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Martin with Caroline and Savannah

Bird Photographers

The first of an occasional feature, where we showcase the work of bird photographers. Martin Best has been a regular contribitor to our Readers Gallery, and enjoys the challenges of bird photography, in particular capturing birds in flight. Martin discusses his equipment and techniques and offers some useful tips too! - Editor

Martin Best

Although not a “bird” photographer as such, I’m basically a beginner in this field, I have been a camera nut for many years, starting off in my 20s with a Nikon FM, since then I have probably been partially responsible for Nikons financial security.

My real passion is big cats, Leopard and Cheetah, and I visit Africa as often as possible. Generally to Kenya and Tanzania, although have also traveled to Liberia, Guinea, Namibia and South Africa.

This is me (above right) in South Africa in 2004 with my daughter Caroline, shown here on a morning walk in Tshukudu Nature Reserve on the borders of Kruger Park together with Savannah a fully grown (semi domesticated) female cheetah.


Its only really been in the last 2 years that I have really got into birding, mostly due to cost, a: I was never able to afford the sort of glass one needs to get shots of birds in flight, and b: as I am not really into static’s, I prefer to show life as it happens, or at least that’s what I strive for, and due to the high rate of failure with ‘action’ shots, it gets rather expensive with film. While I am not averse to taking static shots, I honestly prefer to capture a grainy shot of something happening to a perfect portrait. So it’s only since the advent of digital that it has become a lot easier on the pocket.

right, Kestrel playtime

Originally from the UK, I started working with the UN in 1985, and although normally based in Geneva I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to various locations around the world, currently based in Kosovo since 2001, I have also been to Africa, and Iran with the UN.

Now at 47, I have been able to indulge a little in building up a reasonable set of gear, Current equipment currently consists of a Nikon D2X, recent acquisition, (just had to!!) Great when it works, more on that later. Nikon D2H, superb, lacks a bit on the pixel front, great performer though. F5 (rarely used these days, especially since arrival of D2X) Nikon lenses, ranging from 20mm thru 400mm, all minimum f/2.8 apertures, and associated Tele-converters. Although I was tempted to go for the Sigma 300-800 f/5.6 for cost reasons, I eventually waited and saved for the ‘real’ thing, and got the 400 AF-S Nikon. Accepting that Sigma and others make exceptionally good optics these days, the build quality alone of Nikon gear is worth the extra expense. So far at least, I have not suffered any mishaps despite some relatively rough use, and my gear goes everywhere I do, and believe me Kosovo is DUSTY!!.

beware minesKevin asked for some tips: not sure I am qualified but here goes, as you can see from the shot below, a: I don’t use a hide. (at least not very often, I have actually built one in my garden in France in order to better observe a woodpecker nest, however I have never had the time to go and use it!!), b: you do not need to be in exotic places to get good shots, as with very few exceptions all my shots are within 2-3 kms of the centre of Pristina, Kosovo, a country so polluted its hard to believe, yet wildlife and birds thrive here. Most of my shots are taken from the road, or at least well traveled paths, see right for explanation!!

car mount kitAs a result of this inconvenience, I have learnt to do a lot of work from the car, and built a car door mount capable of holding 400/f/2.8 yet easy to setup, (2secs) used together with the Wimberley Head, which is the best piece of camera gear I have bought, period.

This results in a very stable platform, and find I can get closer without disturbing birds. (Exception is Buzzard, and Marsh harrier, so far easier on foot.)

left - Martin's car mount gear

In fact in Kosovo, the birds appear to be much more relaxed around humans, and with summer here, you can usually find me last light just outside Pristina, where I have been fortune enough to be able to get within 5m or so of a Syrian Woodpecker (below left), this shot was last light, pushed to the limit.

