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I get asked all the time how I, as a woman, have the strength to handhold my big lens for flight photography. The answer is I don't, I am not able to handhold my Canon 500mm lens for long periods of time. Yes, I can pick it up, aim it at my subject and shoot away—but only for a limited amount of time before I need to rest my arms. That is about the time when the action starts and I will, of course, miss something. I don't leave it to chance very often when I am out in the field.
Even for static subjects, I find that having my big lens mounted on a tripod makes it so much easier to do for long periods of time. I like to rely on my Gitzo GT3530LS tripod and yes, I am sponsored by Gitzo. However, it is worth pointing out that I have been using Gitzo tripods since I began my career―long before the company ever heard of me. I only seek sponsorship from companies that I like and whose products I use for my own photography. That has been my motto from the start.
Not only do I rely on my tripod, but my tripod head plays an equal part in my ability to capture all of my wildlife images. Since wildlife is moving, flying, resting, turning, etc. I need to be on my toes and my gear needs to keep up with me. I now use the Mongoose 4th Generation M-3.6 Action Head w/the Integrated Low Mount Arm & Integrated Flash Arm, but I have successfully used the Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal Tripod Head II with Quick Release Base for years. The only reason for the switch was the weight. The Mongoose is much lighter and it can fit easily in my bag when traveling and, since I have been traveling a lot lately, that was a strong consideration. I also like the bottom-mount Mongoose; the side-mount Mongoose heads are awkward for me and require that I hold the lens in mid-air while I attach it to the head; with a bottom mount I can rest the lens on the mount while trying to attach it. Either head allows the smooth fluid movement that I want. Whichever head you choose, it is important to balance your lens properly by moving the plate forward or backward as needed.
Having your tripod collar and both controls (pan locking knobs, vertical and horizontal) loosened will allow you to track your subject smoothly for flight or action shots. If you are standing for flight shots it is very important to have your tripod level, your feet spread approximately shoulder width apart, and your tripod extended so that you are fully upright—bending over or downward to capture flight shots is awkward. Another tip I use is to pre-focus. I find something roughly at the same distance as where I expect to pick up the birds and pre-focus on that. Now I am able to follow the bird in the viewfinder until I am ready to lock focus on it.
There is a right and wrong way to mount the Mongoose Low Mount or Wimberley Version II head on your tripod. Your controls should be on the left side (whether you are right- or left-handed) so that when you have your finger on the shutter button with your right hand, your left hand is free to work the controls, if needed. Having the controls on the right side and having to take your finger off the shutter button makes no sense at all to me. Being ready for the shot and setting up your gear for success is the first step toward making great pictures.
When working with a long lens that is mounted on a tripod, press your head firmly to the eye piece while resting your hand on top of the barrel of the lens above the tripod head. Some folks like to hold the bottom of the lens; I find this effective when pointing my lens downward but either way will help to eliminate vibration. When you’re photographing action or birds in flight, remember to keep your shutter speeds high. I am usually working between 1/1600-second and 1/2500-second, with my ISO never going below 400. This can be a lot to think about when out in the field but, believe me, it will become second nature after a while.
I also don't like having straps flapping in the wind and in front of my camera or controls when my lens is mounted on a tripod. This is something that I see photographers playing with all the time in the field, and it can be quite distracting. I also see a lot of folks messing with inferior heads that slip down while they are taking pictures. It's funny how they try to time the slipping—they are often making excuses saying things like "Yeah, I know it slips but if I catch it just right I'll be okay." That is insanity! If you want quality images you need quality equipment. I once heard someone say that it is not the equipment but the photographer that makes great images and yes that is true; however, you wouldn't try to cut a piece of trim molding with a dull bow saw, would you? Having the right gear is as important as knowing how to use it.
Teleconverters are great, as they allow you to extend your focal length. Nonetheless, they will make acquiring focus much more difficult. I often take my teleconverter off when trying to capture flight images against a varied background or when my subjects are coming out of nowhere and I only have an instant to lock focus. I also don't use a teleconverter when the light is not quite bright enough, like in the pre-dawn, etc. When you can see your subject coming into the frame and you have time to set up the shot and lock focus, then a teleconverter can be great—you just need to practice using one.
So, do I think using a tripod can be a handicap when it comes to flight photography? The answer to that question is yes! Absolutely! Hand-eye coordination is a very natural thing. Having any instrument in between that function creates an additional layer and a new learning process that will take a lot of practice to master. Using the techniques explained above and devoting your time to your craft is the most important thing you can do to up your keeper rate and to stay in the game. Yes, a handicap but no, not forever.
Denise Ippolito is a full-time professional photographer, workshop leader, author, and artist living in New Jersey. Her images have been published in magazines and books, sold as greeting cards, calendars, and featured in a Sierra Club documentary. You can keep up with her by following her on Facebook and Twitter.