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May 21, 2010

Wild Gorilla Photography Tips

Filed under: International,Photography,Rwanda,Travels — stephane @ 3:15 pm

Inquisitive youngsterGiven there is little information of what you will be faced too and how to use your camera when photographing gorillas in the wild, I decided to write down a bit of details about the recommended gear and setup to use if you end up going for a gorilla trip. Many people that were in some of our groups on the 3 days we were there were having a far from ideal lens or a Point & Shoot camera and ended up taking pictures which ended up not being usable (camera-phone-in-a-bar quality). We also saw some people ill-equipped and probably thinking they were going to see gorillas while walking on a paved road in the park. White socks, snickers, a short and a t-shit does not cut it in the thick rain forest with stinging plants, so don’t try your luck.

On a more general note, keep in mind that hiking/tracking of gorillas takes place at altitudes of 2500 to 3000 m. Paths are muddy/slippery, the forest is thick and will sometimes involve you bending low to go under some branches, moreover some sections can be very steep. Trekking in those conditions can last from 2 to 6 hours or more on the entire day. While this is far from needing athletic fitness, you need moderate/average physical fitness. If you’re doing several consecutive days, be prepared for it. For the little story, we have heard about someone booking all 8 permits for 7 consecutive days in high season (yes, that’s $28,000 of permits non-refundable) so that his daughter and himself could be alone but they gave up after 3 days because it was too tiring.


  • Poncho. Must have. It is ample and cover you well, allows you to also carry a backpack and cover your camera if it is raining and you’re not shooting. You will be leaving backpacks a few hundred meters before joining the gorillas, so do not count on carrying loads of stuff in your bag.
  • Trekking shoes (waterproof) with pocket gaiters. When it is raining the path is very muddy and you can easily have your foot in 15cm of soft mud. You will be dirty, no way around it. On desperate measures you can rent neoprene boots at the park.
  • A good trekking pant, typically the one in polyester or cotton/polyamide/elasthane, something that dries well and is not too warm. Forget the beige/whitish stuff but pick something darker like dark beige/greenish. No jeans as they will be soaked wet and get heavier.
  • “Technical” T-shirt, 100% polyester. Easy to wash, easy to dry. Comfortable to wear and does not soak water/sweat. You may want to bring a long sleeve t-shirt if you’re not wearing your sweater on top so that you don’t get scratched or stung by plants around.
  • Light polyesther sweater. Same as above.


A gorilla is black. The forest is very green. The weather is usually cloudy/misty, so this is dark conditions (and I mean very dark sometimes) and your camera will be challenged for the correct exposure. If it rains on top of it, you’re on for a rough ride. If gorillas are very active and moving a lot, you get the whole package of non ideal conditions.

You will get close to the gorillas. Around 7m in theory. In practice, gorillas do not know about this and youngsters can get pretty curious and come towards you. Before you know it and they will be 2m or less from you. You’ll be asked to retreat quickly and the guide may divert attention of the gorilla.

  • Get the sun shade of your lens on it. Even if there is no sun, it actually protects from the rain getting on your lens, and it is humid everywhere anyway, so it is a good idea to have it set
  • Get a camera that is very good at high ISOs and be prepared to push to ISO 3200. If you can do more than that with minimal noise, good for you
  • For close up, underexpose by -2/3EV to -1EV. A gorilla is a dark subject so your metering system will likely think it needs to overexpose it (this is opposite to shooting something white like the snow where the metering might be fooled and tend to underexpose). I suspect sometimes you may need to push to -2EV, but setting it to -2/3EV is a safe bet for close up.
  • Get a zoom lens with stabilization. A 70-200 f/2.8 lens is good (you can even add a 1.4x TC), so is a 70-300 f/3.5-5.6. Again, gorillas will be close.
  • Do not take a 400mm fixed or you will regret it. Foliage can be dense, you have very little leeway to move around to position yourself and if you’re in a group of 8 people, good spots will also be limited.
  • Use Aperture Priority (AE). If you shoot at f/2.8 at 200mm or close, use spot focus to know what you want to be sharp (typically the eyes)… personally I found shooting f/4 to f/7.1 with dynamic focus (or sometimes spot) being more adequate in relative close up so that the whole face is sharp, but that might be just me.
  • Use spot metering for face close up. I did all my shots using matrix metering (evaluative on Canon) and it seems it did a reasonably good job on the D700, but I regret not having done a comparison.
  • In case of doubts, you can try to bring another body with a lens such as a 24-70 to get wider shots or for the in and out of the trek. I personally found it too cumbersome and it never left the bag which was stored a few hundred meters away. It is easier to have a pocket camera.
  • Do not think you’ll be able to swap lens on location. This is hardly the place to do so
  • Forget the monopod yet the tripod… in most places this is really less than ideal, you’re in the middle of branches, bush, uneven terrain, things are constantly changing, youngsters gorillas may come toward you and you need to keep your distance, so it’s not like it is a fashion photo-shoot.
  • Know how to setup your ISO sensitivity settings and be prepared to change it. The 2nd day, youngsters were moving all over the place, so I changed it to up to ISO 3200 with minimal shutter speed of 1/400. The 3rd day I was still using this setting but as gorillas were more static, I could have easily set minimal shutter speed to 1/250 or even 1/125 and thus would have had shots with lower noise.
  • Stop shooting and enjoy the moment, gorillas have very human facial expressions and youngsters playing are pretty funny.
  • If you do not have a DSLR with video, it can be handy to have a pocket camera recording in HD and use from time to time to get some short clips.
  • Listen to the guide and do what he says. If you look like you know what you’re doing with the camera and he feels you’re a sensible individual he will think about you and get you in the best positions first, even cutting some obstructing foliage.

