a galapagos sea lion poses for a photographer

What Is the Single Best Lens for the Galapagos Islands?

To say that the Galapagos Islands are spellbinding is an understatement. From the wild, unique animals to the moon-like landscape juxtaposed with one of the most vibrant marine ecosystems in the world, there’s a lot going on in this archipelago.

The photo opportunities are spectacular. Part of this is for the reasons above, with all the oddities and spectacles that abound. But the other part is the amazing proximity you can get to the wildlife—all while maintaining superlative conservation standards.

This combo often yields a bit of speculation, bordering on confusion, about what lenses and camera gear one needs to bring for a voyage through the Galapagos Islands. For a full, in-depth review of all camera gear, take a look at my article on What’s in my Camera Bag for the Galapagos Islands.

However, you’ll quickly notice that it really boils down to just one lens I use 60–70% of the time. Read on to learn what that lens is and why it’s ideal for so many amazing photos in the Galapagos Islands.

a male blue footed booby proudly poses in the Galapagos

The Lens

I won’t keep you waiting! The lens I use and recommend for nearly two out of every three shots in the Galapagos is the venerable 70-200mm f/2.8. If you have one of these lenses, you know how amazing they are.

Most photographers will find any excuse to use this lens because it’s just that good.

It’s relatively light and small (compared to bigger f/2.8 telephotos, of course…it’s still large for someone not used to DSLRs), the optical quality is off the charts, and that f/2.8 is just dreamy.

But I’m not just going to stop here. I’d like to continue on with each major photo scenario and why this lens truly does stay on my camera most of the time while in the Galapagos.

For Wildlife

As I mentioned above, the wildlife in the Galapagos is usually quite close (except for maybe the Galapagos hawks), so using a bigger telephoto usually isn’t necessary. Most of your shots will be in the perfect range for the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. And what’s so great is that if you wish, you can use that amazing f/2.8 to f/4 range to get stunning bokeh (blurred background) on your wildlife shots, creating stunning portraits.

a small lava lizard perches on top of the head of a marine iguana in the galapagos islands

Sure, a 100-400mm might be good here and there, and there’s an adage that you can never have too much telephoto/zoom. So, I want to be clear that I’m not recommending you only bring a 70-200mm, as a 70-300 or 100-400 (or heck, one of the 300mm f/2.8 or 200-500mm super telephotos) can be great fun. But, you’ll see that the advantages of the 70-200mm make it a definite go-to for wildlife photography.

For Macro Photography

Similar to wildlife photography, macro photography shines when you can get up close to plants and animals.

Plants are, of course, a no-brainer, and there are some exquisite leaves, small flowers, and even other inanimate objects like seashells that are simply irresistible from a macro photography standpoint.

Urchin spines and tiny sea shells make up the sand on a galapagos beach

But as I continue to mention, you’ll likely get remarkably close to animals, too, like lava lizards, butterflies and perhaps even marine iguanas. Because of conservation regulations, you won’t be able to get within inches of the wildlife necessarily, but within a few feet is ideal for “macro photography” of the fantastic reptiles of the Galapagos.

This isn’t true macro photography with a 1:1 sensor ratio (don’t worry about what this means for now…), but you are capturing the essence of macro photography by making small things look larger than life and depicting them in a grandiose way.

To maximize the size of your subject in your camera’s sensor, zoom all the way to 200mm and dial the focusing ring to the minimum focusing distance. Then, move toward the flower or seashell until it comes into focus.  At this distance, you are achieving “minimum focusing distance” and optimizing the subject size in your camera.

For Landscape Photography

It may seem odd to use a telephoto as your go-to for landscape photography, but it’s pretty darn good for that, too!

I am a big fan of using telephotos in landscapes because they help break larger, often overly complex scenes into more simple, aesthetic elements.

a large green opuntia cactus is on the shore of galapagos islands

Many times, when you are in front of a beautiful landscape, your eyes do it justice, but with the various textures, contrasting light and features that just don’t look as big when in the camera, it’s key to think like a camera and resist the urge to capture the entire scene in one frame.

Instead, look around and break it into individual components.

In a place as marvelous as the Galapagos Islands, small parts of the scene before you are just as amazing and photogenic. It’s just a matter of training your eyes and brain to see landscape photography this way. But when you do, you’ll be delighted to see the world of additional photo opportunities and perspectives it gives you.

a blue wave crashes on the shore of the galapagos islands

In addition, with the shallow depth of field capable at f/2.8 and f/4, you can do some very creative things that you simply couldn’t do with a multipurpose wide-angle.

And last but not least, telephotos like the 70-200mm are phenomenal for sunset photography. For a full tutorial on this, check out my full article on Tips for Photographing Sunsets in the Galapagos Islands.

a bright orange and red sunset in the Galapagos over the horizon

Please note, you’ll still get plenty of use out of a wide angle and perhaps even an ultra-wide angle lens. But you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see the results of your trusty 70-200mm lens in landscape photography settings in the Galapagos.

For Travel Photography

Last but not least, general travel photography takes a life of its own when using the 70-200mm f/2.8. You can push the envelope with low light, whether that’s at the start or end of each day, or even in darker areas like lava caves or the inside of your yacht.

I particularly like using very shallow depths of field when it comes to travel photography, as it creates that interesting allure that causes the viewer to pause and really become entranced by an immersive shot.

a galapagos sea lion poses for a photographer

The 70-200mm is not surprisingly a favorite among portrait and event photographers, too. It’s a wonderful lens for photographing your fellow adventurers, your guides and groups of people due to its extremely high quality of optics and ability to turn normal photos into lovely, bokeh-filled portraits.

So there you have it! My top choice for “best lens to take with you to the Galapagos”—the extraordinary 70-200mm f/2.8! Whether you have a crop-frame or full-frame camera, this is a sensational lens.

Will you need and use other lenses on your adventure? You bet.

Don’t leave home without some sort of multi-purpose wide-angle lens like an 18-55mm or 24-105mm. And a larger telephoto will be fun and useful at times.

However, if you’re like most photographers who embark on a special adventure to the Galapagos to photograph its wonderous life and landscapes, you will go wild with the photo opportunities your 70-200mm lens provides.

Go forward and give it a shot!

Court Whelan Signature