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Advice for Gorilla Photography

Gorilla Rwanda

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#1 Alexander33

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Posted 15 March 2016 - 01:36 PM

We are planning to go to Rwanda next year. Of course, the main purpose of the trip will be to see the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.

In reviewing trip reports for Rwanda and Uganda here on Safaritalk, it seems that the go-to lens for photographing gorillas has been the 70-200 f/2.8, which makes sense given the proximity one often can obtain as well as the low-light situations.

I've only gotten serious about photography in the last year, but what a year it's been. I don't even want to add up the total expenditures I've made on camera equipment in the last twelve months! Needless to say, my kit does not include a 70-200 f/2.8.

So, two questions (for now, anyway):

1. At the very least, I would rent a 70-200 f/2.8 for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (I know, famous last words). Is there anyone who has photographed gorillas that would recommend a lens other than this one. (In other words, do you feel that my conclusion that the 70-200 f/2.8 is the best lens choice for gorillas is correct, or do you have an alternative suggestion?).

2. Right now, I have two crop-factor cameras. I'm thinking I'd pair one with the 70-200 and the other with a wider angle lens (I think a number of people like the 24-70 -- which I also don't own!). Does this sound feasible, or is it advisable to use a full-frame camera, given how close one might get to the gorillas? (In other words, is 70mm on a crop-factor camera still not optimally wide enough when using the 70-200? Even though I'd have a wider-angle lens, I'd prefer one (probably the 70-200) to be primary over the other so that I don't constantly have to switch between the two).

Any advice or thoughts you have would be most appreciated. Obviously, I have time to mull over the choices (and to save up for any purchases)!

"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."  -- Unknown 


#2 Alexander33

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Posted 15 March 2016 - 01:45 PM

@xelas

Continuing from the other thread where I first brought this up, to answer your questions, I haven't really felt a need for a 70-200 in my photography thus far. With the 80-400 and 200-500, I still find myself shooting at the longer ends. So I think if I go with a 70-200, it would be the f/2.8 instead of the f/4 -- yes, more expensive, but much better performance in low light, no?

I'm waiting for reviews on the D500. One advantage of replacing the D7100 with another D7200 is that the two would be so interchangeable -- which is really nice. There no doubt that the D500 will be superior. I'm just wondering if it will be superior enough for me to justify the switch and have to deal with two cameras with different set-ups. It will be interesting to see!

"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."  -- Unknown 


#3 Wild Dogger

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Posted 15 March 2016 - 02:23 PM

Using a fullframe camera would be very helpful in low-light situations as they handle high ISO much better than a crop camera.
In dense forest low light situations are very likely.
 


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#4 xelas

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Posted 15 March 2016 - 02:37 PM

@Alexander33

 

f/2.8 vs f/4 today is more about depth-of-field (subject isolation) and "bokeh" battle than about light gathering battle. It is only 1 full stop. While each new camera body is about 2 full stops better HighISO results.

For sharpness itself, the 70-200 f/4 is right behind the 70-200 f/2.8. And its VR is newer i.e. better! The f/4 version wins in weight and price departments also.

Thus "the much better performance in low light" becomes more dependant on the camera body. 

 

Of course, bigger (faster) is always better. Almost always. Trekking to gorillas in Rwanda is a tough and demanding job (according to those reports I have read; a purely second hand observation).

The lighter you can hike the better, IMO. Travelling very light, and with a fast lens, what can beat Sony RX100 Mk IV 24-70 f1.8-2.8 or Nikon DL 24-85 1.8-2.8?! And you will be able also to come back with stunning 4k video clips.

 

While the D7100 and D7200 are true twins, I wouldn't be too preoccupied with different layout on D500. Really, how many times you are using other buttons for changing WB, Mode, Quality or Metering?!

I know that those are all fixed and used the same way 95% of the time. The only one to use more often on our recent trip was the Metering, switching from Matrix to Spot. However, using it very rarely, I need to take my eye off the viewfinder anyway.

It does use the same EN-EL 15 battery, and that one is important fact (only one charger needed).

 

 

@Wild Dogger

The gap between the full frame and crop camera's High ISO handling is diminishing each time a new bodies are put on the market! While, say, D610 @ ISO 3200 beats the D7100 @ ISO 1600, it does not have an advantage against D7200, and will probably be on the loosing part against D500. Again, if not for DOF today's crop bodies are "better" i.e. more versatile options for a enthusiast photographer, specially for one that is into travelling and photography. Having both, of course, is the best option. Even with all that I wrote above, I could not resist the songs of the Sirens  :) !


