Animal lovers, nature lovers, and adventure travelers all dream of visiting the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador to see the world-famous animals and landscapes. Once you get to the archipelago, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, you’re going to want to be able to take great shots of the truly stunning flora and fauna around you. After all, this is an extraordinary destination and your Galapagos travel photos should prove it! During our three separate visits and nearly six weeks of exploring the Galapagos archipelago, Eric took thousands of photos. Here are our top tips about how to take the best photos in the Galapagos Islands including choosing the best camera, choosing the best lens, best techniques, best accessories, and more including a powerful way to save money and still shoot better.
How to take the best photos in the Galapagos
We’ve spent decades seeking out wildlife in dozens of countries around the world and we can tell you that our time in the Galapagos Islands yielded some of the most up-close wildlife encounters we’ve ever had. Whether it’s snorkeling with penguins, sea lions, and sharks, carefully stepping over piles of marine iguanas, giving way on the trail to a 500 pound (225 kilo) Galapagos giant tortoise, or walking carefully amongst tens of thousands of nesting boobies, frigates, and albatross visitors to the Galapagos see a lot of wild species very up close.
Under normal circumstances, getting to within 6 feet (2 meters) of wildlife (this is the minimum distance limit set by Galapagos National Park officials) is difficult. In the Galapagos, however, the species are isolated and protected so they have a remarkable lack of fear of humans. To them, we simply aren’t a threat, so being close to them (and vice versa) is natural. This means that the hardest part of capturing the wildlife in the Galapagos Islands isn’t proximity, it’s being sure you’ve got the right gear and right skills. We can help with that.
Choose the right camera for the best Galapagos photography
The range of camera choices these days is vast including phone cameras, compact cameras, and full-size SLR or mirrorless camera systems with interchangeable lenses. Choosing the right camera for you comes down to your level of passion and skill and ambition, your budget, size/weight considerations, and how you ultimately want to use your images. Below are our pro tips about which type of camera is best for which type of Galapagos traveler based on those criteria.
Your cellphone camera won’t capture the same quality level as the images you see in our comprehensive Galapagos Islands Travel Guide series blog posts. However, today’s top phones, including the current iPhone (iOs) or Samsung Galaxy (Android), have cameras that do pretty well. And since your cellphone is already something you own, there’s no need to buy more tech so you can’t beat the price. Bonus: if your shots are on your phone, they’re ready to share with friends and family instantly without any additional steps.
Best for: Galapagos travelers who want to keep it simple, cheap, light, and instantly shareable and are willing to give up some creative control and image quality.
Just a couple of years ago Eric would have recommended a decent compact camera over a cellphone camera any day. But now the camera that’s already in your pocket will likely take shots that are as good, if not better, than most compact cameras. However, what some compact cameras do offer is a zoom lens which gives more range, particularly on the telephoto side, allowing you to zoom in on animals and other subjects. If you want this greater flexibility along with a camera that will offer better quality images than the ones from your phone, I recommend a higher-end compact camera like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VII (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo). It has the equivalent of a 24-200 mm lens, amazingly fast and accurate autofocus, a large articulating 3″ screen, and shoots 4k video too.
Best for: Galapagos travelers who want to keep size and weight to a minimum but are also concerned about getting good image quality and having flexibility and more creative control while shooting.
Full-size camera with interchangeable lenses
If you want the best quality images possible and/or plan to make large frameable prints, then you want a full-size camera and quality lenses. This choice requires investment and the willingness to carry bulkier, heavier gear. Plus you’ll need to take additional steps to make your images shareable on social media. So be sure you are sufficiently committed to the quality of your images to live with all of that. We’ve met a number of people who invested in a major camera setup for their once-in-a-lifetime trip and, in the end, their ambitions didn’t warrant the investment and they wound up using their cellphone camera more often than not. On the other hand, Eric shot all of his thousands of images in the Galapagos Islands using his full-size cameras and best lenses and he doesn’t regret it one bit.
Note: Eric is a long-time Canon user and highly recommends these products. However, Nikon and Sony both make comparable cameras and lenses.
- Eric’s primary camera body is the Canon EOS 5D DSLR (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo).
- If you’re looking for a more affordable full-frame camera option, the Canon 6D DSLR (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo) is a great option.
