ADVICE NEEDED: Best Camera for Gorilla Trekking in Uganda?

May 26, 2013
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Charlottesville, VA
Hi everyone,

I'm new to this site (and to photography generally), so I apologize if this question has already been asked and answered. I am looking for recommendations on the best entry-level DSLR camera to take with me on a trip to Uganda to go mountain gorilla trekking. I've been looking at the Nikon D5100 with a 55-300mm VR lens... Is that a camera that you would recommend for a safari? I have dreamed of seeing mountain gorillas up close for as long as I can remember; given that this will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, I want to ensure that I have the proper equipment to capture every incredible detail. I've grown increasingly interested in photography over the last couple of years, but can only afford to spend $1000 or less (lenses included). I realize that significantly limits my options, but I have seen a couple of camera bundles on Amazon that look promising (e.g. Nikon D5100 16.2MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR Nikkor Zoom Lens and Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 SLD DG Macro Lens with built in motor + 16GB Deluxe Accessory Kit: Camera & Photo). Do you think that all of the extras included in the bundle are worth it? If not, are there any "add-ons" that would be worth spending the extra money on? Any advice or guidance that you can provide would be greatly appreciated. And don't worry, I plan on taking some sort of class to familiarize myself with all of the equipment prior to going on the trip. Thank you in advance for your help!

All the best,

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Any modern DSLR will do good shots, but for a safari that might bring special needs. Out in the bush, as it were, I would think you would want to consider weather sealing and unfortunately, an entry level camera is not going to provide that. I don't know what the weather is like in Uganda, so that may or may not be top priority. Also, how close do you expect to get to these animals? Some form of zoom seems to be required here.

Your budget is very limiting so you're going to have to compromise.

As for those "package" deals the extra pieces parts are typically low-end stuff. That Sigma lens for example, retails for about $140. Reviews of it reflect that pricing as well (meaning it wasn't too good).

You'd do better to buy a body and a lens. You could get an older digital body and a newer, nicer lens (the lens is the important part).
Get one of the packages from nikon or canon that comes with an 18-55 lens or something sort of similar to that range. These will be entirely inappropriate lenses for shooting gorillas from a distance, BUT:
1) I've never seen a good kit deal with any sort of real telephoto lens worth anything.
2) You're not going to want to ONLY bring a really long telephoto lens with you. The 18-55s will allow you to take lots of nice photos of the general areas, etc. while you are at camp or in your hotel or whatever you're doing the entire time you're there other than when you're taking photos of gorillas.

Then get a nice lens separately that goes up to 300mm or so probably. That should be plenty of range for gorillas. They're pretty big. I would expect you to be able to get a decent full body shot that takes up almost your entire frame of a gorilla with a 300mm lens at maybe 50 meters. Or decent shots of groups of them or one in context of a lot of jungle further away than that.

And yes, as mentioned, a lens with VR (nikon) or IS (Canon) <--same technology with different letters.

A body + 18-55 lens you should be able to get for like $600, a lens for maybe $300, and then spend the remaining $100 on some minor equipment like a monopod or tripod, those bags linked above, memory cards, etc.
As this is your big dream adventure, you no doubt have gathered quite a lot of information about the gorillas and their habitat. That will give you some idea of how close you're going to be able to get to them.

It's my understanding that mountain gorillas live in forests and jungles, where they have plenty to eat as herbivores. That means you'll necessarily be fairly close to see them at all, or they'd be obscured by trees, leaves, bushes and so forth. That means you don't need a 300mm lens, or anything long for that matter, because you're not likely to be shooting photos of them from half a football field away as they're walking across big open fields or something. That being the case, I think a short, standard zoom is in order. I doubt you'd need anything longer than 85mm-100mm, and might actually get some use from the shorter end, maybe in the 18mm-24mm range.

These animals are also very dark, and you'll be shooting from under a canopy most of the time, even on sunny days. That means you'll want a camera that performs well at higher ISO levels or a lens that has a wider aperture, or both, but now we're getting into the expense problem. Personally, I'd start with better ISO capability - these days it's amazing what the newer bodies can accomplish in that department. And you'll get a lot more bang for your buck with a better capable ISO body than a fast aperture zoom, which is REALLY expensive.

I'd also probably go with an APS-C size sensor, because they generally shoot faster, are lighter and more straightforward in operation, and they'll maximize the center sweet spot of whichever lens(es) you choose to use. The newer ones have excellent ISO capabilities.

As for the weather issue, get some rain gear to help protect it in case of rain, and store the gear with desiccant when not in use to help protect from humidity if that's a possible issue.

Have you considered renting, rather than buying? You'll get a lot more bang for your buck that way, and for the short term, you'll be able to get a camera body and lens combo that will let you really capture this once in a lifetime adventure better than anything your limited $1000 budget will get you. watching.JPG

^ Photo of a photographer in uganda taking pictures of gorillas. If it's anything like that, then the light doesn't seem to be an issue (low, dense, but uncanopied jungle it seems?), nor distance.

So you could get away with a fairly inexpensive wide zoom range lens and not worry so much about aperture, I'd say. Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 for instance, would be a pretty good lens IF conditions are actually similar to the ones in the photo above, for your $1000 budget (and you could save $100 off the camera body since a 18-55 kit lens would be redundant).

Have you considered renting, rather than buying?
Rental is not a great option if he wishes to take an entire photography class ahead of time. It would end up costing more than the equipment straight up, or he'd have to buy an intro level set of equipment for like $500, which will not be nearly as good as $1000, in order to have enough left over to rent decent equipment later. Would be all awkward and inefficient.
IF conditions are actually similar to the ones in the photo above
Reading is fun! And is something that any intelligent person would do plenty of prior to investing in a Ugandan mountain gorilla safari. I'm sure he is well aware of whether the conditions will likely match that photo or any other photos and perfectly able to determine the relevance of contingent advice.

And rental is a great option to get the best gear short term on a budget, whether you think so or not.
That's true. But he specifically said in the OP that he intends to take a photography course "to familiarize myself with all of the equipment prior to going on the trip."

Unless he is referring to some sort of immersive, 24/7 photography camp, that will take weeks. + probably 2-3 weeks at least for the trip in rental fees. Ends up not being short term anymore. It would cost the majority of the retail price of the equipment in order to rent it for all of that time.

Renting is a more appropriate option for somebody who is confident in using similar equipment already, and who is comfortable familiarizing themselves with the good stuff in a day or two before the trip, in order to keep rental costs well below retail.
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All he needs to learn is how to focus, how to use the exposure triangle and how to read any typical DSLR in-camera meter. Posing swimsuit models and lighting them with softboxes can wait.

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