Photographing Mountain Gorillas: All You Need To Know
Ahead of my upcoming Mountain Gorillas & Highlights of Rwanda photo safari I thought I'd answer the many questions I'm asked about gorillas, trekking to see them and how to photograph them.
Why Do It?
Photographing wild mountain gorillas is the most challenging and emotionally rewarding wildlife photo shoot I have had the privilege to experience. The intimate glimpse into the family lives of these most human of animals is something you will never forget, especially when you have insightful images to bring back home. For me photographing mountain gorillas is a wildlife photographers must-do.
But first things first…. you’ve got to get there! One of the reasons gorilla photography is such an incredible wildlife experience is that you have to put some authentic effort in to reach them, by trekking up the slopes of the volcanoes on which they live, either in Uganda or Rwanda.
It’s not always as daunting as it sounds though: gorilla families move around and some tend to live much lower down the slopes than others. A good tour guide will request a gorilla family that matches your group’s trekking abilities. Groups with more elderly or disabled guests can ask to be allocated closer gorilla families. However please note it is not guaranteed that you will get the group you want, and you must always be prepared for a lengthy, steep, rough and slippery challenge.
Having said that, we always go at the pace of the slowest person in the group, and stop for plenty of rests, to do some stunning landscape photography, and to discover the many plants and animals we encounter along the way.
The porters here are only upstaged by the gorillas as the stars of the day, not only for carrying your gear but also helping (hauling!) you up any tricky parts of the climb.
The trek can also be a wonderful chance to meet local people: in fact the walks on to the volcano are one of the highlights of the Rwanda trip, and many guests have said that even if there were no gorillas it would be a wonderful experience in its own right.
If you have any worries about your ability to complete the treks I’m always happy to talk it through and help you assess whether you’re fit enough to do the trekking – most reasonably fit people manage it fine….especially with the inspiration of gorillas at the end!
When We Reach The Gorillas
All our bags and walking sticks are collected together when we get within 100m of the gorillas. Have a quick breather then only take your valuables and cameras (with spare battery and memory cards in your pocket) when going in to spend your hour with your gorilla family.
Trai’s Top Tips for Gorilla Trekking:
Leave enough time on your trip to acclimatise to the altitude before your first trek
Drink lots of water with rehydration salts before and during your trek, and steer clear of alcohol the night before a trek as it has a greater effect at altitude.
Don’t rush your trek – you need to be in good shape for your hour with the gorillas, and there’s so much to enjoy and photograph on the way.
What To Wear
Sturdy walking shoes/boots.
Breathable layers - early starts can be chilly and walking during the day warm and humid at times.
Neutral colours are generally best when approaching wildlife
Lightweight waterproofs - it can rain at any time in the mountains
Long lightweight trousers that are strong enough to fend off nettles
Lightweight gardening gloves are also handy for this
Other Handy Things
Sturdy wooden walking sticks are provided, but you can bring your own lightweight walking poles.
I always bring a few energy bars along, plus lots of water and rehydration sachets.
Antibacterial hand gel - for those unscheduled wee stops en route!
Behaviour – Yours And The Gorillas!
Your Rwandan trekking guide will brief you on appropriate behaviour around gorillas before you leave for your trek. This is a fascinating insight into gorilla communication and culture. In brief, don’t try to stare down a gorilla, or tower over them in height – both are seen as threatening behaviour . Just crouch down, act subservient and avoid prolonged eye contact and you’ll be welcomed as one of the family!
To protect the gorillas from human germs a distance of 7m should be maintained. You should not approach a gorilla closer than this limit. However sometimes – in fact almost always – some gorillas will voluntarily come much closer than this. Don’t be afraid, they are gentle as a rule, and it is a thrill and a privilege to be so close to these beautiful, intelligent animals. Your guides will move you along safely when necessary.
Camera body (and a spare of some description - even just a phone)
Lenses - given how close we are to the gorillas I find my 70 - 200mm f2.8 very useful, although wider habitat shots from a 24-70mm are also very effective, and detail shots at 300 or even 400mm give amazing close ups, especially when shooting through foliage. Faster lenses (those that allow a wider aperture and have lower f-stop values) will work best here, as we will often be shooting in cloudy conditions and in the shadow of undergrowth and trees. They will also give a shallower depth of field and therefore a more pleasing blur to the surrounding foliage.
