You have a single magic hour, so do not waste every minute considering apertures and sweet spots. Try and have a pre-conceived idea of the images you wish to shoot. Read my mountain gorilla guide and prepare yourself!
The Mountain Gorilla Trek
Trekking up densely forested volcanos, encountering wild Mountain Gorillas – arguably the most enigmatic of all wild animals – has to be in every wildlife photographer’s bucket list. I’ve been fortunate enough to do several treks in the Virunga and compiled this article that should go a long way to preparing you for this unforgettable adventure.
A Little Gorilla Info
There are two populations of Mountain Gorillas, one is found in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa within three National Parks: Mgahinga in south-west Uganda; Parc National des Volcans in north-west Rwanda; Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The other population is found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Within the lush cloud forests of the volcanoes, the Mountain Gorillas live in relatively stable, cohesive family groups, held together by long-term bonds between adult silverbacks (males) and females. Some of these family groups are for the researcher’s ‘eyes only’, but others have been habituated for tourism.
Which ever tourism ‘group’ you visit, you will need to prepare for a moderate to strenuous trek that could last 1-3 hours in the wet season and up to 7 hours in the dry season. You may also need to cope with very low-light levels, humid and damp conditions, and limited manoeuvrability… so is it worth all the effort?! Of course it is!!!!!!!!!
Costs are escalating though. On the 7th May 2017, Rwanda’s Gorilla Trekking fee doubled to $1,500 per trek! An astronomical price and well out of the reach of most. I’m sure there is wisdom (more likely greed) behind the move. If money is no object, then you can pay $15,000 for a Private Gorilla Trek with you or your own group with an exclusive personalized tour guide service. There is a 30% discount for visitors who plan to stay longer (3 days or more), visiting mountain gorillas and other Rwanda national park like Nyungwe Forest, Akagera National Park and other attractions. So, if you do three gorilla treks, you’d pay $3,150 or $1,050 per trek. However, Uganda’s Bwindi National Park only charges $600 per trek, so I would assume most (if not every photographer) will be heading there instead.
After arriving at the visitor’s centre, you are assigned a Gorilla Group. A ranger will talk you through the trek and, most vital, how to behave in front of the mountain gorillas. There is a strict one-hour time limit in force. There is no point pleading for more. It is an absolute rule and one that I totally agree with.
The one-hour limit is for the gorilla’s protection, not to frustrate you. When the hour is up, the gorilla’s behaviour changes, quite noticeably. They know the time is up and often wander away anyway. Within the hour, a group can be controlled more effectively and the risk of cross-contamination of airborne viruses (from humans to gorillas) can be reduced. Their DNA is so much like humans, that they are easily susceptible to influenza and respiratory infections.
There is a 7m buffer rule in effect. You are not allowed to approach the mountain gorillas at all. However, in some locations the 7m rule is very difficult to put into practice. Another hurdle is the fact that gorillas cannot read or measure.
The youngsters are very curious and will often plough right through the 7m buffer and tourists as can the silverbacks (a brown trouser moment!). Always listen and follow the guide’s and tracker’s instructions to the letter. When they say “Move!” you move without hesitation, without delay! You may think 7m is too far, but to put it in perspective, AECO guidelines in the Arctic stipulate a 30m rule! Now, doesn’t that 7m buffer sound pretty great?
The Mountain Gorilla Trek
You must remember that the aim of each gorilla trek is to arrive, observe, photograph, and leave in the calmest most quiet manner possible. You are regularly moved by the wildlife rangers to maintain the 7m buffer and (most appreciatively) to find you a clear view. Sometimes the trackers will even cut away vegetation, if it is in the way and safe to do so.
Pack only as much gear as you need (need not want) into a backpack, plus some water and an energy snack. As the climb can be very strenuous at times, the last thing you need is for lenses to be swinging around your neck. If you have any sense, you will dip into your pockets and recruit a local porter.
