By Tom Ennis

(Founding member of the Club, a past Chairman and current Vice President)

During most of my early life bird photography had been a hobby enjoyed by only a few very well-heeled individuals. The great expense of photographic equipment put it well beyond the reach of ordinary birders like me. However, by the end of the 1960s, imports of affordable, high-specification SLR camera bodies from the Far East, Russia and Eastern Europe began to appear in the UK and alongside them what was then regarded as an almost legendary device, the telephoto lens.  Within a very short period of time, numbers of aspiring young bird photographers were venturing forth and a new era of bird photography was beginning.    

Firecrest, Cape Clear Island Cork, October 1986, by Stuart McKee - 2nd Advanced Category 1990

By the early 1970s, I had the idea of seeing how we could bring this new style of bird photography into the NIOC's activities and as a result the very first Work of Northern Ireland Bird Photographers was organized in 1973. The idea was to have a show that would provide anyone living in Northern Ireland who photographed wild birds with an opportunity to share their work with other like-minded bird photographers and also to present an evening's entertainment for the interested public. Entries were requested in three main categories:- Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced.  Each photographer was to enter up to six colour slides. In an effort to encourage entries, a judge was asked to appear in person and give his views and offer guidance as to how better pictures could be achieved. In 1973 Robbie Cochrane, a seasoned and much respected photographic judge, appeared in the Lecture Theatre of the Ulster Museum to offer judgement and guidance as the entries were shown. I'm sorry to report that the thirst for praise so outweighed the desire for guidance that this formula was never repeated. Much to Robbie's great amusement (as you may guess he was a man  with an outstanding sense of humour) a storm of protest erupted every time he made a suggestion as to how slides could be improved and believe me in those days, when most of us were raw recruits to photography, any advice should have been welcomed. As a result in the following year, the lesson was learned.  Lionel Salem looked at the entry in private and notes of his views and advice were relayed to the audience later, on the night of the show. This has become our time-proven method and has stood us in good stead over the ensuing 40 years.

Hooded Vulture By John O'Boyle - 1st Beginners Category 1991

In time as awards appeared and new categories were introduced the show became less of a forum on shared experience and took on a more competitive edge, eventually morphing into the competition it has become today. For a while we were successful in attracting sponsorship which enabled us to expand the show including bringing top of the line bird photographers from Great Britain and Europe as judges. Unfortunately the sponsorship did not last but in spite of losing this much-appreciated financial support we have continued to bring highly qualified (often professional) wildlife photographers to judge the entries each year.  

Cape Robin Chat by Jim Partington - 1st Intermediate Category 1992

Very few of the very early submissions are still available but I have managed to find one. I've also included a few of the award winners from a little later. There is no question that both skills and equipment have improved enormously since these were taken but what may have been lacking in these aspects was not reflected in any shortfall in keenness and enthusiasm. Readers may wonder what caused the unusual shapes in the background in the Pink-footed Goose picture (below) and especially the “doughnut” shapes of some of the out-of-focus highlights. These phenomena are among the many adverse effects caused by using catadioptric or Mirror Lenses. Back in the seventies these lenses were much in favour with bird photographers, being much more compact, lighter in weight and (very important) a lot cheaper than their more orthodox equivalents. Most popular were 500 mm, f8 mirrors which, because of their comparative bijou dimensions, were usually employed hand held (tripods were taboo in those days) although many were used with some form of shoulder pod in an effort to achieve a sharp image. In fact one or two aficionados used 1000mm f11 mirrors.  Looking back on all of  this now, when Northern Ireland was experiencing the “troubles” and birders were roaming the countryside with camera equipment mounted on shoulder pods resembling military equipment, it is almost miraculous that a lot of us didn't end up being arrested by the security forces or even worse. With the gradual appearance on the market of really superior transparency film and more affordable, high quality orthodox lenses, mirror lenses, with their many disadvantages were soon out of fashion and were no longer used. It is many years since I have seen one in use in the field.  

Pink Footed Goose by Tom Ennis - 1st Advanced Category 1978

The greatest changes have come with digital photography. Major advances in camera and lens design and very affordable and ever improving image manipulation software coupled with the  ability to store vast numbers of images on tiny SD and Compact Flash Cards have given bird photography an amazing boost. At the show nowadays local bird photographers are producing work which would have been the envy of many professionals only a few years ago. Amazing action pictures are now commonplace and this combined with the ever increasing desire of birders to travel the world insures that each of our annual shows is an outstanding event.

Marsh Harrier by Mervyn Guthrie - 1st Advanced Category 1990

If my few words attract you to attend our show, if you have not already been to one, then I shall be delighted. It is usually held in the splendid Lecture Room in the Ulster Museum, where admission is free but the evening's entertainment priceless. For others who are bird photographers, whether just starting off or “keen and practised”, please consider entering your work in time for our next show, details of which you will find elsewhere on this Website. And finally, it is my hope that at least some of our long-term supporters who read this will be interested in how the successful competition we know today evolved from such modest beginnings as a few birders with cameras back in the late 60s sharing their results. 

Tom Ennis