I hope the above will be useful information as a basis if you intend to go photograph mountain gorillas. It is a fantastic experience and is well worth it. Enjoy !


May 20, 2010

Rwanda Mountain Gorillas

Filed under: International,Rwanda,Travels — stephane @ 1:02 pm

Guhonda, Sabyinyo SilverbackI’m back from a short visit to Rwanda from May 8 to May 13. The main objective was to photographs mountains gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park. I could not get more people to join for planning reasons, so only Ludovic could join the fun.

For me, it was about 20 years since I went to see gorillas in Rwanda. At that time I was around 15 and living in nearby Burundi and we came there a couple of years after Dian Fossey’s murder. Since I did not have any visual evidence but only a (fading) memory of a very close encounter I was keen to go back and organize a trip there to try to bring some shots that I will keep for the years to come.

Organizing a trip to see mountain gorillas first mean to secure permits to do so. Gorilla Permits are scarce and definitely not cheap nowadays. In Rwanda, it is possible to visit up to 7 groups of gorillas, and only a maximum of 8 people can join, which makes up to 56 permits a day available. A permit cost USD500 and allows to stay with the gorillas for only an hour. This is obviously to limit the interaction and not disturb them too much.

For this trip I wanted to secure 3 consecutive days of permits so that we could enjoy maximum photo opportunities and visit different groups. Season plays a big role in the availability of permits, most of the permits in june/july/august/september are booked up to a year in advance and while it is possible to get a spot left here and there, this is not really possible to get 3 days in a row for several people. In my case I took advantage of going during the end of the rainy season and I had a lot of choice in term of dates while I did the booking in April. The other advantage of the rainy season is that gorillas are not high up in the mountains but come lower, so treks tend to be shorter. In our case we barely had to trek an hour in the forest to see the Sabyinyo, Group 13 and Kwitonda groups. The exception seems to be the Susa group which tends to be very far away and can easily require 4-5 hours of trek at 2500-3000m in dense forest. Incidentally Susa is also the largest group, boasting up to 33 individuals.

Youngster with curious look

Overall we were pretty fortunate on our trip and had really amazing interaction, including seeing a newborn gorilla just 1-day old. On our second trek to go visit the Group 13 with 22 individuals (and plenty of youngsters playing around), we were only the 2 of us to go. Photography wise this was pretty tough due to the dark and wet conditions. In anticipation of this trip I bought a Nikon D700 as I knew my old D80 would not be enough. I was using at first a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 and then switched to a Nikon 70-300 f/3.5-5.6 VR. Most of the pictures were taken at very high ISO, up to 3200. I was also constantly having -2/3EV to make sure to not have the camera being fooled by the dark fur. During the 2nd trek, youngsters gorillas were pretty active, so cranked up minimum shutter speed to 1/400. (which I unfortunately forgot the next day while gorillas were more lethargic and thus shot at higher ISOs than what I could have). The camera did a pretty good job and I was happy I had the D700 for this.

You can view some of the gorillas picture on my Flickr Rwanda set.

