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Photographing Gorillas

Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda

Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda

In November of 2014 we travelled to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda to shoot pics of Mountain Gorillas for our African Icons book. Never having worked in a rainforest before we had no idea what to expect. Our research told us that the gorillas could either be right next to the lodge (Buhoma Lodge) or a full day’s hike away. Or somewhere in between. We read that the conditions would be tough or really easy. Or somewhere in between. It seemed that it could also be extremely hot or cold and rainy. Or somewhere in between. And so it went on.. You either needed very long lenses or very wide. Or, yes, you guessed it, something in between. So, we ignored all that and looked at as many photographs of gorillas and Bwindi as we could and drew our own conclusions.

Buhoma Lodge. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda

Buhoma Lodge. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda

This is what we found when we were there:

  • The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is situated in south eastern Uganda on the border with the DRC.
  • Buhoma lodge is simple, very comfortable, serves great food and the staff are charming.
  • It’s not called a rainforest for nothing and so if you go there in November when we did, it will be raining.
  • But then the permits are cheaper in the rainy season.
  • It is way better to photograph gorillas in overcast (even rainy) weather than in the sunshine.
  • We hiked for about 6 or 7 hours on each of the two days we went looking for gorillas and found them on both days.
  • The hikes were not easy. We are not youngsters but are reasonably fit, and still we felt the hikes. They are not impossible but if you spend all your time sitting behind a desk and a television set, you will battle. (start jogging or walking)
  • You are not allowed to get closer to the gorillas than 7 metres (about 23 feet).
  • No one has told the gorillas this.
  • A pair of gloves like these make things easier and safer when climbing and hiking (thorns abound and these help with protection)
  • A good pair of waterproof hiking boots or shoes are essential.
  • Try to avoid walking with young, MudMan Competition Competitors. (We had one and he set a blistering pace).
  • We were drenched both from the rain and from sweating.
  • Conditions underfoot are rough and muddy – this is not a walk in the park.
  • It will be one of the most astounding things that you will ever do.
Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda

Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda

From a photography point of view:

  • Take as little as you can.
  • Remember, the more you take, the more you will have to carry up the mountains.
  • I had 2 bodies – the Nikon D800 and D7100. Pat had her Canon XF100 movie camera.
  • I took 2 lenses – the Nikon 16 – 35mm and the 70 – 200 f2,8 VRII lens.
  • In the forest, I was shooting at ISO 800 and 1/50sec at f4. On the top of the mountains, in the nettles, I was using ISO 400 and shooting at around 1/250 at f4 in overcast conditions (Rain forest… remember)
  • The 70 – 200 lens was more than long enough but I did have 36Mp to play with and so could shoot at the DX crop. If you are using a crop sensor body like the D7200 or Canon 7D MkII, it will be perfect.
  • You are not allowed use flashes on the gorillas.
  • Don’t be afraid to push the ISO up – a little noise never really hurt anyone. I used 800 max but on the D800 I would be quite happy to go to 1600. (Or even 3200 as I did in the Congo)
  • A monopod helps a lot. I use this Gitzo with a Manfrotto 234RC tilt head.
  • You are only allowed to spend an hour with the gorillas.
  • Gorilla interactions are very special and can be life changing. Enjoy the moment!
Mountain river. Forest interior. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda

Mountain river. Forest interior. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda

Roger de la Harpe

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