- However, the future of interchangeable-lens camera systems is moving to mirrorless cameras and Eric plans on making the switch with his next purchase. If he were making a new purchase now, he would buy the Canon EOS R6 Mirrorless Digital Camera (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo). Canon’s new mirrorless bodies are not only slightly smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts, but they also offer in-camera stabilization and amazing auto-focus capabilities.
Best for: Galapagos travelers who are ambitious photographers with big plans for their shots and are willing to make the financial investment and willing to carry more gear.
Choose the right lenses for the best Galapagos photography
If you’re on board with using a full-size camera to get the best possible photos and you aren’t scared away by price, size, weight, or a bit of post-processing to bring out the best in the image, then it’s time to pick a lens (or lenses).
Many people prioritize getting the newest, highest-end, feature-filled camera body they can afford. However, image quality is really all about the glass in the lens that sits in front of the camera. We’ve met way too many people who are disappointed with the sharpness of their images after spending several thousand dollars on a high-end camera body, but that’s almost always because they cheaped out on the lens. Your US$2,500 camera body is not going to make up for the shortcomings of a US$500 “kit” lens. Bottom line: With today’s technology, you will capture a much better photo with a lower-end US$1,400 body and a pro-level US$1,100 lens.
Once you’ve committed to buying a good lens or lenses, the question is which ones. On our trips to the Galapagos, Eric, a Canon user, carried his three go-to lenses, all zooms, all pro-level “L” series Canon lenses: 1 wide, 1 middle range, and 1 telephoto lens.
Note: The specific lens recommendations below are for Canon’s EF lenses which pair with their traditional DLSR bodies. For each of these lenses, Canon makes a new RF version for the mirrorless system.
Generally, the lens that’s on Eric’s camera more often than not is a wide-angle Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo) which is perfect for open landscapes and nearby subjects. However, this wasn’t his go-to lens in the Galapagos.
Though it’s not Eric’s most used lens under usual circumstances, he found that his mid-range zoom, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo) was the best all-around lens for use in the Galapagos. Why? It covers a large middle range between wide and slightly telephoto. Such a lens allows you to get wide enough for most landscape shots and also zoom in a bit on a subject.
This lens may not allow you to get a great shot of an animal or bird in the distance or deliver close-up details, but if you only want one lens this is the most versatile single lens for Galapagos photography. Conveniently, it’s also the least expensive of Canon’s professional L series zoom lenses that Eric owns since it’s an f/4, not an f/2.8. To make it an even better deal, this lens is often sold as a package with one of the bodies previously mentioned that reduces the price by $100.
If you want the best quality middle range zoom lens that offers slightly less telephoto range, but a 2.8 aperture, Eric recommends the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo). This lens is considered one of the sharpest lenses Canon makes and its wide 2.8 aperture can be handy in low light situations or when seeking to limit the depth-of-field in your image.
For close-up animal work, and other telephoto needs, Eric loves his (admittedly very large, very heavy, and very expensive) Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo). A telephoto lens like this is a game-changer if you want stunning animal shots. However, to be honest, so much of the wildlife in the Galapagos is frequently so close, there’s less need for a big telephoto lens here than in other wildlife shooting situations. However, if you want to get a detailed close-up, like the blue-footed booby feeding a chick (above), or a flamingo on the far side of a lagoon, or the whale spouting in the distance, or the mobula ray jumping out of the water (below), a telephoto lens is killer.
If you want even more telephoto from the zoom, pair it with a teleconverter, or an APC crop-sensor body like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo), and the 1.6x magnification factor of the sensor in effect gives you 160 – 640mm lens. If you are moving to Canon’s new mirrorless system, this lens has been replaced by the Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo) which extends the telephoto end of the zoom from 400mm to 500mm, allowing you to zoom in on the subject even more.
Not everyone wants to carry multiple lenses. That’s why there are all-in-one lenses that cover an astonishing zoom range from wide to telephoto. However, this convenience requires a sacrifice in quality because a single lens that goes from 24-300mm will never deliver the same quality image as higher-end zooms that only cover more limited ranges of either wide, mid-range, or telephoto. If you want sharp images and only want to purchase or carry one lens, we would recommend sacrificing some of the telephoto capabilities of an all-in-one lens and chose the 24-105 we mentioned above. There’s no contest when comparing the image quality between these lenses. And, your images with the L series lens will be so much sharper that you can probably crop the image when you get home to an equivalent telephoto crop and the image may still be better quality.
