29 Jan 2016

Perfect Pelicans

This year's Bulgaria & Greece Birds & Landscape workshop was once again a great success. I have yet to process many wonderful landscape images from this trip, let alone images of all the other birds we photographed. However, I have managed to chug my way through about 10,000 images of Dalmatian Pelicans, a small selection of those retained are shown below!

A pair of Dalmatian Pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) photographed against a backdrop of misty mountains.

We arrived in Bulgaria to be greeted by the first proper snowfall of the year, which made the landscape all the more photogenic. Over the border in Greece the cold temperatures also made the pelicans very hungry and even more cooperative than they were last year. We weren't lucky enough to get snowfall over Lake Kerkini itself, but at least the mountaintops were white and provided a very picturesque backdrop.

Dalmatian Pelican against the snow covered peak of Kerkini Mountain

When coming in to land the pelicans often pull some quite comical poses!

As usual, long telephoto lenses are not necessary for this workshop. Dalmatian Pelicans are the largest pelican species in the world and can have a three metre wingspan! Most of my images were taken with my Canon EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS lens on an EOS 1DX body.

A group of hungry pelicans on the shore of Lake Kerkini, taken with a 15mm fisheye lens

On the shore of the lake we used both wide-angle and fisheye lenses to gain a different perspective. We got filthy and all the camera gear was soaked by the splashing pelicans, but it was worth the effort!

A trio of pelicans at sunrise

This year we didn't have any perfectly calm days so the water was almost always a little choppy. Calm conditions often produce some of the best images here as it is possible to make use of reflections of both the birds and the mountains. However, less than ideal conditions force you to be more creative, so we spent a lot of time using slow shutter speeds. Slow shutter speed panning can result in some very interesting and dramatic images of the pelicans, but the success rate is much reduced (hence 10,000 images to edit!). The idea is to blur the rippled water whilst keeping as much of the bird sharp as possible. If done well this makes the bird "pop" out of the image much more than it would when viewed against the busy background of rippled water. The critical thing is to keep the eye of the bird sharp, which is not easy to achieve! Smooth panning is the key. If you're any good at clay-pigeon shooting then you'll probably be good at this! I normally have my image stabiliser turned on and set to "mode 2" for panning ("active" if you're a Nikon user). I found the best shutter speed to use was around 1/15th sec. Normal settings in overcast light were 1/15th @ f22 100 ISO. All shots were taken handheld. In bright sunlight I had to use a neutral density filter to achieve these settings.

Setting f22 to achieve the necessary slow shutter speed has the useful side effect of increasing depth of field

1/15th sec shutter speed can result in some interesting abstracts!

I find the best time to capture a pelican landing on the water is just as its feet touch down

An aborted landing creates an interesting effect at 1/15th sec

The pelicans here are quite tolerant of people as they are used to the local fishermen feeding them. We often have them perched on our small boat, which allows us to get some proper close-up shots. We can even use a macro lens!

Close-up of an adult pelican's bill

The distorted reflection of an adult pelican beside our boat

For close-up head shots like this it is possible to use a macro lens

Side-lighting enhances the feather detail when shooting close-up patterns

During my second workshop the atmosphere turned quite hazy, which gave a beautiful layered effect to the hills and mountains that surround the lake. It was the first time I have seen these conditions and I soon realised that it would make a great backdrop to the flying pelicans. It was necessary to shoot directly into the sun, so spotless lenses were required! The best effect only lasted for an hour or two each day, but I really like some of the results. Next year I have a plan that should produce even better images, if we're lucky enough to have the same conditions again.

As the intensity of light changes so quickly with backlighting I normally shoot in AV mode and dial in a little exposure compensation if necessary

A group of pelicans flying alongside our boat as we made our way out onto the lake

On the few brief occasions where the water was calm enough to capture reflections of the pelicans it was important to carefully consider each composition. You need to leave plenty of room for the reflection, which often means selecting one of the uppermost focusing points and using a much shorter focal length than you might think.

Pelican landing on calm water

A soft reflection can often be more effective than a perfect mirror reflection, as it concentrates attention on the main subject

From January to March Dalmatian Pelicans are in their breeding colours with a vibrant orange or red throat pouch

Overcast light works very nicely for pelican photography as it's possible to record plenty of detail throughout their white plumage

In overcast conditions the whole scene can take on an almost monochrome appearance, except for that colourful bill!

Late in the afternoon when the water is still enough it's possible to capture some nice backlit images of the pelicans taking off from the water

The final shot of the second workshop with the moon rising over the border of Greece and Bulgaria

After running two workshops back to back and six days photographing these amazing birds, I can't wait for next year! I'm always amazed at the variety of images it's possible to shoot at Lake Kerkini. As my workshop also includes sessions photographing the Bulgarian landscape, nutcrackers in the snow-covered mountains and a variety of colourful woodland birds, this five-day trip has always been extremely productive! Thanks go again to my colleague Emil Enchev for organising everything so effectively for us.

← Back to diary entries