Photographing the Western Lowland Gorillas of The Congo Basin

Did you know that there are actually four recognized subspecies of gorilla, all of which are native to Africa?

Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei)

The Eastern Gorilla is divided into two subspecies: the mountain gorilla and the eastern lowland gorilla. The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is found in the Virunga Mountains on the border of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) is found in the eastern DRC.

Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla)

The Western Gorilla is divided into two subspecies: the western lowland gorilla and the Cross River gorilla. The western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) is found in the tropical rainforests of West and Central Africa, while the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) is found in a small region along the border of Nigeria and Cameroon.

Sadly, all four subspecies of gorilla are classified as either endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to habitat loss, poaching, and disease. Conservation efforts are ongoing to protect gorillas and their habitats and to ensure their long-term survival in the wild.

The image of a massive silverback Gorilla that probably comes to mind when you think of these magnificent creatures is most likely linked to the Eastern Mountain Gorilla. This is a much larger and more terrestrial species than the Western Lowland Gorilla which I'm going to focus on in this post.

odzala photo tour wild eye
Western Lowland Gorilla photographed in The Republic of The Congo
Mountain Gorilla photographed in Uganda

Conservation Status of the Western Lowland Gorilla

The western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) is found in the tropical rainforests of West and Central Africa, specifically in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, and Nigeria. These gorillas are the most numerous subspecies of gorilla, with an estimated population of around 100,000 individuals.

However, despite their large population size, western lowland gorillas are currently classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This means that they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. There are several factors contributing to their declining population and conservation status.

The primary threat to western lowland gorillas is habitat loss and fragmentation due to deforestation, mining, and agriculture. As human populations continue to grow, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate for timber, agricultural land, and mineral extraction. This has led to the loss of critical habitat for gorillas, as well as increased human-wildlife conflict as gorillas are forced to venture into areas where humans live and work.

Another significant threat to western lowland gorillas is hunting for bushmeat. Gorillas are hunted for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in some parts of Africa, as well as for traditional medicine and cultural practices. This is particularly prevalent in areas where there is a lack of alternative protein sources and economic opportunities.

Additionally, western lowland gorillas are susceptible to diseases that can be transmitted by humans or other animals. As human populations continue to grow and expand into gorilla habitat, the likelihood of disease transmission increases. Diseases such as Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers have had devastating effects on gorilla populations in the past.

Conservation efforts for western lowland gorillas include habitat protection and restoration, anti-poaching efforts, and community education and engagement. Protected areas have been established to safeguard gorilla habitat, and programs have been implemented to promote sustainable land use practices and alternative protein sources. Anti-poaching efforts aim to reduce the number of gorillas killed for bushmeat, and community education and engagement programs seek to raise awareness about the importance of gorilla conservation and promote conservation-minded behavior among local communities.

Photographing Western Lowland Gorilla in Odzala Kokoua National Park

There is nothing easy about photographing the Western Lowland Gorillas of Odzala. Almost al the odds are stacked against you BUT what I can guarantee you is that whilst you'll have to work a little harder for your images, you'll be duly rewarded.

With that in mind, here are some pointers to help you get the most out of your photographic opportunities.

F2.8 For the Win

This should come as no surprise as photographing Gorillas of any variety will most likely see you working with very little light. In Odzala, you'll walk straight out of camp before the sun rises in an effort to get to where the Western Lowland Gorillas rested up for the night as quickly as possible.

This often means hooting in the very first rays of light and this light is then more often than not diffused by the cloud cover or mist which dominates the better part of the mornings. This diffused light is actually better for photography as there are not as many harsh shadows and highlights to contend with BUT you'll still be grateful for the maximum aperture of F2.8.

Remember that the camera (both DSLR and Mirrorless) uses the maximum aperture available to achieve focus. Couple low light with a maximum aperture of 7.1 and you're really going to struggle to achieve and hold accurate focus in these conditions.

western lowland gorillas

Whilst the 70-200mm F2.8 will be a good option I would highly recommend going for a bit more reach in the form of a 300mm or even better yet, 400mm F2.8 lens.

Go Slow

Whilst the golden rule in photography is that you'd ideally like your shutter speed to be 1/focal length (eg 1/400 for a 400mm lens) that is likely to be rather challenging at times in this sort of forest environment.

Whilst you'll certainly be able to get shutter speeds of 1/400, it will come with a bit of work and compromise on both the ISO and Exposure Compensation (more on these to come).

This image for example is one of my favorite images from a recent trip. A brief moment captured before the subject slipped away into the undergrowth. Shooting at 400mm and F2.8 my shutter speed was dialled in to 1/400, I was at ISO 5000 and underexposing by -1EV.

400mm at F2.8, 1/400, ISO 5000., -1EV

You're going to find yourself pushing the limits of slow shutter speeds and always living on the edge of having to slow a shutter speed to freeze the movement. My suggestion for when your back is really up against the wall and you can't use any slower a shutter speed is to wait for moments when your subject is not moving.

This same tip applies when photographing in the last light of day on safari.

Go High

Linked to the previous point, you're going to have to get used to shooting at high ISO values. My favorite images from my most recent trip were captured between 3200 ISO and 8000 ISO whilst the ISO range for images taken across all 4 treks ranged from 2500 to 20 000.

Yip, I let the ISO run wild at times but this was obviously necessary to achieve the desired shutter speed. To be fair, some of the higher ISO values can be attributed to images captured against a bright background where one would need to over expose (more on that soon).

Wait for the Eyes

Eye contact with these subjects is crucial. If you can bring yourself to pay attention to the eyes and wait for brief moments of driect contact or for that catchlight to fall in just the right place, you've won half the battle. You see, without the catchlights in the eyes it becomes very difficult to see anything in the deep shadows which fall below that heavy set brow line.

Look for the moments when your subject glances upwards into the canopy or directly towards you. You'll find yourself shooting less and having more images of a higher standard to work through.

Under Expose 

This is a tricky one to wrap your head around initially. Underexposing in a dark environment?

Yip. Remember that the camera is evaluating the scene in your viewfinder and wanting to keep everything "grey". Now, in an environment which is predominantly dark green and with a subject that is black, the camera is naturally going to want to render these areas as grey rather than black.

How does the camera do this?

Well, depending on the mode you're shooting in, it will either be through a slower shutter speed (to allow more light) or through a higher ISO (to make the image brighter). Both of these are already being pushed to the limit under the conditions so, by underexposing not only are you able to keep the darks dark BUT you're going to be able to realise faster shutter speeds and lower ISO values.

Over Expose

I know, "Well which is it Andrew?".

Both. Western Lowland Gorillas are far more arboreal than their mountain cousins. This means that there are times where you'll have to work with low light and high contrast against bright skies and therefore, need to overexpose in order to see your subject.

Be prepared for high ISO values and a lot of noise in these sort of images.

odzala photo tour wild eye

Take Advantage of Natural Framing

This is a big one. Not only does the density of the vegetation in most areas of the forest require you to simply work with the distracting elements but it really can and does add a whole new feeling to your images.

I love how images with the natural framing help the viewer feel as though they are a voyeur, gaining a glimpse into a secret world.

Its often these soft foreground elements (enhanced by the F2.8 aperture) that add that little something extra to a frame.

western lowland gorillas
western lowland gorillas

Patience Pays


You'll find yourself frustrated from time to time, waiting for a window of opportunity, wanting more light, wanting a clearer view, wanting the Gorillas to move, wanting the Gorillas to sit still.

Just be patient, be prepared and wait for your opportunity. I promise you, it will be worth it!

Andrew Beck

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