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Monkeys are a hugely fun subject to photograph and can be the subject of some great shots for you. They do, however, present a few challenges for the photographer like any other wild animal (and possibly a few challenges unique to themselves). Lets look at what you will have to think about if you would like to get some good photographs of these cheeky creatures.
Where Do Monkeys Gather? – One of the big challenges of photographing any wild animal is actually getting to a position where it's possible to photograph them. Now, many types of monkey are not shy, but if you've made the decision to photograph these animals, then you might like to take a while to research where large numbers of them live. The monkeys in this article were shot at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where they are everywhere!
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What Gear is Best for Photographing Monkeys? – A medium to long focal length lens is almost a necessity due to the fact that you don't want to get too close to any wild animal for safety's sake. These images were all taken on a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8, but there are several cheaper options including the Nikon 70-300mm f4-5.6 which retails for under $200. It's slower, but still capable of great photographs. The other major lens makers all make cheap options at similar focal lengths. A mid range kit lens is also perfectly serviceable for shooting monkeys as they won't be shy about getting closer to humans than most other wild animals.
You might also want to consider a circular polarising filter (CPL). A lot of the time with monkeys, you are looking up to shoot and it is very easy to get parts of the sky showing through the trees and branches and giving you small areas that are blown out. A CPL will help minimise this distraction in your shots.
What You Need to Know About The Animals – Monkeys have a well-deserved reputation for being cheeky, aggressive and a little insane. While they are a great subject for photography, there are a few things you should keep in mind while there are monkeys around.
Monkeys Are Thieves! If you leave anything just lying around, then expect it to be stolen. That goes from food to bags and even camera gear – these little creatures don't really discriminate and it can lead to an expensive time if they take something from you. Keep everything securely fastened to your body or expect to lose it.
Monkeys Can Be Aggressive! While they are very cute, any wild animal deserves respect for the small fact that it is physically capable of ripping your face off. It's a good habit to stay well clear of monkeys that are not tamed for human contact. Spend a few minutes watching how the locals interact with the monkeys and you will get a feel for each group. If the locals are staying clear, then you would be well advised to do the same thing.
Anecdote – As I was wandering around Batu Caves taking photographs of monkeys, I innocently sat down on the stairs to take a break. Little did I know that the railing a foot from my face was a common thoroughfare for the monkey population. I was lucky enough to discover this when I looked up to discover an alpha male, a foot from my face, hissing at me and baring his rather large fangs. Luckily one of the local shop-keepers saw this, happened to be passing by and also happened to have a very large stick in his hand that he used the scare the monkey away from me. Luck saved the day for me.
What Camera Settings Should You Use? – While there are no particular set rules for photographing monkeys, I was trying to minimise depth of field to isolate interest on the animals while freezing motion. That meant a wide aperture (around f 2.8 to 5.6) and fast shutter speed (while I sometimes took advantage of the Vibration Reduction of my lens, usually you will want to match your shutter speed to your focal length at a minimum to minimise camera shake).
Monkeying About With Composition – Backgrounds are going to be one of the most challenging parts of shooting monkeys. The animals themselves do enough interesting things and strike enough cool poses that you won't have to worry about the main subject, but what is behind them can often break an otherwise great photograph. Be careful of the sky showing through the trees and adding blowouts to your shot.
One trick is to observe where the monkeys actually spend time (often they will have common thoroughfares or places to gather) and then look at how you can get to a position to photograph that particular spot with a good background. In these images (below), I noticed that the monkeys often climbed along a certain fence and I was able to position myself so that the fence was between me and a giant golden Hindu statue.
I also like to give the subject a little space to look into. In these shots you will notice that the animals usually look towards the center of the frame or area with the greatest amount of space.
And in the image below I found a rock face with lots of moss, lichen and overgrowth that gave a pleasant effect in a limited depth of field photograph.
Don't Forget to Have Fun – It's almost impossible not to have a ball while you're around these hilarious animals. They are always doing something funny and are a heap of fun to shoot. With a few of the tips above, hopefully you should be able to come away with a few good photographs too!