Photographing Mountain Gorilla?

Jul 7th, 2005, 12:00 AM
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Photographing Mountain Gorilla?

Based on suggestion, I am starting a new thread specifically directed at what sort of photography equipment would be best for photographing Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda. I have a dRebel and a 75-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM Canon lens as well as the "kit" lens that came with the camera (18-55mm f3.5-5.6). I am considering getting another lens that would be a better wide-angle zoom lens, not just for this trip but also to use as a main "walking around" lens here at home. I have considered the Canon 17-85 f4.5.6 IS USM lens. Another suggestion is a Sigma 18-125mm f3.5-5.6 for a more universal lens. Or I can just use the kit lens I already have.

I will first of all admit that I am not an expert photographer and just getting into digital since last year.

I have the longer zoom lens (75-300mm) for wildlife photography while on safari. But the Mountain Gorillas present other challenges. If anyone has any suggestions as to what lens would be my best option for photographing them, I would appreciate any advice.

I have also heard that some just do video and have happy memories from that -- and I have a small camcorder as well that I will attempt to use as well to capture motion and sounds not possible with still images.
wanderlust123 is offline  
Jul 7th, 2005, 06:40 AM
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You certainly will not need a long lens. On our trip, I used a Nikon F100 with a zoom lens (28mm -210mm, I think), but I really didn't need the zoom. Film speed is more important, and we had brought 200ASA and 800 thinking it might be dark, but we were fortunate to find the gorillas in sun and used the 200 speed film.

Photographing gorillas is more about exposure (since they are so dark) and film speed than lens size.
thit_cho is offline  
Jul 7th, 2005, 07:00 AM
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First of all I totally agree with t c's comments. I trekked to the gorillas quite a few years ago but definately did not need a long lens. Exposure is everything. If you have the dig rebel I am assuming you may have the ability to change iso on the fly which is one of the great advantages of dig imho. You don't have to worry about diff film speeds. I have the cannon 17-85 and think it is a great lens for that kind of stuff.
One question of you if I may? We are in the process of planning a return trip to Africa next year and my hubby is very keen to go to the Rwanda gorillas (and I am more than pleased to return!!) Can I ask who you hve planned this through and what your itinerary is like?
Thanks very much and happy travels. J
jules39 is offline  
Jul 7th, 2005, 09:58 AM
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On my trip, we visited the gorillas in both Bwindi (Uganda) and PNV (Rwanda) -- all booked with Volcanoes Safaris out of Kampala (they also have a London and Atlanta office, I think, but very easy to deal directly with Harriett in Kampala).

thit_cho is offline  
Jul 7th, 2005, 11:11 AM
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Hi there wanderlust,

I spent some time thinking about this issue and talking to a fair number of people and I ended up splurging for Canon's 70-200 2.8 IS. On my XT that gives me about 100-300mm equivalent. Of course I will have a shorter lens as well for some more atmospheric shots.

My advice is to see for yourself what others have done. An absolutely incredible gallery is Mike Johnson's on Pbase:

I emailed Mike and he took at 70-200 2.8 (I think he also had the IS but not sure) and a 24-70 2.8. If you browse through his pictures, you will see that many of them have the shooting information indicated. Many of the best were at about 90mm-100mm but there are some great close up portraits at about 200mm. See:

Judge for yourself whether you "need" a long lens. There were some great non-telephoto shots like this one at 64mm:

Now, his experience won't be yours, but these are real facts that can inform your decision. Normally Pbase allows you to search galleries and I wanted to find some other gorilla trekking galleries but searching was down when I wrote this - I encourage you to try doing that, see other galleries.

Note that Mike told me he got lucky with the sun. You can see from the galleries that his exposure values were like 10-12. If you get that lucky, you won't have to worry too much about slow shutter speeds. If you don't, you will certainly appreciate either a fast (large aperture) lens or IS (or both, as with the 70-200 2.8 IS).

Now to be more specific. The 17-85 IS is a good choice. Another would be a 28-70 2.8 which is faster but doesn't have IS so is functionally similar for shutter speeds but with lower depth of field. Third party manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron have such lenses for the same cost or cheaper than the 17-85 IS. (I like wide aperture better myself, but there are tradeoffs)

A similar lens that might be worth looking into is the 28-135 IS which would probably be a better focal length for the gorilla trek.

