How many great photos have you missed because you weren’t quick enough laying your hands on a camera?
If you’re like me, it’s probably hundreds or thousands of missed opportunities, especially if you have kids or pets that tend to do photogenic things at unpredictable times.
But at least now I end up smacking my forehead in regret far less often than I used to. Below, I’ll tell you how I changed my habits, but first, this morning’s story is a classic example.
Today I woke up, looked out my window, and saw a cruise ship making a sweeping turn into San Diego bay, perfectly positioned between the skyscrapers for a dramatic shot under the brooding morning clouds. I’ve never seen a cruise ship in this position before (I hope the captain wasn’t showing off for friends onshore…) It’s a rare event.
I knew this photo opportunity would only last for a few seconds.
Fortunately, I now keep a camera ready at all times (actually, I keep several ready, but all you need is one). So I grabbed the Canon 7D from the “camera counter” near my kitchen—I chose the 7D because that was the body that happened to be attached to my 70-200 lens—then I ran out onto the balcony, and got the shot.
In the past, I would have missed it.
But about a year ago I made two big changes to my camera habits, changes that have allowed me to get quick shots like this, and also to go out the door on short notice (when a friend suggests an excursion, for example) with a good camera in hand.
First, I decided to dedicate a space—the “camera counter”— in a central area of my apartment for keeping a camera handy at all times.
And I mean handy. Not in the bag, with the lens cap on and the power turned off. I keep at least one camera waiting and hot, like an ICBM awaiting its launch code—power switch in the ON position, lens cap off, and with settings appropriate for snapping a fast shot.
That means, even if I came home late last night after shooting indoors with a tungsten white balance at ISO 1600, I try (with a success rate inversely proportional to my beer intake) to remember to reset everything to my personal default settings before putting the camera to rest. For me, that usually means: Aperture Priority mode (widest), ISO 200, Auto White Balance, center focus point.
Those may not be your settings, and they may not be perfect for every photo, but they are a hell of a lot better than grabbing the camera and squeezing off a few urgent frames at last night’s 2-second shutter speed, at ISO 3200, with a fluorescent white balance and the focus point in the upper right corner.
With the lens cap on.
In fact, I usually keep not just one but several cameras ready with a variety of lenses and flashes on them (see nearby photo of the camera counter). After all, I’ve got to keep the cameras somewhere. Why not handy?
Of course, if you have little kids who slobber on things, you may need to hang your camera on a high hook in the closet, or somewhere else out of reach. It doesn’t matter where it is, as long as you can get to it fast.
By keeping all my cameras handy, I don’t have to bother changing lenses or adding a speedlite flash, I can just grab the camera that is already set up for my needs. But even if you have just one camera, it only takes a few seconds to change a lens or add a flash, if you also keep those things nearby.
Which brings me to the second behavior change that has improved my spur-of-the-moment photography.
I keep one small camera bag ready and loaded at all times with a basic kit of gear. In theory I used to do this, but in practice, my gear was actually always scattered randomly among the 3 or 4 camera bags that I use. When I wanted to consolidate the essentials in one bag it was always a major chore and a good excuse to just leave the camera at home.
But now, sticking to the discipline of keeping a ready “Grab-&-Go Bag” has put an end to this excuse.
What goes in this always-ready bag?
- 1 Speedlite flash with charged batteries
- 1 Extra set of 4 charged AA Eneloop batteries for the Speedlite
- 1 Spare charged battery for each of my camera bodies (since I don’t know which camera I’ll throw in until the last minute)
- 1 small point-and shoot pocket camera (for backup or handing off)
- 1 set of cheap radio triggers for using the flash off-camera
- 1 Small LED flashlight (amazingly helpful at night)
- Lumiquest 80/20 flash diffuser
- Sto-Fen Omnibounce flash diffuser
- Colored gels for flash
- Extra memory cards
- Alcohol lens wipes
- Small reading glasses (now that I’m old and my eyes are going)
- Business cards
- Model releases
- Optional: 1 extra lens, based on conditions (telephoto for day, fast for night, etc)
The choice of which camera to put in the bag depends on the location (do I want to risk carrying the expensive gear?), the amount of walking (should I carry the lightest camera?) and other factors (do I need a built-in flash? do I want a full or crop sensor?).
Whichever camera I choose, I put a mid-range versatile “walk around” lens on it before sticking it in the bag. If I’m using a crop-sensor camera like the Rebel or 40D or 7D, then that lens will be the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS. If I’m using the 5D Mk II, that lens is the 24-105mm f/4 L IS.
Since the bag is always ready to go, it takes only a few seconds to choose a camera body, put the right lens on it, and stick it in the bag. Then I’m out the door with no excuse for not carrying a camera.
These small behavior changes—keeping a camera handy, resetting it to default, keeping a stocked bag—have made a huge improvement in my ability to get fast shots, and to take a camera with me on spontaneous excursions.
And the bruise on my forehead is slowly starting to heal.
What’s in your Grab-and-Go bag? If you have a helpful tip, the rest of us would love to read it in a comment below.