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Spring Day has arrived …. and the prospect of the hot African summer is definitely on the horizon. At this time of the year, all my photographic thoughts turn to the return of the migratory birds and the opportunities to be had in getting some startling bird images! I love this period. It always gives me my hottest images.

Chris Martin
© Chris Martin

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to focus on some blog posts to help you tame the photographic ‘challenge of all challenges’: how to take blistering birdlife images. Not just on a once-off basis, but consistently. Anyone can do it, I assure you, but you do need to be clear about the fundamentals and, of course, like in so many areas of photography, have a bit of luck.

I’ve had such fantastic feedback from people on the Africa Geographic blog, especially in response to the ‘Top 10 Tips’ piece, which focused on the skills and techniques required to improve your general wildlife photography. While these hints apply to many aspects of bird photography too, it has to be said that this branch of natural photography is definitely one of the most challenging to master. The subject in your viewfinder is usually small, may not stay still, moves rapidly from branch to branch, sits in less than favourable lighting conditions and is nearly always incredibly skittish, you need the patience of a saint to get classic results. Having said that, I always treasure my well-composed and well-exposed birding images. I know just how much work went into getting those final results.

Chris Martin
© Chris Martin

The challenge for the birding photographer is how to combat the incredible frustration that can go hand in hand with this branch (forgive the pun!!) of wildlife photography. It is, in my view, a very specialist form of the art of capturing creatures in your viewfinder. To be successful and produce regular quality images requires a patient, technical and well-prepared approach; merely pointing and shooting rarely produces rewarding images. In the coming weeks we will start to break down the elements of what makes a great birding picture. We will discuss both the equipment you need as well as the field craft that will give you the best results (getting as close as possible to your subject is one of the key fundamentals of great photography). But if you think that bird photography is as easy as snapping away with a long lens, you’re probably going to be disappointed. It always amazes me that when people see me working in a bird hide with, for example, a 600-mm lens, they are convinced that every image I take is ‘up close and personal’. They are wrong. You still need to exercise a tonne of patience, obey the key fundamentals that govern lighting and composition, and have a reasonable knowledge of the subject’s behaviour. Even then … a well-executed crop is often still in order. As a consequence, many photographers give up trying to take images of wild birds. They believe it takes expensive equipment, more patience than they have and a lot of photos to get anything more than those little dark specks sitting on a branch high in a tree.

Chris Martin
© Chris Martin

So, starting next week, we will jump straight into composition, exposure and equipment as well as a bit of field craft. There will be plenty to get you practising your skills during the remaining spring months in advance of the return of our migratory friends and the onset of the summer. I hope you will stick with us and, of course, if there is anything that you’d like to ‘focus’ on specifically (forgive the pun again!), then leave me a comment at the end of the blog and I’ll be sure to pick up on your ideas to develop our conversation.

Until then …. enjoy your ‘shutter time’.

Chris Martin
© Chris Martin
Ndumu River Lodge
Chris Martin

Chris Martin is a wildlife photographer and qualified Field Guide, currently working in South Africa, both as a freelance wildlife photographic guide and as a member of the Africa Nature Training team. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS) in the UK. His photographic work has been regularly featured in magazines both in South Africa and internationally. Chris’ formative years saw him grow to love wild places and to explore and discover a love for adventure that continues to this day. In his younger years as an accomplished mountaineer and skier, Chris led and participated in expeditions across the globe, particularly throughout the Himalaya regions, Europe, North America and Alaska. Following an expedition in 1993 to East Africa, to climb in the Mount Kenya region, Chris experienced Africa for the first time and it captured his soul. Visit Chris's website