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#5 TonyQ

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Posted 15 March 2016 - 02:49 PM

@Alexander33

I am sure you will have a wonderful trip! We went (over 10 years ago) and did Gorilla trekking in Uganda (where we spent most of our trip) and Rwanda. We booked 2 visits because we wanted to be sure! Things can go wrong, you could get ill, weather might be bad.....

I don't know the Nikon cameras and lenses having gone the Canon route. So I will let those who know such things comment on the specific lenses

 

I had a cheap Canon 75-300 (f5.6 max at 300mm) on an 8mp Canon 350D (cropsensor) with a maximum ISO of 1600 - so you are going to be better equipped than I was :)

I have been looking at the pictures I took (good to have an excuse). Obviously I can only base comments on our visits - I don't know if our sightings were representative or not.

 

In Rwanda about 66% of pictures were in the Range 70-200,  30% in the range 200-300 (very close portraits - though I was also able to take these at 100mm sometimes - toddler playing in tree, detail of hand etc and 4 % using a wider lens (at about 40-50mm for group shots - but I had to change lens so didn't do this as much as if I had had 2 camera bodies).

 

I am sure you would be able to crop from your 200mm images to get the equivalent of the 300mm.

 

In Uganda the proportions look similar - although in my memory the gorillas were a bit further away - and more spread out.

 

You have an hour with these wonderful creatures. You don't (or rather I wouldn't :) ) want to be worrying about different camera set-ups. If you take 2 with very different layouts, make sure you know them thoroughly before you go. We also wanted time to soak up the experience and not have all of it viewed through a camera. It is a very special experience.

 

Edited to add

I have just seen the post from @xelas    with the expert knowledge I am sure will come you way

Re: weight.You can hire a porter to carry your gear for the trek part up the hills. When we went it cost $10, I believe it is now $20. We hired one each. You get to the gorillas feeling fresher and another local person has employment linked to the survival of the gorillas - win all round - so please employ one whichever camera you take.


Edited by TonyQ, 15 March 2016 - 02:54 PM.

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#6 Peter Connan

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Posted 15 March 2016 - 04:16 PM

As Alex has said, each new generation of camera is better at high ISO than the one before.

I disagree that maximum lens aperture is not important in terms of their ability to gather light.

No matter how good your camera is, it will still be better at a lower ISO. Less noise and a better dynamic range (thus more leeway to lift shadows and adjust exposure) will still be the result of a lower ISO.

So while a D7200 with an f4 lens is probably better than a D7000 or D7100 with an f2.8, it won't be better than a D7200 with an f2.8 lens...

Having said that, I probably wouldn't buy a Nikon 70-200 f2.8 now, because by all accounts the f4 is sharper, and also lighter and cheaper. Also, the Tamron 70-200 f2.8 is apparently very nearly as good as the Nikon...

I have never been there (gorillas), but want to chuck another idea into the mix: how about putting the 80-400 on one body, and an 85mm f1.8 on the other?

Edited by Peter Connan, 15 March 2016 - 04:18 PM.

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#7 xelas

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Posted 15 March 2016 - 06:31 PM

I do wholeheartedly agree with what Peter said; in a perfect world where no compromises are needed, yes, by all means, the faster the lens the lower the ISO the cleaner the photo.

My starting point was when a compromise has to be taken; in such a case I will always head to newer body with slower lens agains an older body with a faster lens (speaking about f/2.8 an f/4 lenses and not taking D3s into equation).

 

Yet any camera and any lens you will have with you, the most memorable and vivid images you will took back will be those embedded in your mind! I do (positively) envy you !! Luckily, I will be around to enjoy your trip report  :) .


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#8 Zubbie15

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Posted 16 March 2016 - 01:15 AM

I was in Rwanda last month, and we did two gorilla treks (I promise there will be a trip report before next year... still going through pics).  We had three (Canon) cameras - a full-frame with a 70-200 f/4, a full-frame with a 24-105, and a crop with a 100-400 (equivalent to 160-640 on full frame).  Definitely the 70-200 was the best focal length, and I think it would have been better on a crop body as I was typically using more of the 200mm end.  The 24-105, especially on the wide end, was too wide in general, but the thick vegetation meant we didn't have any opportunities for group photos. Apart from taking a few frame-filling portraits, the 100-400 was way too much zoom.  

 

On both of our treks we ended up with the gorillas predominantly in open clearings with good light (although it started raining by the end of the first, and the second they moved off into the forest, so good low light ended up being useful - I had a couple of situations where I was forced to use ISO 12800).  Technically you aren't supposed to get closer than 7 meters, but on both days we were typically only 2-4 meters from the gorillas due to the thickness of the vegetation. My suggestion is to ask a friend (ideally a shorter female, to approximate the height of the gorillas) for help, and have them stand 2, 4 and 7 meters from you.  Frame some photos at each of those distances with the lens(es) and camera(s) you have, and figure out, based on the style of photo you like to take, whether you think you'll need different focal lengths to get the image you want.   


