What is the best lens to photograph mountain gorillas is a question I get regularly asked by people coming on my mountain gorilla holidays. And the quick answer is very easy … drum roll … a 70-200 F2.8 lens is my first choice. It has the perfect focal range and the fast aperture comes into its own if the light is poor. My personal option is to use the Nikon model of this lens on a D4 body which allows me to shoot at high ISO if I need to. So job done ? Well not quite …
Every mountain gorilla encounter is utterly unique which is one of the factors that makes this such a great wildlife experience. When you find the gorilla group that you have permits for, you will get exactly one hour in their company. This is to minimise disturbance on both the gorillas and the forest. Sometimes they could be sitting in bright sunshne and at others you might follow them through the forest.
Best technique to photograph mountain gorillas
Along with nearly all my wildlife photography my camera is set up as follows: 1) Full manual mode 2) Auto ISO set to on 3) Back button focusing. This gives you full creative control of both your shutter speed and aperture while using the camera’s light meter to set the ISO. For mountain gorilla photography this really comes into its own. If a gorilla is in complete shade, the camera will choose a high ISO but if it then moves into sunlight it will instantly reduce the ISO much lower.
Keep an eye on your exposure compensation
When photographing mountain gorillas I use exposure compensation more then with any other wildlife encounters. Your camera is trying to meter the light for a very dark ape in changing light. Often – but not always – your shots will be overexposed and my exposure compensation can sometimes be as low as minus 2 to avoid this. But find the gorillas back lit and you’ll need positive exposure compensation. Basically keep a constant eye on your exposure before shooting a whole sequence of photos.
What other lenses are useful for mountain gorilla photography ?
I take two cameras with my second body having a 12-24mm wide angle zoom lens. Although in your briefing you’ll be told to keep at least 7 metres away from mountain gorillas this is rarely possible in reality. If a Silverback charges for example you have to hold your ground and at other times it’s not uncommon for baby gorillas to walk right by you. I like the combination of having a wide angle lens with me in case this happens. Some people also like a 24-70mm for middle distance encounters and some even use a fast 300mm for longer shots.
Which of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC is best to see mountain gorillas ?
Currently due to instability the DRC is closed for mountain gorilla tracking leaving Rwanda and Uganda as the only places. Having spent many months in both countries my personal preference by a huge magnitude is Uganda. The biodiversity in Uganda is in a different league to Rwanda and as an added bonus the gorilla permits are also far cheaper.
Something to keep your camera dry is vital
The clue is in the name mountain gorillas. These great apes live in high forest which gets plenty of rainfall and you should be prepared for rain at any time of year. Something to keep your camera (and camera bag) dry is essential, even if you set off in glorious sunshine.
What’s the walk like to see mountain gorillas ?
This all depends on what part of their range the gorillas are in on the day that you go to see them. I’ve seen mountain gorillas many many times now and every encounter is different. One time they were only about a half hour walk away which was slightly disappointing really ! The forest where these great apes live is so special and it’s nice to be able to have a decent walk in it. On average I’ d say we normally walk between two and three hours to find them. This will usually be up hill but there’s no need to rush. On my mountain gorilla holidays we always put the slowest person at the front of the group for the walk and then they set the pace.
Below are a couple of video clips from some of my mountain gorilla encounters which might give you more of a visual idea of what this wildlife encounter can be like.