May 17, 2009

Rare marine life behavior and new species

Filed under: Philippines,Travels — stephane @ 12:12 am
Lizardfish attempting to eat a frogfish Lizardfish attempting to eat a frogfish Lizardfish attempting to eat a frogfish Lizardfish attempting to eat a frogfish

One of the nice thing about diving is that it gives you the privilege to see what most people do not see. The ocean covering 75% of our planet means that there are numerous species that are still unknown to science and behavior of marine life still brings its share of novelties. It is not something that should be of any surprise given how limited can be the time of observation underwater for a human, but still something that we tend to forget.

Doing underwater photography also clearly makes you discover yet another world which are the colors that one cannot see underwater. Typically, white appears bluish at the surface and past 5m red starts to look dark sometimes appearing entirely black. Usage of strobes underwater brings to our eyes a world full of intense colors.

A few weeks ago, I was diving in Anilao in the Philippines with a group of friends, all of us doing underwater photography as a hobby and we were able to observe an extremely rare behavior: a lizardfish attempting to eat a frogfish. While for the casual reader this may sound relatively boring, one has to know that frogfish are particular to underwater photographers as they are a subject of choice due to their particular feature: the first dorsal spine is modified as a fishing lure to attract prey.. and they have unique ‘facial’ characteristics. Moreover, observing predatory behavior underwater is also pretty rare in itself for the reason mentioned earlier.

The particularity about this event was the reaction of the frogfish which self-inflated in a defensive behavior and put the lizardfish with quite a mouthful. While this behavior was known by science, it has apparently never been observed widely nor even photographed. I stayed more than 30min around the lizardfish that did a couple of quick release/catch to try different angles without much success, the frogfish was still alive and ‘breathing’.

In a communication with Theodore W. Pietsch, professor and curator of fishes at the University of Washington (who recently published a paper following the discovery of a new specie of frogfish), he suggested to me that those pictures may well be the first to show this behavior and he was kind enough to quote the portion of his book Frogfishes of the world related to body inflation:

Numerous authors have commented on the ability of frogfishes to expand their stomachs enormously by swallowing large quantities of air or water, an adaptation usually attributed only to the pufferfishes (families Diodontidae and Tetraodontidae), a few filefishes (genus Brachaluteres, family Balistidae; see Clark and Gohar, 1953:46, fig. 12), and swell sharks (genus Cephaloscyllium, family Scyliorhinidae). The capacity to “expand their bellies like a balloon”; was first recognized by Marcgrave (1648:150) and later confirmed by Commerson (ca. 1770; MSS 889, 891), Cuvier (1817b:422), Swainson (1838:202), Valenciennes (1837:389), Gunther (1861:184), and a host of twentieth-century authors including Jordan and Sindo (1902:367), Gregory (1933:388), Gordon (1938:20), Schmitt (in Longley and Hildebrand, 1941:304, 305), Barbour (1942:31), Schmitt and Longley (in Schultz, 1957:52), Bohlke and Chaplin (1968:714, 718), Randall (1968:291), and Halstead (1978:354). In the most significant of these many reports, Gordon (1938:20) wrote that Histrio histrio sometimes “uses the quick gulping technique for self-defense. If it is attacked by a larger fish,. . . [it] throws open its jaws, swallows water as it is on the point of being devoured, and instantly pumps itself up to an unexpected size. Thus the swallower is forced to cough up the swallowee.” In summary, a survey of the literature strongly suggests that body inflation is an often-used defensive response in frogfishes, functioning to ward off potential predators or to defend a feeding or shelter site from intra- and interspecific competitors.

It is true that at least some species of frogfishes (Antennarius striatus, A. hispidus, A. ocellatus, A. radiosus, and Histrio histrio) inflate themselves with air when removed from the water, but initiating this response nearly always takes a considerable amount of poking and manipulation on the part of the experimenter. Furthermore, in all of our 14 years of experience in maintaining living antennariids in laboratory aquaria, often harassing the animals beyond what might be expected under natural circumstances, we have not witnessed a single case of body inflation due to swallowing water. Thus we conclude that reports of frogfishes that have inflated themselves with water-filled stomachs, if not false, describe something that occurs very infrequently in nature and is perhaps an ability confined to H. histrio. We also conclude that observations of inflation by swallowing large quantities of air have all resulted from human removal of frogfishes from their natural medium.

