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Do You Keep a Camera Ready?

How many great photos have you missed because you weren’t quick enough laying your hands on a camera?

Cruise Ship in San Diego Bay

Almost Missed It

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.

The Camera Counter

The Camera Counter

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
  • Pen
  • Optional: 1 extra lens, based on conditions (telephoto for day, fast for night, etc)
Ready to Go

Ready to Go in Seconds

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.

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44 Comments

  1. Hank Fanelli says:

    Good advice. Recently purchased a high end digital compact to carry with me for the same purpose……..always at the ready!

  2. Wayne says:

    What I miss is a camera bag I owned for 20 years (stolen years ago). I haven’t seen one like it since. It was a bag that had 2 long zippers across the top. NO FLAP! One side held camera bodys with short lenses on them and the other half held a row of lenses. I could shoot and keep the bag on my shoulder, switch lenses and not have to set the bag down or (more importantly) not have to move a flap out of the way. I’d love to find the design again, but I haven’t. I hate the current trend of backpack bags. I think I’d find them awkward to use. At least it looks that way when I see someone use one.

  3. Terry Hughes says:

    Nice shot Phil … oh yes and nice balcony ;o)

  4. Mike says:

    I use a beaten up old shoulder bag, made my own padded ‘compartments’ to slot my gear into. Expensive top brand camera bags advertise the fact that you are probably carrying expensive top brand camera equipment in them. Agree with Wayne about backpacks.

  5. Phil Steele says:

    Wayne, agreed, it’s hard to find the perfect bag and a tragedy when you lose one. I recently got a Tamrac Evolution 8 backpack which I’m enjoying because I can get the camera in and out while the pack is on my shoulder. As with cameras, though, I find there’s no bag perfect for all purposes, so I seem to just keep buying more and more of them for special needs. But I guess nobody ever said photography would be a cheap hobby.

  6. John Strong says:

    Excellent article and tips – I never considered having a camera placed strategically somewhere within easy grasp in my house, turned on and ready to go. Instead, it’s usually buried somewhere in a camera bag.

    I recently purchased a Sony Nex-5n because I didn’t want to go to a smaller sensor camera, and that’s now my go everywhere camera. I love my Nikon D7000 but it’s fairly heavy and bulky and can weigh you down after a while (well, weigh me down anyway!).

  7. Great post and advice, Phil. My always-ready-to-hand camera these days is my iPhone 4S. I love it! It’s always with me or near by, I get more spontaneous shots than ever before and it’s such fun to use!

    My Lumix is getting lonely 8 >)

    Paul

  8. Phil Steele says:

    Paul, my iPhone camera gets a lot of action these days, too. There are great apps like Camera+ and Camera Awesome to make it even better. Also, maybe you saw my recent blog post about the Olloclip lens for iPhone. Sometimes I wonder if DSLR photography will go the way of film photography within the coming decade. But for now, there are still so many things that big lenses can do that small ones can’t that I’m happy to have the good glass ready to go, even though I have the iPhone in my pocket.

  9. Carolyn Dee says:

    Hi Phil
    Love the course,by the way! I have recently purchased a Lowepro Flipside 200 backpack for my DSLR. It opens down both sides of the back, which sits against my back. It also has a slot for the tripod and a couple of small pockets on the sides and the various compartments for lenses, filters etc. It is not ideal but saves neck pain of a shoulder bag. My ever ready camera is my new Canon G12 which I love and take everywhere with me as it is small and light and is a great camera. The bag is a bit small but does hold a couple of spare batteries and cards, and a little Magite.

  10. Dr. AlbertB says:

    A man of my heart. Not only do I have my gear ready-Nikon D300s with a 18-105 on, and my D3S with an 24-120 on ready to tango.Backup in the bay 18-300. In my pocket my quick take panasonic DMC-ZS7 any time any where.
    All set to shot RAW+JPEG in “A” mode & PRE WB.
    Shots processed un Coral Afershot PRO and Lightroom 3…..