The problem with the 75-300 IS is the with bad light, even the IS may not be enough at the long end to keep shutter speeds fast enough to prevent camera blur. But since you are just starting out, you are probably better off sticking to it as your long lens because anything else would make it redundant probably.

For me, I decided on the 70-200 2.8 IS because with the cost of two people doing two days of trekking something like 1500+ just for the permits, buying a lens of that cost was worth it for me. Also, I bought it used for and intend to resell for a similar amount as I bought it. (As I mentionned in Rocco's original mega-thread, buying and reselling lenses is a very feasible way to use a lens you don't really need. The best place is here: But you have to be the kind of person that is comfortable with that sort of thing).

A cheaper option would be a prime lens for that extra reach, I think Canon sells a 135 f2/8 that isn't too expensive. I know they sell a 100 f/2 that is highly regarded. If you have a 1.6 crop body like the rebel or 20D that might be enough.

Finally, there is a photographer who says the object of Rocco's lens lust, the Sigma 120-300 2.8 is the ideal lens

My final point is that whatever you do, make sure that you take the time to enjoy the experience and not worry too much about the photography. My wife will be at the helm of our camcorder when we go this fall and I think that is a great way to capture the moment too.

Someone asked about arranging it online. I obtained my permits direct from ORTPN and I'm simply going to hire a car.

sunny_days is offline  
Jul 7th, 2005, 12:05 PM
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Lawrence - have you ever taken a trip or class with Joe and Mary McDonald of hoothollow? I have wanted to but I just don't have enough time off work to take the classes and the trips they take are a little too long for me also. They certainly are great photographers and I respect their opinions regarding camera equipment. I have spoken with several people who have taken trips with them and they have nothing but good things to say.

sundowner is online now  
Jul 7th, 2005, 01:48 PM
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check out this thread:

It's not about gorillas, but about lense choices for the drebel, including some discussion of sigma and other wide angle choices. Several people in the thread mention being happy with Tamron f2.8 wide zooms, so they seem worth checking as well.
tashak is offline  
Jul 7th, 2005, 03:09 PM
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Hey Cindy,

I would love to take one of those photographer tours. I love Andy Biggs' photography and would love to take one of his trips ( I can't justify the costs at this time. My Africa trip is my honeymoon will be a "once in a lifetime" trip - at least for the foreseeable future. As for a workshops, I'm live up in Canada so its too far for me.

sunny_days is offline  
Jul 7th, 2005, 04:39 PM
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Lawrence - funny you should mention Andy Biggs. We've chatted on the internet a couple of times and I signed up for one of his local workshops (he lives in Houston and I'm in San Antonio). The workshop was planned for Easter weekend (in error) and I couldn't make the dates he rescheduled with. I was taking another workshop "Moose in Maine" that week to learn how to use the 10D and lenses in preparation for my first "photo" safari to Africa.

I would love to go on a trip with Andy but the price keeps me from booking. I already did away with having a cleaning lady just to be able to make "cheap" trips to Africa. I'm not sure what I would have to give up to go with him! He really has some great images.

Another very talented photographer that does workshops is Charles Glatzer. I think some of them are in Canada.
That is who I took the moose workshop with and I learned so incredibly much. Before I purchased my camera/lenses I visited with several of his compadres and ended up with 10D, 70-200 2.8 and a 300 2.8. I planned on just reselling everything after my safari but I just couldn't do it. Africa has me spellbound and my next trip will be the 4th. I'm hoping it will be this year.

