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by Bart Arondson

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Soon I'm off to the Galapagos Islands. I have to admit I've been spending a lot of hours talking to people and reading reviews, and that has left me very confused choosing the correct gear for my vacation.

I recently purchased a Canon 600D. I only have the stock 18-55mm lens, so I feel I definitely need a better zoom lens, and was hoping that I could choose one which could benefit multiple purposes and also minimize my luggage.

Furthermore, choosing the right filters, sunblends and such things also is a pain to figure out. The only thing I have so far is a battery pack and a flexible tripod.

I could use some advice on the components which are suiteable for my kind of vacation where I will be taking pictures of nature, animals and people.

As for budget, I am open right now, but I cannot afford lenses for $2000.

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Are you going for vacation just to take pictures or taking pictures secondary? –  Vivek Jun 15 '12 at 18:36
    
@Vivek, to weight things i would say 80% of the time i will be taking pictures. –  JavaCake Jun 15 '12 at 18:37
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Make sure you have a comfortable bag and camera strap! –  drewbenn Jun 15 '12 at 19:57
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This question is getting quite localized to your very specific shopping lists. Questions should be written so that they might help future visitors in similar situations. –  mattdm Jun 17 '12 at 12:48
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The Galapagos have been discussed a number of times on dpreview. Worth searching on old threads there, which have gear recommendations and sample images. dpreview.com/search/forums?query=galapagos –  MikeW Jun 17 '12 at 23:52

9 Answers 9

up vote 11 down vote accepted

You certainly need to upgrade your lens and consider how everything fits your trip.

You did not say what arrangements you made for the Galapagos but people usually spend a bit of time on the main island (Isabela) and take a boat which stops at several islands in some kind of circuit. The other option is to stay on the mainland and take day-trips to each smaller islands but that prevents you from reaching the outlying ones and so you wont be seeing the Penguins and probably not the Albatrosses.

Other than on Isabela and San Cristobal you will be accompanied and staying on marked paths at ALL times. This is where the really interesting stuff shows up and because of this arrangement, the animals have no fear of humans and will be right next to you. This has the tremendous advantage of being able to shoot wild animals in close proximity, so you will not need any big lenses except to shoot birds in flight. A Canon 24-105mm F/4L would be fantastic and with a 70-200mm F/4 you would be very well covered. This does not give you much of a wide-angle but the Galapagos does not have that much sweeping landscapes. If you really see a shot which is too wide, you can always stitch a few shots together.

Weight and power are serious consideration in the Galapagos islands. Even on the mainland you would be lucky to have power around the clock, particularly at night, so you would be charging your batteries during the daytime while you are shooting elsewhere. For this, consider taking 4 batteries and 2 chargers, so that you have 2 batteries charging while you are out shooting with the other 2.

You will almost always be carrying your gear over distances in excruciatingly hot temperatures. When I was there in April, the thermometer reached 47C (114F) and was like that for over 8 hours a day. Contrarily to Safaris, Galapagos tours are done in bright light, so bring a polarizer but you can leave the tripod.

The best way to beat the heat in the Galapagos is to go snorkling. A number of boats will stop at strategic locations so that passengers can snorkel while lunch is being prepared. Visibility in is extremely clear and aquatic animals get close. An underwater housing would be amazing to have but those are very expensive. I bought en entire Nikonos underwater film camera system for that trip and sold it later. Maybe renting is an option, otherwise simply buy an underwater compact camera like the Pentax Optio WG-2. This will probably bring out more possibilities than anything else you can add to your gear.

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Thanks alot for the nice description and recommendations! This helped alot, especially filling out the gaps where i was quite unsure what to decide. You are perhaps the 20th person to tell me to get the 70-200 F/4L, and the price seems realistic for my budget. The Canon 24-105mm F/4L which looks quite neat aswell can be pulling out some teeth considering the price. Is there a good alternative to this lens? Furthermore which polarizer would you recommend? –  JavaCake Jun 16 '12 at 10:59
    
