It can be a tough trek to get to the gorillas. Three hours of steep climbing through thick jungle at high altitude (up to 3000 meters) can take its toll, but it’s so worth the effort. In fact, seeing mountain gorillas in their natural habitat in Uganda and Rwanda are up there as my best wildlife experiences of all time. It’s not only that they are so rare (there are only about 750 left in the wild) but also because they are so gentle, expressive and very, very human.
What to take to photograph gorillas
You are going to need sturdy boots, long trousers, long sleeved shirts and a waterproof poncho top which is great for going over your gear. It’s misty up in the mountains and rain can come at any time. Gloves are also useful for the nettles.
I recommend two SLR cameras – it’s great to have a backup and have two lenses mounted at one time without having to do lens changes which can be dodgy in humid conditions. The best lenses are those with a wide aperture such as f2,8 which allow in max light and are best in gloomy conditions. A 24 – 70mm and a 70 – 200mm is a good combination. If you have space, then consider a 300mm and a wide angle but it’s a steep walk so consider hiring a porter. A 50 mm 1.4 lens is also ideal for low light shooting and something to consider as a standard lens.
You may want to carry your gear in a small backpack type camera bag, which should have a plastic cover in case of rain. It’s also a good idea to have a few extra bags in case there is a downpour. I also have a Thinktank Hydrophoebia which is a fantastic bag that lets you keep shooting in the rain. Lowepro and Thinktank make some very great gear modular gear. Bear in mind that when you find the gorillas you will likely abandon your bags for safekeeping and only take minimal gear for the close encounter. I have a Spider Holster, which is great for hands free camera work as it lets me clip a camera to my belt.
You will not be allowed to take a tripod or monopod with you on the trek. But you will be issued with a wooden walking stick and this can be a great support if you are shooting in low light.
Make sure your batteries are charged and you have empty cards in the camera with lots of space. You don’t want to be caught short.
Camera settings for photographing gorillas
Shooting in RAW format is the way to go. A jpeg is smaller in size because it discards a lot of information and so information cannot be retrieved if your exposure is slightly out. If you are shooting in jpeg (and I don’t recommend you do) make sure your camera is set to the largest file size and also set your white balance according to the light conditions.
ISO and shutter speed
It can get dark in the forest – very dark. And gorillas are very dark subjects. If you have a Nikon D3x or D800 you can shoot at ISO 3200 and get away with it very well. My recommendation however is to try to keep in the range of IS0 800 to 2000 for maximum quality of image. High ISO gives a faster shutter speed but can affect quality and cause noise. Keep ISO as low as possible without getting blurred images. A rule of thumb is don’t shoot below 1/200th of a second with a 200mm lens. If you are using an 80mm lens then you can shoot at slower speeds of say 1/80th and so on. If the gorillas are on the move, you should up your shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second or more.
Metering and priority settings
A good default setting is to use centre weighted metering, aperture priority and an aperture of f5.6 or so. If there is a lot of dark gorillas in the viewfinder you will need to underexpose by up to two stops of light – 2 using your AE +/- button or you will overexpose your image. It is also a good idea to consider manual shooting if you are in fairly consistent lighting conditions. Your camera likes shooting subjects where the differences in exposure are not too extreme and it’s for this reason that cloudy or shady conditions are often best for shooting dark subjects like gorillas.
Single point focus is usually always best – you don’t want the camera focusing on the tree instead of the gorilla and usually you will want to lock your focus on the eyes. If you have a group of gorillas that you want to keep as much in focus as possible then focus about 1/3 into the picture. You may want to change focus to multi-point if you have lots of moving subjects but suggest single focus points will give you more control. You will probably shoot on single shot but may want to change your focus settings to continuous focus and rapid fire if they are on the move and playful.
Shooting tips for gorillas
When you are with the gorillas there is a 7-meter buffer rule between you and animals. The reason is that their DNA is so close to ours that it is very easy for them to pick up flu and colds. Gorillas don’t know this rule and so don’t be surprised if they do approach closer (and be ready for it with a wide lens available), but if the guides ask you to move away then always do so smartly.
Your time with the gorillas is precious. Don’t shoot away wildly. Plan your shots. Close ups, wide shots, angles and framing. Think about your options. Also don’t forget the wide shots but make sure that you don’t spend the whole time looking through the lens. Sit and watch and consider the fact that you are watching one of the gentlest and most fascinating creatures on the planet.
As with all wildlife photography it’s about the moment. Try to catch the little moments such as when the gorillas are interacting or when the sun catches their eyes. Also, why not video your friends as soon as its over and let them tell you about their experiences of this fantastic experience.