What you don’t see is the amount of time I am prepared to wait in order to get the shot. This shot of Black woodpecker (below right) cleaning out nest came after literally camping out all weekend at site and waiting, and then waiting some more, very important tip, take a book!
Syrian WoodpeckerBlack Woodpecker

In the case of this Marsh Harrier (below left) I had actually been using a monopod to try and get shots of Lapwing on the wing, when I saw this guy overhead couldn’t get the angle with monopod on the ground so just picked up the whole lot, set EV to compensate for the sky and took a chance. My arms ached for the rest of the day though! The House Martin (below bottom) was handheld and a long time coming, these together with Swallow are extremely difficult to capture on the wing, and I spent hours in the sun trying for this shot.

Marsh HarrierKestrel and Crow

House Martin

To be honest, most of my shots are through patience, perseverance and relatively quick reactions. It’s rare I go home empty handed, and generally have at least one shot in the bag I am happy with. Being aware of your surroundings also helps, these guys (Kestrel and Hooded Crow, above right, ) were coming straight towards me immediately I got to my normal location, (which is nothing special believe me, just a regular field on outskirts of the city.) I saw them, just grabbed camera with 400mm already attached and jumped out and managed to get 5 shots off with the D2H, no time to change settings, just praying I had left it setup for similar conditions!

So ideally, do your setup in advance before you leave, but if in doubt, my advice is concentrate on capturing the shot, if you missed it while changing setup, its gone for ever. Even though subconsciously I am checking while shooting, only when I am sure I have at least one good shot, do I start to alter any settings? Yes I have missed some great shots through bad setup, wrong ISO, depth of field settings etc, but chances are the speed things happen with birds I would also have missed them had I taken the time to change.

The most important thing is for you to enjoy observing and to be happy with your shots, however if you are striving to sell, make sure you are really honest with yourself. I do tend to be far pickier these days, and I end up with very few keepers, and to be honest the good shots are never published for free, the very best I keep and are available commercially. I am trying to build up a reasonable portfolio and so far have had some luck in selling. I also do work for a number for Safari companies in East Africa.

Another tip, which I learnt the hard way from traveling in Africa, is going alone!!! Unless you are extremely lucky in your choice of partner, its very difficult to be sure partner is willing to stay in same place, likes same subject matter etc etc.

Re digital, this is definitely the way to go, especially for action bird photography, I initially had some doubts with the D2X after purchase and couldn’t reproduce some of my earlier successes, however eventually I came to the conclusion it was me and not the camera, and am now getting to grips with it, the problem is I can get extremely sharp images with the D2H (4mp) using a 400mm handheld, but its still rare that I can get the same quality with the D2X (12mp), the added resolution just shows up the bad technique, camera shake etc, they are nearly ‘keepers’ but not quite. Now going to the gym and doing some upper body workouts, hopefully this will improve things, in order to handhold even a smaller lens all day you do need to be quite fit.!!

Bottom line, the Nikon D2X and D2H have both improved my photography no end, yes the expensive glass helps, but in reality the justification for this glass came after I started getting some good shots with lower end lenses.

Grey PartridgeRed-backed Shrike

Above, Grey Partridge and Red-backed Shrike

Digital gives you instant feedback, especially re exposure, important thing is to understand what changing EV does, and when to use it, for birds it’s the #1 way to improved shots. Most of my friends who also like to shoot birds still seem unable to react and change EV settings quickly, or without lowering camera body to check, learning to be able to switch to plus or minus EV rapidly with camera to the eye, without even thinking which way to turn the dial, has helped me tremendously. Tip I learned from a fellow Nikon user group member re the Nikon D series, Positive EV is rolling dial towards eyepiece, Minus EV is the opposite, and once you remember this it makes life so easy. Bit like driving a car without looking at the pedals.

Post some shots, get feedback from others, don’t be scared of criticism or wait constantly for the perfect shot before posting, and have a target in mind and try to enter competitions. I sometimes go out for a particular shot, and whereas I am always looking for opportunities having a specific goal makes me work harder and generally ends up with better shots.

Biggest tip. Whether its garden birds or in the wilderness, Practice, practice, practice, after all nowadays you can afford too, check your results. At the end of the day it’s about luck, right place, right time, but as Jack Nucleus said when a spectator said his hole in one was a lucky shot, “yes, but the more I practice the luckier I get!”

All photographs copyright of Martin Best. You can see more of Martins excellent photography at his website,