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#9 Zubbie15

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Posted 16 March 2016 - 01:18 AM

Also, to back up what @TonyQ said, definitely hire a porter for each person.  Not only are they helpful on the trails (after the rain on our first day, the trail turned to mud - everyone without a porter was sliding all over the place), but you are employing local people and helping with the conservation.  We were told it was $10US to hire, plus tip - we ended up giving $30 total to each, mostly because my wife wasn't sure she would have been able to make it without her porter's help, especially the first day.  Anyway, I'll have more tips once I write my TR. 


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#10 SaminKaz

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Posted 16 March 2016 - 05:26 AM

This is a hit and miss.  I went to Uganda two years ago and took all my kit, felt guilty and hired two porters to help me.  I didn't even bother pulling out the 50-500 on the first and only day I took it because the gorillas were super close.  I used an 18-300, Go Pros and gave one of the guides a Canon PowerShot *50 because he was in areas that I wasn't.

 

The first day I was in a very open areas and the second day I was in more covered jungle but still reasonably good light.  The sightings were close due to being on the side of a mountain that prohibited us moving 7m away on the first day and the second day we made all attempts necessary because we had more space but still they came close to us.

 

I agree with what Peter has suggested and if you have the opportunity give one or two of your guides a bridge camera (video/photos), go pro (to take video) etc.  I promised a personal tip to the guide which was greatly appreciated.  It also offers a chance to have you in the photos/videos which is hardly the case when on these kinds of trips.

 

Have a wonderful time.  Gorilla trekking is one of the most amazing wildlife experiences to be had.


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#11 Alexander33

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Posted 17 March 2016 - 08:57 PM

@WildDogger

@xelas

@TonyQ

@Peter Connan

@Zubbie 15

@SaminKaz

 

Once again, Safaritalk comes through. Thanks very much to each of you for taking the time to respond. Your experiences, thoughts and suggestions are enormously helpful and will definitely aid in helping me to sort my thoughts on this. 

 

 

@TonyQ

 

In Rwanda about 66% of pictures were in the Range 70-200,  30% in the range 200-300 (very close portraits - though I was also able to take these at 100mm sometimes - toddler playing in tree, detail of hand etc and 4 % using a wider lens (at about 40-50mm for group shots - but I had to change lens so didn't do this as much as if I had had 2 camera bodies).

 

Re: weight.You can hire a porter to carry your gear for the trek part up the hills. When we went it cost $10, I believe it is now $20. We hired one each. You get to the gorillas feeling fresher and another local person has employment linked to the survival of the gorillas - win all round - so please employ one whichever camera you take.

 

Thanks so much for providing the approximate percentages of ranges from which you took your photographs.  That really helps give me an idea of equipment priorities.  Yes on the porter. That has never been in doubt!

 

 

@Peter Connan

 

Having said that, I probably wouldn't buy a Nikon 70-200 f2.8 now, because by all accounts the f4 is sharper, and also lighter and cheaper. Also, the Tamron 70-200 f2.8 is apparently very nearly as good as the Nikon...
 

 

The f/4 reportedly is sharper than the f/2.8?  I will definitely look into that.

 

 

@Zubbie15

 

We had three (Canon) cameras - a full-frame with a 70-200 f/4, a full-frame with a 24-105, and a crop with a 100-400 (equivalent to 160-640 on full frame).  Definitely the 70-200 was the best focal length, and I think it would have been better on a crop body as I was typically using more of the 200mm end. 

 

This is exceptional insight. So it sounds like I can relax about having only crop bodies, and I don't need to rush out and buy a new full-frame camera -- at least not for purposes of photographing gorillas. You just saved me a bunch of money and gave me great peace of mind at the same time.

 

 

On both of our treks we ended up with the gorillas predominantly in open clearings with good light (although it started raining by the end of the first, and the second they moved off into the forest, so good low light ended up being useful - I had a couple of situations where I was forced to use ISO 12800).  Technically you aren't supposed to get closer than 7 meters, but on both days we were typically only 2-4 meters from the gorillas due to the thickness of the vegetation. My suggestion is to ask a friend (ideally a shorter female, to approximate the height of the gorillas) for help, and have them stand 2, 4 and 7 meters from you.  Frame some photos at each of those distances with the lens(es) and camera(s) you have, and figure out, based on the style of photo you like to take, whether you think you'll need different focal lengths to get the image you want.   

