In September 2023 I photographed flamingos in Lake Bogoria in Kenya.
Background on the Species
There are two species of Flamingos in Kenya although there are more worldwide. The two species are the greater and lesser flamingos respectively. There are distinct differences between these two species including their physical appearance. The greater flamingo, true to their name, are bigger and taller in size. The lesser flamingos, however, have a deeper pink colour on their feathers, while their beaks are a deep red with a black tip. The greater flamingo beaks are light pink with a black tip.
Greater flamingos feed on organisms found in the mud including crustaceans while the lesser flamingo thrives on floating algae present in the soda lake waters. Both flamingos are thought to acquire their pigmentation from their food.
Greater and lesser flamingos in Kenya coexist. They inhabit the alkaline lakes of Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria, Lake Magadi, Lake Turkana, Lake Elementaita occasionally, and the lesser known Lake Logipi. They occur in their hundreds of thousands if not millions.
The two flamingo species are mysterious and highly intelligent birds. They live in flocks of between ten individuals to over ten thousand. Some flamingos are seen standing on one leg and although there is no definite scientific reason, it has been proposed that the behaviour helps with body warmth retention. Flamingos fly at night to avoid being spotted by predators such as eagles. They also fly in groups forming irregular shapes.
Flamingos like penguins are monogamous birds thus retain a mating partner through life. They also only lay one egg per time. Flamingos breed once in at least three years. Flamingos build their nests primarily out of mud from their surroundings, but occasionally add pebbles and grass straws. The eggs take between 21 and 38 days to hatch with either parent incubating it. Flamingos breed most in seasons of abundant food otherwise they remain abstinent. Non-breeding flamingos may remain behind when the rest of the flock flies to breeding spots. Kenyan flamingos breed in Lake Natron in Tanzania.
Chicks are born spotless white in both species with straight beaks that curve with time. The chicks are fed for the first 3 months by milk both parents produce from their upper digestive tracts. Other members of the colony can also feed them. Flamingos have caretakers for the chicks that when ready, leads them to the water for the first time. This journey occurs on foot. The distance from the nests to the water can be as far as 30 kilometres.
Flamingos do not have a natural predator. However, the chicks are often snatched by storks, eagles and frogs that occur in the same habitats. Flamingos in Lake Bogoria occasionally die from getting into the hot springs. Scavengers such as hyenas, crows and vultures then consume their carcasses.
Flamingos have a general life span of between 20 and 40 years in the wild. However, those in captivity have been seen to live up to 60 years. Flamingos are able to start mating from 3y years but most wait until they are five before they start.
Research and Inspiration
I had previously visited Lake Bogoria around 10 years ago and had not got any images that I was happy with, they were all badly exposed and just didn’t work. I set about researching flamingos and flamingo images.
Whilst doing this I came across an article by World Birds on flamingos in mythology and culture. The link to the article is here.
The part that got me thinking of ideas was this part:
A vibrant pink bird with a distinctive silhouette, the flamingo has always inspired the hearts and minds of artists and storytellers. This beautiful bird, named for its “flaming” colourful plumage.
Flamingos are known to symbolize an array of different things. Many of the symbolic meanings of flamingos stem from the unique traits that they exhibit.
Flamingos can be potent symbols of balance. The iconic image of the flamingo perched on one leg is thought to be the source of this.
Flamingos can also symbolize potential. A flamingo is born without the pink coloration for which they are so famous. In true “ugly duckling” fashion, flamingos grow their long slender proportions as they mature. Likewise, their pink colour takes years to appear.
Due to their elaborate courtship rituals, romantic appearance, and parental dedication, flamingos are often taken as symbols of romance.
For Christians, flamingos often represent the truth.
In Indian tradition, the flamingo is often connected to the “Hamsa.” It is said to represent purity, wisdom, divinity, and enlightenment.
In Native American mythology, the vibrant colour of the flamingo is said to have been painted on with blood.
