Photographing Wild Orangutans

A few months ago I travelled to Gunung Leuser National Park in Indonesia to photograph Sumatran orangutans for the 8th year in a row. As you may have guessed, I absolutely love orangutans for so many reasons! As a member of the great ape family, they share 96.4% of our genes and are highly intelligent creatures (the name orangutan means "man of the forest" in the Malay language). In addition, did you know that they are the largest arboreal mammal, and spend most of their time in trees? And as a photographer, I find that their distinctive orange fur is really striking and that the forest environment offers so many photographic opportunities and challenges.


Because this was my 8th trip to photograph the orangutans, simply finding an orangutan, pointing and clicking without much thought (what I call documentary or 'proof of existence' shots) had very little appeal. Instead, I wanted to push myself to get some creative shots that I (or no one else, for that matter) had ever taken before. So before even arriving, I looked through my entire catalogue of orangutan photos to get a better sense of what I had, what was missing, and what I wanted. I found this process got me much more prepared for what to look out for when I was in the field. Two things that I really wanted on this trip were: an environmental shot showing an orangutan in its rainforest home, and a tighter portrait shot where a ray of light strikes across the orangutan's face.

Visualizing the shot beforehand can help you to get it once you're in the field . Canon 1DXII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with 1.4x teleconverter, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/320 second.

Let's talk about the challenges. First, the trekking is pretty arduous. To start the day, you have to climb the equivalent of a 20-story building and throughout the course of a day as we search and follow orangutans, I easily averaged over 100 flights of stairs. Second, it is hot, humid, and there are bugs and lots of them. So, as you're trekking up through the forest trails, except to be sweating a lot! Third, and this is where it gets really tricky photographically, the orangutans are almost always high above you, which means you're shooting up into the sky, making it very difficult to balance your exposure. Because orangutans are a bit dark, if you expose properly for them, the sky is overblown and you're left with this unappealing white instead of a rich blue sky. If you expose for the sky, then the orangutans are underexposed and you lose detail very quickly.


Well, I truly believe that if you put yourself in a position to succeed, good things will happen! We were following this female orangutan (above) and her baby through the forest and I was able to position myself on a high point so that the angle of my view was more linear than directly above me. As the orangutan moved from tree to tree, I purposefully underexposed by several stops and clicked the shutter as soon as the light ray hit her face. Because I underexposed, the highlights from the sky are kept in check and the viewer is drawn immediately to the piercing view of her eyes. I just love this photo and like it more and more each time I look at it.

When everything you planned for comes together, it is very rewarding! Canon 1DXII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 160, f/2.8, 1/320 second.

On another day, the sun was quite strong and we had been following this orangutan for some time. Positioning matters so much when photographing orangutans, and this time I was again at a higher vantage point than my subject. Because there was a little bit of opening through the rainforest canopy, quite a bit of light was making its way through and striking the orangutan directly. I quickly grabbed my wider angle lens, underexposed by several stops again, and the result is the environmental shot that I had envisioned with the bright orange drawing the viewer's eye to the orangutan, and the forest home clearly visible with the highlights all under control. You may be wondering why I like this image, but just remember that some images are not meant to be displayed small, and to fully appreciate this one you need to see it in full size.


I had a few more special moments on this trip including this environmental shot of a female orangutan about to swing from the vines:

The vines act as leading lines to the dynamic pose. Canon 1DXII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 1/800 second.

And this portrait of a big male orangutan:

His eyes are telling me that he's the boss. Canon 1DXII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 5000, f/5.6, 1/500 second.

And finally, this more artsy, contemplative shot of a female orangutan:

Getting creative with exposure can help you to better tell a story with your subject. Canon 1DXII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 125, f/5.6, 1/1600 second.

But my journey did not stop there. I also spent a couple days visiting and photographing the project sites of our conservation partner the Sumatran Orangutan Society (an organization that I've had a long relationship with) as part of our newly launched Giving Back policy.


Here at Shuttermonkeys, we love to photograph some of the world's most iconic species in their natural habitats. But unfortunately, many of our favorite species are at risk of extinction, including the orangutans, which are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.


That's why we've implemented our Giving Back policy, where a portion of our revenues will go to support conservation efforts. While we'd love to save all of the world's endangered species, we've decided to focus our efforts on our monkey friends. Okay, so some of them are technically apes, not monkeys, but here at Shuttermonkeys we see past whether you have a tail or not, and embrace all forms of primate conservation. And unfortunately, many primate species are threatened by habitat loss and poaching, and really need our help. So, with every purchase you make, you will be helping to protect these incredible animals. 


As part of my visit to one of the project sites, I got to see first hand their incredible efforts in working with local communities to stop deforestation in the national park, support new income generating activities, and rehabilitate destroyed habitat back to its old self.

New growth where a palm oil plantation once stood.
A patchouli (part of the mint family) nursery.
A lone tall tree is all that's left in this view. The others were cut down as part of a palm oil plantation.

Overall, it was so much an incredible trip and I look forward to returning soon! Also, stay tuned for more updates from the Sumatran Orangutan Society as we expand our Giving Back policy, and please feel free to make your own donation to them here.

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