Darwin didn’t have a camera, but he would have made a superb photographer.  His sketches and lengthy descriptions of animals in the Galápagos reveal a traveler who observed everything with curiosity and recorded in colorful detail. We should all learn from him.

To this day, I am more of a traveler with a camera than “a photographer” per se, and I am grateful for a job that grants me the daily opportunity to learn new skills. As a lifelong student of photography, I am forever amazed (and puzzled) by the balance of art and mechanics that taking good pictures entails.

I embarked upon this assignment with my new camera (Nikon D600) and quickly discovered that the Islands were the perfect testing ground for new gear. Fearless and accessible wildlife makes this place an incomparable photographic destination. Elated by abundant animals and the strange beauty of the islands, I shot a lot of photos this past week. For what it’s worth, here’s what I learned:

 

Shooting a Giant Tortoise with my Nikon D600 (Photo Brian Gratwicke)

Shooting a Giant Tortoise with my Nikon D600 (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

1. Know Your Animals

Study your subject—get a comprehensive wildlife guide and read up on your Galápagos creatures. When are they awake? When do they feed? What do they eat and where is that food most likely to be found? Before you start shooting pictures wildly, observe the animals closely. How do they move? Giant tortoises shuffle then plop. Sharks glide by and make sharp turns, sea lions curve and zip, blue-footed boobies float and then dive bomb into the sea. The better you know what you are shooting, the better pictures you’ll take.

2. Get Close

. . . but not too close. There’s a six-foot (two meter) rule in Galápagos National Park, though the iguanas rarely follow this guideline. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to get up close to snap some amazing shots. Follow the old National Geographic photographer’s mantra: “Be There”. Go where the animals are. If there are ants swarming the ground, get down on the ground. Refrain from shooting down at your feet all the time. Good wildlife photography should make you sweat a bit. Only the birds might ever meet you at eye level—otherwise you need to move. As for lenses, there is nothing wrong with taking a point-and-shoot to the Galapágos—you’ll still get close enough to take great pictures. For those with SLR’s, take a telephoto—though nothing too extravagant. (In Galapágos, my go-to zoom was the Nikon 70 X 200 f2.8 lens.)

Photographing marine iguanas on Fernandina (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

Photographing marine iguanas on Isla Fernandina  (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

 

3. Anticipate What’s Next

Once you get to know your animals, you’ll get better at guessing what they might do. Anticipating the shot before it happens is an advantage you want with wildlife. For example, if you’re photographing whales at sea, study their ripples in the water, notice the direction they dive, track their underwater time and be ready for the moment when they break the surface again. Make educated guesses about what the animals will do next.

4. Be Patient

Unless you’re incredibly lucky all the time, the best animal shots take a lot of patience. Think, plan, get your camera settings ready and then go explore. Or sit in a spot and let the animals come to you—in the Galápagos, they will. Once you’ve taken a few shots—don’t rush away. The longer you hang around, the more chance you have of capturing something new and interesting. It was in the Galápagos that Charles Darwin wrote, “It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it.” Don’t hurry.

Filming a sea turtle w/ my Nikon D600 (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

Filming a sea turtle w/ my Nikon D600 (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

5. Show Motion

Animals moving is always more visually interesting than a stationary animal portrait. Accept the challenge to not merely record the animals you see, but to get it in action. For birds in flight, use Shutter Priority (S) and AI-Servo auto-focus. (I always try to focus on the eyes.) Blur is forgivable and at times artistic, as long as there is some part of the animal that is in focus and recognizable. For faster animals (finches, small lizards, swimming fur seals, breaching whales) try using rapid-fire shooting (I loved this feature on the D600). It’s leaving a bit more to chance, but you’ll often be surprised by what you can capture. If you’re shooting video, let the animal enter and leave the frame—this gives you better editing options.

6. Tell A Story

Don’t just show me a bird—tell me that bird’s story. Does the bird have to sit for weeks on a nest in the rain? How do they find food? How does a mother sea lion protect her pup? Ask questions and let your camera find the answer. Some of my readers cringed when I photographed a huge piece of (handheld) Giant Tortoise poop but there’s a story there: tortoises eat grass and leaves, their digestive system is rudimentary and ancient, that these species are a testament to isolated geography and evolution.

7. Include People

How humans interact with wildlife is a story all by itself. Though we always want our wildlife to look wild, I prefer my photography with a side of honesty. The Galápagos is a national park with some 180,000 annual visitors. If there are thirty sea lions facing a crowd of 30 humans, that can be a better photo than a simple tight shot of a sea lion’s head. Humans also show scale—a Giant Tortoise looks especially giant next to a human child.

8. Get Good Light

This is a universal rule for all great photography. Remember the Galápagos sits right on the equator: sunrise and sunset are quick and deliberate, but these short windows of time are a gold mine for good lighting. Research sunrise and sunset times before you go and make the most of those rare hours to get out and take photos. A land iguana’s golden scales will shine brightly in sideways lighting but appear dull at other times. Harsh tropical midday light casts deep black shadows that simply destroy your shot. Find the good light and pray the animals find it too.

9. Don’t Multi-Task

It’s easy to lose your mind in all the excitement of flapping wings and barking sea lions, however, trying to shoot everything all of the time will only bring disorder, frustration, and a lot of mediocre shots. Once you’ve gotten over that initial thrill of being in Galápagos, take time to focus on certain species at certain times. Set specific photography goals—say, “This morning I’m going to try to capture a sea lion’s facial expression.” Then go out and get the shot.

10. Look Behind You

Some animals are shy, others are incredibly curious. If you focus with human vision span (120°), you’re always missing something. Some animals that scurried away from you are very likely to return from behind. Sea lions (and sharks) are especially good at this. Always be ready to flip around and click that shutter. In other words, watch your back.

Nikon D600 Grand Prizewinner Brian Forbes Powell photographs a Giant Tortoise on Isla Santa Cruz.

Nikon D600 Grand Prizewinner Brian Forbes Powell photographs a Giant Tortoise on Isla Santa Cruz. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Comments

  1. Jeff Johnston
    Cuenca
    February 20, 2013, 7:18 am

    I’ve lived in Ecuador for almost 4.5 years, and still haven’t made it over to the islands (my job always seems to get in the way!).

    Your articles and photos have stirred up a lot of envy, so I guess I’m going to have to get us over there this year.

    Still hoping you’ll come visit us here in Cuenca.

  2. [...] the midst of an epic adventure in the Galapagos, Digital Nomad Andrew Evans takes pause to share tips on how to photograph the islands’ extraordinary fauna. [...]

  3. Melissa Arnoff
    February 20, 2013, 9:39 pm

    Sounds like you listened to Jeffo!! Great photos and great memories.

  4. gopakumar
    India
    February 21, 2013, 4:27 am

    Well spoken.

  5. bicyclegourmet
    france
    February 21, 2013, 6:13 am

    “don’t just show me the bird – tell me the birds story!” crystallizes, for me, the object of all photography. brillant. and, as darwin might have added: “imminently logical!

  6. [...] How Evans applies those lessons is told on his National Geographic Traveler Site, “Digital Nomad.” [...]