This article is based on the notes that I wrote for the talk that Glyn and I gave on Thursday 4th July at the club.
Glyn and I had both wanted to photograph gorillas but as we can’t afford to go to Uganda, I booked a surprise photography day for us at Port Lymph, Kent. It was booked with John Wright, ‘Photographers on Safari’ (www.photographersonsafari.com)
It was a very foggy morning and we were worried that we may not be able to see the gorillas in the mist! There were nine of us in the group (the maximum number) and we were met in the carpark by John Wright who gave us a 40 minute talk on the gorillas and technique. He lectured us about histograms and actually made us use them (later on we took photos that may have been a bit blurry and crap, but at least the histograms were spot on!)
After the initial talk, we went in a convoy into the zoo, to the ‘staff only’ areas. We started off near a large gorilla enclosure where there was a main garden area which the gorillas rarely go into apart from feeding time. It was an hour before the zoo opened and we had the place mostly to ourselves. A zookeeper spread food around the area which was below us and then quickly left before the gorillas came bounding in.
There were some young males, females and some very cute babies. Eventually a grumpy old silverback male turned up. They all seemed to be eating raw onions and when they farted (which was often), it was evil!
John knew the gorillas well and was able to warn us in almost ample time when a gorilla was going to hurl something at us! One young male was known for throwing logs and other heavy stuff but was bad at aiming, so we were pretty safe, but it was still a bit of a shock. Another male was a good aim and we were warned to stay back when he got a bit aggressive.
We were told that is was very important to keep the shutter speed fast, especially if using a zoom lens. The shutterspeed has to be faster than the length of lens. We were told not to worry about pumping up the ISO because apparently ‘gorillas are grainy anyway’.
The sunshine was getting quite strong and another issue was not whiting out the silver hairs of the gorillas whilst making sure the sunken eyes were not too dark in the shadow. This is a struggle in sunny weather and we would have been better off with cloud. This is when histograms help, and also there’s a thing you can turn on in your preview window that flashes up bleached out areas.
He now takes people all over the world, from hot countries to very cold ones, photographing animals in their natural habitat. In-between all of his foreign tours, he takes day trips throughout the UK to shoot various animals. He has deals with the zoos and safari parks where he can get people closer to the animals than the rest of the general public.
After an hour or so of shooting feeding time we went for tea and biscuits. Then we were taken for a drive around the safari park to see the other animals. The truck went off road so we got closer to the wildlife. Port Lymph is near the sea and there was a great view across the park looking over the coast.
Then we were taken to another area where there were three huge adult silverbacks. There was just a wall between them and us, plus a viewing platform to get a better view over the wall, although the taller people had no trouble looking over the wall. The rest of the public had to make do with being behind an additional fence across a road. There was one guy with tube extensions that looked pretty impressive, but John didn’t seem so impressed.
The three big boys never sat still and we had to shoot almost constantly to get a few good shots. John advised to never take your camera off your chosen gorilla and to keep following him with your lens for that lucky moment when he looks at you. It certainly was a buzz when you did capture a gorilla looking at you. I’ve got lots of photos of gorillas’ bums! Constantly holding the camera to my eye meant that my arms ached, but whenever I put the camera down, I knew that the gorillas would look up.
John told us that if any of the gorillas were to stand upright like a human, it would be the oldest, Umbungo (or his name was something like that) and he would do it after he had finished eating, near to where the juvenile males were to taunt them. And we were not let down, although we had to be very quick.
After this we had an excellent lunch that was inclusive of the price. As we ate, John showed us slideshows of polar bears, tigers, grizzly bears and other animals that he had taken on his trips. They were brilliant photos, but he doesn’t bother to sell them as he said that would mean spending more time in front of a computer rather than going out shooting. He does very little editing but does shoot in raw.
After lunch we were driven around again and tried to get any animals that we had previously missed. We also saw the chalets where members of the public can stay, overlooking the safari park sweeping down below towards the sea. There’s also a water hole where the animals congregate at the end and beginning of the day, right below the chalets – I wouldn’t mind staying there!
Afterwards, we had another session close to the silverbacks. This time, we had a lot of new knowledge and more determination to get some good shots. Umbungo also did a handstand on one of the platforms and blew a raspberry on it. Sadly it was dark in that area and I didn’t get a great shot of this.
