How to Keep Your Camera Ready For Action

Photo by Steve Berardi

It’s probably happened to you before: you’re hiking down this trail, and all of a sudden you notice a bird or any kind of wildlife that doesn’t seem to mind your presence. You’re presented with a perfect photo opportunity, but then you remember, “Oh wait, my camera is tucked all the way into my backpack! And, worse: I think my wide-angle lens is on there!”

By the time you get out your camera, put on a longer lens and find the right exposure, that bird or dragonfly is probably in another zip code.

That’s why it’s a good idea to always keep your camera ready for action as you’re hiking down a trail. Always keep it by your side and ready to photograph a distant subject that may only be there for a second or two. Here are a few tips for making your camera ready to go:

#1 – Keep your longest telephoto lens on the camera

Most wildlife and insects don’t let you get very close, so keep your telephoto lens on the camera to ensure you fill the frame as much as possible. The longer lens will also help you isolate your subject more.

#2 – Take off the lens cap

This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ll admit I still forget this one sometimes. Putting your eye up to the viewfinder and realizing your lens cap is still on is a five-second mistake that could cost you “the shot.” Keeping your lens cap off will make your lens more vulnerable to dust and scratches (if you happen to drop the camera), so also make sure you use your lens hood too!

#3 – Disable mirror lockup

Mirror lockup is great for those times when you have a controllable subject and you’re shooting from a tripod, but when you’re doing any kind of action photography, mirror lockup will just slow you down. So, turn it off.

#4 – Enable continuous shooting

To increase your chances of getting a sharp photo as you’re handholding your lens, make sure you enable continuous shooting so you can just hold down that shutter button as the camera rapidly takes more shots.

#5 – Set ISO to 400 or 800

You can also increase your chances of getting a sharp photo by using a faster shutter speed, and increasing your ISO will tremendously help with that. For bright and sunny conditions, use ISO 400, but if the sky is overcast don’t be afraid to increase it all the way to ISO 800.

#6 – Set your aperture to the widest or sharpest

If your lens is pretty sharp at it’s widest aperture, feel free to use that, but also consider stopping down by one stop (that’s where most lenses are their sharpest). The wide aperture will help you get a fast shutter and help isolate your subject against its background.

#7 – Pre-set the exposure for direct sunlight

Throughout the day as the light conditions change, you should continue to update the proper exposure on your camera for a subject that’s in direct sunlight. But, also keep mental notes of other exposures: if the sun goes behind a cloud, side light, back light, etc. Use the histogram to help you find that proper exposure. And, memorize the f-number series so you can quickly jump between apertures/ISOs and update the exposure quickly.

#8 – Turn on image stabilization

Since you usually won’t have much time to take the shot, you’ll be stuck with hand-holding your camera. So, remember to turn on image stabilization (or vibration reduction on Nikons).

#9 – Make sure you have room on your memory card!

Also make sure you have plenty of room on your memory card, so you don’t start shooting photos in a burst and then get stuck because you filled up your memory card!

#10 – Pre-focus your lens

If you’re trying to target one specific subject (e.g. hummingbirds) that you can usually approach at a regular distance, then you can save time by pre-focusing your lens to where you think you’ll encounter your subject.

What did I miss?

Is there something else that you do to keep your camera “ready for action?” If so, please share it with us by leaving a comment below!

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.

Comments

  1. I would add a secure strap. I just bought one by BlackRapid which goes over head and shoulder and keeps your camera securely by your side with lens pointing backward. It leaves your hands free but you can swiftly raise it into action. It’s a bit pricey though.

  2. One addition I would make is to leave you camera “On”. I see many people who manually switch their camera off while walking to their next intended destination. This puts them in jeopardy of missing a shot at unannounced wildlife. Instead, keep the switch in the “On” position and set the camera’s sleep mode (most modern digital cameras have this feature, check your manual for setting instructions) to 30 seconds. That way the camera will put itself to sleep after a set amount of time in order to preserve battery life, yet still be ready to shoot when that unexpected shot presents itself.

  3. I once missed a shot of a caracal (lynx) leaping into the air to capture a bird ;-( My camera settings were fine for the morning light, but the action took place in riverine forest. Ever since have C1 preprogrammed with the best fast action setting for my camera, AV – max f-stop,max workable ISO, AI Servo focus, High speed burst. C2 is stopped down, lower ISO. C1 helped me get my first leopard shot.

  4. Pete Schramm says:

    I have a question about the ideal focal length lens to be using of the type of trail walking you describe. I am not adverse to a zoom lens but what range is suitable for this type of situation?
    It makes a big difference if you are in need of a 200mm vs 500.

