Mountain Gorilla Photography Tips

Natural World Safaris

27 Jan 2015

Advice for photographing the mountain gorillas

For most of us who are lucky enough to have a wildlife experience as magical as going to see the mountain gorillas, capturing the moment on camera is an important part of the experience. So, I wanted to share my top tips on what sort of equipment you should take and how to get the most out of it whilst you are there.

Camera

A decent quality digital SLR is the best tool for the job in most wildlife photography and photographing the mountain gorillas is no exception. If you are lucky enough to own a full frame SLR then this is best due to the higher performance in low light situations that you are likely to find yourself in. However, that is not to say that a cropped sensor will not do a decent job for you, in fact for most people the performance would be more than acceptable. It is worth noting that on a cropped sensor SLR your zoom lenses will be extended depending on the size of the sensor. A 1.6x sensor for example will multiply the focal length of your lenses by that factor, this can be especially useful for other parts of your safari, for example, a 200mm lens on a 1.6x sensor would be equivalent to a 320mm zoom (200 x 1.6 = 320), could be handy for that far away cheetah sitting in the sunlight in Tanzania.

Lenses

When selecting lenses many people elect for long telephoto zooms when travelling on safari. While these are often the best tool for the job when you are in somewhere like the Serengeti, they can be a bit too much when visiting the mountain gorillas. The reason for this is that, ideally, you should be around 7 metres from the gorillas, which is significantly closer than you are likely to be to a leopard in a tree. If somebody else was paying for it (and carrying it!) I would love to go with 2 x Canon 1dx bodies fitted with Canon EOS battery grips, a medium telephoto such as a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM coupled with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM. But as this blog and my trips are based in reality, I went with none of those things whatsoever. It is all well and good saying that this is best or that is the best, but I shot exclusively on a Canon 50D with a Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3, which is significantly cheaper, and lighter.

Essentially, what I am getting at here is that you should take the best equipment you can afford and remember a good photographer with an average camera will outperform an average photographer with an expensive camera every time. 

Try not to get to too hung up on equipment and spend some time learning how to use your equipment and this will get you a lot further than just spending money on flashy equipment.

Miscellaneous Equipment

When selecting lenses many people elect for long telephoto zooms when travelling on safari. While these are often the best tool for the job when you are in somewhere like the Serengeti, they can be a bit too much when visiting the mountain gorillas. The reason for this is that, ideally, you should be around 7 metres from the gorillas, which is significantly closer than you are likely to be to a leopard in a tree. If somebody else was paying for it (and carrying it!) I would love to go with 2 x Canon 1dx bodies fitted with Canon EOS battery grips, a medium telephoto such as a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM coupled with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM. But as this blog and my trips are based in reality, I went with none of those things whatsoever. It is all well and good saying that this is best or that is the best, but I shot exclusively on a Canon 50D with a Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3, which is significantly cheaper, and lighter.

Essentially, what I am getting at here is that you should take the best equipment you can afford but try not to get to too hung up on equipment and spend some time learning how to use your system and this will get you a lot further than just spending money on expensive kit.

Other than that, plenty of memory card space, additional batteries. Check that memory cards are empty and batteries are full before you set off, and give your lens a nice clean before you leave as well.

Tripods seemed very popular amongst other people in my group when I visited the gorillas, maybe I am missing something, but I really did not see the point. Why would you need a tripod when you are shooting something so close.... that moves. It is rare that a gorilla will sit still enough to allow you the benefit of shooting with a slow shutter speed so what is the point of the tripod? A tripod worth having is absurdly heavy and gets in everyone else’s way, if someone can tell me the benefit of this that would be great! I am a big believer that hand held is the way to go, increase the ISO if you need to shoot at higher shutter speeds but I would personally avoid restricting myself with a tripod.

Camera Setup

Sorry to point to the obvious here but in case you didn’t know... Gorillas are big and black! They also live in an environment that is predominantly dark green. This can often confuse a camera’s light meter and result in overexposure; as a result I would highly recommend setting your camera to underexpose by about 1.5 stops to compensate for this. Always shoot in RAW if you can as this will afford you far greater flexibility in post processing and allow for some slight corrections to the exposure and a number of other aspects of your final image.

Also I tend to either open up the aperture as far as I can and let the camera decide the appropriate shutter speed or if the light is low then I will set the shutter speed to be as fast as slow as I can get away with and let the camera decide the aperture. Remember there is always a bit of flexibility with the image in post processing, particularly if you have shot in RAW to start with.

I also tend to set the camera to spot focus as the foliage at times can confuse your camera as to where you are trying to focus and the same goes for exposure. The gorillas are the key to your images here, and having sharp correctly exposed gorillas is most likely what you are after.

Remember to just sit, watch and enjoy

I know I have just gone on for quite a long time about how to get nice pictures whilst you are visiting the gorillas, and this is no doubt very important, but you will only have one hour to spend with mountain gorillas so use it wisely, and in my personal opinion it is best to balance between absorbing this incredible experience and photographing it.

Free Gorilla Trekking Guide

If you would like to have an encounter with the mountain gorillas our free guide is packed with expert advice and tips.

Download our free guide

Comments

Robin Watts

9/5/2018 11:33 AM

Apparently, tripods and monopods are a definite no-no for Gorilla trekking. Some Gorillas will interpret them as spears and still have bad memories of them. Don't rely on taking them with you, because you may be disappointed! I have used a monopod in the past for shooting plains game, but I don't plan to take it on the trek with me.

Samta

3/4/2018 1:52 PM

Thanks for this helpful and informative article. Any advice on best way to carry the DSLR during the trek? Will the porter carry it? Or should I have it on me to take photos during water breaks? Do you recommend a chest harness?

Samta

3/4/2018 1:50 PM

Thanks for this helpful and informative article. Any advice on best way to carry the DSLR during the trek? Will the porter carry it? Or should I have it on me to take photos during water breaks? Do you recommend a chest harness?

Penny

5/10/2017 5:48 AM

Hi. I am going to go on a couple of gorilla treks in Rwanda next year. I have a canon d7 mark 2 camera which has aa EFS 15-85 lens I also have an EFS 24mm and a 70 - 200 F4 L IS USM. I was thinking of trading the 70 - 200 and getting the F2.8 L II version. Do you think these lenses would be suitable? I am also doing a safari in Kenya the week before and have the 100 - 400 F4.5 - 5.6 L II so would already have a fair bit of weight to carry. Would a full frame camera be better?

NWS

13/2/2017 10:29 AM

Hi Kenny, Thanks for your question. Generally speaking, while gorilla tracking you will have quite close encounters and therefore shouldn't need a lens as long as 150-600mm. These lenses can also be quite heavy, and although you may have a porter to help carry your equipment, while trying to stand on the side of the mountain, manoeuvering the lens around trees you may prefer to have a lighter weight lens. Ideally as explained in the blog, something in between may be best e.g. Sigma 18-250mm

Kenny Heyens

12/2/2017 10:47 PM

Dear, I have a question.. Soon I ll go to Bwindi NP in Uganda. Is it too crazy to take my Tamron 150-600mm with me on Gorilla Tracking? And eventually a monopod?? My other lens is a 2.8 35-105 L IS from Canon.. which im bit afraid i dont get close enough for nice close up shots.. Thank You Kenny

Add your comment

You are being redirected. Click here if this takes longer than a few seconds.