a small gorilla looks off into the distance

What is the BEST Lens for a Gorilla Photo Safari?

Narrowing down a full camera kit to just one BEST lens is always a bit challenging, especially because different people have different styles of photography.  However, for specific wildlife encounters, there are key factors I look for when choosing my “go to” lens for any given trip.

Gorilla photography is somewhat predictable in terms of distance from photographer to the gorillas, as well as lighting conditions, and what the background looks like.  As a result, I want a telephoto lens (distance negotiable) that is relatively “fast” with a wide aperture.  This wide aperture will help tremendously with the oftentimes low light in the dense jungles of Uganda and Rwanda, while also helping blur the background to draw better focus on the gorilla subject.

For these reasons, my top pick for the BEST lens has to be the 70-200mm f/2.8.  This medium telephoto has decent reach, but more importantly has decent reach at f/2.8 maximum aperture.  This is a game changer, and although 200mm on a full frame camera is not the greatest reach of all time, the fact you can get such at f/2.8 in a relatively manageable and hand-held lens is the real key.  Today’s modern cameras are very good at cropping, so the lack of telephoto (like what a 300mm or 400mm might give you) is less important than what the f/2.8 gives you.

a young gorilla rests in the foliage of the jungle

Low Light Photography

Although not ALWAYS the case, you must be prepared to photograph in low light conditions.  One way to mitigate low light is to have a camera capable of shooting at high ISOs at high quality…like ISO 1600, 2000, and even 3200 and above.  The key here is high ISO at HIGH quality…most cameras today will go up to ISO 6400 or even ISO 12800, but that doesn’t mean the resulting photo will be a good one.

The more time-honored way to photograph in low light is to equip yourself with a “fast” lens…those that can go to very low aperture numbers (also known as having a wide maximum aperture).  If you need to brush up on the basics of apertures, be sure to read my article here on Apertures and F-Stops.

While most lenses will have a maximum aperture of f/5.6, or maybe if they’re really good f/4.  But f/2.8 is highly uncommon at larger telephoto lengths.  Just think, a lens at f/2.8 lets in 4 times as much light as one at f/5.6.  This means if your camera gives you a shutter speed of 1/80 at f/5.6 (which is typical in jungle settings) you could take the EXACT same photo at 4 times as much light, which would be 1/320th of a second.  This is a BIG difference for freezing motion or dealing with your own hand movement while photographing.

a small gorilla looks off into the distance

Background Blur

Equally important to me as being able to photograph in lower light is the ability to blur the background with low aperture numbers like f/2.8.  As you’ll likely see, if you’re headed on a Uganda and Rwanda Photo Safari, you’re often in dense, impenetrable jungle.  Thus, there are lots of vines everywhere, and tons of foliage.  This can be very distracting to the viewer of your photograph and detracts from the subject.  By being able to blur the background through a wide maximum aperture (i.e., small f/number) you isolate the subject from the background, and as an added bonus, the juxtaposition from background blur to sharp subject makes the subject look even sharper—a very good thing!

a baby gorilla poses for a photograph with a tangle of vines around it

See what you’re contending with as far as foliage and background in Rwanda in the above!?  The more blur you can inject, the better the photo.  This was a tough positioning for this little baby gorilla…

The Only Drawback of the 70-200mm f/2.8

If there’s a drawback, it’s the lack of telephoto length at 200mm on a full frame camera.  For this reason, it’s perhaps one of the few times I might recommend bringing a crop frame camera (in addition to a full frame camera, if you also shoot full frame) for the extra telephoto length.  For Nikon, this would put the 200mm at a 300mm equivalent, and on Canon it would turn it into a 280mm.

If you ONLY have a full frame camera, I still feel this 70-200mm is a great lens, but you may be remiss by not also bringing a trusty 100-400mm or 80-400mm for the added reach.  These will only get you to f/5.6, which is ok…not great, but for certain shots you may simply need more telephoto.

a gorilla lounges on a tree trunk

For example, this little guy was about 50 yards away, separate from his main family.  While I did indeed have great gorilla photo ops in front of me, how could you not want to get a great shot of this posing youngster!?

In Summary

As you can see from my words of caution at the end here, there may not be an absolute PERFECT lens, as there are always drawbacks.  While I love my 100-400mm for its versatility, I really despise f/5.6 when in low light or in tangled environments…it just doesn’t get enough background blur for my taste.  Thus, while I sacrifice reach, I’m always in favor of the remarkable 70-200mm f/2.8 when on my Gorilla safaris.

Now go forward and give it a shot!


Court Whelan Signature