  5. @Hilke / Jason / Carl – Thanks for your great additions!!

    @Pete – I usually keep my 300mm lens on my camera while I’m hiking. Most of the time I also have a 1.4 extender on there, making it a 420mm. I think somewhere between 200 and 400mm is ideal for hiking. Anything shorter and you don’t have enough reach, and anything longer is gonna get pretty heavy.

  6. pete schramm says:

    Thanks you for your response it helps a lot. If I may ask one more question, do you think the extra optical quality of a fixed focal length lens outweighs the benefits of a zoom covering the same range? I am a Canon user with a new 60D.

  7. Steve, another informative posting. I really like coming to your site and browsing through your many postings. Some info may be a refresher but I’m always grabbing a bit of info from each. I’m not much of a cold weather shooter so here in the northeast it’s nice to keep energized with photo knowledge so I’ll be ready to go out and shoot when the weather starts to break.

  8. @Pete – I think the fixed focal length lenses are great for when you know you’ll be cropping. I’ve cropped almost all the photos I’ve taken with my 300mm, because I just couldn’t get close enough to fill the frame with the subject.

    But, I think zoom lenses are great for landscapes and close-ups, where you have a controllable subject, because having a wide range of focal lengths allows you to capture a wide range of compositions while still filling the frame. Here are a few posts I wrote that might explain this a little better:

    http://www.digital-photography-school.com/why-you-need-a-telephoto-zoom-lens-for-landscape-photography

    http://photonaturalist.net/understanding-perspective-and-focal-length/

    @Art – Thanks so much for your nice words! Hope you’re staying warm up there in the NE.. It’s almost spring time here in Southern California :)

  9. Don’t overlook the battery. Make sure it’s charged and that you have a spare handy.

  10. Frank Piercy says:

    Terrific article and advice!!!

  11. John Clayton says:

    Thanks for the checklist. I will keep it in mind as I try to capture my (first, next, last) great shot.
    I believe you could add one more item to your checklist and that is know when, where, what to look for! Knowing your environment provides wonderful opportunities for great photos. Whether it’s getting that sunrise shot of a tall ship getting underway, the turtle basking in the sun, or the supermoon coming up over the horizon for the first time in eighteen years preparation is the key.

    As the aging process continues trying to remember everything that I should do to be ready for my next photo shoot gets more complex everyday.

    I finally have the time to photograph anything that I want, time to experiment, and time to reflect on the shots. The technology that exists lets me buy the gear that I want for prices that I can afford. Nirvana!

    And after all of that I still have the computer skills to try and fix it in “Post” if I forget something.

    Remember, “Take the shot”!

  12. Don Emmett says:

    Over the past few years I have made the transition from film to digital. It has been an exciting adventure! As I developed my technique with a film camera I have been interested in applying many of them to the digital arena. The topic – hyper focal distance. Your last issue talked about keeping your camera ready for action. When I was shooing with my film camera I tried to keep my lens at the hyper focal distance. I am having problems trying to keep my auto focus lenses tuned to the hyper focal distance. Do you have any suggestions?
    Don

  13. ratkellar says:

    For dyamic situations (which wildlife on the trail most often is), I wouldn’t go over a 200mm lens. I do a lot of cropping, but you cannot control when and where wildlife appear and which way they may run. (Moving animals are ussually more interesting than standing animals.) It’s just my opinion and it is difficult to fill a frame, but I prefer animal pictures with some context of the environment.

  14. Uwe Hoffmann says:

    Great article! Only thing I would add is that if you’ve got your ISO set to 800 I would also enable HIGH ISO Noise Reduction on the special menu to reduce some of the grain.

  15. Colin Burt says:

    You are walking in the bush with your camera lens cap off, and things frequently fall off trees or blow in the wind. To protect your investment from dust, pollen, or, God forbid, dew, mist, spider webs, bird’s contempt, I carry a two foot square piece of cheap new woven plastic shower curtain. This fabric drapes well and weighs nothing . Cut a few from the curtain. Drape it over the gear loosely. Dumps in a hurry when a target appears and no great loss if it gets mislaid. Wash and dry it when you get home.

