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Photo shown above: Baby mountain gorilla rests on mom’s tummy. Intambara group, one of 10 habituated mountain gorilla groups that can be visited by groups of eight people. Photo by Shirley Sanderson.

My husband Bob and I have been on safari eight times since 2000. On a typical African safari, I rely primarily on a Canon 1D series DSLR body together with a 100 to 400 mm telephoto zoom lens and also have a second DSLR available coupled with a shorter lens. I have found this equipment is suitable for most of my safari photography, due to the large distances between the animals and the vehicle.

Last February, Bushtracks organized a trip for us that included a visit to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga mountains for gorilla trekking. The conditions on a gorilla trek are quite different from what one encounters on a safari to Southern or Eastern Africa and this requires a change in your photography gear.

Silverback eating ripe berries. Kwitonda group. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo by Shirley Sanderson

Mountain gorillas live on steep, densely forested mountains that require a hike of up to several hours to reach. When the gorilla family is located, visitors must leave all of their gear except cameras in a central location with one of the guides before walking to where the gorillas actually are. This means that you cannot take a big bag of camera gear with you, nor is it a good idea to change lenses in the dense vegetation.

Youngsters laughing and playing. In all the groups we visited, the younger gorillas romped, wrestled and played. Hirwa group. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo by Shirley Sanderson

Most visitors are surprised to find out how close they actually are to the gorillas and how dense the vegetation is; short to medium lenses are best suited to gorilla photography. You are required to stay 7 meters away from the gorillas, but the gorillas often come closer. You have only one hour, strictly enforced, with the gorillas, so fiddling with equipment will result in lost opportunities to enjoy visiting the animals and shooting photographs.

A foot can work as well as a hand. A gorilla’s prehensile foot can be used for grasping just like our hands. Intambara group. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo by Shirley Sanderson

I took 2 DSLR bodies, one with a 24 to 105 mm zoom, and the other with a 70 to 200 mm zoom. On three gorilla treks and one golden monkey trek I shot equal numbers of photographs at focal lengths of 24 to 50, 50 to 100, and 100 to 200 millimeters. My lens choices proved to be ideal for photographing the gorillas and monkeys. Some people in our trekking groups carried longer telephoto lenses and were frustrated to find that they were too long. Others carried iPads, and I find it hard to imagine that they got very good photographs.

Baby gorilla using its prehensile foot to grab a piece of fruit with one hand and one foot. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo by Shirley Sanderson

Because the gorillas and monkeys are very dark, it is necessary to dial in some negative exposure compensation (-1/3 EV to -1 EV) to avoid having the animals appear to be a medium gray instead of black. In addition, nearly all of my photographs were shot between 640 ISO and 4000 ISO in order to get an adequate shutter speed due to the darkness caused by the dense vegetation. With the same settings that you use for still photos, it is a good idea to record some video with your DSLR if that capability is available on your camera. This will give another dimension to your gorilla encounter and give your viewer the feeling that he or she is actually visiting the gorilla family along with you.

Seeing the gorillas was a truly incredible experience, and one which I would highly recommend. Being properly equipped will give you wonderful photographic memories of a unique wildlife experience. ©SASanderson 2014. Visit Shirley’s website

The first version of this article was posted on 23 Sep 2014 at 12:01 PM.


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