Ever since he was a boy wielding his first pair, Leica Sport Optics UK ambassador Bill Oddie has been very particular about the binoculars he uses. These days, he’s just as discerning, and over the years he’s come to realise that, for him, it’s about principles as well as performance. Here he describes some of his most memorable pairs.
There’s no question that, ever since he was a boy, binoculars have been important to Bill Oddie. This is what he had to say on the subject recently:
“What is the one item you would take to a desert island (as well as the discs and a record player)? What is the first thing you would rescue if the house was burning down (don’t worry, it is insured and no one’s been hurt)? If you asked a birdwatcher what he or she simply couldn’t live without, what would they all reply? The answer to all those questions is of course “binoculars”.
“All of them probably get some discussion time, but not as much as “which are the best binoculars?” “What do you use?”, “Which new ones should I get?” What magnification? What about close focus? “Etc etc etc. Not to mention telescopes and cameras.
“I sometimes suspect that there may be birders who spend more time talking about optics than using them. I also wonder if there is anyone who has been 100% faithful to one brand or model all their lives, and remains totally satisfied. Improvement is an eternal quest of both customer and manufacturer.”
“Over my birding life – and that’s a long time – I have switched several times. I got my first pair when I was about ten years old. They were a Christmas present from my dad. They weren’t a surprise present, since I had been nagging him for months before. In fact, the only surprise I got was at present opening time on Christmas day, when – with ungracious haste – I tore open a box of meccano, a new stamp album, the Beano annual and a whole set of Billy Bunter books, barely giving a them a glance, as the search for my “big present” became more and more frantic.
“Anticipation morphed into disappointment, which evolved into despair, and headed towards anger. Then, for one humble second, I wondered if my dad was punishing me for being so naggingly acquisitive. “Want want doesn’t get” sort of thing. But Dad had never been anything but generous about subsidising my various activities and hobbies, which included rugby, cricket, athletics, making model aeroplanes, and of course collecting birds’ eggs!
“Yes, I was a juvenile delinquent schoolboy egg-collector, as most schoolboys were in the early 1950s . However, not all of them took it to the next stage and became “proper birdwatchers”. This – I explained to dad – was what I wanted to do, but my promotion could only be confirmed by ownership of a pair of binoculars, and good ones at that. Like, for example, the ones that Dad finally directed me to, hidden not under but on the Christmas tree. ‘Wow, thanks Dad. Just what I wanted.’
A letter to Santa
“In fact, they were exactly what I wanted. I had made sure of that by doing my research at a shop in the middle of Birmingham where the owner – being a birder himself – recommended binoculars suitable for a “beginner”, but certainly not toys. He explained that a more expensive pair would last longer and therefore save money in the long run – which sounds like sales talk, but is true – and carried on to give me my first dissertation on magnification, field of view, eye relief, and other technical specifications, some of which I still don’t fully understand. He even allowed me a brief “test drive”, focussing on passing Midland Red buses down New Street. I left the shop clutching a piece of paper that I put in an envelope, which I addressed to ‘Santa’ but gave to dad. It may have seemed a bit pushy, but I reckon it was wise.”
It was several years before Bill got his first pair of Leicas. He’d had a good deal of experience with a variety of other brands, and had come to know what was important to him in terms of performance, and in terms of the personalities of he deals with. From the local shopowner who advised him on his first pair, to employees of top manufacturers he has worked with: the human element and attitude has always been important.
He’s never been one to buy into advertising “hype”: “I think most – all? – customers would agree that it is NOT flashy advertising gimmicks and glib catch-phrases that recommend a “product”,” he explains.
“Advertising agencies may believe that “image” is everything, but buying binoculars is deeper than that. I like to think that my association with any birding gear constitutes a genuinely “expert” recommendation. You may not agree with my opinions, but you know that I know that it’s a serious matter.”
Bill feels that his involvement with big brands has helped him get a better understanding, not only of the way the products work, but also of the way the companies themselves work. As his career has progressed, he has worked to use this to benefit ordinary birders:
“I had a better understanding of the “business” and I hoped that in turn that I was able to contribute and “speak for the birdwatchers”, as it were.”
In recent decades, he has come to view his role as “spokesman” more and more seriously.
During the first years of his involvement with Leica, he particularly valued the listening approach of Leica’s Uli Hinter, with whom he worked closely:
“Uli would not claim to be an expert birder, but he set himself to appreciate every aspect of what birdwatchers need and want. Above all else, he asked, and he listened. And not only to me!
“One of his most constructive innovations was to collect “ambassadors” from all parts of the world and get us together to “brainstorm” over supper one evening at the annual Rutland Birdwatching Fair.”
Sadly, health reasons forced Uli, who had become a good friend, to step down.
After a few years of optical variety, Bill is now back using Leicas again, and he is more passionate than ever about speaking up for birdwatchers and about standing up for the wildlife they love to watch. He was a colourful presence on the Leica stand at Birdfair in August 2015, and spoke about the various conservation matters close to his heart, as well as the binoculars he keeps close to his chest.
His latest pair are Leica Ultravid 10×42 HD-Plus, which got their first proper outing around Tresco, in the Isles of Scilly in September. Back home, in London, he even keeps an old pair of Leica Ultravids by his side in case he sees anything through the window (recent sightings include buzzard and red kite). There are also some 8x32s on a hook by the patio, and a pair of chunky early model Leicas by the back door.
Bill has, by his own reckoning, 30 or 40 years’ worth of binocular, and Leica, history, some parts of it more contentious than others:
“My very first pair of frayed eyecup Trinovids, I passed on to my ex wife,” he says. “She has recently been pestering me for a new pair. That is not part of the divorce settlement, but I can’t blame her for trying!” He adds that he would make the point that “Leicas are for life!”, but that would sound dangerously like an advertising catch phrase…