Mountain Gorillas: More than a Photograph, an Experience

by Piper Mackay | April 10, 2012

© Piper MackayThe first step in capturing compelling imagery is to be exited and passionate about what you are photographing. Experience what you are photographing and photograph the experience. This philosophy was quite easy to follow this past February when I went back to Rwanda to trek with the critically endangered gorillas. There is rarely another wildlife experience on earth that is as moving, as heart racing, and as intimate as spending time with these gentle giants. This was my second trip to experience and photograph the gorillas, and I have already planned a third trip coming up for September. The experience is so unique and extra that every time is just as, if not more, exciting as my first. I suppose this is also a part of what I call the “magic of Africa” and why my work is now focused in Eastern Africa.

Rwanda is a beautiful country, known for its terraced green hills and women dressed in traditional colorful African clothing that just pop against the lush landscape. This makes it hard to not want to stop every ten minutes to photograph as you drive up through the mountains to the lodge. Like most mornings in wildlife photography you rise early and grab a quick breakfast, then race off to the area where you wait to be assigned your group followed by a short drive to your starting place. As you enter into the forest for the first time you’re likely to come across think bamboo, a favorite of the mountain gorilla. The combination of thick bush, your guide occasionally hacking through a path with their machete, and your adrenalin rushing in anticipation brings the realization that this trip will be everything you’d always wished for from an African jungle adventure.

Gorilla portrait © Piper Mackay

The second step to capturing compelling imagery is having the right guide and a good relationship with your guide, especially when photographing in remote areas. On our first day we found the Agusha group, one of the most popular groups with 27 gorillas, including several juveniles, infants and a huge silverback known to be a real ladies man. The group was very active when we reached them – juveniles were climbing up jungle vines and infants tumbled past, oblivious to our presence. Our hour with them went quickly, but was magical. The next day I requested the Kwitaonda group as it had the youngest baby of just over two weeks old. Thanks to our excellent guide, we again got our group! However, when we arrived the group was split and the photographic ops were not what we hoped. Knowing the clock was ticking as you only get an hour with the gorillas, I quickly chatted with our guide and off we went through thick jungle to reach the mothers with the babies. As we walked, some of the juvenile gorillas pushed past us on the path. It was so hard not to reach out and touch them, but passing human disease to them can be very harmful. There is a minimum distance that tourists are suppose to stay away from the gorillas, but the gorillas don’t read or obey the rules. Being so close to these wild animals was truly an unforgettable close up encounter and one of those jaw dropping special moments.

Mountain gorillas in trees © Piper Mackay

When photographing the gorillas your dream conditions would be for it to lightly sprinkle rain just minutes prior to reaching the gorillas, as water vapor will rise off of them due to the heat of their bodies creating the perfect mist. But, just having overcast skies will do quite nicely as it provides nice even diffused light which pops the lush bamboo forest and brings out the fabulous texture on their black coats. I used my 70-200 as my main lens and used my 24-70 for closer wide angle shots. Everyone’s camera is different but the over all consensus of our group was to start at -2/3, evaluative meter, and check your histogram often and frequently.

Gorilla on vine © Piper Mackay

Although the gorilla population has risen in numbers, there are less than 800 of them in the world, making an experience such as this one rare and incredibly unique. Daily permits for trekking with these gorillas will be jumping 50% in about 60 days, however permits bought before then at the old price will be honored for the year 2012. These permits, like fees for many of the wildlife reserves will continue to rise, so I encourage you to put these rare and special places at the top of the bucket list!

Gorilla with baby © Piper Mackay

Remember, the experience is just as, if not more, important than the photographs. Enjoy the experience and capture what photographs you can. Great photos don’t have to be new, they have to be you—your vision and your experiences.

Baby gorilla © Piper Mackay

About the Author

Piper Mackay is a freelance cultural documentary and wildlife photographer. Her work is heavily concentrated on the African continent, a land she fell in love with when she first touched foot on its rich red soil. Her passion for the natural world has grown into a lifelong commitment to inspire others to explore, respect and preserve the beauty of our fragile planet.

Her work is licensed through Getty Images. Her images have been displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC, The Museum of History and industry in Seattle Washington, The Art Wolfe gallery, as well as local galleries in the Los Angeles area. Featured articles of her work have been displayed in major publications such as Rangefinder, Nature Photographer, and Selamta, as well as several regional publications. Her images have graced the pages of National Geographic, Nature's Best, WWF calendars, and many other publications. She also leads tours to Africa. To see more of her work, please visit her website at

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