Please note it is not permitted to use flash photography anywhere around the gorillas. Flash must be switched off altogether.
Tripods and monopods are also forbidden on most treks, as unfortunately some of the gorillas have memories of poachers attacking them and their families with spears, sticks and other weaponry. They can't distinguish between camera supports and these weapons, and may be disturbed by the sight of similar looking gear. Your walking sticks will also be collected on final approach to your gorilla family.
Some kind of waterproof cover for your camera and lens - doesn't have to be mega-expensive, I've used real cheapies from the internet and they've done the job without weighing me down.
Plenty of spare charged batteries,
Plenty of spare cleared memory cards
These will depend very much on conditions on the day, and the sort of photography you favour. I will always go through our settings thoroughly before embarking on our trek, and I am available throughout for advice and help with technical queries and creative inspiration.
General Tips for Gorilla Photography
Turn Your Flash Off: no flash photography is allowed around the gorillas – you must ensure your flash is switched off prior to your visit.
Shooting Mode: I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode ( A / Av ) because in my experience the light conditions are usually changing constantly as the gorillas move from light to shade. If there was consistent diffuse light from thick cloud cover I might consider switching to Manual mode (M).
Shoot in RAW if you are confident to do so. It gives you much greater scope to post process and be creative with your images.
Aperture: as noted above ‘faster’ lenses (those with a wider aperture and lower f-stop values) will work best here, as they allow the most available light into your camera sensor, and we will often be shooting gorillas in dim conditions in the shadow of undergrowth and trees. Wider apertures also give a shallower depth of field and therefore a more pleasing blur or bokeh to the surrounding foliage.
ISO: gorillas will often be in the shade of the forest canopy , so high ISO values will be needed to generate sufficiently high shutter speeds.
Shutter Speed: as you’ll have to hand-hold your long lens remember the rule of thumb and keep your shutter speed faster than 1/focal length…much faster in the case of youngsters playing and barreling through the undergrowth! Then you’ll need at least 1/1000th second.
Stabilisation: your lens stabiliser should be switched ON and set to Normal / Mode1.
Exposure Compensation: this is also an important tool when shooting in Aperture Priority mode. You may need to dial in negative values to around -2 to preserve the tones and details in faces and fur in dark conditions, and for gorilla close-ups where they fill the frame. Do also be careful if gorillas are out in the open in harsh sunlight: their fur can be quite shiny and the resulting highlights are easy to burn out.
Focus and Metering – I personally prefer to stay in AF-Continuous / AI-Servo most of the time, as you never know when youngsters in particular are going to start moving around fast. I normally also stick with a single focus point and spot metering to ensure my composition and exposure of the subject is bang on.
If you have two DSLR camera bodies I would advise taking both, one with a wider lens and one with a longer telephoto. Zooms and primes are both fine but I personally prefer a flexible 70-200mm F2.8 and 200-400mm F4 set up, which also gives me some good options for video and saves changing lenses to get contextual shots and close-up shots. But please note that you can’t put anything down in the vicinity of the gorillas, in case they make off with it, so you’ll always have to ‘wear’ the camera you’re not actually using on a belt or neck strap.
If you have one DSLR camera body you may wish to consider one of the zooms with a wider range such as 70-300, 80-400 etc, bearing in mind that faster lenses are preferable. Of course if you have a bridge or compact camera with a super zoom you won’t have to worry about either wide angle or telephoto shots, it’s all there in one neat package: on my photography safaris you can bring whatever kind of camera gear you have and I’ll help you get the very best out of it.
Trai’s Top Tips for Photographing Gorillas
It’s easy to just fire away at every opportunity, but try to focus on a range of shots you would like to capture – wide and close portraits, details, various behaviours and interactions etc and watch for those opportunities as well as the spontaneous shots.
...But this amazing wildlife experience shouldn’t just be about the photography, so my top tip is to put down your camera every so often, and just marvel at being trusted by these wonderful animals and welcomed into their family for a while.
My next Mountain Gorillas and Highlights of Rwanda photography safari departs August 6th 2017 and includes 2 gorilla treks as well as chimpanzee, golden monkey and colobus treks plus stunning landscapes and wildlife around Lake Kivu & Nyungwe, and Kigali city and community highlights.
Join me for the wildlife photography experience of a lifetime!