Galápagos Islands

(© Ian Plant) The Galápagos Islands are famous for their incredible diversity of species found no where else. These volcanic islands six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador host abundant animal and plant life. In 1835, Charles Darwin spent over a month in the Galápagos during the 5-year voyage of the HMS Beagle, and his observations and collections there contributed greatly to his theory of evolution by natural selection. In December 2014, I spent a week photographing the Galápagos. Mine wasn’t nearly as long as Darwin’s visit, and I’m pretty sure the cruise ship I stayed on was less exotic than life on the Beagle, but it was a fantastic experience nonetheless. Quite simply, I was overwhelmed by the natural beauty and incredible wildlife of the Galápagos.

The animal I was most excited to see was the marine iguana, and I was not disappointed. On some islands, marine iguanas seemed to be everywhere. Walking among these prehistoric mini-monsters was an incredible—albeit stinky—experience. When I found this iguana perched on a sculpted piece of driftwood, I reached for my wide angle lens. I used the striations in the wood as leading lines, and took an ultra-wide view to include as much of the surrounding scenery as possible. Canon 5DIII, 16mm, ISO 100, f/16, 1/100 second.


One morning, I had the opportunity to photograph a flock of flamingoes. Symmetry is an effective compositional tool (something I discuss in my critically-acclaimed ebook Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition), and for this image, I got a chance to play with it two ways: not only are the birds reflected in the water, but flamingoes on both sides of the image frame extended their wings, creating an element of left-right symmetry. Canon 5DIII, 560mm, ISO 200, f/6.3, 1/400 second.


Another animal I was really excited to see was the Galápagos giant tortoise. And they were amazing to see . . . but just not all that amazing to photograph! For the most part, they didn’t do much except eat grass. I had a hard time figuring out a way to effectively photograph these lumbering behemoths, so I opted for simplicity. Using a large aperture on my telephoto zoom lens, I got close to the tortoise’s head to ensure that the colorful background would be pleasingly blurred. Because I had very shallow depth of field, I choose my position carefully to shoot the tortoise in profile so that the entire head was in focus. Canon 5DIII, 135mm, ISO 1600, f/4.5, 1/200 second.


For this image of a pair of blue-footed boobies, I used one of my favorite wildlife techniques: I got low and included some nearby rocks in the foreground of the composition. Because of the shallow depth of field of my telephoto zoom lens, the rocks were rendered as an abstract blur. By including the rocks, I added depth and additional visual interest to the photograph. I made sure to include water in the background, bringing some much needed color into the composition. This image was taken hand-held from a small boat; in such situations, image stabilization really comes in handy! Canon 5DIII, 560mm, ISO 125, f/5.6, 1/500 second. 


I mentioned above that in some places, marine iguanas were everywhere. Here’s a photo that proves it! I used a telephoto lens to isolate a distant rock covered with iguanas. With pattern images such as this, it makes sense to find something that breaks the pattern and stands out. For this photo, I made sure to include the one reddish-brown iguana surrounded by a sea of gray. I used a small aperture to ensure sharp focus throughout the image frame. Canon 5DIII, 303mm, ISO 800, f/11, 1/320 second.


I enjoy working with reflections whenever I can. I lay down as this Sally Lightfoot crab approached me, and then I waited for a wave to sweep in, covering the sand in a thin layer of water, in order to include the crab’s reflection as part of the composition. Although I got drenched, it was worth it! Canon 5DIII, 165mm, ISO 100, f/4, 1/200 second.


Some of the islands are covered with old (or not so old) lava flows, creating twisted and bizarre volcanic scenes. I was attracted to this splash of color in the otherwise barren and gray landscape, so I took out my wide-angle lens. Canon 5DIII, 17mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/6 second.


One of the most prolific animals in the Galápagos is the sea lion, and I saw and photographed plenty. This adorable pup in particular caught my eye—and apparently, I caught his as well. Eye contact is often an effective strategy for wildlife photography, as it creates an emotional connection between your subject and viewer. Canon 5DIII, 280mm, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/400 second.


Flightless cormorants are quick, sleek, and elegant—in the water. On land, they look like they just lost a fight with a delivery truck. Despite their wobbly, battered appearance, I enjoyed photographing this bird as it cleaned its scraggly feathers. I was careful to select a relatively bright background (a bit of ocean flowing in between some offshore rocks), helping the bird stand out from its dull surroundings. Canon 5DIII, 490mm, ISO 320, f/5.6, 1/500 second.


For this next image, I zoomed in to photograph the patterns on the shell of a giant tortoise. These amazing animals often live well past 100 years in the wild. Their shells tell the stories of their lives, intricately etched with decades of growth, scarring, and weathering. I stopped down in order to ensure sharp focus throughout the image frame. Canon 5DIII, 169mm, ISO 2000, f/16, 1/160 second.


American oystercatchers are occasionally seen in the Galápagos. For this shot, I lay on my stomach to get a ground-level view, allowing me to include a bit of the foreground rocks in the composition, creatively blurred by using a large aperture. Canon 5DIII, 420mm, ISO 320, f/6.3, 1/200 second.


Each marine iguana looks different, although they all look like pint-sized versions of Godzilla. I was lucky to get just a hint of backlighting while photographing this particular barnacle-covered individual, making it stand out from the dark background. Canon 5DIII, 490mm, ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/160 second.


One evening, I photographed some flamingoes in gorgeous sunset light. I exposed carefully to avoid blowing out any of the highlights on the brightly lit birds, adjusting exposure compensation until I found a setting which optimized my exposure. Canon 5DIII, 560mm, ISO 160, f/6.3, 1/800 second.


One of my favorite animals from the trip was the Galápagos penguin. Small, agile, and playful, these birds were fun to watch and photograph. Choosing your moment is always important in photography, doubly so when it comes to wildlife. To add compositional interest to this portrait of two penguins, I waited for one penguin to bend down, about to jump into the water (I have another version where I caught the penguin mid-leap, but it didn’t turn out as interesting as I had hoped, and I decided I liked this version better). Canon 5DIII, 400mm, ISO 500, f/4.5, 1/320 second.


The Galápagos are a wonderful place, and should be on the bucket list of every photographer. Speaking of which, my company Epic Destinations is hosting a Galápagos photo tour in January 2016, led by my good friend and business partner Richard Bernabe. Highlights of the tour include stunning volcanic tropical islands teeming with wildlife, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. You’ll get a chance to photograph sea lions, blue-footed boobies, Galápagos tortoises, magnificent frigatebirds, marine iguanas, penguins, flamingos, and much more!