The Galapagos, Nature Photography and Digital Technology


WC was lucky enough to take a trip to the Galapagos Islands in 2002. Ken Whitten and Mary Zalar put the trip together, and because they had been there before, laid out a trip that got to some of the more remote islands and landings. We spent fifteen days in the Galapagos, made 26 different landings and saw nearly all of the endemic birds, reptiles and mammals the Islands had to offer. It’s an extraordinary place, and should be on your bucket list.

But that’s not the topic of this blog. That was also the last trip WC made where he shot images on film. Or the first trip when he shot digital images. Because WC used both kinds of camera.

Digital photography was still in its infancy in 2002. But it may be instructive to compare digital shots and scanned film shots from that trip, as well as showing those who haven’t been there just how wonderful the Enchanted Islands are.

Here’s a shot of a South Plaza Island Land Iguana, taken with a film camera and later scanned.

Land Iguana, South Plaza Island, Olympus L3 w/ Velvia film

Land Iguana, South Plaza Island, Olympus L3 w/ Velvia film

The Olympus L3 was a pretty decent prosumer camera, with a good telephoto range, good ability to control camera settings and a crisp lens. What it did not have  was a depth of field preview. This shot wuld be better if more of the animal were in focus. Lord knows there’s enough light at the Equator. The exposure is very good, and the detail is excellent.

Here’s a shot of the Land Iguana’s seagoing cousin, the Marine Iguana, taken with a Canon C2500L, a state of the art circa 2000 digital camera.

Marine Iguana, Fernandina Island. Olympus C2500L

Marine Iguana, Fernandina Island. Olympus C2500L

While the camera has a manual mode, there were only two apertures available. So you pretty much had to let what we’d call Program Mode today control the camera. You can see the C2500L struggled with the white head (crusted salt) and the darkish body of the iguana on the dark grey lava. The sensor range just wasn’t adequate to the range of light in the shot.

Here’s a film shot of another the Galapagos signature animals, the giant land tortoises. This one is a Saddleback, endemic to San Cristobal Island.

Saddleback Tortoise, San Cristobal Island, Olympus L3, Velvia film

Saddleback Tortoise, San Cristobal Island, Olympus L3, Velvia film

It was extremely hot and extremely bright. The sun, as you can see from the shadows, was directly overhead. The L3 and Velvia film managed the bright and shadows quite well; the pale, sunlit branches aren’t blown and the shadows on the tortoise still give some details. Only the bit of coral in the foreground is over bright.

Here’s a digital photo of a Domed Tortoise on Santa Fe Island.

Saddleback Tortoise, San Cristobal Island, Olympus L3, Velvia film

Domed Tortoise, Santa Fe Island, Olympus C2500L, f11, 1/400

Once again, the C2500L’s sensor struggled with the light range in the shot. The highlights on the shell are blown, as are some of the branches. The detail isn’t very good throughout most of the shot, even at f11.

It’s only in the last few years that digital single lens reflex cameras have surpassed the very best film SLR cameras, especially in difficult light conditions. Certainly, digital SLRs have long surpassed film in terms of convenience, in terms being certain you’ve gotten the shot, or a number of variations on the shot. Twelve years is a very long time in technology, and digital single lens reflex cameras demonstrate the improvement as well as any other technology.

WC will return to the Galapagos and the merits of digital and film cameras in a later post.