Lastly we were taken on a walk around the rest of the zoo and saw the colobus monkeys. These monkeys are sadly dying out due to the fact that there are no longer enough of them left for a varied enough gene pool.
At four o’clock the official day was over, but the zoo was open for another two hours so we went to see any animals we’d missed including various wild small cats and tigers.
A few weeks afterwards we went to Paradise Wildlife Park in Cheshunt. Glyn had bought this experience as a Christmas pressie and it was to be a tour of the big cats with a brunch in a cafe overlooking some of the cats. This tour had a lot more people than the gorilla trip and wasn’t a photography tour, but there were lots of people with some fancy looking cameras and lenses.
For starters we went to the white lion enclosure where there was a cub with her mother and sister. Dad was separated to keep out of trouble. There was a tree top walk long all of the big cat enclosures which was great for viewing the cats, especially those on the mounds. We did use our zoom lenses all day and used fast shutter speeds, which was especially necessary for the lively cub.
We then saw the cheetahs which were not moving until some kid accidentally drop a bottle in the enclosure and then we got lots of movement!
We then went to the snow leopards. There were a male and female that had only recently been introduced to each other in the hope that they would mate. Just as we were told this, the snow leopards did exactly that! Unfortunately I was unable to get a photo of this due to too many other people in the way, but Glyn was fairly successful.
There was a tiger on a platform who barely moved which meant slower shutter speeds could be used. He’d eaten that day and would probably sleep for a day or two.
We then had brunch which was more like a continental breakfast and pretty good. We met other photographers who were telling us about another cat place, the Wildlife Heritage Foundation (http://www.whf.org.uk/) where you can feed the tigers that isn’t open to the public generally and you can photograph them very closely – but it is expensive 🙁
Afterwards we went around the zoo by ourselves. There was another tiger that heard the jangle of the zoo keeper’s keys and came marching right up at us at quite a pace. I had no time to change my lens so just fired off lots of shots and got a good one focussed on the eye.
We then met a white tiger who was behind very tough glass, but only centimetres away from us. He’s been trained to follow a ball so that when the vet arrives, the zoo keepers don’t have to knock him out as he will voluntarily walk to the other end of the pen. He’s also trained to lie down next to the bars and lift a paw so that the vet can give him injections through the bars. Most people had moved on when another zoo keeper arrived that the tiger associated with feeding time. The zookeeper tapped on the glass and he pounced on the glass like a kitten – only being a lot bigger than a kitten, he made one hell of a scary thud!
It was a lovely day and we also saw zebra, a zebra foal, llamas, monkeys, meerkats, plus many more.
Top Tips for wildlife photography:
- Wildlife generally lives in fear of humans. Told to make sure the subject is relaxed and comfortable with your presence. You will not get great pictures if the subject is in fear of its life…or you might get one last amazing photo of course…..
- The eyes need to be the sharpest point. If needs be focus on the nearest eye. Place your single focus point over the eye.
- For wildlife the optimum shooting mode is Aperture Priority. If you choose the smallest available f-stop f2, f4 etc this will choose the fastest workable shutter speed for the current conditions. Using an ISO of 200 upwards will give an even faster shutter speed so don’t be afraid to up the ISO. Better to have a slightly grainy shot than no shot at all. Most common setting is f5.6. This will give you 3in in focus with a 300mm lens at 5 metres.
- If you are using a 300mm lens for example your shutter speed needs to be at least 1/300s
- If shooting in a zoo or safari park for example try and avoid give always like fences/posts etc to make the animal look more like it is in its natural habitat.
- Photographers on Safari: http://www.photographersonsafari.com/
- Wildlife Heritage Foundation: http://www.whf.org.uk/
- Port Lympne Zoo: http://www.aspinallfoundation.org/port-lympne
- Paradise Wildlife Park: http://www.pwpark.com/index.html
- And the place where Glyn bought my Tiger Brunch Experience: www.buyagift.co.uk
- Claire’s gorilla photos on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wadeyc/sets/72157633447173243/
- Claire’s big cat photos on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wadeyc/sets/72157633530909565/
- Glyn’s gorilla photos on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/glynwade/sets/72157634564047709/
- Glyn’s big cat photos on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/glynwade/sets/72157634584290710/