  11. Hi Phil,I have just found a “space”to get into the light room etc.

    Re the bags, I now have a belt with all the pockets, a back pack and old grungy camera bag as to not “show what gear is in there and the latest most useful for me is a sleeveless vest with a myriad of pockets in it given to me by an old pro. It is miles too big for me but it takes the weight off my shoulders and hips and I can get to everything.
    When I carry two cameras at the ready for a busy shoot such as the recent soap box derby it is great!.
    I am short, so probably look like a walking camera bag!! who cares!.
    I enjoy having the flexibility of choosing which bag and I am now more “at the ready”
    I have two Canon 7 D”s. the lens I love the best canon 18 -200 so versatile even though the AP is not as good as the 70-200.
    Thanks for your site and help

  12. Phil Steele says:

    Jill, I’d like to see a photo of you with all that gear on!

  13. Cornelius W says:

    Hi every one, very helpful post Phil, I have one different bag for each one of my cameras ready with batteries, speedlite, gels, etc.

    I always have my 7D with the 18-135 ready I choose these glass because it cover a lot of possibilities, I know that is not the best, but it is preferable to be ready, than changing lenses and lost the instant. It is very important with these glass to fine tune the AF it makes a lot of difference.

    I have in his own bag my 5d with the 16-35 on it, and the 70-200 which is the most useful combination for me for landscape and portraits and macros with extension tubes.

    and when I go for street photography I just take my x100 with no bag an only take an extra battery in my pocket.

    I have all these things in a big table and all the battery chargers connected so when I return to my house I immediately put the batteries to charge, And all the cards goes to the Lightroom to back up everything.

  14. Phil:

    Great advice. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had one of my camera’s handy. Yes I too have a bag issue, which has frankly caused me to do exactly what happened to you. Lots of cameras living in various bags. I will remember to include my point and shoot Nikon in the go bag as well.

    I have been toting my 40D with the 28-135 kit lens on it. I’ve had very good success with this combination albeit it does not offer a very low F stop. For a less expensive lens the pictures are tack sharp. A lot lighter than my 70-200 2.8L. Good if you want to be ready and build Popeye arms at the same time.

    Still have not found the perfect bag although my Case Logic and Lowepro backpacks have worked well.

  15. Chris says:

    Hi Phil
    it is so good to know that im not the only one head butting the wall, because I missed a good shot.
    I have always had a grab & go bag, problem was it was 22Kg,s never could decide on what to take so just take it all.
    Now I have started to have just the one camara setup and ready. It is doing my back a lot of good now and i can move faster.
    thanks for the tips
    Chris

  16. Ali Al-Zand says:

    The “Camera Counter”… nice! Kind of like in an action movie where the hero has this place with all kinds of weapons. Grab & shoot!

    Maybe you should get a holster, too… 7D on the right, 5D on the left, and then an ammunition belt across your torso with 200 SD cards. Preformatted, of course. :)

  17. Cindy M Heath Kline says:

    Thanks for the advice as it is always good but I must say I am jealous of your view!!!! All I can say it WOW!!!

  18. Phil Steele says:

    Ali – I love it! Maybe I’ll start calling it the Rambo counter.

    Cindy – Indeed I’m fortunate. I like to live up high because I work at home and I’d go crazy if I didn’t have some long-distance views to distract me from cameras and computers all day. But even if you don’t have cruise ships out your window, I know there are beautiful and amazing things that happen in your yard and neighborhood every day, if you’re ready to catch them.

  19. Michael Bragg says:

    I see that, I am normal. I drive a truck so I bounce all over the country . I keep a point shoot at arms reach. I carrry three differt settup. depend on what I plan to do. have tamrac backpack set up for nature walks. a shoulder bag for city areas, and large backpack so can carry my laptop for doing distant shoots of mountians wild horse my tele photolense isnt the best function but with problems. A my bags have extra batteries card and basic filters. I was thinking I was to lazy to pack a complete bag for my outings.

