Photographing Chimpanzees – Kibale National Forest
“Chimpanzees, Gorillas, and Orangutan’s have been living for hundreds of years in their forest, living fantastic lives, never overpopulating, never destroying the forest. I would say they have been in a way more successful than us as far as being in harmony with the environment. – Jane Goodall
Trekking with Chimpanzees in Kibale National Forest – Uganda
Have you ever looked into the eyes of an animal and forgot that they were different then you and me. Have you ever watched their actions and their expressions and thought wow that looks similar. A comparison of Clint’s genetic blueprints with that of the human genome shows that our closest living relatives the Chimpanzees and Bonobos share 96 percent of our DNA. The number of genetic differences between humans and chimps is ten times smaller than that between mice and rats. Human and chimp DNA is so similar because the two species are so closely related. Humans, chimps and bonobos descended from a single ancestor species that lived six or seven million years ago. As humans and chimps gradually evolved from a common ancestor, their DNA, passed from generation to generation, changed too.
Jane Goodall was one of the first people to really study Chimps and their behavior. What I love about Jane Goodall is she had no scientific background at all. She was a secretary who had a love for animals. She was offered a chance to venture out into the Tanzanian jungles in Gombe National Park to study Chimpanzees. She spent years learning and studying their behavior and has since been on the forefront of many species survival programs. She is one of the most fascinating humans on this planet! I highly recommend watching Jane. It’s a movie about her life and interaction with Chimpanzees.
Where to see Chimpanzees in the Wild
There are two prime parks that you can see Chimpanzees in their Natural Habitat. Gombe and Mahale National Park in Tanzania and Kibale National Park in Uganda. I have had the opportunity to trek twice with the Chimpanzee families in Kibale National Park. I’ve picked Kibale because it is a little easier to access then Gombe and it’s a halfway point for trekking with Gorillas.
Kibale is also a pretty easy forest to trek through. It’s mostly flat (at least in comparison to trekking with Gorillas). The is a higher population of Chimpanzees in the forest too which means you could potentially see larger families.
There are two different treks you can do. A 1 hour trek, and full day trek. The 1 hour trek is great if you just want to see Chimps. Keep in mind an hour flies by quickly and the chimps are usually moving pretty quickly. If you are a photographer I would not recommend a 1 hour trek. I recommend the full day trek. Starting in the morning you will follow your guide out into the woods where one of the forest trackers has already spotted a family of Chimpanzees starting the day. A full day tour gives you an opportunity to truly observe their behavior plus you can stop at any time. Chimpanzees like most animals are active in the morning and in the evenings and typically napping in the afternoon.
If you want to come trek and photograph Chimpanzees you can join me this January. We will be heading to Kibale National Forest and Bwindi to trek with both Gorillas and Chimpanzees.
Photography Tips for Photographing Chimpanzees in Kibale National Forest
I want to start with why it’s important to photograph wildlife in it’s natural habitat. When you go to these places and see these animals in their home you are seeing so much more then just these beautiful creatures. You are seeing the actual devastation around them. One of the biggest problems for Chimpanzees is deforestation. Trees are cut for firewood and building poles. Forests are clear-cut to make room for living space, crops and grazing livestock. Human-wildlife conflict has escalated drastically as competition for precious natural resources intensifies.
Naturally, all this human activity takes a toll on the land and the wildlife. Chimpanzee populations are no exception. At one point, chimpanzees lived in 25 African countries. Today, due to the loss of habitat – one of the greatest threats chimpanzees face today – chimpanzees are found in only 21 African countries.
When you visit these countries and photograph these animals it’s important to take back with you and share the conservation message along with your beautiful photos. The more you speak up about and share images of these animals the more people will hear you.
Learn the animal’s behavior
One of the greatest benefits to photographing any animal is to learn their behavior. This will help you to predict certain actions to get the right shot. For example if you want to catch a bird taking off from a branch watch for the poop. Most birds will poop right before they take off.
For Chimps it’s a little harder because you can’t just go out in your backyard and watch them. What you can do is go to a local zoo that has Chimpanzees… spend a morning or afternoon and leave your camera at home. The purpose is to watch these animals. Learn what they do. Take notes. The more you go the more you’ll pick up on their little behaviors. While they will be slightly adjusted since these chimps live in captivity they will still be fairly similar.
After that start to see if you can guess what they will do next. Predict their action with your camera ready.
This is not an option for everyone as a lot of use either don’t live by a zoo or the zoo does not have Chimps. If this is the case you can watch documentaries on youtube or check out some of Jane Goodall’s research. The more you learn about the animal the better shots you will get.