Oddly,both lenses fall within your budget here ($959 & $879 CDN for the short and long, respectively). You can save about $150 by going for a Sigma 24-70mm F/2.8 but I am having trouble finding anything that would be such a good match. –  Itai Jun 16 '12 at 13:59
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@JavaCake - For the polarizers, I cannot say enough of the Hoya HD ($120 for 77mm, less for smaller sizes) series. They allow one full stop more light transmission than any other polarizers and they do not cause any visible color-shift like those from B+W. Normally, I buy the biggest one and use a step-up ring for smaller lenses but since you will be shooting in bright light, you should buy both sizes because you can't use a lens hood with a step-up ring. –  Itai Jun 16 '12 at 14:06
    
the Sigma is around 1000$ here, perhaps a tad cheaper if i purchase it in Germany. Is it on purpose that you mentioned the 70-200mm as a non-IS version? –  JavaCake Jun 17 '12 at 7:37
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@JavaCake - Mostly because IS is of little use to you and will save you money. Stabilization compensates for photographers movements never subjects. You will be in very bright light with almost no shade in sight except on Isabella. For a similar reason, I own the non-IS version for sports photography. –  Itai Jun 17 '12 at 14:41

This is a once in a lifetime trip, and as such I would certainly get the best equipment that you can get your hands on. It sounds like the main purpose of the trip is photography, so if you are spending a great deal of money to travel to the location, I would imagine you are fine with spending at a minimum of a few hundred dollars that is non-recoverable.

With the above in mind, I would rent a Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS, at under $200 per month from LensRentals, this might very well be your most used lens of the trip. Pair this with something like the Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS which runs $121 per 30 days, and you are pretty much set. The 24mm isn't quite wide enough for large landscape photos in my opinion on a crop sensor camera, so you could also throw in a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 which runs $129 for the 30 days. If you still have budget to spare, you could add a 1.4x teleconverter although you will lose auto focus on the 100-400mm lens. Another option would be to skip the 10-22mm lens and instead upgrade your body to something like the 5D MkII, which is around $383 for 30 days. This is a big upgrade in price, but completely worth it in my opinion.

Overall, keep in mind how much you are spending for this trip, and how important photography is to the success of the trip. Spending a bit on rentals will open up opportunities for excellent photos that lesser quality equipment won't allow. The price really is not that prohibitive especially when you consider the quality of equipment you would have to purchase otherwise.

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Your recommendations are great, but renting gear in my part of the world costs a fortune compared to buying the gear. But lenses you mention do cost somewhat over my budget, so it makes great sense sticking to renting. Although i have to admit that right now i prefer owning a lense since i need one for other purposes. –  JavaCake Jun 15 '12 at 19:54
    
Im really considering this combo of 10-20, 24-105 and 20-700 (already have). What about replacing the 10-20 with a 17-50 tamron non-VC? –  JavaCake Jul 15 '12 at 18:45
    
@JavaCake - On a 600D a 17mm lens isn't an ultra wide angle lens. The difference between 17 and 10mm is huge on a crop sensor camera such as this. I own a 17-55mm lens but also a 10-22mm lens, and the 10-22mm is a huge asset when you want to get the complete landscape in one shot, or indoors if you have no choice but to use an ultra wide. The kit of a 10-20 with a 24-105 is really nice in that you don't have any overlap. The 17-50 with a 24-105 is going to give you a lot of overlap and not the nice 10mm option. –  dpollitt Jul 16 '12 at 1:38
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@dpolitt, i see your point, and after trying out the 10-20 yesterday i must admit i find it way more better as a part of my kit. I will flush out the 17-50 and pick the 10-20 instead. –  JavaCake Jul 16 '12 at 10:32

One way to look at this is not to focus so much on which equipment, it is simply a matter of becoming familiar with the equipment before the trip. If you are taking a trip such as this soon, I would urge you to buy equipment or at least rent it to give yourself as much time as possible before the trip. If you start on vacation unfamiliar with the usage and basic photography techniques, the equipment that you have will matter very little.

You already have a basic kit zoom lens, but you probably want at least a telephoto range zoom lens. Something in the 70-200 or 70-300mm range is very common and a good place to start. Would you be able to borrow this from someone for a month or more to get familiar before the trip and take with you? That might be the least cost and most effective route.

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Im happy that you mention those to types of lenses. I have been looking at both sizes and could not decide which to buy. Can you recommend some models? Many reviews showed that the Tamron lenses which cost less than original Canon did a great job. I have atleast around 45days before my trip, so i have the time to fool around since im starting my holidays in 1week. –  JavaCake Jun 15 '12 at 19:53

First, three very important tips:

  1. Take extra batteries and memory cards, that $2000+ you can't afford lens is of no use if you battery is empty.

  2. Try to rent equipment if possible, buying a good general purpose lens is ok but if you want to get a super-telephoto wildlife lens you will only use once - rent it.