  20. Bob Dumon says:

    My main camera is a bridge camera (Panasonic FZ150), but my “carry everywhere” camera is a Sony HXV9 which I use every day. Took some great shots on the golf course today with it. Would never bother with my Nikon DSLR when I had it, or the FZ150 on the course, or walking the dog, etc., but the Sony is so convenient and easy to use, with a decent zoom range, that I find it really easy to have always ready. Great little camera….

    Good advice, Phil, thanks.

  21. chan says:

    What point and shoot do you have? I can not find one that is good.

  22. Phil Steele says:

    Chan – I currently use a Canon Powershot SD1100IS, but I’m not particularly fond of it. I chose it because it had an optical viewfinder, which seems to be increasingly rare.

  23. Wm. Romano says:

    Nice article Phil.
    Thanks to a similar suggestion from a co-worker, I began carrying a nice point & shoot camera with me when I don’t have my SLR. It paid off today as I was waiting in a clinic waiting room. A woman came in, setup and began playing a hammer dulcimer. She played it very well and as I was leaving I asked if I could take her picture. I had never seen or heard a dulcimer before and if I had not been carrying my camera, I would have missed the shot

  24. Victor says:

    Ahh, to have multiple cameras…alas, I have but one…my trusty Nikon D300S. I keep it on my counter, ready to go at all times with a Nikon SB 600 attached with Sto-Fen diffuser, and a 18-200 VR lens. To “go”, I simply undo the speed light drop it all into my Think Tank Retro 10. My bag holds the D300S with the 18-200 attached, 2 SB 600s, extra Eneloop battery, a battery for my camera, at least one extra lens (usually my 1.8 50 or 35 for lower light), lens wipes, notepad, extra diffuser, a few filters, the small SB 600 stands (for fast off camera light), a mini 3-in-1 bounce/diffuser, extra memory cards, and a bunch of other little doodads. The Retro 10 rocks for a go bag. Use my iPhone for the quick snaps.

  25. Bugsy says:

    Thank you for this very good advice! I’ve lost a lot of photo opportunities either because I forget something at home (external flash? battery? memory card?), my camera isn’t ready or because I failed to bring my camera. I’ll surely follow your suggestions here.

  26. Jazz says:

    Thanks Phill! … Good Idea but here in Dubai … It’s always dusty even if you keep your windows closed at all time … I really like the Camera Counter Idea but I’m afraid I can’t have that … In a few hours … The camera will be all dusty … I’ve to keep it in the bag at all times … You’ve a nice weather and great balcony I must say … But here in Dubai … We’ve to be a little extra careful with our cameras :D

  27. Clickblade says:

    To me my one and only camera is a Canon 5D mark 2 and 4 L glass lens’s and to me that’s my expensive gear. Unfortunately I do not have a choice of weather to take my expensive gear or not. So the statement you used “do I want to risk carrying the expensive gear”? Really that dose not apply to me or a lot of other photographers.
    But excellent idea having gear ready.

  28. Caroline says:

    Great post! I can never figure out why people keep turning off their cameras, even when they are out shooting! I am currently living in Seoul, South Korea and walk everywhere. My camera is always on me. (I call it my most expensive necklace…) When I’m in the apartment, it’s on the table, ready to go. I have a small pouch with extra batteries, cards, a Lenspen, a mini-flashlight, etc, that I throw into my pocketbook. It’s become second nature. But, last week, I went hiking in China. Time for the backpack-I had to buy one for the trip. A small Tenba, since I’m only 5’2″. I loved it, but found that I ended up carrying my pocketbook, as well, slung diagonally (on the opposite shoulder from my Black Rapid). It was just so much easier to carry my extra lens in there. (not to mention the obligatory toilet paper roll for rural bathrooms in China…)

