Capturing A Dream: The Galapagos Islands

Photography tips for capturing wildlife on the Galapagos Islands. Contributed by Kevin Loughlin of Wildside Nature Tours.

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos © Kevin-Loughlin.

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos © Kevin-Loughlin.

Anticipation and wonder were in the air as we jumped into the Pacific Ocean, six-hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador. We landed with a splash of excitement in the knee-deep surf and scrambled ashore onto the tiny island of Mosquera, in the heart of the Galapagos Island archipelago.

The island of Espanola, the Galapagos Archepelago

The island of Espanola, just one island in the Galapagos Archepelago

Mosquera is an unassuming spit of land between Baltra and North Seymour, two larger islands. Passing by in a boat, you may not give this sand and rock formation a second glance. However, the mystery is in the details, and against earlier instructions to huddle together as a group upon landing, every participant was pulled in a different direction, each discovering his or her own perspective.

Red-billed Tropicbirds are fun to capture in flight as they swirl over the island of Española in the Galapagos.

Red-billed Tropicbirds are fun to capture in flight as they swirl over the island of Española in the Galapagos © Kevin Loughlin.

This happens every time. I expect it and actually enjoy witnessing this wonderful sense of discovery! The snapshot effect has taken over. I let them get it out of their systems for a while and take a look around to see what else I can find for them to photograph. A well-camouflaged Lava Heron has been passed by, so I point it out to a fellow traveler, reminding her to incorporate the wonderful shadows on the rocks into her composition. Sea lions attracted others. I offer a quick reminder not to approach too closely, and suggest getting down low, to their eye level, for more intimate shots. Swallow-tailed Gulls and Red-billed Tropicbirds offer birds-in-flight images against the late afternoon sky. Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Lava Lizards, and Yellow Warblers make heads spin as they dart about on the sand and rocks.

Spotted Eagle Ray © Kevin Loughlin

Spotted Eagle Ray © Kevin Loughlin

A dream destination, the Galapagos Islands are a once-in-a-lifetime trip for most people. I first learned about the Galapagos as an eight-year-old watching a nature special on television. Twenty-five years later, after building a very tall pedestal on which to place my dream, I was finally able to visit the islands in person. I quickly realized that the pedestal was not high enough!

Galapagos Penguins © Kevin Loughlin

Galapagos Penguins © Kevin Loughlin

My initial experience was overwhelming. I returned home and waited the requisite few days for my slide film to be processed so that I could relive my trip. Though not completely disappointed with my images, I knew I could have done better. With limited time, and so much to see, what should a photographer do to get the best possible images in a destination to which they may never return?

One of Darwin's famous finches, the Large Cactus Finch. Galapagos © Kevin Loughlin

One of Darwin’s famous finches, the Large Cactus Finch. Galapagos © Kevin Loughlin

I am blessed to have returned to the Galapagos Islands more than twenty times as a tour leader. I have traveled on seven different yachts and stepped foot on every island currently open to travelers. On each visit, I have become more selective with my subjects and compositions, while remaining open to new sights, behaviors, and conditions that offer unique challenges and opportunities.

This curious Galapagos Penguin swam among my guests, allowing for a great close up shot. © Kevin Loughlin

This curious Galapagos Penguin swam among my guests, allowing for a great close up shot. © Kevin Loughlin

My first handful of trips were pre-digital — I was using Kodachrome 64 and Ektachrome E100SW slide film. In 2006, I purchased my first DSLR and the game changed, as it did for all of us! On my first trip with a digital camera, I began by re-shooting my favorite compositions created with film. Not a bad way to start, but it was time to get more creative, as I was much more familiar with the islands and wildlife. However, I was still in the ‘film’ mode of thinking, and it took a while to break free of my reservations and get more imaginative. The advantages of digital — instant review and no added cost to shoot more images — would help me recompose my images and grow as a photographer.

Preening Waved Albatross. © Kevin Loughlin

Preening Waved Albatross. © Kevin Loughlin

Now, I see the opposite with many photographers who join my Galapagos tours. As described earlier, the first landing filled with wildlife and wonder becomes an invitation to be overwhelmed, and many revert to taking many snapshots of everything! Yes, they are having fun and we let them get their fill, knowing they will see these same species again during the trip.

Trying to reign them in, I remind them to watch the background — which changes from sand, to black lava rock, to dark ocean, to white cloud-filled sky — as they explore their surroundings on this small beach. After a few inquiries about composition and exposure settings, they are able to focus on specific images that tell a story, within the bigger, and more overwhelming, picture.

So how do we prepare to photograph such a fabulous new location? Try these steps to get you ready for your next once-in-a-lifetime adventure:

Study other photographer’s images

Looking through the eyes of other photographers will help you envision the common wildlife and popular landscapes you may encounter. Study their compositions and conceptualize how you would have composed that image to make it more engaging. Seeing these possibilities form in your mind will certainly give you a head start.

Practice with your cameras and lenses

Most photographers automatically grab the big lens when capturing wildlife, while landscape photographers routinely reach for a wide-angle. However, because wildlife on the Galapagos is so cooperative and will often approach unafraid, play with wide-angle compositions, low to the ground, to get ideas for new perspectives. I am not suggesting to ignore your big lens, but rather to expand your horizons and experiment.

Understanding light and shadow is certainly key, but being able to quickly operate the controls of your camera to obtain the settings you need is just as important. The Galapagos will offer many lighting challenges with harsh, equatorial sun that often changes to heavy overcast skies in a matter of minutes. Combining this difficult lighting with lava rock surrounded by bright sand and blue water can be a nightmare! Add a white subject moving across the scene, and you need to be ready with the correct camera settings at a moment’s notice. Practice, practice, practice! Before your trip, visit a local fast-food restaurant and photograph Ring-billed Gulls fighting over French fries in the parking lot. This may sound strange, but the black asphalt, tan sidewalks and multi-colored buildings can help simulate some of these exposure challenges.

Learn about the wildlife

In my opinion, the most important factor in getting great images is to research the wildlife you expect to see. Not every island offers the same birds, reptiles, or mammals. Studying the wildlife is more than just learning about what lives on each island. It includes becoming familiar with their habits, diet, and behaviors. For birds, research identifying marks such as bill (beak) shape and feather markings. Study everything you can that will help to distinguish one species from another.

For example, if you understand that Hood Mockingbirds on the island of Española often have family ‘turf wars’ on the beach, you can keep a watchful eye for some exciting action! And some of the seabirds are only found on the islands at certain times of the year. So, if you have specific target species that live their lives at sea, be sure to learn when they will be nesting.

Every boat visits different islands, and each of the 90 permitted boats have 3-4 different itineraries that rotate weekly. This means choosing a trip solely on the basis of available dates could mean a less than desirable itinerary. Your wildlife research will help you find the right boat with the best possible itinerary that aligns with your interests and expectations.

Know that most standard tours do not spend much time on the islands they visit, nor do these tours make an effort to put you on shore during the best possible light. There is a huge difference between a standard tour and a true photo-tour or workshop. Ask plenty of questions before making a reservation, so that you may experience the wonder of the Galapagos and make the imagines of your dreams a reality. Visiting this amazing place is the trip of a lifetime and should be at the top of every nature photographer’s bucket list!

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