  3. Make sure you are familiar with your new equipment and can use it reasonably quickly with good results before you leave home.

Are you going to be taking pictures while hiking/driving/touring or are you going to go to places specifically for taking pictures and have the time to set up (swap lenses, setup tripod, etc.)?

If you are going to be taking pictures while touring you want general purpose equipment so you don't have to stop and delay everyone while you set up (also, you don't want the animals to run away before you photograph them) - a consumer super-zoom like the 18-135 or the 18-200 is the best choice in terms of cost, weight and size, the image quality will be similar to your 18-55.

A step up will be the 70-200 f/4L non-IS (the reason I recommend the non-IS version is the price) or maybe a 70-300, it's cheap compared to the quality you get and it's still a good general purpose lens (especially if you also take the 18-55 for cases you want the wider angle)

For animals in the wild, especially smaller animals, 200mm won't really do it - I don't have any lenses longer than 200mm so I don't know from personal experience what focal length you do need.

Update about the review you posted -

He used a full frame camera, so a 70-200 on your camera is like a 112-320 for him, likewise a 70-300 is like a 112-480 (so, a 70-300 will cover just under 80% of his shots)

Add your 18-55 for wide angle landscape (that's like 28-88 for him, a focal length range he almost didn't use - but you can shoot panoramas to simulate a wider lens) and you are set.

You can get a super-wide angle lens (the canon 10-22 or the sigma 8-16), but in the review almost half the pictures were taken at the max focal length so it seems wiser to invest in the long end if you have extra money. (the 100-400 he recommends, for example)

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I will certainly order a shitload extra batteries. I only have 4 right now. I would love to rent, but the prices are sky high here, especially due to the nasty tax. There will be a combination of being on the run and also pausing to take pictures and such. But while being in mainland we will be moving most of the time, compared to Galapagos where we have time to stand up and take photos. Can you recommend a 18-200 i should take a near look into? You also mention non-IS, but isnt there a world of difference compared to a IS, except the price? –  JavaCake Jun 15 '12 at 20:12
    
I posted a link from a guy who has made a review of the lenses he used on Galapagos. I infact like the idea about the wide lens for landscapes. But it seems to me as a luxury problem. I want all the basic gear to be right. –  JavaCake Jun 15 '12 at 20:42
    
+1 for renting! –  AJ Finch Jun 16 '12 at 8:56
    
@JavaCake - 1. I've updated the answer to take the review you posted into account 2. I feel your pain about the renting prices (it's also expensive here). 3. I have the 18-135 that is similar to the 18-200 and I love it (but its a consumer lens - don't expect L quality). 4. I recommended the 70-200 non-IS version because of the price. –  Nir Jun 16 '12 at 9:04
    
Your statement about wildlife does not apply in the Galapagos with the exception of birds in flight. I shot tons of animals close-up with a 35mm or 50mm on a film camera. They have no fear of humans and are spread all other the islands. –  Itai Jun 16 '12 at 18:13

If you are a looking to take pictures that you would later like to sell, then go for all the big and heavy Canon L lenses. If you are going to be shooting as an amateur who enjoys photography, I suggest you drop all the heavy lenses and only carry the absolute minimum that is required. May be a EF-s 18-135mm lens would be enough.

I just came from backpacking in Chile for two weeks. I carried with me a 5DMII, 24-105 F4L, Samyang 14mm, Tripod + Head and a P&S camera. After hiking for a few hours in the hot sun, I regretted carrying so much gear. So I suggest you do a trial run: Take all the gear you would normally want to use during a photo shoot and walk around for a couple of hours in the hot sun and ask yourself this: Is it worth for me to carry all this heavy gear? Can I settle for something lighter? The reason is that when you travel lighter, You will be able to travel further before getting tired.

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i spoke to my friend concerning the same, and he done exactly what you did last year when he went to Cuba. And its as a plain amateur, i will not resell any pictures, but i still want them to be "awesome". And honestly i dont really think catching flying birds on my camera will be something that i will be doing, i sense the lenses that are fast enough for such tasks will cost me a fortune. –  JavaCake Jun 15 '12 at 20:32
  1. keep your 18-55 as a backup lens
  2. get a 50mm f/1.8 - you will never regret buying this lens; it is cheap (< $100) and beautiful
  3. consider acquiring (buy, rent, borrow) a low-end body as a backup; those expensive lenses aren't much good if you break your camera body.
  4. Remember to enjoy yourself!
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While the Galapagos are one of the only place in the world you can shoot animals with a 50mm lens, a prime lens is not ideal for this trip. Except on 2 islands one has to stay in marked paths at all times, so zooming with your feet is difficult and I would much more recommend a zoom. Good call on the backup though! –  Itai Jun 17 '12 at 2:09