  29. David Hanks says:

    WARNING………………..
    This is all very well Phil – with one HUGE risk to consider. When it comes to accessible DSLRs & lenses, it’s all very well having a ‘Grab & Go Bag’ or a shelf-full of cameras and lenses that are good to go, if you remember that such convenience applies equally well to Burglar-Bill as it does to us as photographers. Providing you (and your family) NEVER (and I never say never) leave the front door (or any other door/window) insecure, everything should be fine. The moment an opportunist thief drops in, no great effort is required to locate all your precious gear and make a quick exit with it. Thirty years as a cop, recording many sad instances like this taught me not to make my own hard earned gear handy to these opportunists. Furthermore, it is all marked with Smartwater (TM) and recorded on http://www.immobilise.com/ where at the click of a button, wherever you are in the world you can report it as stolen to the police – for free. Hoping this helps prevent someone losing their own precious photographic kit.

  30. d90dewey says:

    I finally purchased the LowePro vest and utility belt with 3 lenses, an SB900, LensPens and hang it on it’s hook by the back door, where it can be grabbed on the way to the Jeep as well. I also have the “camera counter”, with charger immediately adjacent to the vest! I never leave the house without the D7000 and most everyone knows or recognizes me for this “habit”. One juvenile red-tailed hawk from 18 feet was enough to convince me it’s the best way to travel! Happy shooting!

  31. Kenny says:

    Phil,
    Awesome blog. Mind sharing which grab and go bag you are using? Love your LR3 video series! I have learned SO much from you being a new photo enthusiast.

  32. Cindy says:

    Great Advise! Love the Idea of keeping one handy could not tell you how many shots I have missed by not having my camera ready. I use a Diaper Bag back pack believe it or not it is great, parts of the bag are insulated if you need to take a water along to help keep it cold and plenty of pouches and padding very compact.

  33. Brad Oliver says:

    Some great ideas. I use a three bag approach. I have two Thinktank bags, one small for my everyday shoots and the big one that carries three bodies and six lenses and all my accessories. The last bag, which I use the most, is a plain black Oakley bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag. In it, I keep my Nikon D7000, a Nikon 24-120 f4 and a Nikon 50mm. I also have a flash, remote trigger, extra batteries, memory cards as well as model releases, pen, notebook, flashlight, business cards and a small multi-tool. If I am running out the door, I grab my iPad and it fits into a hidden pocket in the backpack. The D7000 is set to my preferred settings…Aperture priority, ISO 100, auto WB, center focus. I can easily make any changes as the shoot needs, on he spot. Thanks for the great info you provide.

  34. Ahmed Charania says:

    Rambo counter that’s great..:) Well phil i always make it a point to read your blog and i always learn something new, THANKS for all your effort and advice. You motivated me to carry my camera…

  35. Phil Steele says:

    Thanks everyone for all the great comments!

    @ David – Great point about theft. I live in a secure building (card key required for entry and for elevator access), so I don’t worry much, but if I lived in a ground-floor house or apartment I would make sure my ready-gear was out-of-sight. Also, I put this stuff away when I have parties (although I leave a cheap SLR or two out for guests to use for fun). Your Smartwater and Immobilise suggestions are great. Those may be UK only, but I’m sure similar things exist in every country.

    @ Jazz – I certainly understand dust, having shot at the Burning Man festival for a decade (http://burnmonkey.com/). Even worse than Dubai! : )
    I’d probably keep my ready camera in a big ziplock bag if I were you.

    @ Caroline – I know other lady photographers who also carry a spare lens in the purse. It’s an advantage us guys don’t have. And your lenspen is a great idea, too.

    @ Kenny – That little bag is a Lowepro, I’m not sure which model (maybe a Nova 180?) that I find just big enough for my “necessary” gear, but not so big that I overload a ton of stuff. I also use a larger Calumet bag when I need to carry more gear, and some bags by Tamrac, including the Evolution 8 Backpack in brown, which looks less like camera gear to potential thieves than the typical black bag. As many people have noted, it’s nice to find a bag that doesn’t scream “steal me!”

