A week ago I was in 6-8 foot swells photographing five species of albatross in New Zealand. I was at the end of a month of travel teaching workshops around the globe, and this was an amazing last shoot. It would have been nice if the seas were flat, and my stomach would have felt better. But albatross activity increases with wind and waves; you get a lot more soaring birds and different behaviors as the birds interact. I had my Z9 ready to go, but which autofocus settings to use?
I found three modes worked well. My main mode for flying birds is AF-C, subject detect on animals, and wide-area large for the mode. I shoot in Auto-ISO at 20FPS. Wide-large gives me a large rectangle to put on my subject as it flies by. You have to get the subject in the rectangle, but then the Z9 will track the subject or eye depending on how close the bird gets. This worked well on the boat. But I did find that sometimes I had a hard time keeping the rectangle on the subject when an albatross came zipping past close to the boat.
So I decided to use Auto-Area autofocus mode. In this mode the Z9 searches for the subject throughout the frame, and will lock onto the subject or eye depending on how close the bird gets (see image at top of post). This mode worked incredibly well from the boat. Since the background consisted of waves and sky, Auto-Area mode had no issues determining the subject, and in a blink of flashing green squares in my viewfinder, the camera locked onto the bird. No need to put the rectangle (wide-area large) on the subject, just let the camera do the work. For birds on simple backgrounds or in the sky, this is the mode I am using. If the background gets busier, then I will switch to wide-area large. This Kea parrot is a good example. He took off from cluttered branches, so better to use wide-area large to track him here.
I also used 3D mode. The albatross would come and land near our boat, and came very close. 3D mode did a great job of locking onto the eye of the bird, and not moving no matter how much I moved my camera. I was using back button focusing, and holding the button down once I had it on my subject. This wandering albatross is a great example. I leaned over and put my Z9 right at the water’s edge to get this shot. Unfortunately a wave came in and dunked my camera about one inch into the ocean. I just wiped off the salt water and kept shooting. Back at the hotel I did a light cleaning using fresh water to wipe off any remaining salt water, which is notoriously hard on electronics. If I went back, I would use my Outex housing and do over/under images of the albatross.
Mirrorless cameras are offering a multitude of options to ‘get the shot’. If you are just switching over from a DSLR, take time and get to know what modes work best for your style of shooting. Your keeper ratio will drastically improve!