(1) A lens which will not match the $2000 lenses but will give them a surprisingly good run for their money and covers a vast range is the Tamron 18-275mm (or older 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3). I have the Sony branded version which has faster focus drive rate and different aperture "petals" but is otherwise the same. I spent a number of hours in a Sony showroom comparing it's performance against the best that Sony had on display. I left very happy with my purchase and agreeably surprised at the relative differences. As a 'walk-around' lens it is superb due to performance/size/range combination. With money you'll buy significantly better. But not vastly so. Look up some reviews and see what comments and images tell you.

Very wide zooms like this have had a bad reputation until recently - mostly deserved. The 18-250 was a very major step forwards.

Here is [a series of user assessments for the 18-250mm Sony/Minolta mount version](http://www.dyxum.com/reviews/lenses/reviews.asp?IDLens=374 ).

Average ratings from 33 users out of 5 are:

sharpness: 4.45
color: 4.61
build: 4.33
distortion: 4.03
flare control: 4.39
overall: 4.36
total reviews: 33

Here is the DPReview test of the 18-270
Their biggest identified shortcoming is the autofocus ability when photographing fast moving objects.

(2) All the major manufacturers make a 50mm f/1.8 or similar at a bargain price. Someone said $100 for the Canon version. My Sony version (based on decades old Minolta lens design) cost me $150. BUY ONE !!! A very limiting lens. Hard to take good pictures rapidly at large aperture. Foot zoom needed for proper framing. Construction is usually light weight to keep price down. None of this matters. You are buying in each case a lens with performance far far outside its price class due to the relatively simple design and decades of amortisation. Possibly the best performance/$ you will ever get in a a new lens.

(3) Battery charging.

Solar charging is often not worth the effort. Once in a lifetime Galapagos tours (about on the equator in summer!) MAY be one occasion where it is.

You MAY wish to consider a solar based battery charger as an emergency backup, given comments by others on power availability in the Galapagos.

Battery capacity varies widely but a reasonably large battery by camera standards is teh Somy FM 500 rated at 7.2V (2 x LiIon cells) and 1600 mAh = 11.5 Watt hours. If you have a charger that accepts 12V and converts it efficiently to charge LiIon cells (as some do) then 15 Wh should be adequate to charge a 11.5 Wh battery. 2o Wh should be overkill.

Sunshine levels in the Galapagos at present are say 5.5 equivalent full-sunshine hours per day on average (based on Gaisma figures for Puerto Ayora - see 4th diagram down - insolation kWh/m^2/day = sunshine hours. To get 15 Wh in 5.5 hours you would need a 15/5.5 ~= 3 Watt panel and to charge 20 Wh in 5.5 hours about a 4W panel. A 5 Watt monocrystallne PV panel is not exactly tiny but would easily enough fit into portable luggage. It would be about 200mm square or 8" square or equivalent area or suitably smaller if a foldable version was used. You can get PET surface covered ones with a fibreglass sheet base which are thin and stiff and hard to break (almost luggage safe) and weigh around 200 grams (7 ounces) for 5+ Watts. (I have one I will weigh when I am next near it).

Foldable or portable version tend to be overpriced for that you get but if you are electrically competent or have a friend who is you should be able to build a very workable panel for about $25 of PV cells. (That's based on $US5/Watt for raw cells which is 5+ x Chinese market price and 3 or 4 times as much as US sellers are advertising on ebay. A 5W panel on average June of July day would charge the above battery in a day and maybe 1.5 of them in a day.

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Great stuff! Especially concerning battery is nice to know. I went to look at the Tamron here: tamron.com/en/photolens/di_II_all_in_one but i cant seem to understand the big difference between the PZD and the VC? –  JavaCake Jun 17 '12 at 7:57
    
The solar panel stuff is quite interesting. I work and educate in electronics so id be open for this solution. Do you have any links? –  JavaCake Jun 17 '12 at 14:38
    