    @ Brad – Notebook and multi-tool. Two great ideas!

  36. Ed Law says:

    Really enjoy your posts … and the comments of so many capable “shooters.”

    I went aboard ship from N. Island when there was only a ferry.

    I have one years experience 75 times, starting with earnings from my paper route at age 13: Kodak f6.3 1/100 $19) and a wet darkroom mom let me build from cardboard in the garage. Develop, print, enlarge. Took pics of people (no releases) houses and cars, printed and sold for a few cents. NOT very profitable. Have had lifelong respect for pros.

    Would love to have larger camera like 5D Mk II or III (Have T2i and iPhone 4) but at almost 88, the weight becomes a real problem. Just returned from Photoshop World, Washington — and, the great early cherry blossoms!! Around the Tidal Basin: lots of walking, kneeling and scrambling across intersections .. no way to carry much, so settle for Sigma 18-200, Tokina 11-16 and pockets full of extra battery, card mini flashlight, Lenspen AND CANE for stability and sympathy ;-) . At the convention center: just a Tamron f2.8 17-50 and Canon 580 EX II Flash and the 2′ cord for off shoe.

    Wish for wireless AND GPS. Suggestions appreciated.

    When we stop learning, we stop living. :-0

  37. hi Phil, Brilliant to get the shot, such a Monster staring at you first thing in the morning mush have been a great rush of blood to the head, anyhow well done on the photo it’s great, keep the videos coming I am really enjoying the ones I have already bought,
    kind Regards ,
    Brian Geoghegan Photography, Ireland.

  38. MARINA says:

    Hi Phil just new to feeling like Im an amateur photographer I have a 60D Cannon and a430ex11 flash and because I love to shoot people and just beautiful moments like you mentioned with the ship, outside your window . I have the standard lenses that came with the camera and am now wanting to get a lens that will take me to the next level (I did get the little canon ef50mm f/1.8) and it is a sharp little asset for the portrait and still . but it is just a little accessory I am looking to get something that I can use on jobs that Im getting such as Christenings , and families can u suggest something . What so you think of the Sigma 200m 17-70 f2.8
    Marina Melbourne, Australia
    ps. Thank you for this great site I feel so good knowing that I can talk to someone that knows how it is to have a passion for photos

  39. Phil Steele says:

    Marina, that little Canon 50mm 1.8 is great for portraits (although it’s autofocus is weak in low light, it’s a really sharp lens!) I have not tried the Sigma you mentioned. My favorite site for lens review is http://www.fredmiranda.com/ you might find info there to help your choice.

  40. Teena says:

    Phil, you’ve convinced me. I know I’ve been missing great shots and opportunities by not taking my camera with me all the time. I don’t have a decent camera bag I like so I just ordered a fancy lady one from JoTotes (camera bags for ladies). Gotta look fashionable when I’m out there!

  41. Arlen says:

    What a Great idea……..Your blog is awesome…..

  42. michael isaac says:

    Yes, right!!
    And a little bottle of water too.. it is very hepfull!!

  43. Lisa says:

    I have 2 small padded case (that is orange so it’s easy to find in my bag)
    It is labeled D7100 so I know it’s for that camera – in it: extra battery, cable release, extra SD card – I usually grab my camera pack but if I want to wander away from the car I can grab a fanny pack, add a filter, maybe another lens and this little case – then I have everything I need -

    I have another little case labeled D5100 – my backup camera – so if I grab that one I have that battery, a cable release, extra SD card for that camera –

    It’s quick and easy to find stuff in my pack too -

  44. Ed says:

    I use Nikon equipment and I usually keep a D610 with a 28-200G lens ready for action. My favorite walk-around lens is the 24-70mm 2.8, but, man, that will give you a heavy workout! I have an excellent Canon S95 as a backup. Yikes! Did I say “Canon”? :-) I use a LowePro Slingshot302 AW bag or the good ole Domke bag. Can’t get used to backpacks. BTW, Your Lightroom course is excellent

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