If you want high-end photography with the choice of multiple lenses, another consideration is having more than one body. Carrying extra lenses doesn’t help if you don’t use them because you are too lazy, or it’s too time-consuming to swap the lenses on your single body. This is compounded with a large telephoto lens since changing it can be a cumbersome task, especially when doing so on a sandy beach or splashy zodiac, since you don’t want sand or water anywhere near the inside of your camera body or your lens. Having two lenses on two different camera bodies, however, lets you switch from wide to telephoto in an instant. The down-side is that this means spending on a second body and carrying both around your neck or over your shoulder.
A Money-Saving Alternative
We recognize that the US$2,700 price tag for Canon’s new RF 100-500mm telephoto is a lot and the lens is so specialized for many that it may not get used much outside of a trip like this. A more affordable option is to rent specialized gear like this lens for the duration of your trip or other special shooting situation. Eric can personally vouch for the fact that Lensrentals.com is an amazing operation that offers just about any type of camera, lens, light, or accessory for rent.
At Lesrentals.com, instead of purchasing a $2,700 lens, you can rent it for your two week trip for $237 including shipping and damage coverage. Another example? If you were to purchase the new mirrorless body and its corresponding three lenses, as recommended above, it would cost you $8,600. But at Lensrentals.com you could rent the whole package for $800 for two weeks.
This is an ingenious way to try out new gear prior to making a purchase and an affordable way to use the specialized gear you may not want to invest in long-term. The only downside is that if you don’t live in the US you’re out of luck.
As a special gift to our readers use the code TAJ15 during checkout at Lensrentals.com and get 15% off your gear rental.
Underwater photography in the Galapagos
No matter which camera you choose for dry land photography, also consider a waterproof action camera like a GoPro Hero 9 (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo) for waterproof shooting in the palm of your hand as well as being able to capture underwater shots and video while snorkeling or SCUBA diving. The GoPro is small, rugged, waterproof, and takes excellent still photos and video footage with lots of creative features and it all comes at a relatively affordable price. The quality is so good some people chose to use the GoPro as their one camera for everything.
Now that you’ve got your main gear sorted, it’s time for a few valuable photo accessories.
A better camera strap
After years of carrying cameras around his neck or shoulder with the free camera strap that comes with most bodies, Eric discovered the Peak Design Slide Camera Strap (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo). Now he uses this strap on all of his cameras. The slide strap is much more comfortable, secure, and adjustable than a normal neck strap and it has quick-release connectors to make it fast and easy to remove and change the strap. Our full review of the Peak Design Slide Camera Strap is in our Travel Gear of the Year post.
Tripods are great for keeping your camera steady, especially when it’s loaded with a heavy zoom lens. A tripod also makes it possible to take creative risks like using slower shutter speeds. However, during most of your excursions in the Galapagos Islands, there will be so much to shoot and relatively little time to do it. Therefore, Eric doesn’t consider a tripod to be a Galapagos photography essential when you factor in the effort and time it takes to use one. In fact, Eric prefers to be as nimble as possible and that means shooting hand-held. Luckily, image stabilization features that are available in today’s camera bodies and lenses make it possible to capture sharp images even when holding a camera with a big, heavy, telephoto zoom lens in your hands. However, if you have your heart set on a tripod Eric highly recommends his 3 Legged Thing Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod (check price on Amazon | B&H Photo). Here’s our full review of the 3 Legged Thing Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod.
The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of islands which means travelers spend a lot of time getting in and out of boats, in and out of small zodiac boats and splashing in and out of the sea during wet landings. The opportunities for your gear to get splashed or even submerged are great. Unless you’re only carrying a waterproof camera like a GoPro, you will need a way to keep your camera gear dry and that means a good dry bag that’s big enough to hold all of your gear and still be properly closed for true waterproofing.
If you have a full-size camera you’re going to need to protect the gear from falls and impact as well as from the water. There are two routes you can take to accomplish this. The first option is a fully waterproof camera bag like the Lowepro DryZone 200 Backpack (check price on B&H Photo).
