Dalmatian pelican at moonrise
Dalmatian pelican at moonrise

Photographing the Dalmatian pelicans in Northern Greece

Three pelicans on lake Kerkini at moonrise

I recently returned from a photo workshop at Lake Kerkini in Northern Greece where I spent 3 full days photographing the Dalmatian pelicans with my group of photographers. Here’s some information about the trip:

What Are Dalmatian pelicans?

The Dalmatian pelican is the largest of the pelican species and although their population is in decline, they thrive on lake Kerkini. An adult can weigh up to 15 kgs and the wingspan can reach 3m 50cm. They are a migrating species but now that the local fishermen have built a nesting platform and have started feeding them, they now stay all year.


Pelican landing

When is the Best Time to go to Start Photographing the Birds?

January/February is the perfect time to photograph the birds as it is the beginning of the breeding season, when the lower pouch below their beak turns orange-red. The sun is low, so the light can be good all day. The surrounding mountains are often covered in a dusting of snow and sometimes the lake can ice up.

Although we didn’t get any snow or cloud cover, we did have some beautiful light at sunrise and sunset. There was very little wind, so the water remained calm which was perfect for reflections.


Gliding pelican

How to Photograph the Pelicans:

We began photographing the birds from a small boat and from the shore. the boat is ideal for up to 6 photographers but 4-5 is better. I preferred the boat with low sides as it allowed us to hold our cameras just above the water line if we wanted to. It’s also best to have a boat with no canopy, which means you follow the birds in flight without having any bars in the shot. I liked to be well out into the lake where we had opportunities to photograph the birds with different backgrounds and light. As the boat driver has a basket of fish aboard, the birds are inclined to follow the boat which makes for spectacular shots of them taking off, in flight, gliding and landing. Our boat driver Niko, is a real expert and understands what photographers need whilst making sure the birds aren’t stressed.

From the shore, we attracted several birds to us by throwing some fish into the water. It doesn’t take long before 10 or more birds are just a few metres away. Shots of them simply floating or reaching forward to grab a fish are possible. Action shots of the birds catching the fish in flight has to be done from the boat as they are flying alongside.


Pelican silhouette

Tips on How to Take the Best Photos of the Birds

Like all photography, it’s all about the light. If there is no cloud cover, the best shots were taken either side of sunrise and sunset. The only exception were the flying shots which benefit from more light. The focusing is more accurate when there is more contrast, especially when movement is involved. The colours really pop too! Try to get separation when there are several birds either flying or swimming. Be careful to keep the horizon either above or below the bird. Cutting a subject in two with a horizon can be very distracting. This is less of an issue when the background is covered in mist or low cloud but on clear days, this can be a problem.

Low angle shots from the shore or the boat can create dramatic images if the birds are close up. However, these images are very hit and miss and often messy. I preferred the cleaner portraits or flying shots.

We were fortunate to have a nearly full moon just after sunset, which allowed us to frame the birds in an interesting way and added mood to the shots. Silhouettes against the orange sky before sunrise were also very effective.

When the bird is flying or swimming, try to leave space in front of the bird by putting the focus point to the left or right depending on the direction the bird is moving. To capture the whole reflection, it’s important to keep the focus point on the upper part of the image, so there is space for the refection. Shoot a little wider too as the movement isn’t always predictable.


Solitary pelican

If you’d like an opportunity to photograph these amazing birds, I’m returning to lake Kerkini next year to run another photography workshop from the 7-11 January. We stay in a cozy hotel near the lake and we go out to different restaurants each night, where we sample delicious local cuisine. There’s a nice coffee shop near to the lake and they make rather good coffee and hot chocolate. You can warm up next to the fire too! Even if you’re not a committed bird photographer, I can thoroughly recommend this trip. Just make sure you bring lots of memory cards. One photographer shot over 20,000 images!