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Context

I'm a videography beginer. I am an experienced enthusiast photographer.

I am trying to move into wildelife videography as a hobby. My aim at this stage isn't to create full peices but just to get good at capturing high quality, aesthetically pleasing footage of wildlife. As such I'm using photography/hybrid equipment, which I know is probably a stumbling block but it's what I can afford, and also it seems a lot of wildlife videographers use photographic lenses.

Having done some initial research, I have obtained a sturdy tripod, fluid head, and tiny rig that allows me to use a tilta follow focus with my lens.

My lens is a fly-by-wire focussing 100-400mm Fuji zoom, and I'm using a Fuji XH2s. I have been trying to practice tracking wildlife near me - deer, and also birds in flight at locations near me where there are lots of birds to practice on.

I am having struggling in two major areas, and wanting to know if it is likely that this is principally due to my skill level, or technical factors such as the gear I have, or both, and what i can do to improve.

Panning/tacking smoothly

Even with the Manfrotto fluid-head (MVH 500AH, which has fixed fluid drag for both tilt and pan), I struggle with smooth panning and tracking. My issue is keeping the speed of the movement uniform. I also find it impossible to go from stationary to moving with a noticeable jerk. I have tried adjusting the drag of the head but this doesn't seem to help, nor does turning off the camera & lens stabilisation. I appreciate that the use of a long lens will be making this harder than if it were a wide shot.

Is there anything in my set-up that might be making this more difficult - e.g. could some of the issue down to the performance of my fluid head; would one with variable drag be a lot better? In terms of my skill, are there any known techniques or practice exercises that I would benefit from knowing about?

Focusing whilst tracking

Whilst the camera has subject tracking, I'm keen to learn to MF as a skill in its own sake, and also because I don't think the tracking is reliable or necessarily pleasing in how it tracks. I appreciate that my lens being fly-by-wire focussing isn't a good start, but I think most longer tele lenses are and the youtuber I've been learning from uses a lens that works this way (and acheives results that nat geo use). I've fiddled with the settings to require less throw for focusing which has helped. However, one thing I'm struggling with is whether to use focus assist (where the display shows a crop of the overall frame) in addition to peaking. Without this assist, I struggle to see the peaking for further away subjects (e.g. a bird coming towards me - it's at infinity but i need to be able to tell when I'm going to start to need to bring the focus in). However, in the crop focus asssist view, tracking a fast moving bird becomes really difficult, and even for slower subjects obviosuly i can't see what else may have come into frame etc. Furthermore, as one hand is on the pan arm and the other on the follow focus knob, I don't have a third had to operate the button that toggles between full/cropped view. The camera has an option where it switches into the crop view when the focus ring is moved, however it then stays there till a button is pressed so I have no way to get it back and am stuck in the croped view.

How do people tend to deal with this issue? Do they rely on more video-specific set ups than have function buttons operable from the pan arm or elsewhere? Do other camera systems have more sophisticated manual focus assist systems (e.g. a dual view that works for video capture). Would it help a lot to have a larger LCD or an external EVF, rather than relying on the camera's built in ones?

Or is it more likely that I just need more practice, and if so, again are there any known techniques or practice exercises that I could look into?

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I cannot hope to provide a fully-qualified answer to this, but maybe one or two hints towards the right direction.
For starters, I don't think you're doing anything 'wrong'. You might need a bit more practise, but I think you're doing all the right things, so much as you can. You could experiment with different pan-heads &/or tensions, but I think you're inherently behind the game compared to the pros in terms of gear/technology & 'manpower'.

For background, I'm also an experienced amateur photographer doing a lot of wildlife work & occasional videographer. I have a basic camera rig myself, but I actually work in film/TV [not on camera] so I do see the 'big boy's toys' in action almost daily.

Of course, back in the day, everybody shot on film, everything was manual. Wildlife crews spent days, weeks, months getting enough non-blurry footage to fill an hour's slot. Note the wide/zoom ratio they used to have to use compared to what they can do now.

Today, it's all in the technology. Cranes and gimbals can get closer than people. Cameras can be controlled wirelessly, with the op a safe distance away. A good gimbal can turn the roughest pan into a smooth wonder. Good autofocus can keep the subject pin-sharp at the same time, if they're not running manual, which they usually do; see below.
That's all well and good if you can afford the best gear in the business. I work on productions where they have both a Steadicam or Ronin op & another Ronin on a 20ft crane, every lens you could wish for and cameras that would make your bank manager cry. I couldn't afford those if I sold my house and car, so that's right out of the window.

Stabilisation and auto-focus on dual purpose DSLR/mirrorless cameras is… not great. Stabilisation often is tuned towards stills; some lenses have dual-mode stabilisation for tripod/hand-held use - I didn't check for your lens specifically. [I read on DPReview that the XH2's auto-focus is jumpy, but improves at lower frame-rates, 30 or even 20 fps.]
Manual focussing on a pro rig is usually done by another operator [focus puller, now usually called 1st AC (assistant camera)], the camera op doesn't have to do both jobs at once. The camera op's job is to keep it pointing in the right direction, not keep it in focus. The focus puller can look away from the scene on screen to better judge distances directly, and the calibrated focus ring remote is right there in their hand to see, rather than on the camera body - whereas you can't see the measurements on a lens from behind the camera. They will also quite likely have measured to significant points so they can quickly get to approximate before needing to use peaking or other methods to get pin sharp.

They're using something like this, and whilst the camera is rolling, keeping focus is their entire job.

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Click for full size
So, you're trying to do the job of two people, with gear that's not as good as they have.
That's a hill to climb.

Dedicated video cameras are getting down towards affordable now - same price as a decent DSLR/mirrorless multi-function. They have stabilisation in software that makes it feel like you're on a gimbal, even hand-held, that doesn't fight with an in-lens stabiliser. Good focus peaking right there on-screen.
I don't really like recommending specific products, but sometimes they're no-brainers;) If you have an iPhone I'd definitely check out the new Blackmagic Camera app - free, as is their DaVinci Resolve edit suite, for home/semi-pro use. The iPhone app is, as far as I can gather, the 'brains' that is in their new semi-pro Pocket Cinema Cameras. Having tried the app just on a couple of test scenes, nothing serious, I'm now having a serious debate with myself about going to see the bank manager to get one of the cameras… so I can get proper lenses on the front of that software.

Give the app a try, check out the stabilisation & focus assist - I don't think you can use manual focus on the iPhone & my single lens 28mm equivalent has far too long a DoF to properly test it.
I hope this doesn't come over as a one-man advertising campaign - that was not my intent - but just to show what the technology can add to your arsenal.

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    Many thanks for your reply, it's really useful information, and very interesting! I am slightly wondering if sticking with a Fuji system is a mistake given them being generally stills orientated, and fairly behind the curve on video specific features even with their more video orientated models (compared to Sony hybrids, or obviosuly the blackmagic and other video-specific cameras that you mention). But good to know that I'm not missing something major in terms of my technique, given the gear I have access to. I will have look at the apps you suggest - thank you!
    – Rich
    Oct 18, 2023 at 21:36
  • Wish you luck:) Yeah, in terms of 'gear acquisition', for stills you can be up with the pros for the price of a small car. For video, it's the price of a large house. No hope of keeping up with the big boys. Software stabilisation will be our budget route; it's really getting very good these days.
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 19, 2023 at 7:49

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