Or, you can pack your gear inside your everyday camera bag then put that bag inside a larger dry bag like our SealLine Wide Mouth Duffle (check price on Amazon – note it comes in 40 liter & 70 liter sizes depending on your needs). This versatile option may make your camera slightly less accessible on the zodiac, but you won’t have to invest in a waterproof camera bag you may not want to use every day and you will have a large dry bag you can use for other purposes too.
If you’re using a compact camera or just a cellphone camera, a smaller waterproof bag like the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sack (check price on Amazon) will do the trick. These inexpensive, super lightweight dry bags come in a variety of sizes and colors to suit your needs. They’re great for protecting your small camera, your cellphone, and even other small items you don’t want to be covered in saltwater like an extra layer of clothing, your sunglasses case, etc.
What not to bring
Selfie sticks, drones, and flash photography are all banned in the Galapagos Islands.
Technical pro tip 1: Shoot in RAW format
Any of the above camera-types should let you shoot in RAW format instead of in jpeg format and you should choose to do that if you want the best image quality possible. Shooting in RAW allows you to pull more info out of your image in post-processing, especially when it comes to controlling highlights and shadows. RAW format photos also don’t lose any data when compressed while jpeg shots do.
Shooting in RAW does mean that your file sizes will be much larger so remember this when buying memory cards. RAW images also require some effort in post-processing in a program like Adobe Lightroom to make the most of them. Without this post-processing, the RAW images will look much duller than a similar jpeg image shot on your phone because the phone is doing this processing for you when it creates a jpeg. However, shooting in RAW and post-processing it yourself gives you full creative control. The time you spend post-processing will also allow you to analyze your images and learn from your mistakes and successes in order to improve your photography going forward.
Technical pro tip 2: Get up early
The volcanic islands and peaceful bays in the Galapagos Islands are always stunning. However, the most beautiful light is found around what is called the golden hour which includes an hour or two after sunrise and an hour or two before sunset. Especially if you’re traveling on a multi-day boat-based exploration of the Galapagos, it’s worth getting up early to take advantage of the morning light.
Often your boat will motor during the night while you sleep, allowing you to wake up to find that the captain has moored in a spectacular new setting in front of an island with nobody else around. This is the perfect time to grab a cup of coffee, go up to the top deck, meditate on the beauty around you, and grab some great early morning shots bathed in that fleeting golden hour light. Many of the images in our Landscapes of the Galapagos Islands photo essay were shot during golden light hours.
Technical pro tip 3: The best time to visit the Galapagos for photographers
The Galapagos Islands are inspiring all year round. However, multiple guides advised us that July and August can be most challenging for photographers because the weather is more likely to be cloudy with grey skies and less sunshine.
More Galapagos travel tips
Use our Galapagos Islands Travel Guide index post to quickly navigate through the entire series, or choose specific posts below.
- Part 1 in our Galapagos Islands Travel Guide series gives you the facts you need to plan your trip to the Galapagos Islands.
- Part 2 is our Santa Cruz Island Travel Guide including what to do and where to sleep on this tourist hub island.
- Part 3 tells you what to expect during boat trips to landings around Santa Cruz Island.
- Part 4 covers highlights from North Seymour, South Plaza, and Daphne Islands.
- Part 5 is our San Cristóbal Island Travel Guide.
- Part 6 covers what to expect during boat trips to Cerro Brujo, Punta Pitt, and Kicker Rock around San Cristóbal.
- Part 7 reveals highlights of visiting Santa Fe Island.
- Part 8 tells you what to expect on Genovesa Island.
- Part 9 gives you travel highlights from Fernandina Island.
- Part 10 helps you explore Isabela Island.
- Part 11 takes you around Santiago Island.
- Part 12 tells you what to expect on Floreana Island.
- Part 13 tells you what you need to know about adventures on Española Island.
- Part 15 brings you all the adventure of SCUBA diving in the Galapagos Islands.
- Part 16 helps you pack like a pro for the Galapagos.
- Part 17 delivers answers to 5 top Galapagos travel questions.
- Part 18 reveals our favorite shots of wildlife in the Galapagos.
- Part 19 reveals our favorite shots of landscapes and sunsets in the Galapagos.
When you buy something using the retail links in our posts, we may earn a small affiliate commission. We never accept money for editorial coverage and we only recommend products, services, and experiences that we are familiar with and believe in.
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador
Here’s more about Island Travel
Here’s more about Galapagos Travel