and falls quickly and as a result great lighting conditions in the morning and evening don’t last long. Sunrise and sunset occur at approximately 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Ninety minutes after sunrise and more than 90 minutes before sunset light conditions deteriorate. It’s important to ask tour operators you’re considering when they will land on islands each morning and when they will depart (park regulations prohibit visitors on the islands before sunrise and after sunset).
Overcast skies are infrequent but when they occur, they provide perfect soft light conditions for taking pictures of wildlife.
The period from December to February is a fine time to visit the islands. The seas are calmer and because it’s their rainy season (without much rain), overcast conditions are more frequent.
ACCESS TO WILDLIFE
In many places in the world wildlife photography means long lenses, tripods, and long waits for wildlife to appear. That is not the case in the Galápagos (named for the tortoises on some of the islands whose shells resemble an old Spanish saddle, a galápago), where a visitor will often have to move out of the path of an animal to allow it to pass. Here, hand-held cameras are the norm, and a good-quality tele-zoom coupled with a wide-angle lens are all you need to obtain great images. I used a Nikon D700 full frame DSLR.
Park regulations require that visitors stay 6 feet from the animals. Sometimes complying takes an effort. Young sea lions are very curious and will waddle right up to you and start bleating.
Blue-footed and red-footed boobies with their brightly colored feet, male frigate birds with their outsized red pouches, and swallow-tailed gulls all make exciting shots. The most interesting photos are those where the birds are interacting with each other. Try to find a pair of the gulls, focusing your lens on them until you get the right moment.
Many of the birds, particularly the masked boobies, have bright white plumage, which makes it mandatory to check your highlights or your histogram to ensure you have the proper exposure. In an area with high numbers of these birds, I set my EV compensation down one stop so that I don’t blow out the highlights of some interesting bird interactions.
There are two primary types of iguanas here, land and marine. You will see the golden-colored land iguanas mostly inland and probably alone. They have spectacular color and markings. For the best images shoot from a low level in the golden light periods or with overcast light. You may also see the iguanas traveling down a trail, which would be a great opportunity to get movement into your image.
The color of marine iguanas varies by season and island. Unlike land iguanas, marine iguanas will frequently be in large groups and because these are the world’s only seagoing iguanas, you will find them mostly by the seashore.
Try to place them in the foreground of a wide-angle shot that shows them in their environment. Get a low-angled head shot and capture their prehistoric look. Find a group of them on an outcropping and isolate them from the background with a small lens opening. The possibilities for being creative with images of these reptiles are endless.
Reaching 500 pounds and 5 feet in length, the Galápagos tortoises are the largest species of tortoises on the planet. The species are different from island to island. Hunting, habitat clearance for agriculture, and the introduction of nonnative animals caused tortoise numbers to decline from 250,000 in the 16th century to around 3,000 in the 1970s. Conservation efforts have raised that number to 19,000 tortoises today.
Most of the areas where tortoises live in the wild are off-limits to visitors. The tortoises you see are likely to be at ecotourism farms or the Charles Darwin Research Station on Isabella Island. The farm tortoises are kept within large forested areas that visitors are allowed to enter. They are slow-moving and getting good images is not difficult. Their shells are highly reflective so the best images are those taken in total shade or overcast conditions. Photographing them while they are eating can yield terrific results.
The adults are active and expressive and the pups are incredibly cute. While you will see them on virtually every seashore on the islands, the best place to photograph them is in Gardner Bay on Espanola Island late in the day. The day I was there we counted 339 sea lions on a pristine white sand beach. I photographed pups with mothers, braying males, adults snapping at each other while jockeying to get the best positions, and wide-angle shots with animals in the foreground.