Flamingos were significant in Egyptian mythology as a creature associated with the sun god, Ra. In fact, the Egyptians were the first culture to feature legends of the phoenix. This mythological crimson bird, associated very strongly with the sun, is thought to have been possibly inspired by the “flaming” flamingo
In Greek mythology, like Egyptian mythology, the flamingo can be connected to the phoenix. In the Greek tradition, this mythological bird can be connected to life, death, rebirth, and transformation
Flamingos as spirit animals often indicate an individual who is flamboyant, fun, and very expressive.
So that became my inspiration – how could I show this in my images?
Let’s take a step away from the inspiration and explain the practicalities a bit more.
For this shoot I knew that I would need a variety of lenses to show everything that I wanted. So I actually took the following:
- 3x Nikon D850 camera bodies
- Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4G IF-ED VR
- Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G IF-ED VR II
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR II
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED
- Remote Release and Transmitter.
I developed a shot list in advance and made sure that I had covered all of the possible images that I wanted to achieve. As I was planning on a lot of slow shutter speed work for this shoot I spent a lot of time in the UK locally practicing ICM (intentional camera movement) images and panning.
How I got the Shots
We arrived in Lake Bogoria on Friday 15th September. I was with my good friend and guide of 20 years Isaac and his son Brian who was driving and doing video of the trip. We got to our hotel the incredible Lake Bogoria Hotel and Spa late morning. The hotel had a few days earlier been hit by a bad storm and driving in to the lodge there were fallen trees everywhere and signs of serious damage and destruction, I did wonder at this time whether doing the shoot was such a good idea, but after lunch we decided to leave for the park and if nothing else do a recce ready for a full day of shooting on the Saturday. As we were about to leave, we realised the vehicle had a flat tyre. So we changed the tyre only to find that the spare was also flat. To me, we weren’t going anywhere then, but as only ever seems to happen in Kenya somebody from the hotel security called someone from a garage who called someone to come and help. This person using a pump powered by a tractor at the hotel managed to inflate the spare tyre, then he took away the other tyre on the back of his motorbike to fix, with assurances it would be ready to pick up from the town after we get back from the flamingos.
So after this slight delay we left and made our way to the main gate of Lake Bogoria National Park. We arrived at approximately 2:30pm. We then started the search for the flamingos. The last time I visited they were literally a 10 minute drive from the park gate. This time there was no sign of them. We continued along the road with it getting worse and worse and worse. To be honest It cannot even really be described as a road, It is just a mass of rocks and stones. We also had decided to hire a mini van rather than use a 4×4 for this part of my Kenya trip to help with the costs, 30 minutes in to this drive, any money we may have saved did not seem like the biggest priority. After an hour we still had not seen any flamingos, then as we rounded a corner high up on the hillside we saw a mass of pink below us in the lake.
WOW It was an incredible site and we all immediately felt enthused, now it was just the small matter of negotiating the steep road down to the lake shore. We made it in one piece and as we parked and got out of the vehicle we were treated to a sea of pink and the amazing sound of the flamingos, just masses of birds all moving together and feeding as one.
22km in 1.5 hours to get to this – was it worth it. You bet!!
I then got all of my camera gear together and we walked down towards the flamingos. We kept a respectful distance from them, as we approached they moved away from the shore but after sitting quietly within 10 minutes they started to come back. I quickly started to go through my shot list concentrating on various different angles of shooting, from low level, laying down to higher levels kneeling and standing. I also concentrated on the motion blur images, panning and trying to capture some of the shots I wanted to represent the mythology and cultural element. Particularly looking at balance, divinity and potential.
2 hours just flew by and then the sun started to set.
It was a great start, but now the next challenge. The sun rises at 6:20am. Lake Bogoria National Park opens at 6am and the flamingos are 1.5 hours from the gate. Logistically it simply doesn’t work, but I had to get the sunrise images. Isaac quickly put together a plan and secured the necessary permissions that we could enter the park early and be there for the sunrise. It was decided that we would leave at 4am on the Saturday morning as we would be driving the road in darkness we wanted to allow plenty of time to get there.
