Photographing Mountain Gorillas: All You Need To Know
Category: Photographing Mountain Gorillas
Ahead of my upcoming Uganda Photography Safari with Gorilla, Chimpanzee & More African Wildlife Highlights I thought I'd answer the many questions I'm asked about photographing mountain gorillas and what it's like trekking to find them.
Why Do It?
Photographing mountain gorillas in the wild is the most challenging, and also the most emotionally rewarding, wildlife photography shoot I've 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 simply a wildlife photographers "must-do".
Photographing Mountain Gorillas: The Trek
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 finding them, by trekking up the slopes of the volcanoes on which they live, either in Uganda or Rwanda (or occasionally the Democratic Republic of Congo).
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.
Photographing Mountain Gorillas is not the only highlight!
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.
When you're considering photographing mountain gorillas you may wonder about your ability to complete the treks. If so I’m always happy to talk it through, and help you assess whether you’re fit enough to do the trekking, and discuss the many ways we can make it do-able for you. Reassuringly, 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. Take the time to have a quick breather, some water and a snack to keep you at your best for your hour with the gorillas. Leave any bags behind with the guards, taking only your valuables and cameras with you. Make sure you have spare batteries and memory cards safely stowed in your pockets. You're not allowed to leave anything lying around - these are curious creatures - so everything you take with you must be carried securely at all times.
Trai’s Top Tips for Photographing Mountain Gorillas:
Leave enough time on your trip to acclimatise to the altitude before your first trek. You may struggle for breath for a few days if you live near sea level like me.
Drink lots of water with rehydration salts before and during your trek, and steer clear of alcohol the night before a trek - 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
For the foreseeable future Covid masks must be worn when near gorillas
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 - helps ensure you are Covid safe, and handy 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 standard distance of 7m should be maintained. With Covid-19 additional restrictions may be enforced. You should never 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.
Suggested Photography Kit for Photographing Mountain Gorillas
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
Camera Settings for Photographing Mountain Gorillas
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. As a guide here are some general tips for photographing mountain gorillas:
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. However when using a longer lens at relatively close range your depth of field will be squeezed, and a large silverback gorilla's face may not all be in focus if you use a very wide aperture. It is worth making sure your depth of field is sufficient for the nose to be in focus as well as the eyes if that's what you want in your shot.
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 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 remember 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.
Final Thoughts On Photographing Mountain Gorillas
It’s easy to just fire away at every opportunity, but try to think in advance about a range of shots you would like to capture – wide and close portraits, details, various behaviours and interactions etc and keep watching for those opportunities as well as the spontaneous shots.
...But this amazing wildlife experience shouldn’t just be about the photography, so my best 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.
Join Me for the Wildlife Photography Experience of a Lifetime - Photographing Mountain Gorillas, Chimps And More in Uganda!
My next safari focussed on photographing mountain gorillas departs 21st October 2021. Included in this safari are 2 mountain gorilla trekking permits, chimpanzee full day habituation experience permit, half day chimpanzee trek permit, shoebill canoe safari, savannah safari with tree-climbing lions, birding options, community options and a dazzling array of Uganda's spectacular landscapes.
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