Your guide might suggest US$10, but please give them US$20 – they will definitely earn it. The climbs are steep and can be very hard-going. They’ll carry your backpack and give you a helping hand. It’s good for you and good for the local villagers. Also, rather than give them foreign currency, withdraw some local cash from the airport ATM on arrival. This way, the villagers don’t get ripped off my the exchange sharks. (Thanks Daryl for tip!)
Besides, the trek can be treacherous enough without the added burden of a fully laden camera backpack. You are each issued a hand-crafted walking pole, made by the porters or local villagers. Use this or bring your own as they are brilliant for the climb! Actually, just use the local made one. I bought mine after the trek as a souvenir as it was old, worn, and very smooth… as opposed to the shiny new poles on sale in the visitor’s centre.
If you struggle with the climb, you are not weak. The mountain gorillas live at altitude and the guides, porters, and rangers are used to this – you are not. One of my treks began at 2,500m (8,000ft) and we found the gorillas at over 3,100m (10,000ft). At this altitude, you will definitely feel the effects.
Once you meet the Rangers (who have been with the gorilla group since dawn), you will be asked to leave ALL bags, food, and water about 50-100m walk away from the gorillas – do not burden yourself with non-essentials. If you have multiple cameras, then bring a modular photo belt or photo vest. My LowePro Outback 200 proved invaluable!
The goal is to arrive at the gorilla group calm and composed. You will have a few minutes to catch your breath and take on some water before venturing in. Do not forget why you are there and remember that it is not all about the photographs, so look up and watch our hairy characterful cousins with your own eyes. You have a single magic hour, so do not waste every minute considering apertures and sweet spots. Try and have a pre-conceived idea of the images you wish to shoot – are you going for close-up portraits, animals in their environment shots, family interaction?
What kit do you actually need?
One of the reasons I switched to Nikon was for their phenomenal ISO capabilities. During my gorilla treks, the light levels were extremely low and I was always shooting between ISO800 and ISO3200. You will have to expect to shoot at ISO1600+, with anything less being a luxury.
Which ever brand of camera you have, as with all wildlife safaris, my recommendation is to have a minimum of two bodies. One camera for a medium telephoto lens and one grab camera/backup with a short zoom or wide-angle lens for when the wildlife gets VERY close – maybe a fast 50mm or 24-105mm.
The other main consideration here is the environment. You’re up a mountain, so the rain and drizzle can move in at any time. Be sure to have a camera body with a good environment seal or pack a camera cover.
Use your fastest lenses with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or f/4. These will suck-in as much light as possible for fast-focussing and faster shutter-speeds. This is definitely one of those occasions where you should consider hiring a fast lens, if you don’t already have one. Shorter lenses are easier to hold, are less susceptible to camera shake, and are more manoeuvrable. Plus you can always crop into the image later. Tight portraits are very popular, but a 50mm f/1.4 will give you a beautiful point of view, capturing the habitat and groups of grooming gorillas.
I can highly recommend zoom lenses. Your movements are restricted in the dense jungle vegetation and the zoom provides the most versatility. The guide and trackers will move you about to get the best views. They know everybody wants a clear shot of the silverback and any youngsters. Work with them and listen to their instructions. You can ask to move, but it’s strictly their decision.
An ideal lens for most situations is the 70-200mm f/2.8, preferably with image stabilisation or vibration reduction. Other lenses to consider are the 200mm f/2 (if you have deep pockets or are hiring), 28-300mm or 100-400mm, but both have maximum apertures of f/5.6 meaning you will need higher ISOs. Although the 300mm f/2.8 is heavier, it will give you the extra reach for close-up portraits.
The Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS L and Nikon equivalent are incredibly sharp and, even in poor light, they can retain excellent colour saturation. In my backpack were a 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and 200-400mm. Depending on the situation, I chose two of these to bring with me into the gorilla groups. Although my 200-400mm was very heavy to handhold, it did give me that reach to zoom tight-in and through the vegetation.
