So Steve, what is your most challenging shooting situation? Well, Street Photography is challenging for me because of the social situations involved (like invading someone’s privacy to get a documentary shot) but hands down photographing monkeys in their natural habitat (jungle and rainforest canopies) is the toughest by far. It’s even harder than photographing birds in flight (except maybe Kingfishers, they are absolutely impossible). In the jungle (and when I say jungle I’m using the word as an all-inclusive term for jungle-slash-rainforest—they are technically different environments) everything is working against you.
What are some of the major obstacles to shooting in the jungle? The biggest obstacle is the environment itself. I’m often shooting under double and even triple canopy foliage. That means it’s dark. Sometimes it’s very dark. The monkeys are most often high-up in the canopy to avoid predators like Jaguars. Jungle growth is dense and the monkeys are often obscured by branches and twigs that can easily confuse your camera’s autofocus (and my eyes are way too old to manually focus my shots). Hanging vines try to strangle you while tree roots and creeper vines try to trip you. Did I mention that those vines are often protected by two to three-inch thorns?
Poisonous insects and reptiles abound, like: Bullet Ants, Fire Ants, Army Ants, Scorpions, Centipedes, Eyelash Vipers, Fer de Lance Vipers, Cobras and the Tarantula Spider. Then you have the ubiquitous mosquitos, ticks and chiggers (and of course leeches). In Mexico, Central America and South America you have the big cats: Jaguar, Puma and Ocelot. In Asia and India it’s Tiger and Leopard. Africa has its Lion, Leopard and Cheetah but they stay mostly on the savannah. Then of course there’s the water: rivers, creeks, streams, swamps and torrential rain (and lots of mud). On top of everything is the heat. The ever-present stifling heat (and smell).
So the typical scenario involves me traipsing through the jungle, in dim light, looking up in the canopy and trying to follow a troop of rapidly moving monkeys. I’ve got my heavy camera with its long 400mm lens (and possibly an external Speedlite) and I’m just trying to stay on my feet without tripping or getting strangled. I don’t want to reach out to steady myself because then I run the risk of getting bitten (by any one of the pests already mentioned) or impaled on long poisonous spikes. I’m sweating like crazy and getting more and more dehydrated by the second. I’m trying to stay close to my guide as he bushwhacks with his machete and to not slip in the slick mud.
Does any of this sound like fun yet? Actually, for a dedicated wildlife photographer it is. I’ve spent a lot of time in various jungles, in: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador (the Amazon). In Honduras and Nicaragua I spent a month in each jungle location. Nicaragua (on the Rio San Juan) was the most primitive, living in a thatched jungle hut complete with insects and bats. I ate rice, beans and tortillas everyday—and I lost a lot weight. The photo at the top of the page is me relaxing in the afternoon (out of the heat) between morning and evening shoots.
My time in Nicaragua and the Amazon (Ecuador) was the most amazing ever, followed closely by Honduras. The Galapagos Islands, Atacama Desert and Southern Patagonia were amazing too, but they weren’t jungles. This post is about jungle photography and monkeys. Is jungle photography worth the effort? For me the answer is a resounding yes. It is incredibly challenging both from a technical aspect but also from a physical perspective. It can really kick your ass. The more authentic the experience, and the more off the beaten track you are, the more you will get your ass kicked. It takes some real effort to get into some of these locations but it is so worth it.