If you like looking at Africa images another good website is
This couple has some amazing images.
sundowner is online now  
Jul 8th, 2005, 04:06 AM
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Thanks for the tip, I'll check it out.
sunny_days is offline  
Jul 8th, 2005, 02:39 PM
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I want to thank everyone for their replies. A lot of thought and effort went in to them. I have been spending way too many hours at work this week and simply have not had time to read or respond to this thread that I started. But now that it is the weekend I hope to be able to review and absorb all the information. Many thanks!!
wanderlust123 is offline  
Jul 9th, 2005, 08:34 AM
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to jules39: I planned this 32 trip with 2Afrika and they booked my extensions (I am doing Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Rwanda, Cape Town and Vic Falls). They did my Rwanda itinerary through Volcano Safaris. I have a week in Rwanda starting in Kigali, then Butare, then kibuye, then Gisenyi and then 3 full days at the Parc National des Volcans. I considered a number of itineraries for Rwanda and decided that this one would work best for me. I will post when I get back and let you know how it went!
wanderlust123 is offline  
Jul 9th, 2005, 10:23 AM
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This is not a response to this thread. It is just a general observation from someone who almost had his trek ruined:

I had some avid photographers on my last trip to Bwindi. They were so active trying the capture the perfect pictures (falling around and changing lenses) that a) it became disturbing and b) they missed a lot of the activities going on all around us.

I set up my videocam, pointed it to central group of gorillas near the silverback and stepped back to enjoy the hour-long experience. My film came out perfect and I can relive that hour whenever I want to.

My points are:

a) take a videocam, it may be more satisfying (and better quality) than still pictures
b) please be mindful of others in your party when taking "perfect" pics, or sign up for a private trek. Watching gorilas works best in a tranquil situation
c) Please don't use those loud SLR cameras with motorized drives. When 6 people all use them it gets really loud!
d) don't set up tripods all over the place. When the gorillas start to move it becomes a mad scramble.

climbhighsleeplow is offline  
Jul 9th, 2005, 10:28 AM
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I just looked at the pbase album of Mike Johnson and his gorilla trek photos are Awesome! It's really nice to be able to see what exposure he used to get the images.

Looking at his photos (and I know every experience will be different) I'm not sure I would take the 17-85. I think I would want a little more than 85. I have the Canon 28-135 and like it but it doesn't have the wide angle you are wanting and it might not have enough reach for gorilla closeups. Same with the Sigma 18-125.

So maybe use your 75-300 and use a higher ISO if it's too slow. Whatever you choose, I'm sure you'll have an awesome experience!

Do you have a P&S for wider shots of the gorillas? If you do, that and the 75-300 should cover both ends.
sundowner is online now  
Jul 9th, 2005, 01:05 PM
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Thanks so much for the feedback! I have spent most of the day reviewing lenses on the Internet and am probably more confused than ever. I love the shots taken by Mike Johnson. They are eye-popping!! I should be so lucky! Thank you Lawrence for your lengthy reply and the link to Mike's website. I agree that the lens he used generates the results I would like to have but I won't be able to get that lens for this trip.

I am willing to buy a faster lens, if it is small enough to carry around and not terrifically expensive but I am having a lot of difficulty trying to figure out what would work best and still be within reason from a price and weigh standpoint.

Some months back, I was in contact with Mary McDonald (Joe and Mary McDonald of hoothollow) as I tried to get in on a trip to Rwanda with them earlier this year. As it turned out it filled up before I could book it, but they were very nice to deal with and their trips sound great. I was not ready to ask questions about lenses at that point so unfortunately I don't have their advice on that, but they do have some write-ups on their website that discuss this a bit and on one Rwanda Gorilla tracking trip they used "28-300mm f4.5-5.6 lens on one camera body, and a 120-300 2.8 on another" and on another write up says "Mary and I carried Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lenses for our principle shooting, and both of us had a 28-135 zoom as a backup for habitat shots and close up encounters. The Sigma was the lens of choice -- ideally groups are supposed to be about 7 meters from the gorillas, although that distance varies as the gorillas move about, but with 120 for the short end we could usually get full-body shots or animals in habitat, and the 300mm was perfect for coming in close and for portraits. One of our party had a 100-400 IS, but at f5.6 the lens was too slow for the usual light so he borrowed my 70-200 2.8 and used that for the shoot. " I don't know if the 100-400 would have been okay on a digital camera with changeable ISO settings.

It would be nice to think that I could make the 75-300 IS lens work, even though it is slow. Do you think that by boosting the ISO it will provide the reach I need for the closeups?

