Having the opportunity to witness Gorillas in the wild is an extraordinary experience, an hour of wonderment and awe. At the same time, investing in a visit to Central Africa to see these primates contributes greatly to conservation efforts. In August this year, we visited Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda in the hope of finding these incredible apes. The experience exceeded all expectations.
Although prepared to hike in for hours, the family of Gorillas that had been tracked for us were on the forest’s edge, and about an hour into our trek, we were told to stop. Using his machete, our tracker moved back a few branches and there she was, a magnficent, enormous gorilla, less than 5 metres away. My heart skipped a beat or two. For the next hour, we watched this incredible family of 8 gorillas; a silverback, three females, a 10 month old, a 3 month old and a baby that had been born in the night…can you believe it, a newborn gorilla. We had been told by our tracker that they thought a baby had been born. These are the first photographs taken of this 1 day old baby gorilla.
As a photographer, it is impossible to predict what sort of conditions or vegetation you will find when tracking the gorillas, so there is no point in deciding in advance which lens to take. With my porter’s assistance, I took in my whole kit including my wide-angle lens, my 100 ml prime lens and my 70-200, knowing that at some point, I would leave my camera bag with the porter and go in closer with whatever lens felt best at the time.
Light is challenging, as visits to the Mountain Gorillas happen mid-morning, where the light is harsh, shadows are deep with the dense forest creating an awkward mix of exposures. I had hoped for cloud cover, but that was not to be. In the end, I went into the forest with just my Canon 5d mark iv body and my 70-200 lens. With this lens, I was able to capture some intimate portraits, my favourite being the first one below, with the mother and three month old both eating in the same manner. As they sat under a large branch, the light was relatively evenly exposed. Hand holding my camera, I needed to increase the ISO a bit in order to have a bit more light on the subject.
The 3 month old was the star of the show, adorably copying everything its mum did. The Silverback showed us his sense of humour by laying down with his legs up a tree, just watching us as we took photos. And then we saw the newborn…literally three metres from me, underneath heavy foliage, there they were…mum and bub. So close that my lens had a hard time focusing…
This would be the most intimate wildlife experience I have ever experienced, and one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
If I were to offer 3 tips about photographing these apes, I would say:
Manual focus - with so much foliage, manual focus will give you a much better chance of getting the apes in focus.
Increase the ISO to lighten up the scene - since you won’t be able to use a tripod, you will be hand holding your camera so your shutter speed will need to be quick enough to freeze motion (which means it could be quite dark).
Take a moment to just observe these animals, without looking through the viewfinder, without thinking about the photograph. It is like nothing else I have ever experienced.
So, the gorillas were incredible, but I would be remiss not to mention the people. We spent a second week in Uganda with a Ugandan friend of ours and his wife (friends who live in Australia), being guests at his brother’s Ugandan, then travelling back to his village, spending days with his family in the mountains and generally getting to know the people. This was equally as moving. The warmth, laughter and hospitality was heart-warming. We were welcomed with joyous hugs, genuine kindness and were even gifted with a beautiful thank you dance from the villagers…some in their 90’s, a gift I will treasure always.
If you are interested in visiting Uganda on a photographic tour, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More of my work can be viewed on Instagram at: pamelapaulinephotography