What is in my bag.
When I travel to shoot wildlife I always like to have 2 cameras ready with different lens. I personally shoot with Nikon. I have a Nikon 850 and a 750. On the 850 I have my Nikon 200-500 lens. The reason I pair these two up is because the 850 is better in low light then the 750 (although the 750 is pretty damn good) . On my 750 I have my 24-70.
I keep both of these camera out and ready to shoot at all times. As soon as I get to the location where the animals are I set both camera’s up based on the lighting before I start shooting. There is nothing worse than switching camera’s and realizing that you over/under exposed an amazing image.
I like these two lens because I can quickly get two different looks. I can get close ups and environmental portraits.
I also carry with me in my pack a 70-200 2.8 and a macro. The macro is for all the little things that I might find in between. Bugs, interesting plants… etc.
Chimps move a lot and half the time it’s through higher branches. While I will handhold as much as I can point a heavy camera up into the trees will hurt your arms after awhile. A monopod will help with weight and allow smoother quicker movements. I prefer a monopod to a tripod because you can move around easier with a monopod. A tripod can limit your movements and speed.
Even in the morning hours the forest can be pretty dark. The Chimpanzees tend to hide under the big leaves and on the dark forest floor. This means you will need to use a higher ISO. Most cameras are capable of allowing you to shoot at a High ISO and still will give you a quality image.
In dark forests I always like to start at ISO 1600 and adjust from there. I know my range is good up to ISO 3200 but I like to stay around 1600-2500 for the best images. A higher ISO will also help you with
You can test your camera before you leave for your trip by taking the same photo at different ISO’s and checking to see when the image starts to get too grainy. Start at ISO 800, (1000, 1250, 1600, 2500) and go up from there. You will need to check the images on your computer. If you can start to see grain on computer screen without zooming is that usually means that the image will start to be grainy when you blow it up. (Of course this is based on your own personal opinion some artists really like grainy images as it has more of a film look). Once you go through the images you can get an idea of the highest ISO that will work for your camera.
Shutter Speed & Aperture
Chimps will keep you on your toes. They move through the trees and brush quite quickly. Which means you will need to ready to move and you need to have your camera settings ready.
I shoot manually and I like to teach my students to shoot in Manual too because then we have full control of the camera. Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority are great options when the we are on a savannah and the light is only changing slightly.
After I figure out the ISO that will work best for the light I have in the forest I set my shutter speed. I want my shutter spend to be at least 1/125 the faster the shutter speed the more opportunities I have of getting that nice sharp movement. If I can get it up to 1/250 without adding grain to my images I move it up.
Then I look at my aperture. If I am going to shoot a portrait of a non moving animal I will keep my aperture lower. 2.8, 3.5, 4 . For movement the ideal setting 8. Again this is based on what you like. Unless I want to capture movement I like my images sharp. F/8 is a good setting to capture this crispness especially at a distance.
Setting up your shot
This is completely based on your style of photography. Each one of us will see things completely differently. But I will share with you what is running through my mind when I am photographing Chimps .
If there is an opportunity to get close to the Chimps I like to capture portraits. I do a mix of close up details of hands, toes, eyes, and then I shoot them like I would shoot a portrait of a person. I crop from the shoulders up, mid waist up, or full body length. I like to try to capture emotion or almost a human like reaction. I find the most stunning portraits are not when the animal is facing you fully but ¾ of the way.
I also like to create environmental style portraits. Putting the Chimpanzee in its environment to help tell the story.
When I am shooting these portraits I am moving around quietly observing the animals space. If I like the shot where I am I take two steps to the right and left to see if maybe it’s even better a few steps over. (This is why it’s important to travel in small groups! )
Capturing Actions and Behavior
This is a little harder. If the chimps are active you will want to have your wider lens ready. If they are up in the trees I will throw on my 70-200. I would rather have to crop the shot in later then miss part of the action.
Actions are meant to tell a story. When shooting an animal in action it really helps to include it’s environment and where it is. A close up of a chimp swinging in a tree is nice but adding in those trees and allowing the viewers eye and imagination to follow the chimp through the trees is even stronger.
Some people will photograph wildlife in machine gun type actions. If the animal is moving this is good to capture the movement and THE shot. If the animal is just sitting there it’s not necessary. Just remember for every 100 photos you take you have to compare those 100 to each other.
Now a days most if not all cameras have video capabilities. And if your camera doesn’t have it your phone does. I love photography but sometimes video really brings you back to the moments. I love sharing the sights and sounds together. I personally need to do more video when I travel.