 

I'd prefer to not go above ISO 6400, if that, so visions of the 70-200 f/2.8 again creep in to the picture. Rather ingenious idea on using a live (human) model to gauge my frames -- I don't think I would have come up with that!  (Also makes me think I should head to one of our zoos for the same purpose).

 

 

Did any of you who have been need to use exposure compensation to account for the all-dark color of the gorillas?


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#12 ellenhighwater

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Posted 17 March 2016 - 09:37 PM

 

Did any of you who have been need to use exposure compensation to account for the all-dark color of the gorillas?

 

Yes.  I've found the darkness of the gorilla's fur compared with the highlights of the nearby vegetation to be far more of a challenge than the relative darkness of the setting.  I've been lucky enough to go see the gorillas several times in both Rwanda and Uganda and I don't feel the setting to be nearly as dark as you have to deal with when trying to photograph chimps.  Several times I've even experienced watching and photographing the gorillas in sunny clearings, so you just never know.


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#13 Zubbie15

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Posted 18 March 2016 - 12:33 AM

@Alexander33, I didn't use any exposure compensation, mostly because I've been reading lately about how much more information the digital sensor collects on the brighter side of the spectrum, so I decided to expose at the suggested level from my camera, and darken as needed while converting the RAW.  Certainly that adds to the processing time, I think I'd probably underexpose about 2/3 of a stop if trying to get it "right" in camera (on a Canon at least, not sure how Nikon compares).  As @ellenhighwater mentioned, on both of our hikes we spent at least part of our time in open, sunny clearings with the gorillas, trying to balance the bright vegetation and dark gorillas was a challenge for me. 


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#14 xelas

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Posted 18 March 2016 - 08:05 AM

Hmmmm, I might be wrong but when we are photographing dark birds, or subjects in deep shade, we overexposed i.e. making the photo lighter. The bright spots might even be blown out as long as the dark areas are visible.
About ETTR vs. ETTL exposure to the right is a way to go mostly because of the noise. In darker parts there is more noise then in lighter parts of the photo. Of course, this is when using a Nikon gear. And other photographers might have different approach.
Try at home; if you need a subject that will resemble the grumpy gorilla, call me :-)))
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#15 IamFisheye

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Posted 18 March 2016 - 09:50 AM

Once you have decided on your kit (go for lighter kit as it will need to be carried).  This is an excellent book 

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#16 Zubbie15

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Posted 18 March 2016 - 10:10 AM

@xelas, we're referring to the fact that cameras are programmed to expose for 18% gray, so when you have a predominantly dark subject, like a gorilla, it will overexpose, and when you have a predominantly white subject (say a snowy field) it will underexpose, in both cases to get to that middle gray.  Thus, in general you need to compensate for this by underexposing dark subjects and overexposing light subjects.  As you say though, obviously you want to retain details and not just have a dark blob, so there's a bit of a balancing act required. 


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#17 TonyQ

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Posted 18 March 2016 - 10:20 AM

@Alexander33

I didn't compensate for exposure. I shot in JPEG then (RAW now).

When I look at the JPEGS, many of them are improved (in Lightroom) with about 1/2 stop reduction (under) - the black of the gorillas is less grey. But some of them are fine as they are.

The contrast between very black fur and bright vegetation can be difficult.


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#18 Peter Connan

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Posted 18 March 2016 - 01:57 PM

I suspect this might be a good opportunity for spot or centre-weighted metering, assuming that on your camera these are tied to the active focus point.
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#19 Alexander33

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Posted 21 March 2016 - 04:37 PM

@ellenhighwater

@Zubbie15

@IamFisheye

@TonyQ

@Peter Connan

 

Thanks to all of you.  This has been very helpful.  My experience with exposure compensation has been as Zubbie15 describes.  I find whites much more difficult than blacks -- I am famous for blown highlights -- so perhaps this won't be an issue for me.  Peter, good point on the metering.  I usually spot meter, but, then again, my subjects aren't usually gorillas!  Appreciate the book recommendation, IamFisheye -- will check that out.

 

We are filling out our confirmation form for the trip this week -- yikes!


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"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."  -- Unknown 


#20 Alexander33

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Posted 21 March 2016 - 04:53 PM

Appreciate the book recommendation, IamFisheye -- will check that out.

 

 

 

Well, maybe not.  This looks like an incredible book, but the only place I can find it for sale is on Amazon.uk for......£999.  Really?  Time for Andy Rouse to release a second edition!  Or maybe I can find one trolling eBay.  


"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."  -- Unknown 






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