Raised in the heart of the Galápagos Archipelago, biologist, naturalist, and certified photo instructor Socrates Tomala has never taken his daily interactions with 500-pound tortoises, barking sea lions, or mating blue-footed boobies for granted.

“People don’t necessarily have a close encounter with nature every day like I do,” he says. “My mission as a naturalist, as a photographer—a storyteller—is to create awareness. Why should we save the oceans around the Galápagos, why should we save the trees in the Amazon, why do these places matter for the planet, and not just for the countries where they're found. That’s my passion: to convey information, show places, and create awareness about the changing planet that we live on and how our actions, whether big or small, count.”

Here, Tomala combines his deep knowledge about Galápagos and its wildlife with his photography expertise to share tips for taking your best shots no matter the light or subject. –As told to Anastasia Mills Healy

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Be Selective About the Subject

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All photos: Socrates Tomala

I took this photo early in the morning at Espumilla Beach on Santiago Island. This beach is known for ghost crabs—they appear and disappear (like ghosts!) in the holes they dig in the sand. There are thousands of them but trying to include too many things in a frame can often backfire. If the subjects are small, you’re not going to see much of the action happening and the eye won’t know where to look if the frame is crowded. Instead, focus in on just a few individuals and always try to go for uneven numbers. Notice the reflection: The water is smoothing out the sand and you have a mirror image. There’s an odd number of subjects so it’s asymmetrical but it’s also symmetrical because of that reflection, so it’s pleasing to the eye. When you have that you have a great photo.

Overexposure Can Work In Your Favor

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The red-billed tropicbird is fast and it lives on cliffs. It’s best to shoot a white tropicbird against dark cliffs to get that nice contrast but, of course, if you’re standing on the cliffs that’s not possible. To differentiate the bird from the sky, overexpose the shot so the brights are brighter and the wings of the bird stand out against the clouds. To capture the bird in flight you’ll need a telephoto lens, at least 200 mm, and you’ll want to modify the shutter speed. Go to shutter priority and set your shutter speed, leaving ISO on automatic to get the proper exposure. Set it to 1/1000th of a second or higher depending on how fast the subject is. In my shot, the setting is at 1/2000th of a second.

Work the Scene & Shoot at Eye Level

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Sometimes there may be people walking around or a Galápagos sea lion decides to lay right in front of the Zodiac, and there’s nothing you can do about that. But by using portrait mode on iPhone, you can blur out the background and focus on the subject in the foreground. Your eyes are not wandering in the frame; they’re locked on that sea lion. It’s also important to try isolating colors so you’re not shooting a dark brown sea lion against black lava rock. Instead, keep moving around to work the scene until you find an angle that will make the subject pop and not blend in too much with the background. Here, I’ve included the blue ocean and sky. Lastly, you want to get down to eye level of the subject.

Be Ready for Sunsets

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Unlike other places like Antarctica or Alaska, where sunsets seem endless and you can take your time photographing, sunsets on the Equator last just a heartbeat. During the golden hour, the best light comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Be ready and in the moment with the right settings. Have your shutter speed ready, have your aperture ready and your exposure. If you’re not sure what settings to use don’t worry, your certified photo instructor will be there on board to help you set it up. At sunset, you don’t have to work with backlight; the light is soft and you normally have diffused skies. Everyone photographs Kicker Rock but it’s difficult to get a sense of scale. Here, a boat was circumnavigating the formation which gave it that good perspective and I photographed it in sunset light from the deck.

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Use Leading Lines and Don't Forget About People

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It’s important to photograph people, and not just animals, since people are also going to be part of your voyage’s story. Rather than doing a more posed snapshot where people are waving and looking directly at you, try to tell a story with it. I encourage guests to get active shots like walking, kayaking, or paddleboarding where the subjects are in the moment and not looking into the camera. For this shot, I wanted people coming down the stairs so I could get the sky in the back and isolate the orange rock. You have these beautiful contrasts of colors: the teal-like blue and the orange in the center of the image. That’s color science and it works perfectly. But when you take a photo like this it can look too flat. How do you introduce depth? You use diagonal lines, in this case the leading lines of the staircase. I decided to frame it coming from one side of the shot all the way to the other corner with the people coming down. A leading line is something that leads you to the subject. The eyes do not wander in the frame.

Look for Interesting Contrast

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This was a rare sighting of a Galápagos short-eared owl on Genovesa Island. You have to know where to look—you can find them in the daylight down on the ground because they are diurnal and feed on storm petrels that nest on the ground. In this shot, I used the vegetation to frame the subject. Since the brush is brighter than the owl it creates the perfect contrast. Using a shallow depth of field to blur out the brush in front and back makes the image even more dramatic and draws your attention directly to the animal. To create depth of field, use portrait mode in your automatic settings or shoot in aperture priority and dial in a small number like F2.8-F4.

Wait for Fish to Swim to You

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This is a yellowtail surgeonfish and they travel in big schools. Determine the pattern of motion of a school of fish. Watch them for a while and try to anticipate their actions, then position yourself where they will go and wait for them to swim to you. But don’t swim into them—they will quickly scatter. Another thing to keep in mind when photographing under water: you don’t want to shoot in direct sunlight because the sun hits the particles in the water and highlights what we call the backscatter. That will cause the whole frame to fill up with little shiny things. You want to go in between the light and the dark, to a place that has soft shadows. If it’s a wall, you go near the wall and then start exposing from there.

Ready to create and capture your memories? Join any of our Galápagos itineraries and benefit from our exclusive photography program. Or for a more in-depth experience, join one of our Photo Expeditions and add on a Photo Extension in Yasuni National Park.