Sunday, June 11, 2017

Galapagos Islands on a Budget

I have never really looked at the Galapagos islands as one of my destinations, mainly because of my perceived costs of the cruises going there. But a chance conversation with a friend pointed me to the possibility of a Galapagos trip in an "independent" fashion. And so, I made it to the Galapagos Islands on a "budget"!

The Galapagos Islands lie about 900km west of Ecuador (which it is part of), and consists of a couple of main islands, a dozen other smaller ones and many more islets. They are well-known for the biodiversity available only in this region, which contributed largely to the formulation of Charles Darwin’s famous theory of evolution.

Of these islands, only Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal have access to an airport. So, independent travelers can fly in/out of any one of two — you could also fly in one, and out from another, which can be a nice arrangement if you are doing island-hopping. Several airlines fly there from either Quito or Guayaquil, so check out your favorite airline booking site. Flights can get as cheap as US$300 return, so do buy your tickets in advance. My trip to the Galapagos was a last minute decision, so I could only afford 5 days, and so I limited myself to only 1 island, and got myself return tickets to Santa Cruz island from Quito.

Now, the airport is actually on Baltra island, a tiny island just for the airport, and then you'll get a free shuttle transfer to the ferry port. From there, a US$2 ferry brings you to Santa Cruz island proper where you will then take a US$2 bus transfer to the town of Puerto Ayora.

There are clear information in the airport on how to connect to the islands

From Puerto Ayora, there are many tourist agencies that can arrange all manner of activities - from wildlife viewing to scuba-diving. Now, one of the advantages of coming to Puerto Ayora for independent travel, is that Santa Cruz itself has quite a number of attractions that you can visit yourself! Of course, for more intimate encounters with wildlife, especially those underwater, an arranged tour with an agency would be inevitable. So set aside some budget for that. But you do have the option and flexibility to choose what and where to go. There are a variety of day tours in all the agencies you can choose from, so you can shop around. Various islands in the Galapagos offer different wildlife viewing opportunities, and most of the uninhabited islands can only be visited by official tour operators and cruises. This ensures that the delicate ecosystem within the Galapagos is not overly affected by tourism. A typical day tour costs from us$130-$180, and there are of course 2 or 3-day tours as well. Do readup on the various attractions in your favorite guidebook.

As for accommodation, options range from hostels with dorm beds to comfortable hotels, so there's something to cater for everyone. I got myself a hotel with private bathroom for us$30+ a night, so it wasn't as bad as I initially thought! (Tip: It can get quite hot during the day, so having air-conditioning is a good thing....)

And similarly for the food, there are actually budget options in the form of small local eateries offering set menu del dias (menu of the day). There are also more upscale restaurants, as well as touristy night markets that offer fairly good seafood!

The other two islands (Isabela and San Cristóbal) that support independent travel infrastructure similarly has budget options, although it may be slightly more limited than Puerto Ayora. I did not have time to visit them, so I could not provide more info but the point I am putting across is that the Galapagos islands can be visited and enjoyed in some manner by budget travelers. And you could actually mix the independent budget travel with a cruise too, as many agencies on Puerto Ayora offer last minute discounted cruise deals!

And the Galapagos islands are indeed a destination worth checking out! In one of my wildlife encounters, someone was taking photos with an iPhone, and someone remarked that only in the Galapagos could someone shoot wildlife with a mobile. Indeed, one could get really close to the wildlife here, and as testament to that, all photos shown in this blog post are taken on an iPhone 7plus!!


Getting real close to birds and wildlife

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Travel Photography with the iPhone II (dual lens!)

This is an update to my blog entry on Travel Photography with the iPhone. Specifically, an update to the point about add-on lens for the iPhone to expand its focal length. As many would have known by now, the iPhone 7 plus now comes with dual lens inbuilt. This effectively means that I can now have a always-carry-around-with-me camera which wields a nice 28-56mm focal length!

In addition to the expanded focal length, the IOS Camera app is also updated with a new feature called "Portrait Mode". Now, Photographers all over love taking people photos with beautiful "bokeh" - the creamy blurred background that makes the subject stands out so beautifully. The portrait mode in the Camera app essentially tries to emulate that - pseudo digitally. It uses the 2 lens in the camera, and digitally combine them to simulate the bokeh effect. The purpose of this article though, is not to explain the technical aspects of this portrait mode. Rather, my aim is to show what can be achieved with this feature in reality, esp for travel photography!

Now, the portrait mode is far from perfect. However, with some understanding of the behavior/quirks of the feature, I have to say that the results can be pretty impressive!  Here's a few pointers on utilising the portrait mode of the iPhone 7 plus :

  1. Firstly, while its labeled as "Portrait" in the Camera app, you obviously don't need to use it for people portraits.  You can use it for any subject that you want to isolate and have a nice blurred background. After all, after "processing" the shot, the image is marked with a "Depth Effect" label in your image gallery. So yes, essentially you can use "portrait mode" for anything that you want to create a "depth effect"...!
  2. In order for the Camera app algorithm to create the bokeh/depth effect, the focal length is fixed at the "tele" end,  ie 56mm, and the subject needs to be literally confined to a certain distance from the camera (the app will tell you to move further/nearer etc). So it is not as flexible as like a DSLR with a 50mm lens with a wide aperture. Learn to know this distance so that you know what sized subject is best for your creative composition.
  3. Choose well-defined subjects too, so that the app can clearly "guess" the whole subject. Subjects like bushes with thin branches/stems or subjects with fuzzy lines will confuse the app. 
That seemed rather restricted, isn't it? But the reality is that, I now DO have the additional creative capability. Remember, all my other points about travel photography with the iPhone (in my previous post) are still very much valid! I still carry a DSLR or mirrorless with me on my travels, but as a testament to what I've written about "the best camera is the one with you", 60+% of all my photos which I've selected and deemed suitable for sharing/display is from the iPhone!

Check out the gallery of images below taken during my 3-months trip to Europe and South America. They are all taken using the depth effect of the portrait mode of iPhone 7 plus. Looks good?


Finally, here's one example that the app failed to properly define the subject :

Notice how the leaf on the right has lost its branch, which has been "blurred" by the app...