Red-footed falcons socialize amid the branches in Beit Shemesh, Israel Red-footed falcons socialize amid the branches in Beit Shemesh, Israel Photographer Amir Ben-Dov carefully watched a group of red-footed falcons, capturing this winning photo in the last hour of his six-day photography stretch. (Photo: Amir Ben-Dov / Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015)

How a photographer allergic to feathers took the best bird picture of 2015

A wildlife photographer of the year award winner shares what it takes to nail that perfect shot: patience, preparation and a secret ingredient.

The shot was just one of a finger-numbing 9,870 the photographer snapped that week. It took him some 46 hours over five days to get it, long days of watching and waiting.

More than that, as is often the case with these stories, that one shot was the culmination of something much more – of 37 years of studying, of learning, of understanding and preparing.

Amir Ben-Dov Amir Ben-Dov

That one “click” – this, too, is often the story – took more than a little luck. Photographer Amir Ben-Dov is OK with that.

“When people tell you, ‘Oh, you are so lucky,’ I tell my children this,” Ben-Dov says from his home in Israel, just east of Tel Aviv. “Luck is something that is in the air, and is passing through you constantly. If you know what to photograph, if you understand what’s going on in the field, you are bringing the luck closer to you.”

Ben-Dov’s singular photograph, “The company of three,” recently won a first-place prize in the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The competition, which drew more than 42,000 entries from 96 different countries, is sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London.

“The company of three,” the winner in the birds category, is a photo of uncommon beauty and rarity, with its muted colors and almost painting-like qualities. In it, three red-footed falcons share a branch on a tree in a cornfield in Israel, a stopover on their migration from Europe to East Africa.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWk8Z5YbFSI

Ben-Dov, 53, used a vacation week in the fall of 2014 to search for his picture. But it wasn’t until the final day in the field, as he was preparing to return home for a holiday dinner, that he finally saw the three birds together on a branch. He had been watching them all week hoping to capture that exact moment.

"When you are there, you are reluctant to [leave]," Ben-Dov tells From The Grapevine. "But I prefer to be married. So I called my wife immediately and said, ‘Please agree to stay married to me, but I must stay.'"

In the final 20 minutes of daylight, as the clouds cleared, he nailed the shot.

Award-winning photographer Amir Ben-Dov snapped this picture of a Eurasian wigeon in mid-flight.Award-winning photographer Amir Ben-Dov snapped this picture of a Eurasian wigeon in mid-flight. (Photo: Amir Ben-Dov)

All of it piqued the interest of a man who first found an interest in birds in his teens. And who, by the way, is allergic to bird feathers.

“Some people prefer to sit and do the pass-around, or sit against the wall, and some people just unite with nature, which is my preference,” he says. “For me, it’s very hard to say exactly, why birds? But I think the challenge is really part of it. Because I like challenges. And birds are not an easy group. You have to invest a lot of time and studying.”

Ben-Dov, who studied biology at Tel Aviv University, considers ornithology his hobby, not his business (he’s worked both in the tech and education fields). But he’s been at it so long, it might as well be a second profession. He’s been photographing birds, though, for only about seven years.

There are six species of the spoonbill bird across the world.There are six species of the spoonbill bird across the world. (Photo: Amir Ben-Dov)

Still, he knew his subject matter. And after seven years of shooting, he knew the right equipment to bring along. All he had to do was wait for the right moment. And for that, he needed a little luck.

The luck may have come in handy, too, for the competition, which Ben-Dov says, “is like the Oscars” of wildlife photography.

“This is such an important competition, with the top photographers in the world participating. So for me, it was quite strange to win,” Ben-Dov says. “I felt it’s a nice picture, but I never imagined that I would win anything.”

One museum member compared the photo – it was one of only two Ben-Dov entered, while others placed dozens in the competition – to an Audubon painting. Others remark at its detail, and the oddity of getting three birds like that in such close proximity. Birds, Ben-Dov says, usually like their personal space, “like human beings when they go into an elevator with other people.”

The photo is, like all great art, open to a range of interpretations. Ben-Dov, in fact, prefers it that way.

“I think it’s better to leave it open for people to feel. People like to discover. People like to be the creators,” he says. “If you fill them with information sometimes, they lose interest.”

The competition’s photo exhibit is on display at the London Natural History Museum. The exhibit will travel the world, including a stopover at a museum in Israel, where Ben-Dov's friends and family can see his work.

With his newfound success, Ben-Dov now is often asked for secrets and tips to being a good wildlife photographer. It’s a little strange, he says, since he still considers himself a long way from being as accomplished as the professionals who entered the competition.

He sees a life lesson in his art.

“My major tip is beyond photography and beyond birds. It’s good for life and everything you want to do in life,” he says. “Do well what you do. Be tolerant of your surroundings, which can be people or nature – it’s the same. And never give up.”

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How a photographer allergic to feathers took the best bird picture of 2015
A wildlife photographer of the year award winner shares what it takes to nail that perfect shot: patience, preparation and a secret ingredient.