  16. Uwe Hoffmann says:

    Always use a lens hood, it prevents lens glare from side sun, and as “crunch zone” it prevents scratches from branches, or even from a drop. $30 for a new lens hood might seem much to some but it beats $1,600 for a new Sigma 50-500mm. If you’ve got trouble supporting a big tele like the Sigma Big Ma try a lens cradle that attaches to the bottom of your lens as well as your camera, thus distributing the weight and cutting down on fatigue, although the weight still is what it is. You might also consider a monopod, especially if you shake real easy, it can double as a hiking staff. My biggest one though – always use a battery grip! It doubles your shooting time and provides a better grip. Even though I always carry enough batteries for days – recognizable by the geeky vest, with extra remote release, filters, gaffer tape, memory card safe, cleaning gear, etc. (when you’re getting older utility and comfort beat cool every time) I appreciate the extra time in between battery changes the grip provides; since new batteries are usually needed seconds before 20,000 Sandhill Cranes fill the sky, or the hummingbird appears at the trumpet vine. Last but not least always download last trip’s shoot, and reformat the card after you have ensured that you have securely copied all and it is in your storage. Forget to check, and you’ll have gained experience, but lost a shoot. Or, you might end up scrolling through hundreds of shots to determine where the old one ended, and the new one began. Always carry a little canteen of water; I know there I go again but dehydrated photographers have shaky hands, and especially here in the West people don’t stay hydrated enough and heat injuries are so preventable. O.K. I’m packing up my soap box and hope this helps some for those newer to the profession.

  17. Abdullah says:

    Excellent

    I just want to add:
    - To make sure battery is fully charged.
    - In case of camera such as Nikon d700, d800, d4 etc… With Setup Banks
    It will be better to customize one of the baks for READY ACTION and 2b selected as default BANK.

    Thanks

  18. Shashikant says:

    Hi Steve – many thanks for class room lecture. I may suggest one more point – before any serious shooting do not allow your co photographer to touch and alter the settings of your camera. I will cite a bitter experience here. I was in search to see the tiger in wild. After futile attempts in several tiger reserves my self and my friend went to Kanha ( India) tiger reserve. After two days our jeep driver and an expert tribal guide told us the there is a tiger in the bushy growth, we waited for more than two hours in total silence. The tiger slowly emerged from bushes, crossed the road and came towards our jeep and walked within two feet of our jeep and walked away further. The tiger was a full grown Royal Bengal Tiger. I had my D7000 on Auto with Nikon 70-300mm lens, as the tiger emerged I started shooting and shot about 40 – 50 frames. Alas! all the picture barring last 4 pictures were out of focus. My heart broke, on checking I found the the lens switch was on M. My friend had set the lens switch on M during the mutual fun photography. I will curse for whole of my life for allowing my friend to alter the setting and me not glancing at the lens ( the situation was so dangerous and exciting that nobody will have presence of mind to check and go on fiddling with camera settings).

  19. Michael White says:

    Everytime I prepare to go out before I take that first step at the destination;, I stop, and look over my D-90′s settings to keep me from any unfortunate suprises. I check the auto/manual focus, Vibration/Reduction, PSAM Mode, EV, Bracketing, Auto Focus, “motor drive adjustments,” ISO,White Balance and image size. Make this a regular habit, the more you do it, the easier it will be to remember what to check. Think in terms of what you did after the last shot so you know what to undo, and what you are about to shoot so you can adjust towards that. On my D-90 has “My Menu” where I keep the items I adjust the most. It makes it easy to review any custom settings. (Mirror Delay does no good when that deer is running!) Also My D-90 allows separate settings in advance on aperature and shutter priority. So I set up aperature priority for scenic shots, and shutter priority for wildlife encounters. I hope this helps.

  20. Hi
    That is a good set of things, that should be done, but as far as turning on VR (IS on Canons) is concerned it not always a good idea. When you are going to shoot animals in move, you’d better turn this off

  21. Bill Blurton says:

    Thanks Steve, for the great advice. Not checking the camera or maybe not resetting it after a previous shoot can be a heart breaker. As someone else said before I leave I do a check. A few weeks ago I purchased a used but in brand new condition Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens for my Canon 6D. Even though the kit lens that come with the camera Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens is one awesome lens I find I haven’t take the 70-300 of since purchasing it. Does an awesome job for Birding.

  22. Thanks for the check list! Some basic things are so easy to forget.
    I find that I often forget to change back to AF after shooting in MF. That has cost me some good animal shots!

  23. Beautifully written tutorial!

  24. I would add just one further seting. The purists may disagree, and that’s ok.
    I set manual – say 1/500th sec and f4.5 on my 70-300mm and also auto ISO.
    By setting auto iso you can keep your important settings that you really need to freeze any action and at the best aperture for your lens.
    Then the only variable you let the camera take care of is the iso. On my Canon 7d I can set a maximum iso in auto. I normally set max to 800.
    I find that for shooting on the run this is the best setup for quick results.
    Oh, I forgot I also set auto focus on centre point expansion too.
    Thanks for the great article Steve, I got a lot from it to remember.

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