@JavaCake - at a glance the VC has inbult stabilisation and the PZD has an ultrasonic internal motor. Neither appears to have both. Mine has neither. I think the optics are the same. Which is better depends on your usage. I'd probably opt for stabilisation if I did not have a Sony camera(which has antishake in the body). But would need to look at claimed PZD advantages. –  Russell McMahon Jun 18 '12 at 2:33
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@JavaCake - re solar. What sort of solar refs. I can give many many so a particular emphasis useful. I am arguably "highly expert" [tm] in that area. You may wish to get email address from my profile and contact me offlist. Google my name + BOGO to see some relevant things I am involved in. –  Russell McMahon Jun 18 '12 at 2:35
    
1. I have spoken to few people which recommended picking a non-IS model and budgetwise it makes a great difference. But im afraid that i might regret not choosing the IS lens. 2. I might contact you as soon as my UNI semester is over as it could be interesting to have a powersource on the boat. –  JavaCake Jun 18 '12 at 7:59

I was in the same situation as you last year. I was a beginner (still I am lol) hat my cam for a half year and I thought and thought I need to bring a lot of equipment to my 6 weeks trip to Indonesia.

What I've learned is that the gear is depending on what kind of holidays you do and with who you are spending your time. If you traveling with non photographer you probably won't have all the time you want/need to take your pictures, so you might be served best with the 18-200mm.

As you I like also taking pictures of peoples so in that situation I used the 50mm 1/4f. Cheap and great lens to taking portrait and peoples in general.

I had also a 100mm macro with me. This one I just used when I was alone and had a lot of time to waste. If that's not your case better spend money in something else.

I bought also a 10-22mm. Thought cool with this one I will make great panorama and nature pictures. Turns out that it was very difficult to use that lens and I almost never used it and the few pictures I took weren't that great at all.

I also had my giant tripod with me. I used it only 3-4 Times in 6 weeks as most of the activities i did during daytime, so again, depending on what time you want to take your pictures a heavy tripod might be overkill as well. go for a good pocket one or leave it at home.

having a good eye for things is more important than having a lot of expensive gear. i learned that the hard way as well :)

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Some excellent answers so far so I will add additional thoughts (I've been to the Galapogos once).

  • For visiting the smaller islands you will usually be ferrying around in small rubber boats, prone to waves or spray reaching you. As such either have a camera bag that seals up very well, even including a weather jacket, or bring along a dry bag (special bag for boats that totally seals to watertight in a moment) you can use while in transit (but don't be too afraid to take pictures while on the small boat, just be aware if a wake is headed for you).

  • Bring a sensor brush and good lens cleaning brushes/cloths/liquids as it's very easy for sand to get in things, or for water spray to get on the front on lenses.

  • Also bring some means to copy data from your memory cards. Every night back up the data from the memory cards. A dedicated HD with a reader works well, or you could even bring a small laptop or iPad (if it had enough space for what you think you would shoot). It's good to review shots at a fuller resolution at least a few times during a trip to make sure there's not much on the sensor.

  • I didn't use filters the whole time I was there... you may want a polarizer. I did bring a sun-shade for the lens though, normally I do not use them much but you'll be out in mid-day a lot and the sun is very direct.

  • You may want to consider getting a cheap underwater case for snorkeling (you will not be diving unless you are an extremely advanced diver). I have and like an EWA-Marine case; they are not as nice as hard-shelled cases but the soft cases can work pretty well. Practice in a swimming pool on some subject before you leave.

    http://www.ewa-marine.com/index.php?id=420&ca=&ra=&ext=&model=Canon%20EOS%20600D&L=0

  • Think ahead of time what animals will be in season while you are there, and what that might mean for photos.

  • Contrary to other advice I did use a tripod at times. Not every day, but on some of the islands with more distant birds the extra stability can be helpful. Some islands offer rain-forest treks, where it's much more dim Or, it can be useful for sunsets. If you like monopods those would be pretty useful, since you could also use them as a walking stick and there is no setup time.

I am also going to re-iterate the advice to have a pair of batteries charging while you are out exploring.

You can look over some of the shots I took while there to give you some ideas of what is practical for the average visitor (note that a few are from Ecuadaor beforehand, look for ones that start with "Galapogos"):

http://www.pbase.com/kgelner/bestofecuador2007

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Really useful info! Im going to consider a tripod.. Got any in mind? I already have a monopod from hama, which i was considering to bring along. –  JavaCake Jul 11 '12 at 11:13
    
I would recommend a light tripod if possible, basically anything you can travel with pretty easily... I used a Manfrotto 3021, which was actually rather large and heavy (it's an aluminum tripod) so something smaller and lighter would be great. The height was nice though. –  Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Jul 11 '12 at 22:02

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