western lowland gorilla sitting amongst the trees

In the Congo

Will Burrard-Lucas

For wildlife photographer Will Burrard Lucas, pressing the shutter button on his Sony Alpha 1 is just a tiny part of what is required for his photography. His recent work for Wildlife Conservation Society has seen him travel deep into the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo. “Everything is on foot in the forest”, he recalls, “it's very thick. It is hot and humid, and there are many biting insects”.

The journey to photograph wildlife such as western lowland gorillas and forest elephants is an epic adventure in itself.

an elephant bathing in a small lake © Will Burrard-Lucas | Sony α1 + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM II | 1/320s @ f/5.6, ISO 125

“We would drive to the forest's edge on these tracks and stay in research camps. But then, to get to the wildlife, we sometimes had to go in a dug-out canoe and trek along more forest tracks. The furthest location was a 20km hike into the middle of the forest”.

The pristine rainforest has never been logged, creating a perfect ecosystem for a vast variety of wildlife under the dense forest canopy.

Working alongside researchers, Will would travel to see families of gorillas and document their behaviours using his top-of-the-range Sony Alpha 1 and his faithful FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens. Although Will usually has the FE 24-70 f/2.8 GM II and FE 70-200 f/2.8 GM OSS II lenses close to hand, it is the 400mm that sees the most use when photographing gorillas and elephants. Using a fixed lens rather than a zoom may seem an odd choice given the unpredictable nature of the animals, but there are not only practical but also aesthetic motivations behind this approach.

small gorilla with his hand on his face © Will Burrard-Lucas | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/250s @ f/2.8, ISO 12800

“The most important thing is the low light capabilities of the Sony Alpha 1 and the lens. Shooting at f/2.8 is invaluable in a very dark and gloomy environment. The fast f/2.8 aperture gives me that extra stop or extra light than an equivalent 400mm zoom lens”, explains Will.

The f/2.8 aperture also offers shallow depth of field, which Will can play with in his images. “I like to be able to control the vegetation we see in the foreground and background. Shooting wide-open allows me to isolate my subject, make it pop and stand out, and create that connection between the viewer and the animal. And, of course, the larger aperture helps the speed and accuracy of the focus”.

mean looking gorilla staring at the camera © Will Burrard-Lucas | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/250s @ f/3.2, ISO 10000

Although a 400mm lens seems long to most people, it provides a relatively close working distance between Will and wild animals he may encounter.

“It can potentially be dangerous, but I take my cues from the trackers and the researchers. They always work with the same gorilla families so that they will know them, and conversely, the gorillas will be used to having the researchers around. But I always take my cue from the researchers. Another reason to keep a distance is also for the safety of wildlife. There is a high risk of disease transmission between us and the gorillas. It’s important to maintain at least 10m distance because of that risk, therefore, the 400mm focal length has become that perfect sweet spot for being close enough to take great shots but far enough that both the gorillas and I are safe”.

baby gorilla hanging from a branch © Will Burrard-Lucas | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/500s @ f/2.8, ISO 4000

With the Sony Alpha 1, Will feels confident that he can capture whatever the forest and its inhabitants can create. “It's the perfect wildlife camera”, says Will. “It has the 30fps speed if I ever need it. It has a 50.1 megapixel resolution if I ever need to crop into my images. I can shoot with a completely silent shutter to avoid disturbing the animals. But for me, the most useful feature is the autofocus. I must reliably and accurately autofocus even in these challenging situations where I am trying to focus through very narrow gaps in vegetation, often in very low light. The ability of that camera to perform in those challenging situations makes my job a lot easier”.

an elephant with a wet trunk sitting in the shade © Will Burrard-Lucas | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/500s @ f/5.0, ISO 1250

Will's images combine skill and perseverance. Will invests hours of observation before making the long trek back to camp as the forest becomes dark and dangerous. The reward is being able to capture breathtaking moments, one of which was all thanks to a fallen tree.

an elephant showing its tusk © Will Burrard-Lucas | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/500s @ f/5.0, ISO 1250

“This elephant was feeding in a river, and the light poured through where a tree had fallen. The light reflected off the surface of the river. So, you get this incredible shaft of light with deep shadows of the forest behind, and then the elephant dappled in the reflected light. That moment was so unexpected and special. Something that I'll never see again”.

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Will Burrard-Lucas

Will Burrard-Lucas | UK

"I study the latest technology and consider how it might be used to photograph wildlife in ways that were not previously possible."

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