I also wish to apologize to anyone who is offended by camera and lens questions on this forum as I noticed one of the threads had a poster who seemed to be put off by these questions. However, taking photos is a big part of a trip like this and a very important factor for most. I am also struggling with photo storage and packing but that is a topic for another thread!

I really appreciate the time and effort everyone has taken to reply.
wanderlust123 is offline  
Jul 9th, 2005, 02:19 PM
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Based on looking at the links others have posted on this thread, my guess is that focal length is not nearly as much of an issue in photographing gorillas as the deadly combination of low light and going handheld could be. So I personally would go for an image stabilized lens and an f2.8 if you can swing it, like the Canon 70-200 IS which is the most focal length I think you'd need for this particular purpose. If you are thinking about the future, not just this trip, then consider the Sigma 120-300 (2.8). But I honestly don't think you'll need the 300 mm focal length on this trip, especially shooting digital. Up to you.

The other issue I would weigh heavily if I were you is portability. I just bought the Canon 75-300 f4-5.6 IS USM too, and its relatively portable weight & size are a major asset.

But would I rather have a 2.8 in low light? You bet.

It's all such a tradeoff.

And then there's the money....(*sigh*).

I briefly considered the Canon 100-400 IS but it is just too massive. Even at half the price, I wouldn't buy it. Too huge, too heavy -- yuck.

lisa is offline  
Jul 10th, 2005, 02:01 AM
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Wanderlust don't feel bad for asking questions - it's just pure coincidence that there have been more photo threads than usual recently plus my little strop didn't help matters (sorry). Your questions are specific about how the photography relates to a specific experience in Africa and likely wouldn't be answered so accurately elsewhere.
Kavey is offline  
Jul 10th, 2005, 02:46 AM
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To Jules39 : I meant to say 32-day trip (not "32 trip").

To Lisa: I agree with your observations with regard to portability, cost etc. Matches up to my way of thinking. Yes, I would also prefer a 2.8 lens but can't see lugging one around for 32 days and the cost is another consideration.

Gone are the days when I could throw one main "travel" camera in my pack and film was my biggest issue!

To sundowner: With the 1.6 digital factor, I thought one of the lenses (like the Sigma 24-135 f2.8-4.5) might have the reach, and since at the "long" end it would be over 200mm. I found a used one for $279 and considered it for a few minutes. But I am not sure if it will work on the digital camera. Also not sure if it is "better" enough to consider getting and hauling around.

To climbhighsleeplow: I also agree that I don't want to be clambering around trying to get a "perfect" shot and miss enjoying the experience. In fact it will be disturbing if that is what others are doing. I am hoping for low-key people in my trekking groups.

I also am just wondering if doing video might be an option as I have a camcorder I am taking as well.

When you say you "set up" your camcorder, did you mean you put it on a tripod? I wasn't planning on bringing one. Perhaps I could handhold one in the general direction and watch the actual experience directly.

To sundowner: I have an Olympus digital C750 as a backup camera, but it is not wide angle (probably 38mm on the wide end with 10x zoom) but I also have a camcorder and maybe that will be my "other" choice if taking stills isn't working.

For this particular (Gorilla)experience, I am not trying to take NG photos as I will not have the equipment for that. I would want shots like Mike took and that ain't gonna happen!

I am mostly just trying to take a few shots to show folks back home and grab some memories -- and perhaps the camcorder is a good way to relive those memories.

And thanks for the reassurance kavey. I appreciate all the feedback.

wanderlust123 is offline  
Jul 17th, 2005, 01:31 AM
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Anyone have an opinion on something like a Sigma 24-125 f2.8-4.5 (which with the digital mulitplier on my dRebel would be 38-200) for Gorilla shots? It is not a Canon IS lens, but would seem to be an okay "walk around" lens and handle the variation in distance with the Gorillas, since no one seems to think that more than 200mm is necessary and it is a faster lens which might have more reach. It is also more affordable, even with the 77mm filters. Now, I would rather it was 18 instead of 24 on the WA end, but I think I could live with that. Comments?
wanderlust123 is offline  
Jul 17th, 2005, 03:40 PM
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