How a photo disaster showed me what it’s all about

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Now and then, no matter how much you prepare, you run into a photo disaster. One happened to me on my recent trip to the Galapagos, but through a combination of good planning and good luck (mostly good luck), it all ended up well.

Here’s the story. Since this trip took me to a world-famous wildlife habitat, I figured I’d better come loaded for bear. That meant taking my single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, a Canon 60D, plus my big 100-400-millimetre telephoto lens. I always take a second, smaller camera as a backup, too — something to slip in my pocket when I don’t want a big camera hanging off my shoulder. Usually I borrow one from a camera company, but with all the preparations, I didn’t have time.

My regular compact camera was in need of repair. What to take? I looked around, and my eye fell on my old Nikon P4.  I’ve had it for close to 10 years, and it looks prehistoric beside the sleek new models on the shelves today, kind of fat and ungainly. It won’t even take a memory card bigger than 1 gigabyte. But it still takes good pictures, and even some decent video. So in my bag it went.

Nikon P4 camera

Everything went well for the first few days of my trip. I put the SLR to good use in Quito, and then during my first days on the Galapagos, getting shots like this.

Quito plaza

But on my second or third day in the Galapagos, I decided it was time to recharge the battery. I went into my bag to get the charger, but it wasn’t where it should have been. I looked in some other compartments, searched the hidden corners of the bag. No luck. I tore my luggage apart, finding things I’d lost years ago, but no charger. Slowly, finally, I realized just where it was — back in Toronto. Photo disaster.

I had about a quarter-charge left on the battery, enough for a day or two if I made every shot count. But soon enough, as I shot pictures of a little heron on Isabela Island, the camera went dead. From then on, it was up to the little Nikon, with occasional help from a miniature GoPro camera my friend Maarten had loaned me.

I was now a point-and-shoot photographer, and for the next few days, as I travelled around the Galapagos, I pointed and shot — literally, at times. While the little Nikon’s works were fine, the monitor was pretty much impossible to see in bright sunlight. And there was lots of bright sunlight, from white sand beaches to sun-baked islands. Sometimes I just pointed at the spot where my subject was, pushed the shutter and prayed.

Sea lion and pup

And even in those conditions, some surprisingly decent photos started coming out. Each night I looked at what I’d shot, punched up a few pictures using the little photo editor in my laptop, and posted them on The Travelling Boomer. It was almost as if losing the big camera didn’t matter. And people started commenting == not on how they liked the posts but how they loved the photos.

There was still one problem, though: I was there to take photos of the famous Galapagos wildlife, and with only a 3.5X zoom, this was no wildlife camera. But luck was with me again. The Galapagos is one of the few places on earth where you can just walk up to wild creatures and take their picture. Not having been hunted for hundreds of years CH, most of them are totally unafraid of people.

On North Seymour Island, I was amazed to be shooting photos of frigate birds while standing almost right beside their  nests. And as we waited to take the Zodiac shuttle back to the boat, I took photos of a pair of swallow-tailed gulls from three or four feet away. Later, in Puerto Ayora, I managed some useable shots of Galapagos mockingbirds as they flew around me on the path to the beach.

Galapagos mockingbird

I didn’t give up on my SLR, of course. I looked in vain for another charger, but even the photo shop I did find on the islands had nothing that would work. Finally, I spied another tourist pulling a high-end Canon out of his pack, I pleaded with him to give me a boost from his charger. Problem was, he was an Aussie, and his charger was made for their electrical system and wouldn’t work with my battery (at least, that’s what he told me).

By the time I returned to the mainland, I didn’t really care any more. I left the big camera and the big lens hidden in my room and roamed the streets with my little Nikon, adding a shot here and there with the GoPro.

I missed some shots, of course. And my night photography left something to be desired — a little on the grainy side. But after a while I realized that it’s more about the eye that sees the picture than the camera that takes it. And that’s what travel photography is about, seeing photographs appear in front of you, or watching them develop as you wait for the perfect moment.

Quechua with sheep Otavalo Ecuador

I also realized once again that if you buy a good camera, you can use it for a long time and still get good results. The Nikon had originally been a $500 camera, with an 8-megapixel sensor, shake reduction and some manual controls — hot stuff in its day. And almost 10 years later, it was still doing the job, despite all the wear and tear.

I won’t give up using the amazing new cameras they’re putting out today, of course. Better sensors, clever new features, weather-sealed bodies, flip-up monitors you can actually see in sunlight: the camera companies are making some truly useful improvements. And I’ll still use my SLR to shoot birds and other wildlife.

But it’s good to be reminded now and then that it’s the seeing and not the shooting that makes the shot. So even if you can’t afford a pricey camera with all the bells and whistles — or even if you ave a photo disaster — you can still take good shots. All it takes is knowing what to look for, and how to capture it. And if you want to know more about how to do that, you’ll find some helpful tips here.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep shooting with whatever I can line up. You might even see a few shots taken on my new cell phone.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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