Conditions are often wet, so bring suitable lens and camera covers to protect your equipment. Attach your lens hood to protect the end-element from rain and splashing vegetation. With the moisture and humidity, it is a tough environment and changing lenses (exposing the mirror/sensor in any way) is very unwise.
This will be a short paragraph… Tripods and monopods are not allowed near the mountain gorillas, neither are walking poles. Some of the gorillas are old enough to remember the dark days of spear-wielding poachers and react to any similar object with fear and aggression. Your only option is to handhold or sit on the floor and rest the lens on your knee, or a friend’s shoulder.
Make sure you have spare batteries, memory cards, and a back-up camera, even if it is a point-and-shoot or camera phone. Bring memory cards rather than a downloader. As you have such a strict time limit, you do not want to waste time waiting for images to copy across. As a rule, don’t burden yourself with gear. You have one hour. Don’t worry about getting wet – you can dry off back at the lodge.
Under the forest canopy and overcast conditions, set your ISO relatively high (800-1600+) to preserve faster shutter speeds. In brighter conditions, you may be able to shoot portraits on a minimum of ISO 400. Just don’t be surprised if ISO settings soar passed ISO 3200! I switch between Aperture Priority and Manual Exposure as and when the situation dictates.
I use manual mode, so I can shoot a constant exposure without worrying about how much ‘black fur’ is filling the frame. Switch on Auto-ISO, if you have it. Then, if light levels change, the ISO with scale up and down to maintain the exposure.
When you’re handholding your cameras, switch on the lens image stabiliser (IS / VR). Nikon users can use Normal mode and Mode 1 for Canon users. Knowing the gorillas can often come very close, I also switch off the focus-limiter. For 98% of the time, mountain gorillas will be restful, calmly grazing vegetation and grooming themselves or one another. So, for most purposes I use AF-Single (One Shot) and a single focus point. You have the time to move the focus point around to maintain compositions.
When the youngsters begin to play, I switch to ‘AF-Continuous’ (AI Servo) and ‘dynamic’ focus points. If I lose focus with one focus point, the surrounding focus points maintain focus acquisition. They youngsters move surprisingly fast and pile through dense bushes like they’re not even there.
Flash photography is NOT permitted and you will be asked to remove and switch off any flash.
Weather & Light
Do not fear cloudy skies and a forecast of rain. The best conditions to photograph mountain gorillas is with overcast skies that diffuse the light and ease contrast. In bright sunlight, the gorillas eyes ‘black out’ and their fur has a high-gloss sheen which easily burns out.
The dry season is the most popular because of the drier trails, but it’s incredibly busy. Another major consideration is the gorillas. When it’s dry and hot, they travel high-up the volcanoes to graze on the remaining lush vegetation. A 3 hour trek in the wet season, becomes a 7+ hour trek in the dry season! Generally, you can visit Rwanda’s gorillas any time of year. It’s worth avoiding mid-April as this becomes a wash-out with a two-week period of constant rain.
Gorilla Trek Clothing
Wear light layers that you can strip-off and re-apply with changing conditions and levels of exertion. A light shower-proof, breathable jacket will help keep you dry although it maybe uncomfortable in very humid conditions. So, one that you can stuff inside a camera bag pocket is ideal. Technical fabrics are best, especially long-sleeved t-shirts that wick away moisture and dry quickly after rain.
Waterproof / weatherproof trousers as the vegetation is usually dripping wet. Waterproofs also provide more protection against the stinging plants and thorns. Jeans will not protect you against the stingers but will, almost certainly, soak through chafe! Wide-brimmed hats are a good move, keeping stinging ants and water drops from going down your back. Wear sturdy footwear (plus gaiters in the wet seasons) for the trek. Conditions under foot are often muddy and slippery.
Whichever clothing options you choose, always wear darker colours rather than ‘safari khaki’. Avoid dark blue and black which attract mosquitos and tsetse flies!