On the way back we stopped at the town and met the guy who had taken our tyre, sure enough it had been patched up and was considered to be “as good as new” we gratefully paid the gentleman for his help and it always astounds me that seemingly in the middle of nowhere people are willing and ready to help you. That is the magic of Kenya and indeed Africa in general.
We returned to the hotel that evening at around 8pm. After a lovely meal and a lot of excitement and discussion around the experiences of the day we went to our rooms to sleep. Before I could sleep I had to download the images from the afternoon and review them for anything that could be done differently and improved for the next day.
The next morning – my alarm went off at 3am. I had about 4 hours sleep. But I didn’t mind. I was so excited for what the day would bring. I packed all my camera gear ensuring that I had the remote release which would be key for todays shoot. We met at the vehicle just before 4 and after picking up our packed breakfast from the hotel we set off for the flamingos. Brian did an incredible job of driving the road in darkness and we reached the flamingos just before 5:30am. We sat there in darkness for a while just soaking in the noise and the atmosphere. I grabbed all of my camera gear and we made our way down to the edge of the lake, we went very slowly and quietly so as not to disturb the flamingos.
They were already in the lake foraging for food and although we could barely see them, we could hear them.
I wanted to focus on capturing images of the flamingos with the sunrise. This related to the way flamingos were viewed in Egyptian mythology and also I knew these stunning birds with the golden sun could also portray romance so these were the key elements of the early morning shoot. I set about capturing images of the birds and the sun, again using different angles of view from laying down getting covered in flamingo poo and standing up to show the mass of birds, I also shot using all focal lengths of lenses, constantly checking histograms and reviewing the images to ensure I wasn’t blowing any highlights and I was recording and capturing what I intended. Shooting in to the sun for backlighting and silhouettes can be very challenging but the rewards in the final images are uncomparable.
After the sun had risen I then changed approach and swapped one of the lenses for my wide angle lens. I set up the camera with the remote release and tested it to ensure it was firing. I set the camera to manual focus and focused on infinity, I then set aperture priority and under exposed by 0.6, I set the minimum shutter speed in auto iso to be 1/1000s, I hoped that this would give me the best opportunity to capture the images that I wanted, I then positioned the camera on the side of the shoreline. As usual the flamingos would move away as I approached the water, but they soon returned. As I was shooting these images without being able to see I just had to wait until the flamingos got close enough, then I started to shoot. There were a few failed attempts where the remote didn’t fire and where a flamingo knocked the camera over and splashed the lens with mud, but, Brian helped with checking the camera and re positioning it and after trial and error I eventually achieved some images that I was happy with.
Once I had this set up I also focused on capturing some more images of the juveniles and then wanted to capture some more motion blur images and some wider shots of the whole flock to show the volume of birds. As the light was so different from the previous day, the legs of the flamingos glowed blood red, so I really tried to make the most of this as it fitted in to my original mythology brief.
Around 11am we decided to pack up, there were more people coming down to visit the flamingos and the sun was starting to get quite high and harsh. We sat in the vehicle and ate our breakfast and just reflected on what had been an absolutely incredible morning.
I reviewed the shot list I had and felt I had achieved everything that I wanted, originally we had planned to spend the whole day with the flamingos, but the middle of the day sun is not great to photograph flamingos in and I thought that everyone deserved a rest after the early start so we decided to return to the hotel and actually have some time relaxing.
This was my 16th day on safari and repeated full days of getting up between 4am and 5am and so I was actually quite glad of the rest.
Lake Bogoria really is an excellent destination to photograph flamingos and I will be adding it to my tours in the future as the potential for capturing images is endless.
My flamingo images have created a lot of interest and intrigue so I hope that this helps to explain the inspiration behind the shoot and how I achieved the images.
Here is a timelapse video put together by Brian documenting the shoot.
To read more on understanding and using light in photography then read this post Understanding Angles of Light in Photography
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