a large male silverback gorilla sits in the bushes of virunga national park

What’s in your Camera Bag? Gorilla Trekking Safari

It’s sure to be a top highlight of your photographic career and one of the most memorable nature safaris you will ever do – a Gorilla Photographic Safari.  However, it’s not without its challenges…from the terrain, to the impenetrable nature of the jungle, to the low light photo conditions.  Follow these tips on what to bring so that you are prepared for the ultimate wildlife photo safari.

Please note, photographic styles vary, as do conditions on the ground.  While this is meant to be a guide for choosing your camera gear, you should consider your own photographic interests first and foremost.

Wide Angle Zoom

No list of camera gear would be complete without mentioning this handy, versatile, and essential lens.  How much time it spends on your camera will depend on your own photographic style and preferences (i.e., more landscape and culture, or solely interested in big wildlife photos), but one thing’s for sure is that it will be on your camera at some point of your trip.  It’s your “walking around” lens, and you’re looking for something in the 18-55mm, 24-70mm, or 24-105mm range for DSLRs or a 7-20mm, or 12-40mm on a mirrorless setup.

a woman sits in the brush with a large gorilla behind her

Zoom Telephoto

A safari to view and photograph gorillas in the wild is yet another place where you have to plan on being versatile.  This category is likely to be your most-used.  While the gorillas are going to be close, you’ll want the flexibility to fill the frame and also get some landscape in your photo to really tell the story and document your rare encounter.

Here’s where things get interesting.  The conditions for photographing gorillas do present certain challenges, and having a lens capable of a very wide aperture is going to be a very helpful tool.  A) you’re going to have less than ideal light, so you’ll need the big aperture (e.g., f/2.8, if possible) to shoot with a fast enough shutter speed in dim rain forest conditions, and B) there’s a good bit of vegetation that you’ll likely want to intentionally blur with a shallow depth of field.

Thus, one of my top picks for lenses on this trip is a 70-200mm f/2.8.  The zoom telephoto range is good enough to be your go-to while with the gorillas and the f/2.8 will be a game changer for your photography.  Take a look at the below photo to see how the photographer used a shallow depth of field to isolate the subject and blur the errant leaves and foliage, which are just a distraction if they were to be in focus.

a large male silverback gorilla sits in the bushes of virunga national park

Do I bring a Super Telephoto?

Normally I would categorize a super telephoto as something 400mm or 500mm and above.  However, in this context, because the trusty 70-200mm is such a great zoom telephoto, I’ll lump your 70-300mm and 100-400mm lenses in with this current section.

When photographing wildlife, even big wildlife like gorillas, there is still almost no limit to how much zoom you could use.  Why wouldn’t you want to get an amazing fill-the-frame shot of a male silverback if you could?

Yes, these are great photo ops and are dreamy when you get them perfectly.

a close up photo of a mountain gorilla in uganda

However, you don’t necessarily need a big telephoto lens to capture this.  Sure, if you want a fill-the-frame shot of every gorilla you see throughout the entire trip, maybe you’d need a 400mm or 500mm, but you’ll certainly have the opportunity to get this shot with a 300mm at some point during your visits with the gorilla troops.

If you do plan on bringing something greater than a 200mm lens, it’s advisable to leave the big fixed 400mm at home and instead bring a zoom telephoto to give you more flexibility…something like a 70-300mm, or 100-400mm is ideal.

One key consideration with this topic, though, is what else you may be doing on your adventure besides trekking to see gorillas.  For instance, Natural Habitat Adventures incorporates a visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park as part of their gorilla trekking safari.  For this, a more traditional safari lens, like a 100-400mm or 80-400mm is essential.

X-factor Lenses

As you may already know about me, I’m always trying to get photographs that are different than the norm.  To build a portfolio that gets recognized, you have to have some of the quintessential shots that are already all over photo books and online, but you should also think outside the box.  Here’s where the creative lenses come in.

Generally my go-to x-factor lenses are either an ultra-wide angle (for a near fish-eye look) or a “nifty fifty” lens, which is essentially just a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens, allowing for an extremely shallow depth of field.

Whether you choose one of these, or opt for something else like a macro lens, or even a dedicated fish-eye is going to depend on your own photographic style.  However, I have to say that I rarely leave my ultra-wide angle at home, as it’s so versatile in tight situations (inside vehicles or camps for dramatic travel shots).

a mother mountain gorilla with young baby in her arms

Accessories and other gear

For this tropical environment, it’s rather important to have rain protection for your camera.  A storm jacket or other type of rain cover/dry bag is helpful.  And extra batteries and memory cards are a must.

A tripod would be helpful in the low light environment of gorilla habitat, but they are extremely cumbersome and could draw the attention of the wildlife you’re observing in a bad way (causing unnatural behavior if you’re shuffling around the brush with the tripod legs).  In addition, being locked into a tripod means that you won’t be versatile to whip around and photograph the young gorilla approaching from behind, if you’re centered on the larger more obvious gorilla in the other direction.

One final consideration is whether you’d like to bring a second camera body.  To be frank, a second body is always a good idea in the sense that you can have a different lens on each without having to waste time changing lenses.  This translates into being able to capture many more photos – a good thing!  However, you must always consider the weight and difficulty in dealing with two cameras hanging around your neck, hiking with them in your pack (most gorilla treks will be done with porters, as the hiking can be somewhat challenging), etc.  It’s not critical, but certainly worth mentioning.

If you do have a Photographic Gorilla trekking safari planned, good for you – it’s going to be the time of your life!  If not, make sure it’s on your short list and let me know if you need any advice on the best trip for you.

All the best,