Gunther (1861:184) went further than most by suggesting that body inflation provides a mechanism for dispersal: frogfishes are “enabled, by filling the spacious stomach with air, to sustain themselves on the surface of the water. . . . They are therefore found in the open sea as well as near the coasts, and being bad swimmers, are driven with the currents into which they happen to fall.” Jordan and Sindo (1902:367), in apparent reference to Gunther (1861), added that they are “therefore widely dispersed by the currents of the sea.” Although some antennariids, particularly Histrio histrio, may drift on the surface in an inflated state for short distances, it seems very unlikely that geographic distributions have been altered substantially in this way.

Unspecified FrogfishIn addition, as confirmed by Rachel Arnold from the University of Washington, this frogfish is also a specie is yet to be described. As it is, it seems to be at this time relatively common to a particular area where we have been diving in Anilao as I have had pictures of about a dozen different one of various patterns and colors such as the grey one on the left. More will be available on Flickr in the next couple of days as I continue to go through all the shots taken during this period.

June 7, 2008

Philippines Underwater Pictures available on Flickr

Filed under: Philippines,Travels — stephane @ 12:55 am
Red  Painted Frogfish

I’m still reviewing over and over the pictures I took during my dive trip to the Philippines, over 75 of them are now online on Flickr where you can see the slideshow. I suspect I’m at about 60% of the reviewing work and I should probably manage to get 120 worthy shots online by the end of the month. I’m so far extremely pleased (and pleasantly surprised) by all the feedback I received from friends and colleagues about it and this is heart-warming and encouraging.

I got a few questions whether I thought about selling pictures and such, and no this is not something that exactly crossed my mind, but …now with so many questions.. i’m thinking: ‘why not’. Mainly as experiment, as it is in those days much easier than before.. and I’m pretty intrigued by it. If people want to buy a print well I would be extremely happy about it and this is further encouragement. I would first need to be my first customer however and would need to spend some money doing some prints to evaluate the quality that I can expect out of it.

That said, don’t hesitate to comment on pictures, it will give me an idea of the one that you like best !

There will be more amazing underwater critters published this month, so if you want to see them, the best way is probably to subscribe to the photostream rss feed.

May 26, 2008

Back from the Philippines

Filed under: Philippines,Travels — stephane @ 4:35 am
Pufferfish and soft corals on Ducomi Pier

I’m finally back from the Philippines and what a great trip that was. Being in the KLM aircraft was already a cultural shock with such a crappy crew.

Nonetheless, exception of this intense Dutch cultural shock the stay in the Philippines was awesome and certainly beats Sulawesi in term of reef richness especially as we have only been scratching the surface of it. Special thanks to our Pinoy friends: Doy Tan, Adrien Uichico (who also happen to manage the resort Dive Solana and has some absolutely amazing shots) and lovely Cris for her contagious smile.

When arriving in Manila, courtesy of Doy and Cris I had the opportunity to taste some locale delicacies such as pork cheeks, tuna stomach, raw squids and fish, chicken liver and other things I forgot but left me the next day with still a very distinctive taste in the mouth (I have to say I’ll pass on the raw squid next time or dip that in a proper sauce). Certainly worth doing again next time I’m going to Manila.

A couple of other interesting experience in a bar in Makati and a night in Dumaguete. It’s also very disconcerting to have that many girls giggling and telling you you’re guapo everywhere you go and not exactly shy. Good for the ego I guess. Will consider relocating to the Philippines later.

Our first week in Dauin was altered by the rest of a typhoon which in essence meant bad weather, choppy sea, bad visibility but the house-reef has enough critters to keep you busy for hundred of dives. The next week was much better with sun and good visibility (wide angle shots on the Ducomi Pier were taken with 20+m viz).

About the full KLM experience: No greetings when boarding the plane, appalling service where the hostesses would have happily throw you the drinks in your face, they throw more items on the floor than I have ever seen: water, bread, cans, juice, coffee, … and how shocking to see grumpy 6′ hostesses walking like farmers when you’ve been in the Philippines.

When arriving in Schiphol the train to Leiden was not working and was replaced by a bus service… little did they forget that people actually coming from an international airport do have baggages and it could help to have bus where there is room for baggages. Witnessing the NS staff chatting while retired people try to put their baggage in a bus and insulting them in return when people complain it’s a crappy service is beyond believes.

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