Misc ThoughtsPhotography

Me and Chuck Darwin

Galapagos Islands Map Courtesy of Wikipedia 

I spent the better part of the last two weeks of 2006 traveling throughout the Galapagos archipelago with my family.  It’s a trip that my wife and I have wanted to do for years, but only convinced our teenage kids that it could be fun as well as educational late in 2005 – it’s a good trip to plan well in advance.

I had high expectations for the trip, having read extensively about the area and it’s history – geological as well as biological.  I was not in any way disappointed.  This is simply a unique and fantastic part of the world that the Ecuadorian government is working hard to keep in its most natural, pristine form.  All the naturalists that accompany visitors on the islands are locals who go through a formal, government-controlled educational process.  In our experience, they are highly knowledgeable and truly care for the land that they are custodians of.  Visitors must be accompanied by naturalists when visiting almost all of the islands.  Good thing, too, since there is something new and amazing to capture one’s interest and needs some form of explanation every 15 feet or so.

The most shocking part of the experience, even if you fully expect it, is the complete lack of fear the wildlife shows for the human visitors.  Kneeling in front of a marine iguana and staring at it in the face does nothing to perturb the animal; visitors have to routinely step over seal lions that litter the paths; and penguins (yup, I said penguins) are as likely to step on your feet as you are to step on theirs.  On visits to certain islands, visitors have to spend much of their time looking a few inches in front of where they are walking to make sure that they don’t tread on naturally-selected, well-camouflaged beasts hidden in the rocks on their path.

Just fantastic and highly recommended.  You won’t be disappointed.

Being a photography geek (note that I did not say photographer), I took about 35 pounds of photographic equipment.  I shot something like 2300 pictures during our time there and I have yet to do any processing of the pictures.  I did weed the set down to about 1300 digital snaps so far, though.  You can take a look at the non-Photoshopped pix here, if you’re interested.  Most of them need, at the very least, some sharpening, but you can certainly get an idea of what’s going on in the Galapagos from them.

Photographing the Galapagos Islands

If you’re interested in photography, want to read some recommendations on what to bring and how to shoot in the Islands or simply wonder what equipment I could possibly stuff into a 35 pound photography backpack, read on . . .

Here’s the equipment I brought with me:

  • Canon 5D – full-frame, 12MP, digital SLR
  • Canon 70-200 f2.8L image stabilization zoom lens
  • Canon 28-70 f2.8L zoom lens
  • Canon 2x extender (costs me two stops)
  • Canon 70-300 f4-f5.6 image stabilization zoom lens
  • Monopod
  • Miscellaneous batteries/chargers and compact flash memory cards

In the end, this setup was NOT ideal, although it worked.  In 35mm equivalents, you need 70-400mm in focal length to shoot everything you want, in my opinion.  Of course, this is hard to get in a single lens.  You can get a lot closer than I did, though.  I generally got off the boat every day with the 70-200mm mounted on the camera WITH the extender.  Giving me 140-400mm zoom range in 35mm equivalents (note, the 5D is a full-frame sensor so I don’t have a cropping multiple).  Most of my shots were taken with this configuration, but I often had to do a quick change to either remove the extender (getting me down to 70-200mm) or put on the wide(r) angle lens (getting me as wide as 28mm).  This would have worked fine, except that,

  1. the environment is often pretty dusty and even with my best efforts to protect everything, crap found its way onto my sensor and,
  2. just because the wildlife isn’t afraid of you doesn’t mean that it sits still waiting for you to ready your shot.

I guy that I often spent time with on the trip had an unusual 35-300mm lens (he was shooting with a Canon 10D – with it’s 1.6 cropping multiplier, his 35mm equivalent focal length was 56-480mm).  While he gave up some speed to my setup, he could quickly get shots that I often missed.  Additionally, since he never removed his lens from his camera body, he never had to deal with foreign objects making the camera’s sensor their new home.  Since the Archipelago is at the equator, there is usually plenty of light.  Sacrificing a few stops of lens speed is a non-issue when you consider the additional shots you can get.

I shot all the pictures as JPEGs.  I was tempted to shoot in RAW mode, but felt that the loss of speed (in frames per second) would keep me from getting some of the action shots (e.g. birds flying or diving) that I wanted.  I don’t think I’ll regret this decision.  Besides, I’ll probably never get around to processing all the pictures as JPEGs.  Having to process that many RAW pictures might take me a lifetime.

Finally, I need to say something about the IS lenses that I brought.  I purchased the 70-200mm IS lens for this trip (it replaced a non-IS f2.8L 70-200mm Canon lens that I’ve had for years).  This lens is great!  The documentation says that the image stabilization can make up for two full stops of lens speed.  I completely believe it.  I often took completely clear handheld shots with this lens at full zoom WITH the extender on (400mm).  Because it was so good, I stopped carrying my monopod.  It was a great upgrade and will become my standard, everyday lens.

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